PART 1, General Information
PART 2, BLOG and Pictures/Gallery
PART 3, VIDEO Clip
PART 1, GENERAL INFORMATION
Capital city: Bishkek
Population: 6 Million
Km travelled: 2890km
Days in: 35
Languages: Russian and Kyrgys
Sometimes called the Switzerland of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country with mountainous terrain. Its history goes back over 2000 years and due to its high mountains, it has mostly preserved ancient culture away from the cities. Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan has significant deposits of metals including gold and other minerals. Only 8% of the land is cultivated, and this is concentrated in the northern lowlands and the fringes of the Fergana Valley.
Kyrgyzstan is the land of majestic mountains and gives you the opportunity to get to know about the true nomadic lifestyle. It has pristine valleys and crystal clear mountain lakes. One of the most popular is Lake Issyk Kul. Other popular places are Naryn City, Tougart Pass, Karakul and Cholpon Ata. It also allows you to taste the real nomadic lifestyle as a large part still practice a semi nomadic lifestyle. Lake Issyk-kul in the North East is the second largest lake in the world after Lake Titicaca. Amazing scenery with mountains as high as 7440 meters (Jengish Chokusu) and great locals.
Bishkek is in the Chuy Valley, a great place to stock up before exploring Kyrgyzstan. Main sights are Ala-Too Square, and if you like musea you have lots of choices in Bishkek. Just outside Bishkek is Ala-Archa nature reserve. This is in a small valley inside the gorge, its ridges are covered with eternal ice. The area is just over 20000 hectares and there are mountains, rivers, and pine forests growing on the slope of the mountains, great spot to camp.
Bokonbayevo is a picturesque village on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Located in the middle between the Terskey Ala-Too Mountains and the shore of beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul, this village has a traditional Kyrgyz character. It is also far from the crowded beaches of the north shore. Not to be missed is the Birds of Prey Festival. Experienced falconers demonstrate hunting techniques for big and small game, and techniques for different types of eagles, hawks and falcons. During the festival also enjoy dance and music, and cheer on horse games and races.
located on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, Cholpon-Ata is famous for its resorts, sandy beaches, and underground mineral springs. However, the beach and the nearby petroglyphs are the main attraction.
LAKE ISSYK KUL
Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest alpine lake, lying at 1609 m above sea level. (Lake Titicaca is the largest) Even though it is surrounded by mountains, Issyk-Kul never freezes, thus its name “hot lake”. During our visit rumours where that the Russian navy together with the Indian navy were going to lease part of the lake around the Karabulan Peninsula to test secret materials and torpedoes. The lease would be 5 million dollars per year!
The town is in the Far South East of Kyrgyzstan. This is part of a border zone under the agreement between China and Kyrgyzstan to establish a strip 50 km from the main border. This area has the largest national parks, with many animals and plants that are in the red book of endangered species. Permits are required to enter this area but readily available in Karakul. Great shopping at the markets and the place to purchase traditional Kyrgyz wool carpets. (shyrdaks) Just before Karakul is a great camp spot in the Jeti Oguz.
A sandstone formation about 25 km southwest of Karakul. The name means “seven bulls”, which comes from the fact that the rocks look like seven bulls. Jeti-Oguz Rocks are a protected Nature Monument. In the village, there is an ancient cemetery and some barrows (burial mounds) dating from the 7th to the 5th century BC. Also worthwhile is the sanatorium Jeti Oguz where the Kyrgyzstan president and Boris Yeltsin met after the unsuccessful coup in Moscow in 1991.
At an altitude of 3016 m above sea level, Son-Kul is a startlingly blue lake surrounded by wide, fertile meadows that have long been used by nomadic herders for their animals. The road to Son-Kul takes roughly 6-7 hours, and though much of it is paved, some parts are gravel and earth. The area has snow around 200 days of the year. It gets cold in winter and we are told no-one lives here in winter. There are no permanent buildings around Son-Kul, only yurts, so people live the same way that they have for centuries. Son-Kul is chilly because of the high altitude, with temperatures averaging only 11°C, and frost at night can be expected all year round. (even snow in summer) There are no trees on the high plains around the lake, but there are lots of herbs and plants that are used for their medicinal properties. Plenty of birds, including falcons and golden eagles, live around Son-Kul, and the mountains are home to deer, foxes, Marco Polo sheep, leopards, and wolves (though these animals tend to stay high in the mountains).
125 km from Naryn, 17 km from the end of the paved road and just 90km short of the Chinese border, 3500 meters high is the ancient caravanserai of Tash Rabat. According to some, this is probably the best-preserved Silk Road site you will find and “no other retains as much of its original atmosphere”. This is a carefully restored stone building that once housed an inn on the Great Silk Road. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was occupied in the 10th century. Located in the Kara Kojun Gorge 15km of the main road in a beautiful area. Missed by many travellers due to poor signposting. (or none) Great camp spot a bit further past the caravanserai; share your campsite with herds of horses and yaks, flocks of sheep and goats
With a history estimated to stretch back 3000 years, Osh has long been a central city in the Fergana Valley. During our visit tensions were high in town between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks population. Must see places are the bazaar along the Ak-Bura River, Mountain Sulaiman Too (UNESCO world heritage site), various musea, the Shaid Tepa Mosque (room for 5000 worshippers) and just outside Osh the Kyrgyz-Ata National park, and the mausoleum in Uzgen.
Our last stop in Kyrgyzstan before we crossed into Tibet. This is a remote mountain border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China. The special regulations and the remoteness of the border post can make this one a daunting experience for the unwary independent traveller. During our visitors 2 foreigners were sent back due to incorrect paperwork/documents. In our case the guide (compulsory in China) did not turn up? But by standing firm we were able to convince the border guard to let us pass to the next border point. (3 in total) In case this happens to you just stay calm and handle the inflexible regulations. We found most custom officers unpredictable and inflexible; we do not suggest that you take any risks but with common sense it can be done.
Points to remember
- Technically the crossing is closed to all except citizens of Kyrgyzstan or The People’s Republic of China.
- You require to be met at the border by a representative of a recognised travel company and Foreigners are NOT allowed to take their own vehicles into China (without special advance permission which is expensive and takes at least 2 months to get), so the Chinese agency, which arranges the permission usually arranges these permits.
- If you have a Chinese visa you can travel the road between the outer check post and the customs and Immigration post without a special “Border Zone Permit”.
- In theory the pass is open all year round except public holidays
- You should be aware that, sometimes the border can be closed at very short notice for all sorts of reasons.
- It is better to get to the border posts in the morning. If you arrive after lunch, you are likely to have to overnight at the border post. The border posts have definite opening hours. There is a 2-hour lunch break.
- There is a 100 km journey between the border and the Chinese Customs and Passport Control, which is at the end of the river valley, and on the way you will also be stopped at the army post a few kilometres over the border where they will check your passports and ask to see your luggage.
- Our Chinese agent organized all the paperwork for our vehicle and us. We organized our visa in Bishkek (took 2 weeks). Consulate is open from 9AM to 12.15PM.
- Don’t try to photograph anything that might be considered militarily sensitive. That includes the border post and any soldier in uniform!
The climate varies regionally. From nearly sub-tropical to dry polar climate, depending on elevation. In the coldest area’s temperatures are sub-zero for over 60 days in winter, and experience constant snowfall in this period.
Summer: 10 degrees at night to 35 degrees during the day
Winter: minus 15 degrees at night to 9 degrees during the day
Rainfall: April and May
Summer: minus 2 degrees at night to 22 degrees during the day
Winter: minus 30 degrees at night to minus 10 during the day
Summer: 11 degrees at night to 40 degrees during the day
Winter: minus 10 degrees to 13 degrees
Rainfall: March and April
Summer: 6 degrees at night to 25 degrees during the day
Winter: minus 25 degrees at night to 5 degrees during the day
Rainfall: May and June
Summer: 6 degrees at night to 25 degrees during the day
Winter: minus 20 degrees at night to 5 degrees during the day
Rainfall: April to October
PART 2, BLOG and Pictures/Gallery
BORDER TO OSH
The Tajikistan border guards tried every trick in the book to get us to part with some money. We had time, and were blocking the road and it wasn`t long before all laughed, and we were allowed to go. After 20km driving through no-man`s land we arrived at the Kyrgyzstan border, friendly, helpful guards and very easy. (NO VISA REQUIRED)
Our first stop was a small town Sary Tash, located at the crossroads to Tajikistan, China and Osh. It has been named the major hub for smugglers trafficking opium and marijuana. From here it is an easy 100 or so km to the border with China, right on top of the Irkeshtam Pass. This post only opened to international traffic in 2002. We continued north towards the town of Osh. After Sary Tash we had to cross the 3615-meter-high Taldyk Pass. 3615 meters did not sound that high anymore after the mountains in Tajikistan. That night we camped for the first time since a few weeks below 3000 meters. In fact, it was just 1610 meters next to a perfect mountain stream. Osh is Kyrgyzstan`s second largest city. It has a history that dates back to the 5th century BC. We were warned not to visit Osh. Due to racial tension, which resulted in bloody riots in June 2010 killing over 1000 people (official figures only 172) over 200.000 people were displaced; most of them fled to Uzbekistan. During the riots most of the city centre was burned down. After more than 3 weeks bush camping it was nice to be back in civilization. We went for dinner (Shaslik), did shopping at the amazing bazaar, purchased a data card so we had internet, and drove around town on our scooter visiting the touristy sites. Our truck was parked close to the city centre outside the gate of Tess Guesthouse as we would not fit under the water pipes. After a few days R&R the appeal of a large city had disappeared, and it was time to explore Kyrgyzstan`s highlands.
OSH to BISHKEK
We passed Jalal Abad which during the Soviet era had a large health resort mainly for officers and family. Our plan was to visit Arslanbob which has a large walnut forest, but we missed the turnoff. Next was the old mining town of Tashkomur. The slag heaps around the town give away the collapse of the coal mining industry. We now started to climb again. At Kara Kol we were hoping to see the 200-meter-high and 150-meter-wide dam which we are told holds back Lake Togokul what measures 20 billion cubic meters of water. But NJET; we were not allowed entry. Downhill from here we started the drive around Lake Togokul. This was pretty and while coming down from Kara Kol we found some very nice camp spots. From the lake the climb up into the highlands started. Kyrgyzstan is maybe small, but roads and infrastructure appear better then in neighbouring countries. It is Central Asia`s most accessible country, hence the many tourists and motor homes we see compared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We even encountered a Toll road (60USD! for our truck) at the beginning of the Tor Ashuu Pass. Nomadic traditions are alive and kicking in Kyrgyzstan and after a few nights on the highlands at around 3000 meters it was time to head towards Bishkek. Good roads got us to Bishkek in no-time and we decided to park our truck outside Asia Mountain Guest house where we were welcomed by 2 trucks from Dragoman Overland with 20 passengers each, one truck from China enroute to Istanbul the other from Istanbul to China. Bishkek is Kyrgyzstan’s capital with wide streets and nice city markets and the largest Auto Bazaar I have ever seen.
Nearly all cars are driven from Europe and sold here. Shopping and locating offices is not that easy, shops are not clearly advertised, and it is easy to stroll straight past even one specifically aimed at the passing tourist. This is a throwback to Soviet times when shopping was restricted to GUM stores and kiosks littering the sidewalk. The same applies for tourist office, post office and other attractions. Also, a throwback to these days is the number of monuments and buildings bearing the hammer and sickle motif as well as men on huge horses. But we are here for one very important reason. We need our China Visa. And from reports from other overlanders this is an erratic Embassy. Well how right they were.
Important information for obtaining China Visa. We were fore-warned: be there on Monday morning 9am in line. At 12.15pm all paperwork was filled out and checked 3 times by various embassy staff. Sorry sir, your photo is incorrect! But this is the photo we used last year for our China Visa. Please come back on Wednesday with a correct photo. (Please note we carry around 10 different types of passport photos).Wednesday after 3 hours in line, yes, our turn. All good BUT we are not sure re your LOI (letter of Introduction), let`s check? No all okay. Please go to our Bank and pay fee. 30 USD for 7 days or 60USD for urgent 2-day service. As we would like to leave Bishkek we went for the 2-day urgent service. Please come back on Friday and your visa will be ready. Friday in line again (2 hrs) our turn. Your Letter of Introduction is not valid NO VISA. WHAT? This is issued by our travel company in China! Could you please call them? No sir, Sorry? What is wrong with this LOI? Your company is not recognized. But we used them last year with no issues? No sir Sorry. Please give me this in writing, NO SIR SORRY. I obviously wasted my time; we had to use an agency in Bishkek. As it happens an agent was at the embassy. We handed him our passports, no need for any other paperwork as required by the embassy on Monday! Paid him an extra 75USD, the LOI was approved and so was our Visa.
BISHKEK to CHOLPON ATA
After a hectic but also very sociable week in Bishkek it was time to go back bush. First stop was an eagle Festival in Bokonbaev around 300KM south east of Bishkek right on the shores of Lake Issy Kul. Mark and Sheryl had given us the GPS co-ordinates and we finished up on a perfect spot right on the beach.
In Kyrgyzstan an Eagle Festival brings the region`s best hunting dogs, eagle and falcon hunters together from all over the country. But the reasons locals arrive, is the final event: the gruesome battle between the wolves and the Eagle. Wolves are considered a menace in rural Kyrgyzstan, responsible for killing many horses, sheep and cows. The wolves are chained in an open field. Being the hunter and never the prey all he can do now is wait until the eagle swoops back in for the kill, with its razor-sharp talons.
Our expectations were high, until we realized that this was a show set up to cater for tourists, some of which arrived for the day from Bishkek. In our case we saw eagles kill a bird held on a string (however one escaped) and we saw the eagle kill and eat a rabbit. This to the disgust of some tourist who complained about the treatment? (WHY COME AND WATCH?) When in Rome do as the Romans do. The rest of the day we enjoyed local dances, Kyrgyzstan`s national games i.e. horse wrestling and horse racing.
Traditionally, wild baby eagles are taken from the nest to be trained as hunting birds, the training of a hunting bird is long and complex. A golden Eagle holds a wolve by its mouth. The secrets of taming a golden Eagle are passed on from generation to generation down dynasties. From father to son or sometimes grandson. It is said this bird will never be a slave to its owner, but only a partner in hunting. We enjoyed a few more days at this perfect camp spot. We enjoyed our time with Mark and Sheryl and Christiana who arrived a few days later. Lake Issy Kul stands for warm water. Due to its depht, it never freezes. With its length of 170KM and up to 70KM wide it is the second largest Alpine lake in the world (After Lake Titicaca). We are told the Russians secretly tested torpedo`s here, as westerners were not allowed in this region until 1992. Nuclear waste could be present in the lake. So, who knows I may light up tonight?
Reluctantly did we leave our very nice and private beach in Bokonbaev but we knew we would return after Lake Song Kul. Roads are good in Kyrgyzstan and dirt roads are in decent shape. We climbed the mountains after we turned off the main road just past Sara Bulak where we climbed to Lake Song Kul. Song Kul is a high alpine lake in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan. It is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan after Issyk kul. It was cold and raining/sleet upon our arrival. We found a perfect campsite right on the lake about half way along on the north side, away from all the yurts. Song-Kul is a lake at 3000 meters and overnight the temperature dropped to 1 degree Celsius. Other than a walk by the lakeshore and a horse ride through the grassland, there’s absolutely nothing else to do. The 100-km lake circumference is very scenic, surrounded by spectacular mountains and animals. The scarce semi-nomadic families settle in these months with their yurts and their flocks (the famous Marco Polo sheep, horses, and cows.), Yurts are scattered around, and some of these families have established small yurt camps where travellers can stay a few nights. We backtracked the same route to Lake Issy Kul. Issyk-Kul means ‘warm lake’. The water is cold, but it never freezes up in winter. That is partly because it is a bit salty, and partly because some underground thermal activity. It is one of the biggest alpine lakes in the world: it has a length of 170 kilometres, a width of 70 kilometres and a maximum depth of 700 meters. Our next stop was Jeti Oghuz. 25km to the west of Karakul is the Jeti-Oghuz Valley. Its unique feature is red sandstone rock at the entrance of the valley. Also at the entrance is a sanatorium for medical rehabilitation and a simple town of wooden houses with large concrete dilapidated soviet-style buildings. We continued a dirt track into the Jeti-Oghuz Valley. Like most of our experiences in Kyrgyzstan, we were invited to drink some home brewed honey wine, were handed watermelon slices, and asked all sorts of questions about our origins. While waiting for the drunken beekeeper to fill a PET bottle with 1kg of honey, the entire family gathered for a photo with us, their foreign guests – now friends. That night we found a perfect bush camp near a nice mountain stream.
And cold it was, not just the water but also the night, even in mid-August. Most rivers in the Terskey Alatau Range are dense with glacier sediment. A water filter that can be cleaned in the field (like MSR) is preferable to water purification tablets. We decided not to fill up. Next was Karakol and our plan to visit the Karakul Valley to Altyn Arashan Valley but as we entered the region we were stopped by police and sent back. The whole area was in lock down (quarantine) as one boy had died from the Plague and 3 people where critical ill! Over 300 people and all Hospital staff in Karakul and surrounding hospitals were also forced to stay inside and the hospitals were closed for all visitors. So, for us this was no Ak Suu, No Hot springs. Instead we decided to leave Karakul the next morning and
drive to Cholpon Ata, also called the Riviera of Kyrgyzstan. We found a perfect spot just outside Cholpon Ata in the car park on the beach of Hotel 3 Crowns. Unlike most of the dilapidated hotels/sanatoriums/guesthouses this place looked European run and was in very good condition with very friendly staff.
CHOLPON ATA to TIBET BORDER
After spending days lazing on the beach in Cholpon Ata (Lake Issy Kul) it was time to pick up our parcel in Bishkek and do a car service. Impressions of Bishkek vary considerably when you speak to an overlander arriving from Europe or those arriving from China. Those arriving from Europe find Bishkek to be a small uninteresting city that’s like those in Central Europe. Overlanders arriving from China find Bishkek to be a refreshing change. Supermarket inventory is European – one can buy fresh bread, cheese, olive oil, and other foods lacking in China. With exception of the Chinese visa most other visa are pretty easy to get here, hence it attracts many overlanders. Bishkek is a city of parks. Acres upon acres of trimmed shrubs, weeded flower gardens, stone statues, running fountains and benches for lovers sprawl the city. Kyrgyz soldiers with large-brimmed hats stand guard at a Kyrgyz flagpole. Watch the flag lowering ceremony at 21:00 complete with 7 marching guards and the national anthem. After exploring the city a little more, we spent a day at the pool and enjoyed the company of other overlanders in the Car park of Asia Mountain Guest House. This resulted in too much beer-grappa-wine and food and a large exchange of GPS locations of the various surrounding countries. A day late we left for the Chinese border stopping over along the way in Naryn, 185KM from the Chinese border catching up with Julian and Ally who have been travelling from Australia for the last 16 months in a Mitsubishi Fuso. Like many other Central Asian cities, Naryn emerged as a small fortification on the trade routes that ran from the East Turkestan (Kashgar city) to Central Asia. Naryn is the coldest city of Kyrgyzstan. The temperature sometimes reaches – 40 degrees Celsius here. And cold it was that night. After a dinner in a local restaurant we said goodbye to Julian and Ally who were going to cross the border to China the next day. We had one more day, so we included Tash Rabat. The road from Naryn up the Kyzyl Bel Pass is bad but past the pass the road is superb. At an altitude of about 3300m above sea level is the ancient caravanserai of Tash Rabat. This is probably the best-preserved Silk Road site you will find and “no other retains as much of its original atmosphere”. The Caravanserai was occupied in the 10th century. The road in was corrugated but it leads up a small, beautiful valley in the foothills of the Tian Shan, embedded against the hillside. We camped 1 kilometre away from the Caravanserai next to a small creek enjoying a warm afternoon but very cold night. OUR LAST NIGHT IN KYRGYZSTAN. Tomorrow we travel up the Torugart Pass.
From Kyrgyzstan to go to China, there are some obstacles in your way. The most obvious of these obstacles are the Tien Shan Mountains, which are very high. The Torugart Pass is one of the few routes through these mountains. Past the Kyrgyzstan check point (border post) the road is very bad – dust and stones – there is a lot of traffic: Chinese trucks with containers and Kyrgyz trucks with chequered plastic over the loads going both ways. The border has a reputation of closing whenever someone feels like it. So, when one of your minibuses is not working properly, or there is a snow storm (this happens at any time of the year) you know the border will close the next day or maybe for a week. Also because of a Festival Week, closures are normal. We are nervous as our entry visa expires in 2 days. Another obstacle in the pass is the border posts. You must cross four of them, the first post 180 kilometres away from the last.
PART 3, VIDEO CLIP
(Video Kyrgystan under Construction)
COMPILATION VIDEO Thailand to Europe including Kyrgystan