Song-Kul, Kyrgyzstan

In a country whose flag features the top of a yurt and whose (non-Lenin) statues all seem to feature people on horses, what better represents the country to visitors than a horse trek with yurt stays?

Joining up temporarily in Kochkor with travellers Jack, Jessica, Charlotte, and Matt, we arranged a three-day trip up to Song-Kul and back. After a two-hour car journey to the middle of nowhere, we met up with our guide, Marat, who set us up with five of his 15 horses.
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 Southern Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan

The World Nomad Games gave me a small taste of the scenery of Issyk-Kul, and with the games over, I was eager to explore it some more. With plenty of tourists bunched together, the day after the closing ceremonies, all heading in the same direction — a bit of a rarity in this part of the world — it was remarkably easy to group up for virtually any activity, whether lakeside or off to a jailoo.

Issyk-Kul is the 10th-largest lake in the world by volume, and the second-largest alpine lake in the world after Peru/Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca. It may not look like much on a map, but its deepest point is 668m — pretty crazy! I had a quick swim between kok boru matches back in Cholpon-Ata, and was itching for a few days by the lake, but with the tail end of summer approaching, I decided to wait a little longer, and do a bit of mountain hiking before the weather got too cold.

The Issyk-Kul region seems markedly less Kyrgyz than the rest of the country (save for internationally-minded Bishkek), with people from Siberia (Russia) and Kazakhstan having a prominent presence, not just as vacationers, but as long-term residents as well. After all, with the only other large body of water in proximity being the Arctic Ocean far to the north, it’s the only bearably swimmable body of water they’ve got! But surprisingly for a place like this, much of the lake shore is underdeveloped, dotted with humble villages, the odd small resort, faded and few tourist shops, and occasional run-down or abandoned settlements.
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 Karakul, Xinjiang, China قاراكۆل

I made one last sidetrip from Kashgar before leaving China. Again, it didn’t feel like China. But it didn’t carry at all the Uyghur character of Kashgar either — this is Kyrgyz land.

Karakul means “black lake” in a variety of Turkic languages, and there are multiple places carrying that name in Central Asia. The one in China (Kalakuli Lake 喀拉庫勒湖) is within a Kyrgyz (Ji’erjisi 吉爾吉斯/Ke’erkezi 柯爾克孜) autonomous prefecture, and it’s got two very small settlements around it.

Taking a shared car heading for Tashkurgan, a town in the neighbouring Tajik autonomous prefecture and along the China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway (whew, all these different groups), we passed the gorgeous and touristy White Sand Lake 白沙湖 before I hopped off at Karakul. But the weather quickly turned — we weren’t in the desert lowlands anymore, but rather at an altitude of 3800 m, in the Pamir Mountains. Things were fine at White Sand Lake, and only a mere 35 km down the road… uh oh.
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