Kyrgyzstan (pt 2) : Land of Horsemen
Updated: May 24
Shanghai - Urumqi (Xinjiang) - Almaty (Kazakhstan) - Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) - Karakol - Jyrgalan - Karakol - Jeti Oguz - Skazka - Bokonbaev - Son Kul - Kochor - Bishkek - Almaty - Urumqi - Shanghai
The video below, showing the first day of my hike to Boz Uchuk lakes near Karakol in Kyrgyzstan, was compiled from iPhone 7 clips : haha - enjoy !
Part 1 : Shanghai to Almaty to Karakol
Part 2 : Jyrgalan & the Boz Uchuk Trek (80kms hike + porter for the pack)
Part 3 : Kyrgyzstan : Horses, horses and more horses ! Part 4 : Karakol & the Ala Kol Trek (ca. 50 kms)
Part 5 : Jeti Oguz - Skazka - Bokonbaev
Part 6 : Son Kul Trek (on horseback)
Part 7 : Kochur - Bishkek - Almaty - Shanghai
After traveling by marshrutka from Karakol to the small village of Jyrgalan I checked into a lovely B&B which entertained a number of guests from as far away as Kazakhstan and Russia who believe that fresh mare's milk is a health tonic and every morning they would go down to the paddock where the owners would milk a mare or two and provide the ultimate in fresh horse milk for their clients.
I took my time and over the first couple of days explored the quite stunning area around Jyrgalan, hiking out each day to test my pack weight (28 kgs - it absolutely killed me carting that up some high degree inclined local mountains!) and to photograph the fauna and amazing flora of the valleys. During this time I quickly made the decision that I couldn't carry that 28 kgs pack for the 80 kms or so of the Boz Uchuk Trail (not so much of a trail as a general direction - the physical trails soon disappeared) ! It's one thing carrying around town or on a flat track and entirely another climbing up and down these high mountains and valleys. I managed the same pack weight on my Wild Great Wall hike (click the underlined text to open the link in a new tab) however it's getting beyond me now ! Sigh.
The only option was to hire a horse & porter to take the pack for me and we'd meet up each night at a pre-arranged location (horses have to take a far more circular route going around some mountains, since some of the trails are too steep or narrow for them). So that's what I did, and as it was for a very reasonable price indeed it was well worth saving my back the strain and made the whole trek more enjoyable ! Note that the horse was not for me to ride except in extreme circumstances (e.g. a couple of times crossing rivers that on foot proved to be impassable without a major detour around them, or going up to the Top Lake at Boz Uchuk, which really saved a lot of time).
The scenery leaving Jyrgalan was simply stunning. Early on the trail there were numerous horses, cows, goats, sheep and shepherds/herders but these petered out towards the middle of the first day only to reappear in a valley/river crossing further on and late on the second day.
Day 1 : 25 kms
The porter, myself and two horses set off after breakfast at the B&B. The porter had asked if he could bring along his apprentice to train and show him the route to the Boz Uchuk lakes, no problem there at all, and they were out of sight within minutes, after having marked our proposed campsite, for the first night, on my paper map.
The forested valleys, herds of horses and isolated yurts soon gave way to rather more challenging conditions entailing some mountainous terrain and rushing streams that were very problematic to cross due to the speed of the water and depth, usually over 1m and even up to 2-3m deep, a recipe for disaster for the unwary.
There was so much of interest in the first few hours hiking, aside from the spectacular vistas in every direction ; large herds of horses roamed the valleys, yurts, horsemen, cattle, goats and sheep and of course the herders.
Gorgeous flowers adorned almost every valley and mountain side. The porter had waited here to check that I hadn't wandered off in another direction ha ha ! Actually I err had done exactly that , missing my 'turn' by about an hour whilst wandering alone enamoured by the sensational surroundings and the promise of distant mountains ... but luckily I checked the map and returned to the trek route. Oops !
All the while the mountains and valleys mesmerised and I could hardly keep my camera in my backpack for long before stopping every few minutes to set up yet another shot. No wonder it took me all day to get to the campsite (we won't mention the two times I went 'off-piste' and had to backtrack my steps) !
After a restful night I awoke early though not early enough (I overslept and missed sunrise - for a photographer that's punishable by being hung drawn and quartered) ! I'm not a big breakfast eater so after boiling up a couple of cups of coffee and munching down a chocolate bar and some cheese and nuts I was ready and raring to go. If I was hiking this trek again I'd stay a couple of nights, one by this lake and one by the top lake, hoping for great sunsets and sunrises. However it was time to move and a hike to the top lake would take at least 60-90 min's uphill hiking therefore being able to ride a horse up there, before they went off on their roundabout route carrying my tent etc. onto the next night's proposed campsite, was a very welcome relief after the previous days' 25 kms plus hike !
The video above, showing the second day of my hike up to the Boz Uchuk Top Lake, was compiled from iPhone 7 clips.
Sony A7rii & Sony-Zeiss 55mm : 5 shot panorama
The top lake is sensational; aquamarine, perfectly translucent ice-cold & pure glacier water ringed by black mountains, some still with snow on their slopes, despite this being high Summer.
I really regretted not allowing more time to stay and photograph this lake but just being there, astride a horse and able to move freely around the location, which also allowing a panoramic view of the lower lake, listening to the calls of the local ground squirrel, the Pika, reverberating off the mountain sides, was amazing.
iPhone 7. We were joined that night by a young German lady, solo hiking the route (tent left). It was nice to have someone to chat with that evening ! My tent is centre.
Days 3 & 4
After spending some time at the Boz Uchuk Top Lake it was down to start trekking back down, not back to Jyrgalan but a different route to Karakol, my 'home base' for a couple of weeks in this area. An easy pitch for that night in an isolated valley and then down into Karakol the next day, paying the porter (he's actually a guide however I didn't feel like I needed one, I'm fine with a compass and map, and he was happy to just act as a porter and meet up with me at pre-arranged campsites each evening) and giving tips (including to the trainee, which as far as I can remember was half as much as to the porter).
A few kms before we reached Karakol (a horse transporter came to collect them and the horses for the trip back to Jyrgalan) we said our adieus. The porter was great actually, even though we couldn't converse, since I don't speak Russian or Kyrgyz ! However an online translator was good enough whenever we had a signal - which wasn't often! Hand signals and routes drawn on my paper map (although I used GPS apps as well) did the trick. Visually the return route was as stimulating and exciting as the route up, though with narrower valleys and fewer epic landscapes looking over snow covered mountains. No reason why you couldn't return by the same (or one on a similar direction) trail as you came up - it is the more spectacular !
I can't recommend this route highly enough even though it's not one of the most popular treks in the region (new treks are opening up all the time since the region has hardly been explored) but that has its advantages - as in meeting only 4 fellow hikers over the 4 days ! It can be done in 2 nights / 3 days if you wanted to power through but for me a 4 night trio would be perfect, if you are a photographer and want to explore the lakes at sunset and sunrise a little more than I did.