Kyrgyzstan - Kel Suu!
Is it really ‘low' cloud when we're driving above 3,000 metres... or are we just ‘high’?
In this post we:
4wd to stunning Kel Suu at 3,525 metres
Visit a 15th century stone Caravanserai (essentially a 'hotel', still standing in excellent condition, that would have been used by traders plying old silk routes)
Kel Suu is a place I became aware of during the research & planning stages of this trip; I knew then it would prove a must-see. Why? Hopefully the images and a video below will assist your appreciation of this breath-taking place, though it's impossible to replicate the experience of actually being there. Kel Suu is a very special place indeed. You can jump straight to the video here, or see it further down the page.
This post tells the story of our five-day excursion into Kyrgyzstan’s restricted access border zone with China. We did this as a clockwise loop, departing from and returning to the small town of Naryn, as shown in the GPS track map.
The main attraction to undertaking this excursion into a remote military-controlled border zone was to visit ‘Kel Suu’, which although almost inarguably the most beautiful place in all of Kyrgyzstan, only a few determined travellers get to see. This is mainly due to the complexities in getting there. Firstly, special permits are needed, which must be presented at three military checkpoints. Secondly, most tourists would need to hire a local guide with a 4wd. That second obstacle doesn't apply to us and we just needed to arrange the permits. However, that aspect alone nearly became a very major obstacle indeed, as we arrived in Naryn wrongly believing that we did not require permits for our intended route. My confusion on this point stems from having relied on resources that had been unclear. This oversight risked scuppering our plans to reach Kel Suu, because ordinarily it can take 10 to 15 business days to obtain the necessary permits. But I wasn’t going to be deterred from undertaking what I knew would be a highlight of our Central Asia expedition too easily!
The woman who runs the CBT (Community Based Tourism) office in Naryn is something of a well-connected entrepreneur it would seem. I spoke to her late on a Saturday night and she somehow managed to obtain signed and stamped permits, ready for me to collect from her office by 9:30am on the Sunday morning! This service came at a rather inflated price, but I felt it fair value for such a rapid (and out-of-hours!) service. With permits in hand, we finally got on the road late on the Sunday afternoon. Really, we should have been on the road much earlier, but with our typical mucking around and then me being delayed by a corrupt policeman while Sylwia was grocery shopping at the local market… yes, the Police here are, as I had expected, best avoided where possible. I've not found them overly aggressive thus far, but they do want bribes. I’ve written a separate piece on my experiences with local Police, which I'll publish with a future blog post.
Naryn is situated at 2,044 metres, whereas the region we were headed for was mostly at around 3,500 metres, so we had some ascending to do on day one. With daylight beginning to fall, we found ourselves winding up the side of a mountain on a rough rocky route, heading into low cloud that obscured our views. I pondered… is it really ‘low cloud’ above 3,000 metres, or are we just ‘high’?
Eventually we reached the first of three remote military checkpoints we would need to present our special permits at along this route. A big van full of local men was ahead of us. No one spoke any English, of course. There was a very slightly intimidating atmosphere. This checkpoint was just a small box with a tiny window that the soldiers open when you approach; I approached it alone, leaving the family in the car. It’s freezing up there above 3,000 metres approaching dusk. The tiny checkpoint ‘box’ contained a simple wood/coal stove and had three bunk beds – with a military rifle left casually lying on one. The stove had a kettle on top, but the soldiers were drinking something else – alcohol? These soldiers were completely fine though. Any intimidating atmosphere likely stemmed from my awareness of travellers' stories relating to another army checkpoint that we’ll need to pass through in the coming weeks, in Tajikistan’s border zone with Afghanistan. There, the soldiers have been known for intimidating foreigners and relieving them of their possessions. It’s not technically stealing if they ask for what they want, is it? Though equally, can you really say ‘no’ with a gun to your head, as one cycle tourist is known to have reported on an online overland travel forum! Perhaps it’s just a ‘people skills’ issue!? Anyway, this post comes from Kyrgyzstan and I’ve not heard those kinds of stories happening here.
Only a few kilometres past the first checkpoint we came across another – this one was much bigger and included the substantial barracks pictured earlier. Just one soldier to deal with this time and I didn’t even need to get out of the car. After passing through this checkpoint it was time to set up camp. We like to camp out of sight, so in a suitable looking spot we departed the muddy dirt road and drove overland around the back of some hills. It was cold, so Sylwia and the kids stayed in the car while I set up camp, and as I did so it began to snow! It snowed heavily enough into the evening to turn our surrounds totally white. The family don’t like to get out of the ‘warm’ car until the ‘warm’ tent is ready – we love my homemade 4kw diesel-electric tent heater! (photo 4 below). However, I was to discover a previously not encountered issue with my fuel supply, which plugs into one of the fuel tanks on the Pajero – in these harsh conditions, and with snow accumulating on the thin fuel line, the diesel within 'waxed' and at 1:30am I found myself outside in the snow for an hour attempting to fix it! I was to learn that I would need to quickly improvise a new 'pre-heated' fuel supply system.
The following morning the snow melted off fairly quickly. Above 3,000 metres it can snow at any time of year, but in Central Asia the September sun remains quite strong. Before the snow melted too much, the kids managed to build a snowman and have a snow fight.
We packed up camp and continued on for Kel Suu. Poor weather returned and our route into Kel Suu became increasingly bleak. We found ourselves driving in something between snow and hail in freezing temperatures. I drove with care on the hillside dirt surfaces of unknown traction. You wouldn’t want anything to go wrong mechanically out here, alone. Even having to change a tyre would be uncomfortable. This is why my vehicle is so extensively equipped for our expeditions, including specially reinforced (“LT” rated) tyres that seldom puncture. But there are no guarantees that a high level of preparation will prevent any issues, and I feel acutely reminded of this fact in these remote locations and challenging conditions. Shortly after our arrival in a small settlement of yurt camps as nearby to Kel Suu as most vehicles can get, the bad weather rapidly cleared. It seems odd to go from such bleak conditions to clear blue skies so quickly. We found an awesome spot to set up camp above the river. Initially we set up just the Batwing awning and walls for some shelter out of the cold wind to cook a hot meal. After lunch we decided it was too late in the day to attempt the journey to Kel Suu and so set up the tent too.
For around 3,500 metres it's not really cold at this time of year (mid September), with overnight lows not too far below zero. Nevertheless, this was again low enough for diesel in the fuel line to the heater to 'wax' and we lost heating from around 2am through to the morning. It's not really a major problem at these temperatures, we just really enjoy the luxury of a heated tent. Fortunately the following morning the sun was powerful and the day warmed up reasonably well.
On day three we packed up camp and headed for the main attraction; Kel Suu. It was about a further 7km from where we were camped and the majority of travellers to this area would either hike, or take an organised horse trek. A 14km round trip would be a bit much for the kids, so we tackled it 4wd style, though the going proved tougher than expected.
Much of the track went over very wet and boggy terrain and I was pleased to have fitted the new tyres in Almaty. We got into some difficulty on a muddy cliff edge part of the track. A slippery off-camber section sloped towards the cliff edge rather than the hillside (we don’t like those) looked a bit daunting. I readjusted tyre pressures to better suit the terrain, which worked great, until we reached a section with deep muddy ruts and a hole in the track. We weren’t stuck and this would have been manageable down on the flats, but with the Pajero’s front end in the deep muddy hole I needed to put down some power to get it up and out. However, this risked causing the rear end to want to slide around too near the cliff edge for comfort. We recognised we were biting off a bit too much for a solo 4wd, though equally it appeared we had gone past the point of no return and were committed to continuing forwards. I.e. to reverse back over a difficult section would be worse than continuing forward. It could have been a dire situation had I not been equipped to handle such scenarios. If you’ve noticed those grey spikey boards mounted to the side of the roof-rack; this is when they get used. Those boards can be laid down in mud (or snow, sand etc) and they lodge quite firmly into the terrain. The topside has lugs that the tyres can engage with confidently. It’s like making a very short section of good road. They worked perfectly in this situation and we were able to drive safely through the worst bits. For the remainder of the difficult section we didn’t wait to get into difficulty before using the boards, we simply laid them down over any part of the cliff-side portion of the track that had potential to turn nasty, and it worked great. These aren't photos of the really ugly sections, because one doesn't feel inclined to grab for the camera at the most anxiety invoking moments!
Finally, the destination that justifies the effort, Kel Suu, at 3,525 metres.
Don't miss the drone flight over Kel Suu, which is nearer the end of the following short video. The drone footage shows more of Kel Suu than can be seen from where we stood at the edge of this breath-taking high-altitude lake.
As for Kel Suu, being the whole point of going to this much effort, it was worth it! I don’t know if the photos and video can fully do justice to it, but there’s not much more I can say. This is simply a very special place, which we regard as one of the most stunning natural locations we’ve visited in Central Asia, or anywhere!
Kel Suu to Naryn
Our route back towards Naryn from Kel Suu took us through increasingly isolated areas. At one point we passed a seemingly abandoned village falling into ruin and went in for a closer inspection. We no longer make the mistake of presuming such places are uninhabited, and this one too proved to still have residents. Occasionally the route took us through rivers in low flow, which is fortunate given that the only bridge appears to have been washed out long ago and not replaced. We spent our third night camped up on a plateau in the hills, again hidden from view. A tea towel hanging in the back window was frozen 'crispy' even before dinner had finished cooking, strongly indicating that we would need the tent heater running this night.
Not desiring any repeat of the waxed diesel issue, I quickly improvised a new fuel delivery that utilises the heater’s own hot exhaust gasses to (safely) pre-heat the diesel. This worked perfectly and the heater ticked over all night without incident.
Again the September sun proved powerful and the day warmed up quickly.On this day we followed our isolated route for countless miles alongside serious barbed wire fencing and military watch towers. In some places the barbed wire fences were triple, though it did not appear that any watch towers were manned, other than by a 'dummy' soldier at one watch tower, which from a distance was convincing. We hardly saw anyone out here the entire day.
Tash Rabat Caravansarei
Our next stop was intended to be Chartyr Kol, another high altitude Kyrgyz mountain lake situated near the Touragart Pass into China. But with no ready access to the lake, and it not quite looking worthy of enduring the bumpy overland drive that would be necessitated, we headed straight for our final destination; Tash Rabat. This historically significant location, situated in a valley not too far from Naryn, is visited by tourists to Kyrgyzstan for its 15th century caravanserai. We arrived on dusk, a bit tired, and so decided to leave seeing the caravansarei until the following morning.
We also decided to treat ourselves to staying the night at one of the tourist yurt camps in the area; in one of their lodge rooms. It wasn’t really any more comfortable than our camping setup, but it did give me a break from setting up our own camp late in the day.
What is a caravansarei and what is Tash Rabat?
According to Wikipedia: "Research undertaken at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s by the Institute of History of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences concluded that Tash Rabat was originally built as a Nestorian monastery in the 10th century, although no Christians artifacts were found during excavations".
Wikipedia separately offers this definition for what a caravansarei actually is: "A caravanserai (or caravansary; /kærəˈvænsəˌraɪ/) was a roadside inn where travelers (caravaners) could rest and recover from the day's journey".
So in essence, 500 years ago Tash Rabat (Kyrgyz for 'stone fortress') provided lodgings and meals to weary travellers, likely Silk Road traders. Whilst historians agree that its origins may well predate the 15th century (possibly as early as the 10th century) the precise role of this site before the 15th century is subject to conjecture.
Despite the age of this impressive structure, it’s certainly not in ruin. Actually it’s in pretty good condition, and as we explored all its passages and rooms it wasn’t too hard to imagine how things might have been in its heyday.
The final day of this five day excursion was a short one, with Naryn less than two hours drive away. Back in Naryn we got a room at a pleasant guest house. The kids spent the afternoon doing some schoolwork and then played, Sylwia read, and I got to work writing a blog. But not this one…I was too far behind for that at the time!