National Parks and Reserves
This is probably the most visited site by foreign travelers visiting Karakol and is reknowned for its beauty. The AltynArashan ("Golden Spa") valley leads up from the Ak Suu valley, just South of the village of Teplokluenchka, to a Spartan "hot spring" complex. The road is not an easy one, very steep in places.
It passes through pine forests which contain many hidden springs (both hot and cold). Bears are known to frequent the area. There is a small museum with stuffed animals, typical of the region. The area includes the Arashan State Nature Reserve which is a special botanical research preserve.
Above the resort are resort are the KyzylTash Cave and the peaks of the Ak Suu range which rise to 5022 m. asl. Nearby are the TergenAk Suu, Djergalan, Koi Djailoo and other ravines.
Permits are needed for hiking in the region, which can be issued for 3 days or 10 days, and are easy to obtain. From AltynArashan there are a number of trekking routes, including one across the Karakol, (via the AlaKul Lake) and DjetyOrguz valleys - but the path can be blocked by snow until mid-summer.
Batkenis situated in the extreme Southwest of the Republic, and consists of four mountainous regions, with altitudes ranging from 400 to 5,621m. The province was created in 1999 after incursions by armed militants of the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan seeking to cross Kyrgyz territory between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its administrative center is the town of Batken.
The oblast includes a number of enclaves belonging to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, created when the borders of the republics were settled by a commission of the Soviet Union in the time of Joseph Stalin. There are seven enclaves altogether - some very small, not much more than the size of a farm. The largest is the Sokhenclave which belongs to Uzbekistan.
The region is not very well known - there is not much information available, even in the Republic itself - most travelers tend to come from within Kyrgyzstan itself or the surrounding republics - and there are a number of tour bases around the oblast, (notably the "Pyramida-dolina" in the Batken region, Ak-Suu, and Ozgorush in the Laylak region, and Dugaba in the Kadamjaiski region) which have been host to a number of international mountaineering expeditions. There have also been attempts to develop skiing and caving in the region. There are also a number of ancient sites scattered throughout the region.
JetyOrguz Mountains - "Seven Bulls"
25 km South West of the town of Karakol is a lush valley with some striking red sandstone rock formations (the "seven Bulls" from which the valley takes its name).
There is a legend on how the rock formation was created. A Kyrgyz Khan stole the wife of another, who sought advice from a "wise man" about how he could reap his revenge. The wise man was reluctant to give advice but in the end relented, telling the Khan that he should kill his wife and give the body to his rival - "Let him own a dead wife, not a living one".
The Khan made his plans, and at a funeral feast arranged to sit next to his stolen wife, and as the last of the nine bulls were being slaughtered as part of the ritual, he took out his knife and stabbed her. From her heart gushed blood and other fluids, which carried away the bulls down the valley and where they came to rest and became these cliffs.
As you approach the valley, you pass another rock formation which resembles a "broken heart", and legend says that this is the heart of a beautiful woman who died of a broken heart after two suitors killed each other fighting over her.
These two rock formations have become symbols of the Issyk Kul region, and are favorite images for photographs and paintings. In the village is an ancient cemetery and several barrows (burial mounds).
Not far up the valley is the DjetyOrguz sanatorium, built in 1932 - and the sight of the first meeting between Presidents Akayev and Yelsin in 1991 after the abortive coup in Moscow. About 5km south of the JetyOrguz sanatorium is DolinaSvetov (Valley of the flowers), which is ablaze with color from May - when there are multitudes of poppies - throughout early summer. There are reported to be petroglyphs here - but no one seems to know exactly where. There are often yurts set up here which can offer accommodation.
In the valley is the DjetyOrguz State Zoological reserve. Nearby is the village of JeleDebe - where Eagle hunting demonstrations can be organized. Trekking permits are necessary in the valley.
Barskoon and Tamga are twin Kyrgyz and Russian villages at the mouth of the Barskoon valley - which has an impressive waterfall and is a very popular base for trekking and horseriding.
The 11th century scholar, Mahumud al-Kashgari (also known as Barskhani) was a native of this area. He is best known as the author of the first Turkic language comparative dictionary, which he wrote whilst living in Baghdad in 1072-1074. His map of the then known world has Barskoon at the center of the world. His tomb is South of Kashgar - on the road to Pakistan.
The road from Barskoon which passes up the Barskoon valley, (the A364) used to be one of the routes of the Silk Road, passing over the Bedel Pass (4284 m) into China. It is now the main road leading to the Kumtor Gold mine - hence it is well maintained and there is a reasonable amount of traffic - including trucks making their way up to the mine and back. In the Spring of 2000 - a lorry carrying cyanide used in the gold refining process was involved in an accident - leaving the road and crashing into a stream - polluting the waters and decimating the tourist industry around Lake Issyk Kul as many CIS travelers cancelled their planned holidays.
There are several interesting sights along the road - including a Soviet truck mounted on a pedestal and a bust of Yuri Gagarin, who holidayed on the South shore of Issyk Kul after his historic first manned space flight.
In the mountains to the East is a region known as Sytyr - an "alpine cold desert". In Soviet times the road turned East along the upper Naryn River and looped round over the Yshtyk Pass (3689 m) to AkShyrak, Enilchek and eventually back to the city of Karakol. Unfortunately, some of the bridges are now down and the road, (never an easy route), is no longer passable by car, though routes to the west to the towns of Sari-Bulak and Naryn are passible by 4WD vehicles, bikes, and horses. Barskoon is the home of Shepherds' Way Trekking. They have asmall guesthouse, and can arrange services for those interested in exploring the Barskoon valley - including horse trekking.
125 km from Bishkek, these canyons stretch for nearly 200km, into the Eastern Kyrgyz Range. The canyons have romantic names such as "Grand Canyon", "Bobsleigh"and "Skyscraper". To view the entirety of the Konorchak Canyons would take years - but it is possible to see some spectacular scenery with a few days' exploration.
They were formed about one and a half to two million years ago, and since that time erosion by wind and water has transformed a simple plateau into gigantic stone pillars, some of which are 400-500 meters high. The canyons see almost no precipitation in any season of the year - between 1980 and 1990 the canyons received no snowfall at all, and in the last decade of the twentieth century snow fell only twice.
If the air temperature in Bishkek is 20 degrees below zero, in the KonorchakCanyons it is +5 degrees - however, in recent times the climate in the Canyons has become colder. One peculiarity of the Konorchak Canyons is that the vegetation growing here tends to be very large - much larger than usual.
One of the main attractions at Konorchal is an extinct volcano, SegizkhanShokhy, dating to 2.5 - 3 million years ago, with slopes containing large fossilized sea shells.
There are a number of beautiful valleys in the KungeyAla-Too Mountains (The "Sunny" Ala-Too Mountains) on the Northern side of Lake Issyk Kul. The largest and best known of these are Grigorievka and Semyenovka - some 30 kilometers beyond Chalpon Ata as you travel from Bishkek. The area is criss-crossed by trekking routes - some of which pass over the mountains towards the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan.
An asphalt road leads some 15km into the mountains from the village of Semyenovka, (named after the Russian explorer, PyotrSemyenov "Tian-shansky"), following the valley of the Chong Ak-Suu ("Big White Water"), past the Kyrchyn tour base, which used to contain a 240 bed hotel and other facilities. The road leads to a jailoo (mountain pasture) at 2,010m and the conjunction with the KichiAk-Suu ("Little White Water") river. The river flows some 34 kilometers from glaciers on the mountain peaks into Lake Issyk Kul, passing through three small lakes. The jailoowas historically used as a meeting place for congresses of Kyrgyz elders.
Here, from the end of June until the end of September, sits a gathering of yurts which offer a wide range of services. The "yurt village" is marketed as an ethnological experience. Half of the twenty yurts are reserved for guests - and in the other half live several local families which provide services, entertainment, etc, so guests have a chance to experience authentic, traditional elements of the Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle. The yurts are all traditionally equipped - not like the majority of the yurt inns in Kyrgyzstan; for example, here you will end up sleeping on the floor under an adiella, a sort of "duvet", not in beds.
Unfortunately, this also means that amenities such as toilets, bathing facilities and so on are also traditional. The of lack of modern conveniences, however, is more than made up for by the fascinating program - which explores the history, culture, crafts, food and games of the Kyrgyz people. It is possible to walk or ride horses into the surrounding countryside; encounter half-wild yaks; watch demonstrations of craftsmanship and horsemanship by masters; listen to traditional music; listen to a "manaschi" recite excerpts from the epic poem "Manas"; eat traditional foods; drink kumis and even participate in putting up a yurt - an all round, authentic, Kyrgyz experience.
It is possible to visit for a day (for example, if you are staying at the Avrora, or one of the other health resorts on the lake shore); or for several days, perhaps as a base for some trekking in the region. It is just the right distance for a "long-weekend break" from Bishkek, and would make an ideal component in a longer tour which incorporates other aspects and regions of this relatively undiscovered land of "celestial mountains".
Another piece of history - on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, not far from the village of Semyenovka, is a dacha built in the 1960's specially for the visit of Leonid Brezhnev - and used just once. A rather modest building, set on the edge of a marsh, a short walk from the beach, it is now unfortunately in a sad state of disuse and disrepair, although apparently there are plans to renovate and restore it.
An interesting site for a short side trip might include a visit to the little hamlet of SvetlyMys (Bright Cape), tucked away near the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, just South of the village of Belovodsk, about 50km from Karakol.
This is reputedly the burial place of the Apostle, Saint Matthew. Having been a tax collector, he was called to be a disciple of Jesus. According to tradition, he later wrote the Gospel of Saint Matthew for his fellow countrymen in Palestine, though around the time of the persecution of Herod Agrippa in A.D. 42, he fled to distant lands. Of his subsequent life and career we have only inaccurate or legendary information.
Ancient writers are far from unanimous on his travels, but almost all mention the land of Ethiopia (South of the Caspian Sea, not the one in Africa!); some mention Persia, the kingdom of the Parthians; Macedonia; and Syria. There is little information on his death and at least one author maintains that he did not die as a martyr - although others disagree. Is it possible that he made it as far into Central Asia as Issyk Kul - and died here?
Whether he did or not, this site has attracted pilgrims for centuries, and it is thought that various religious communities (Nestorian, Armenian, Orthodox) have been been based here. In 1888, the Tsar of Russia ordered that an Orthodox monastery be founded here - some of the wooden buildings still remain - and the roads were laid out in the form of an Orthodox cross. During the Central Asian uprising of 1916, the monastery was attacked and most of the monks were killed.
One of the icons of the Virgin Mary was said to have shed tears and blood - and was later placed in the wooden cathederal in Karakol, where it can still be seen. Two monks survived; one fled to Almaty and the other moved down the road to Ananyevo; both were later canonized as saints.
The Suusamyr valley is a high steppe plateau - 2200 meters a. s. l. - that although only some 160 kilometers from Bishkek is also one of the more remote and rarely visited regions of Kyrgyzstan. Although it is on the other side of the massive Kyrgyz Range from Bishkek and the Chui valley, it is part of the Chui administrative region.
There are signs of early settlement dating back to between the 9th and 11th centuries. In 1992, the region was hit by a massive earthquake - reaching 9 on the Richter scale - and most of the villages suffered considerable damage, but fortunately there no casualities - a feature of the low population density.
The population, of about 6000, is mainly Kyrgyzand they are nearly all involved in agriculture. In Soviet times this was one of the major sheep breeding areas in the country. Upto four million sheep would be driven over the mountain passes in Spring to graze on the luscious grasses of the steppe. One route which was taken was from TashBulak (about 50km from Bishkek - stillreferred to by some locals by it's former Soviet name, Belogorka - just South of Sokoluk - popular for day trips to visit the Peigeons Waterfall - there is a CBT projec here as well). Although the path is still featured as a possible trekking route - it is not easy and is still often blocked by snow, even in summer.
Since 1991, the flocks of sheep grazing here have dwindled substantially and the people have diversified into other forms of agriculture - growing potatoes, garlic, cabbages and fodder crops. Today, most foreign visitors simply pass through as they travel the main Bishkek-Osh road. Leaving Bishkek, you travel to Kara Balta and then turn South towards the mountains. (Actually, if you turn off at Belovodsk - where the 1919 counter revolution started - you can see one of the earliest Russian Orthodox wooden churches to be built in Central Asia). The road climbs through the spectacular Too Ashu gorge - the original road climbed right to the top of the pass, but nowadays there is tunnel burrowed under it. In 2001 there was a disaster which claimed several lives in the tunnel - You should also be aware that it is closed at some times for maintenance work. You emerge from the tunneland the plain lies below you. It is worth stopping and climbing a little to get a spectacular panorama of the plain.
Descending the road comes to a junction and a sign points to the village of Suusamyr, some 15 km west of the road, and the right fork takes you on towards Osh in the South, the Toktogulreservior, Lake SaryChelek, or the road over the Otmekpass to Talas. Suusamyr village lies at the Eastern edge of the plain and has a yurt camp in summer, it is possible to find homestays, and there is a dacha somekilometers from the village which takes in guests.
From the village, there are two roads to Kochkor. The Northern route follows the valley of the Karakol river- at the foot of the Kyrgyz Range and is practically deserted - there are virtually no settlements here. The Southern road takes youthrough the villages of Kojomkul and KyzylOi before you reach the turning to Min Kush or continue onto Chaek and Kochkor. The roads are not good. Karakol is a small village on the banks of the river of the same name where it emerges at the extreme Eastern edge of the plain.
Kojomkul is named after a giant of a man, (he was 2.3 meters tall), who died in 1955. The village has a small museum where you can see photographs of him, some of his clothes and you can see huge stones which he is reputed to have lifted onto his shoulders. A little out of town you can another weighing almost 700kg which he is supposed to have lifted and placed on the grave of a local official.
The road to KyzylOi ("Red Bowl/Earth") passses through a narrow valley of the Kekemeren with the mountains rising steeply on each side.
On the road to Kochkor a series of villages meld into one another - the largest of which is Chaek - and the land opens out to reveal rich pastures. Shorly after Chaek are the turnings to Kyzart and Kara Keche - which provide a Northern approach to Lake Son Kul.
For trekkers, as well as the route from TashBulak mentioned above, there are also routes across the Kyrgyz Range to AlaArcha and Alemadin - but you will need good maps and should work with a company which specialises in trekking.
On the maps there is also a road across the range from Kegeti to the Kochkor-Suusamyr road … in Soviet times iy was regularly cleared by snow ploughs in the spring - but this hasn"thappened for several years and with snow lying until mid-August combined with the effects of rockfalls, it is now impassable by vehicle and even horses can have difficulty.
There are also plenty of opportunites for hill walks from using any of the villages mentioned above as a base - but you will need good maps and should work with a company whichspecialises in trekking.
For those with time to spare - who want to explore a region "off- the beaten track" and experience traditional Kyrgyz hospitality - then the Suusamyr region is well worth consideration. There is a Community Based Tourism projectinSuusamyr which can arrange accommodation, transport and other services. They have members in three of the local jailoos - JooJurok, Boirok and Sandyk.