A Nomadic Journey through Kyrgyzstan

June 20, 2012

We have just completed our time in the country of Kyrgyzstan. Located in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is one of the most remote countries on the planet. It is farther from an ocean than any other nation in the world. The Kyrgyz people have historically been nomadic herders and raising livestock is the largest agricultural activity in their economy. Even today, there are many seasonal nomads who still live in mountain pasture yurts in the summers while tending to their cows, sheep, goats, horses or yaks. Our 12-day journey provided a glimpse into this nomadic way of life as we traveled almost 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers) by mostly dirt roads and about 35 miles (56 kilometers) by foot through a country about the size of the US State of South Dakota.

Over 75% of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains, with more than 80 distinct ranges and 40 peaks over 19,685 feet (6,000 meters). Our foot travel took place in several ranges of the Tian Shan Mountains, one of the largest mountain systems in Asia. The Tian Shan stretch about 1,700 miles (2,800 kilometers) from just west of Urumqi, in China, to just east of Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. It was from Urumqi that we flew to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city. We would have preferred to travel overland but that meant that we would need a Kazakh visa, which was not easily obtainable while on the road, so flying was the only option.

We spent a couple of days in Bishkek, relaxing and walking around the city. It is an interesting blend of tree-lined quiet streets and remnants of Soviet architecture, as Kyrgyzstan has only been an independent nation since 1991. Kyrgyzstan is a bilingual country with both Kyrgyz and Russian as official languages. Both our local guide and driver spoke only Russian and had a limited understanding of Kyrgyz. We were told that Kyrgyz was only spoken as a primary language in the rural areas.

There is still quite a bit of snow in June at the higher elevations of the Tian Shan Mountains so we organized a trekking itinerary, with our guide, that would take us to three locations in the country. This would allow us to trek and camp by completing a series of radial hikes, rather than a point to point journey, which would involve climbing up and down several passes with ice and snow. These areas are also prime locations for the seasonal nomads.

Our first stop was Issyk Kul, a lake in eastern Kyrgyzstan. It is the tenth largest lake (by volume) in the world, with a length of 113 miles (182 kilometers) and width of 37 miles (60 kilometers). The saline lake does not freeze in winter, and the name means ‘hot lake’ in the Kyrgyz language. The lake was a stopover on the ancient Silk Road. We visited an archaeological site on the north side of the lake containing petroglyphs dating back from the 8th century.

The next day we began a trekking excursion to the Karakol Natural Park. It was a bone-jarring 18 mile (30 kilometer) ride on a poor dirt road. It took 90 minutes to navigate in an old Soviet-era vehicle that broke down more than once during our out and back journey. A natural park is different than a national park, allowing individuals to live and use the land while seeking to preserve it at the same time. In this case we camped in a meadow area at about 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) also occupied by nomads and their herds of cows and horses.

We had an incredible view of the Teskey Ala-Too mountain range from our tent and spent two days hiking in different directions. The first day we climbed to the east, gaining 2,400 feet (730 meters) in a little over three miles on a steep and rocky trail. The plan was to end up at an alpine lake but bad weather, snow and ice made it slow going so we stopped next to a rushing river, enjoyed our lunch, and then headed back down the way we came.

The next day we headed south along a valley that rose up to about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). We ate lunch along a river looking up to Peak Karakol at 17,093 feet (5,216 meters). Heading back down the same way, we barely beat an afternoon rainstorm before returning back to our tent.

Our next hiking destination was in the southeast corner of the country in the Tash Rabat area. The main attraction here is a well-preserved caravanserai, or traveler’s inn. It dates back from at least the 15th century and was a popular Silk Road stop for travelers coming over the Torugart Pass, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) away on the present border of Kyrgyzstan and China. The structure contains a long hallway and a series of small rooms, with a domed area in the back. We stayed in a yurt camp, just across from the caravanserai, at about 10,300 feet (3,139 meters).

A yurt is a portable, bent wood-framed structure traditionally used by Central Asian nomads. The frame typically consists of lattice wall-sections, a door-frame, bent roof poles and a crown, all externally covered by yak wool for insulation. In recognizing the nomadic traditions of the country, an image of the crown of the yurt is found on the flag of Kyrgyzstan.

The camp had individual yurts with cot beds and a communal kitchen yurt for meals. Nomads typically use the same two yurt configuration when they establish their camps for the summer. At night a stove inside our sleeping yurt was lit to provide a couple of hours of heat while falling asleep. We used our sleeping bags, in addition to the sheets and blankets provided, so we were warm enough during the frigid night. We were served a basic breakfast and dinner in the kitchen yurt.

The hike the next day took us up one valley to a pass at about 11,900 feet (3,627 meters) and back down another valley to our yurt camp, over a distance of about 13 miles. We walked through beautiful meadows, surrounded by mountains on three sides. It was easy to forget that we were in Central Asia and imagine that we were hiking somewhere in Europe instead. At the pass we walked through some snow and ice as it rained and hailed.

Coming down the valley we crossed a swollen river 11 times and climbed along a narrow ledge with a 100 foot drop-off below. Definitely a challenging hike! Towards the end of the walk we met two boys on horses who were tending a flock as we passed by their family’s nomadic yurts.

Our last stop was in the central portion of the country at Song Kul, the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan. Much smaller than Issyk Kul at only 11 miles (18 kilometers) long and 18 miles (29 kilometers) wide, it sits on a 10,000 foot (3,048 meter) steppe (or prairie) which is well-suited for livestock grazing. The lake area is actually parceled out to specific villages in the valley below. Nomads bring the flocks up for the summer before heading down back to the village to take the animals to market at the end of the season.

We hiked up to a ridge above the lake at just over 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). From that vantage point we could see three mountain ranges in the distance, as well as the lake and the nomadic activities around it. On the way down back to our yurt camp we were invited by a nomadic family to come inside to sample kumis, a national drink. Made from mare’s milk, kumis is fermented by churning. The woman demonstrated the technique inside her yurt.

As a testament to the cultural importance of this drink, in 1991 the capital city was renamed Bishkek after the churning paddle, which is known as a ‘bishkek’ in Kyrgyz. We tried both straight mare’s milk (pretty good and a little sweet) and the kumis (very sour with a smoky aftertaste). Although our guide spoke little Kyrgyz and she did not speak Russian we were able to ask a few questions. We learned that this family had been coming to the lake for ten years. They had just arrived two weeks prior with the village horse herd and would be staying at the lake until October 1st.

As we returned to Bishkek, we reflected on the simplicity of the nomadic life and the beauty of the country that we had seen by road and by foot. Now, after more than a month at high altitudes in Nepal, Tibet and Kyrgyzstan, we will be moving west to lower elevations in the country of Uzbekistan. Here we will continue our journey along the Silk Road as we make our way toward Europe.

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