When I wrote Prologue: Kyrgyzstan Adventure, I knew that my itinerary included an epic hike in Kyrgyzstan and I did some basic research. I still had no idea what to expect as I began the long journey that took me halfway around the world1.
It’s unique country with an incredibly diverse cultural past. Once a key stop along the Great Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan has seen its share of change. The original Kyrgyz people were part of 40 tribes that worked the land across the central Asian steppe. This nomadic culture is still present throughout the country: the flag features a sun with 40 rays, many people still own yurts, and shepherds continue to roam the mountainsides. From 1876 until 1991, it was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Although it’s been an independent democratic country since 1991, the Soviet legacy is still visible in much of the architecture, statues, and language3. Even in its short 26-year independence, the country has had one major revolution, in 2010, but today the political situation is stable.
The people are welcoming and its cultures are diverse. Kyrgyz people make up the majority; however large populations of Uzbeks, Russians, and Dungans, along with more than a dozen smaller minority groups, are visible throughout the country.
As I would soon learn, Kyrgyzstan deserves to be penciled in near the top of every adventure travellers’ bucket list. The Tian Shan mountains aren’t just rugged but also shockingly high. The tallest peak, named Jengish Chokusu or Victory Peak, reaches 7439 m. For a little hyperbole, the country is also home to the second largest mountain lake in the world (Issyk-Kul, 1607 m) and the second highest international highway in the world (Pamir Highway, 4655m).
It’s also easy to visit, as it’s one of the few ‘stans that don’t require a visa2 for visits lasting 60 days or less. Its tourism industry is already growing and it feels primed for a boom.
Over 12 days, I had the opportunity to attend a cultural festival in Jyrgylan, paraglide in Karakol, and sail across Issyk-Kul. I ate local foods, like Laghman, Azuu, and Oromo; drank imported Russian micro-brewed beer, and wandered through its capital city, Bishkek. It was incredible, but the 100-km Ak-Suu Transverse hike was the reason I cannot wait to return.
My Steller Story from the Ak-Suu Transverse Hike in Kyrgyzstan
After spending a three day in Jyrgylan to attend a cultural festival, I looked forward to disconnecting and exploring the Tian Shan Mountains. Our route was ambitious, covering just under 100 km and climbing 6847 m, while we connected eight mountain valleys from Boz-Uchuk to Jeti-Oguz.
We hiked through isolated mountain valleys and across rugged mountain passes. We drank from fresh water streams and swam in glacier lakes. Throughout the entire journey, we wild camped beneath the stars and connected with nature. I could write an entire travel narrative4 about the experience, but, instead, I’m going to share my five favourite moments from the Ak-Suu Transverse.
If you want to see to see images and video of the entire hike, check out my latest Steller Story.
5 Top Moments during the Ak-Suu Transverse Hike in Kyrgyzstan
1 – Our Night At The Boz-Uchuk Lakes
We slept at the Boz-Uchuk Lakes on our first night on the trail. After my long journey to Kyrgyzstan and a few days in a small village, I had grown travel weary. The long uphill hike to arrive and this stunning lakeside campsite truly grounded me. This was exactly why I’d traveled halfway around the world to go hiking.
2 – Wild Weather
We encountered a storm during the second – and longest – day on the Ak-Suu Transverse. It sounds funny to call it one of my favourite moments; however, I’m highlighting it as one of my favourite moments so I can also share how incredible the weather was throughout our hike. It was sunny nearly the entire time, except for four hours.
3 – Arriving at Ala-Kol North Pass
I crested the Ala-Kol north pass ahead of our entire group and I could barely believe my eyes. I’ve now hiked on six continents and, without exaggerating, I can say this was the most incredible mountain panorama of my entire life.
4 – Wild Camping in Stunning Locations
Throughout the hike, we camped four nights and slept in a small guest house once. It was the first time a DMO hadn’t just allowed me to camp but insisted on it. We camped alongside wild rivers, in alpine meadows, and beside glacier-fed lakes. I know, many of the sites didn’t quite meet the Leave No Trace principles we adhere to in North America, but I’ve written more on that below. We did camp at established campsites each night.
5 – Hiking with a Guide and Porters
As I mentioned, I’ve now done overnight hikes on six continents, but this experience was the first time hiking with a guide and porters. And it was incredibly convenient, as hiking with the guide eliminated all logistical planning for the hike and the porters carried everything, literally everything, except our camera gear. I know many of my more adventurous friends – and readers – will scoff at the idea of a guide and porters, but it didn’t just make the entire hike easier. It also provided 6 people with quality tourism jobs in a country striving to increase it’s tourism industry.
How to Hike in Kyrgyzstan
Find a Route
Before you set out to retrace our steps along the Ak-Suu Transverse hike, let me scare you just a little. Tim Leffel, editor of Perceptive Travel, called it the hardest hike of his life in the article he wrote about the experience. In my opinion, it was more physically challenging than the Torres Del Paine circuit and had fewer services and people along it’s length. To hike this on your own requires some fortitude and planning. If you’re still keen, here’s the route desciption that Stephen Lioy put together:
Download: Ak-Suu Transverse Route Description
If you want to hike in the Karakol region but aren’t quite up the challenges of a 100-km route, there are plenty of quality options. The Trekking Around Karakol page on Destination Karakol’s website is an excellent place to get started. There is also some great information on the Tourism Jyrgalan website, which represents the tiny mountain village where our hike began.
Once you are in the country, it’s easiest to simply ask in smaller villages. Jyrgylan, Karakol, and the south shore of Issyk-Kul are all popular hiking locations. It is possible to buy maps and gain information from the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan.
Hire a Guide, Porters, Horses, or Not
We were four writers and photographers (Stephen Lioy, Matt Gibson, Tim Leffel, and I) but we weren’t alone. We had a guide, Daniyar Alymbekov, a camp cook, and five porters along with us. It was quite the crowd. We used porters rather than horses because sections of the route were too difficult for pack horses. For many other hikes in the region, horses would be the preferred method to transport equipment.
While it would have been possible to complete the hike on our own, the guide made route finding simple. The porters made our jobs easier, too, as they carried all our camping equipment and food. We only carried our daypacks and could focus on the stunning scenery.
I can see the benefits of both hiking with a guide/porter and hiking solo. It really depends on the purpose of the trip and the experience of the participants.
If you do choose to hire a guide, know it is affordable in Kyrgyzstan. Expect to pay between $60-$100 per day, depending on the route, equipment rentals and food requirements.
Where to camp
Wild camping is legal and widely accepted across the country. If you’re hiking with a guide, follow their lead, as they’ll know the best campsites along each route. When hiking on your own, follow a few guidelines to help minimize your impact. Camp at established campsites whenever possible. Follow leave no trace principles. Ask ask permission whenever you’re nearby a homestead or yurt camp.
Where to poop
It’s no secret we all poop, but it’s something we should hide when hiking in Kyrgyzstan, or anywhere else. Hiking tourism in Kyrgyzstan is in its infancy, so while there are dozens of marked trails, there are few facilities. Most wild campsite don’t have pit toilets, so it’s up to visitors to truly limit their impact. If you want to read an in-depth article about it, it is available on Trailspace, but here’s the basic guidelines:
- Minimize the chance for water pollution. Aim for a minimum of 70 m from water sources and nearby thick underbrush whenever possible.
- Minimize the aesthetic impact. Try to either bury the waste in a cathole or conceal it beneath rocks and organic waste you can move by hand.
- T.P. Procedures are quite the issue, too, but let’s set one basic ground rule. Nobody wants to see the TP that is left behind.“The most astute hiker will pack out their toilet paper in the interest of truly leaving as little trace of his or her presence as possible. If you must bury your toilet paper, use as small an amount as possible and be sure to dig deep enough.” – Trailspace author Bobbi Maiers
When to hike
Hiking in Kyrgyzstan is seasonal. High season runs from July until mid-September, but avid hikers often extend the season from mid-May until October. Just make sure to pack accordingly.
Footnotes from How to Hike in Kyrgyzstan
1 – From my home in Alberta, it turns out Kyrgyzstan is roughly halfway around the world. Flight options went in both directions, with connections in either China or Europe.
2 – Visa-free travel, for 60 days or less, extends to these countries: USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Finland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, UK, Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Malta, Croatia, Czech Rep., Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Vatican, Monaco, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brunei
3 – Kyrgyzstan has two official language: Kyrgyz and Russian. The former is the preferred local dialect, while the latter is more common among the international business and tourism industries.
4 – I will write an entire travel narrative; however, it might not appear on my blog. I’ve pitched it to a leading outdoor magazine.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.