Before I get to the this trip, I wanted to link to an interview I recently did with the Amateur Traveler podcast on Kyrgyzstan: Podcast interview
Two years ago, Taylor and I accepted our invites to Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan and I immediately began researching what I could and looking all the places I wanted to see. One spot kept sticking in my mind as the number one spot I had to see, Kel Suu (I’ve since learned, not the real name, an explanation is below this post.) But being so far from everything and in the mountains near China, I didn’t know how feasible a trip would be. Earlier this summer we went on a great hike near an ancient building called Tash Rabat which was not that far from both Chatyr-Kul and Kel Suu. I got the idea to link up a hike to the lake with a drive to Kel Suu, we just needed to find a driver, explore permits, etc.
Our friend Tamara lived closest to the area and has been working with tourism organizations. She was able to make all the contacts and arrangements for drivers, our yurt stays, etc. As the date approached, she and our other friend for the trip went to the police station to get the border-zone permit as they were told the process was. While Tay and I packed and made our way to Naryn, Shaun and Tamara ran all over Naryn visiting various offices and trying to get permission to visit the border zone. By the time we had arrived they gave up so we visited the local CBT office who told us they would absolutely be able to get us the permit the next day. It gave us time to see some people in Naryn and the next day, the permit did indeed arrive (their contact info is below) and we went to At-Bashi to spend the night for our early start.
We met up in the morning with the same driver we rode to Tash Rabat with before. He drove us past their family’s yurts and Tash Rabat to the end of the road shaving some time off our trip. I wrote more about the hike in the last Tash Rabat post so I’ll skip to the end of the valley where we turned around last time. We knew there were several routes to take from the end of the valley. When we arrived and we saw the multitude of options, the directions given to us in Kyrgyz and the hastily drawn map on the dusty window of the car suddenly seemed inadequate. We studied the GPS, made a decision and headed up the steep scree to our intended pass. This part of the hike wasn’t fun but we were up in under an hour. At the top, snow started to fall… yes, it was August still. But snow is better than rain and we continued on. We didn’t hike down the hill for long when we saw Chatyr-Kul Lake, we picked the right pass! Our excitement was lessened when, after another 20 minutes, we saw our route ended in a waterfall. Backtracking and picking another pass sounded exhausting… Shaun went up a narrow chute and discovered a path that would work – not the easiest route but doable.
We climbed up and down the narrow and very steep chute and soon were on the valley floor, heading towards a yurt we could see in the distance. The woman knew we were coming (these things here always seem to work like this in Kyrgyzstan) and had a fantastic spread of fresh fruit, warm bread, jam and tea waiting for us. The woman and her daughter entertained us while the husband took care of the animals outside. The snow started to fall again to the delight of the girl. All in all, it was yet another somewhat surreal experience here in KG. The snow was falling in August, we just finished a fantastic hike and had this great food in a tiny little trailer next to our yurt in this remote spot.
The next morning our second driver showed up as planned and we left towards Kol Suu. The first 60km were off-roading along the northern edge of the lake crossing several more streams until we reached the main ‘road.’ The main road was a gravel strip that initially ran along a series of 3 barb-wire fences guarding the buffer zone between Kyrgyzstan and China, China was just 2km to our right, and we saw a car only every two hours or so. While driving towards the lake, our driver pointed out sites along the way, most were old Soviet outposts that had long been abandoned.
We drove for five hours when we turned off heading towards steep mountains in the distance. The long, mostly boring road became much more interesting as we winded through beautiful scenery. We crossed a beautiful, narrow canyon by means of a decaying bridge. Our driver assured us he’d tell the government it needed to be replaced. Very near the lake (I was getting really excited we were so close), we stopped at a house of some relative of the driver. It was the un-failing tea stop that in Kyrgyzstan will always delay your journey just when you think you’re getting somewhere. In our case, our very polite hosts were offering Kymuz and sheep fat, both of which sounded fairly disgusting so I just while waiting to leave. After drinking some tea, our driver and host insisted I follow them to a barn. Inside were two wolf pups the host captured with his own hands after raiding their den and was raising until they were old enough to sell. It may sound cruel but the money they would bring in is equal to about 4 months of average pay.
Finally we took off, crossed two more rivers and approached the yurt. Just over a small hill in the distance was the lake itself but we had to sit patiently while waiting for the very fresh bread to be done. Two of the owner’s daughters brought the warm bread which we quickly ate and walked towards the lake. Even the short hike to the lake was beautiful. As we approached the hill that formed the natural dam holding back the lake, we could see the water pouring out of the natural springs and fed the large river we drove across just an hour earlier. Lake water was rushing through underground cracks in the natural dam and shooting out halfway down the hill to form the river. Just above the spring was an abandoned Soviet-era 4WD van that clearly had rolled down the hill. We’d later learn the car had been wrecked just a week earlier by our host who claimed the brakes malfunctioned.
Crossing over the hill the lake suddenly came to view, every bit as beautiful and striking as I’d imagined it would be. The surreal turquoise color of the winding lake trapped between impossibly steep cliffs and unlike any other lake in Kyrgyzstan I’d seen. We walked around a bit, taking photos on the steep rocks that shot up from the edge of the lake. Before it got dark, we walked back to our yurt for the night.
The next day we had a full day in the area so we took our time before walking back to the lake. After eating lunch, Shaun and I took a walk and found the perfect campsite for our return trip to the lake next summer that was slowly developing in our minds. We also had scouted out a steep scree slope to a narrow saddle on the edge of the lake we thought may give us a vantage point where we could see more of the lake. The climb was steep but fun, unfortunately at the top the saddle was too narrow and we couldn’t see anymore. The cliff walls were too steep, we’d need a boat or a few days to hike around the mountains to the other side of the lake – something we’ll keep in mind while planning our trip back.
Snow began falling so reluctantly we turned back to camp. The lake was the most amazing site I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan, a country filled with amazing sites. I had hoped to stay long enough to see the sky clear for shots of the lake with blue skies but it wasn’t to be this trip. Back at camp the sky had started to clear so we settled for watching the sunset light up the mountain range in front of us.
The next day we began the long drive home with many more river crossings and stunning scenery. We had made a loop around the At-Bashy mountain range and saw so many promising landscapes it would take a lifetime to explore them all. Unfortunately we have less than a year here left but I’m definitely making more trips to Naryn! I have a ton more photos from this trip, expect another blog post with more when I finally get a chance to go through them all.
There are two main things you need when planning a trip to this area, a border-zone permit and a good driver (you can also rent an SUV but between the police and river crossings it’s best to hire a driver.) Naryn CBT (996 779 56 76 85 or email@example.com) can arrange your permits at a cost of 1000KGS per person, you’ll need to give a few days’ notice and to show them or send a copy of your passport. They can also book a driver for you but you’ll get a better rate on your own. We stayed at Tash Rabat Yurt camp before and Sabyrbek can arrange a driver to Tash Rabat as well (www.tashrabatyurt.com.) Arranging the driver can be a little more difficult. We used Jaksherlyk (doesn’t speak English, 996 772 736 274) but you can contact the CBT office or Visit At-Bashy to arrange for a driver and the rest of the details.
As I mentioned above, we learned a little more about the naming of the lake. Everything online will call it Kel Suu or Kol Suu which isn’t the real name of the lake nor does Kel Suu make sense in Kyrgyz. There is a nearby region called Kol Suu and likely years ago someone misunderstood what name meant what and since then everyone has been confused. According to all the locals, the lake is actually named Kol Teskeri which means Reverse Lake.