• Aaron

Kyrgyzstan - Karakol to Naryn

Traffic jam on the route to Altyn Arashan

I mentioned in my last post a few days ago that we had now made it deep into Kyrgyzstan, as far as the small town of Naryn (2,044 metres), and that I was running slightly behind with my blog. As of today we are again back in Naryn, having just completed a five day loop into the remote restricted access border zone with China. On parts of that route you could go a long while without seeing anyone. But what you might see is some of the most stunning scenery Central Asia has to offer; Kel Suu in particular, which we (just!) managed to undertake the 4wd route to, Sylwia and I both agree is one of the most special places we've been to, anywhere! Clearly I need to bring the blog up to date promptly (this being the purpose of this post) so that I can write about our just completed five day excursion into the Kyrgyzstan/China border zone in the next installment.

In this post, we:

  1. Make a trip to a stunning thermal valley known as Altyn Arashan

  2. Briefly visit another stunning Kyrgyzstan valley known as Jetty Oguz

  3. Camp on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul and visit nearby Skazka Canyon

  4. Tackle the stunning 3,893m Tolsor Pass. If you're interested in remote and rugged high altitude scenery, scroll down to this section to see the images and video.

  5. I have three! new short videos: (1) Altyn Arashan Valley; (2) Skazka Canyon; and (3) Tolsor Pass. You can click any of these highlighted links, or just find the videos embedded further down this page.

Altyn Arashan Thermal Valley

For some time I've known about Kyrgyzstan's Altyn Arashan valley. This stunning thermal valley, set in the mountains southeast of Karakol, has been on the planned itinerary for this trip from the outset. I knew it would be a stunning place, which the photos provided confirm. I also knew the 4wd access would be fairly tough, though I didn't learn until after we returned from our visit to the Altyn Arashan valley that the route in is reputed to be too tough for some 4wd's. The route is mostly plied by big ex army 4 and 6 wheel drive trucks that have been converted into tourist transport vehicles. Our host at 'Hostel Nice' in Karakol later told me that his American 4wd can only make it half way up the valley. Had I been aware in advance just how tough the route is reputed to be, I may have had second thoughts about attempting it solo! Perhaps it's a good thing then that by the time I learned all this our mighty Pajero had already conquered the route, and with relative ease I might add.

Our camp, for two nights in the Altyn Arashan Valley

You can either track down a free hot pool above the river, or do as we did and for a very nominal fee have private use of a hot pool belonging to one of the rough and ready tourist yurt camps dotted along the valley.

We also enjoyed a lovely traditional meal at a tiny cafe/restaurant belonging to one of the yurt camps - it may be difficult to make out in the photo, but the little restaurant has a dirt floor. It all seemed perfectly fine and very cosy though.

Our visit to the Altyn Arashan was, however, not without vehicle difficulties of another kind. Imagine my horror when after packing up camp the engine wouldn't start due to a flat battery. Quite how this occurred is not yet fully determined. Making matters even worse is that the jump starter device we were carrying, especially as a backup for this scenario, also decided to fault just when it was finally needed! Since there were a few other trucks dotted around the valley I could have run around to see if anyone had jump leads, but I thought it a good opportunity to see if I could find a way to resolve this situation independently. After all, the next time this happens it could be in a more remote location where we haven't seen another vehicle in a long while. I won't bore you with details of precisely what I did, but suffice to say I verified that I have two tricks up my sleeve capable of getting the car started without any assistance. It's essential that we're highly self-sufficient given the often remote nature of our travels.

Jetty Oguz

The main draw card for visitors to this valley is an area of intriguingly shaped red rocks. We missed them! We went right by and ended up driving well past them up the valley, and we didn't really mind at all. The road turned to a 4wd track and the views just became increasingly stunning the higher we progressed. This would be a fabulous valley to spend a couple of days had we had more time. We eventually turned around, headed back down the valley and found the rocks that were supposed to be the key attraction, though by that time it was too dark to take any decent photos. We were somewhat underwhelmed, but only because the deserts and canyon we recently ventured into in Kazakhstan - the topic of the previous blog post - were so impressive.

We ended up reaching the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul late in the evening, after dark. Setting up camp after dark means you don't always quite know where you're setting up, but the photos in the following section show that we were fortunate to set up in a lovely spot.

Lake Issyk-Kul and Skazka Canyon

This map highlights the relative size of Lake Issyk-Kul. Skazka Canyon is marked in red

182km long by 60km wide, Lake Issyk-Kul is the 10th largest lake in the world (the second largest 'saline' lake after the Caspian Sea) and is also the 7th deepest lake in the world. Photos from the following morning illustrate that this lake is crystal clear. What they don't show is that the lake is actually amply warm enough for swimming too. A local tells me that the snow visible on the mountains in these pictures is unseasonable; about one month early. It seems to have been a temporary cold snap however; the sun remains strong here in September and much of the snow has already melted.

We packed up and headed around the lake to visit Skazka Canyon. This canyon, which we hadn't known of during planning for this trip, is smaller and less accessible than Kazakhstan's Charyn Canyon. Initially we thought it interesting, though less impressive than Charyn Canyon. However, after reviewing my drone footage it seems that there are features to this landscape that are not able to be fully appreciated from the ground. I've produced a very short (40 seconds) video to illustrate how this unique area appears from an aerial perspective.

Tolsor Pass (3,893m)

We used this stunning off-road route to transit from our camp on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul to the small town of Naryn. This was our first truly high altitude Central Asia route. At around 2,400m the Altyn Arashan could also be said to be at reasonably high altitude, but that mainly reflects that much of Kyrgyzstan is already at high altitude to begin with. I.e. we were already at 1,760m in Karakol when we set off for the Altyn Arashan valley, hence it didn't seem such a climb. In contrast, there was absolutely no mistaking the off-road ascent over the Tolsor Pass! This was a rough, rocky and incredibly scenic passage. Ascending to the pass at 3,893m made for plenty of contrast in our immediate environment, both on the ascent and descent.

The photos that follow begin from the second of our camps on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, through to our next camp, at 2,400 metres in a remote spot, on a hillside set within a stunning river valley. It was a chilly night, though a far more hospitable environment than at higher altitudes nearer the pass. From this campsite we reached Naryn the following day.

Up Next

We're about to begin a route from Naryn to Osh; from a small town to a bigger one, where we'll spend a few nights and I should find time to write the blog post relating to our just completed five day excursion into the Kyrgyzstan/China border zone. I gather our route to Osh will be a bit rough and so I don't envisage covering the 434km's in a single day. It will take us several days actually, with a few sights to stop at along the way. But this route is said to pass through a beautiful part of Kyrgyzstan (as if any of it isn't! For those who don't know, Kyrgyzstan is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Central Asia) . Besides, on a journey such as this the getting there is at least as important as the destination itself.

I'll end with a few photos from around the small tourist town of Karakol, which was our base when we first entered Kyrgyzstan.

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