Into the Mountains of Kyrgyzstan

I have always enjoyed travelling to less well-known destinations and this adventure was no exception. Amongst my fellow travelers, there was a collective appreciation for telling people we were headed to Kyrgyzstan, and then to explain where this country actually is. My quick-witted reply ‘south of Kazakhstan, of course’ was breezy, and only partially correct.

Kyrgyzstan, or more accurately, the Kyrgyz Republic, is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia. These five states are often referred to as the ‘5 Stans,’ all with connection to the Silk Road, the historic trade route between the East and West.

There can be great excitement and enjoyment in the planning and development of a trekking holiday. It also requires an extensive amount of time, a luxury that I have in limited supply. To partake in Exodus Travel’s inaugural Tian Shan Gorge Trek, in partnership with Ak-Sai Travel, seemed a perfect fit. And it was.

Where East meets West

After an overnight flight from Istanbul, we were warmly greeted with sunshine and temperatures nearing 40C in the capital, Bishkek. One of the most fascinating observations made upon entering the city was that despite driving on the right side of the road, steering wheels could be on either side. The national supplier of imported vehicles has changed over the years, and it seemed that drivers have simply adapted to whatever cars were available at the time of purchase.

Our walking tour of Bishkek was cultural and architectural. I wondered more than once how the representation of history is reflected both in the stories told (from whose perspective), the events as experienced, and the monuments erected.

Ala Too Square, formerly known as Lenin Square (pre-USSR independence in 1991; and site of the Tulip Revolution in 2005

Geographically positioned between Eastern and Western influences, changing political landscapes and rebellions, English is not spoken by everyone. But it is a growing ‘currency’ as Kyrgyzstan develops its tourism industry. Menus in restaurants or display booths in cafes often required a photo or visual-guided decision making process.

For myself, travelling with coeliac disease means this practice adds a layer of excitement and anxiety. When English translations of menu items were offered, there was a wonderful, unintentional, humour as an additional ingredient. I did not order the ‘Man’s Whim’ from this restaurant, but I gave the name, and the restaurant decorations, full marks.

Navat, restaurant in Bishkek

Heading into the Mountains

Before heading into the mountains, we acclimated with a walk in the Ala Archa National Park. In bloom with wild flowers, it served as a reminder that each step along our journey was to be savored, and not sacrificed in the pursuit of the high passes and deep gorges.

Stretching our legs, and our first experience in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in Ala Archa National Park

    The road south of Lake Issyk Kul (7th deepest lake in the world) invited many historical and photographic detours, including remnants from the historical Silk Road (Burana Tower), modern engineering (Chuy River Gorge), and incomplete construction projects.

Just past the Chuy River Gorge, this wall is part of an abandoned site

We stayed the night in a yurt camp on the shores of the Lake, marveling in the expanse of sky and the construction of the yurt tent.

Yurt camp on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul

Wild Camping

The trek involved wild supported camping at the start, meaning in addition to the stunning locations alongside rivers, the sites were regularly visited by the animals brought to the mountains to graze through the summer. Horses, cows, donkeys, sheep – they passed through rather quietly and casually.

Grazing cattle always meant watching where you stepped when heading to the toilet tent

Telety Pass and Karakol Peak

This trek involved daily climbs over passes, moving between the valleys that each brought new visual delights and underfoot terrain. We all appreciated how fortunate and rare the continued presence of sunshine was – no precipitation when traversing Telety Pass (3800m) and full visibility of Karakol Peak (5216m) from a distance.

Valley in which the Telety Pass fixed camp is situated

Porters are an essential part of any guided trek. We stayed in one of the fixed camps over two nights which enabled our group to engage with them in a spirited and creative version of the Highland Games complete with caber toss and shot put. Team UK was significantly out-performed by the youthfulness and strength (and joyful enthusiasm) of our Kyrgyz and Russian porters.

Backdrop for the “1st annual” Kyrgyz Highland Games

The hiking season in Kyrgyzstan is short, typically late June through mid-September. Care takers of the higher altitude fixed camps arrive as soon as the snow melts and must ensure they depart before the snow returns. Wildflowers bloom for a month in July, which meant that the dining table was decorated with small bouquets of fragrant blossoms.

Fixed camp overlooking Lake Ala Kul

A Brief Visit to Karakol

We left the mountains behind at the Arashan camp, embarking on a thrilling journey aboard a former Russian army vehicle, bouncing over boulders and veering rather close to the river’s edge. Karakol is the closest city to access the mountains and the ski areas of Kyrgyzstan.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Karakol

While my preference is immersion in the vastness of the natural world, it is perhaps because of the juxtaposition with urban centers that this appreciation grows. They exist together yet are geographically separated.

Growing interest in travel and tourism to this country will inevitably bring these worlds closer together over time. My experiences there before these mountains and valleys are more globally explored, seems all the more special.

About the Author


Michelle Elliot grew up in northern British Columbia and has lived, worked and studied across Canada, in the USA and Scotland. She is presently working in Edinburgh as a lecturer in occupational therapy. Michelle seeks opportunities to explore near and far, looking to experience and document impressions, feelings, stories and images. She also enjoys conversations with strangers in familiar and foreign places.

Photo Credits:  Michelle Elliot

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