There are several spots in Kyrgyzstan that come up over and over on traveler’s lists, Song Kol is definitely a big one. Despite it being barely two hours away, we had yet to visit it so I arranged a trip for a quick weekend trip. Six of us headed up early on a Saturday and stayed in one of the many yurts. The trip was nice but to be honest, there are many better places in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps it’s just easily accessible so many tourists go but if you’re time is limited, I’d skip it. If you do have the time, Song Kol is worth seeing but I’d stay just one night unless there is a festival going on.
Here are some Song Kol photos from our trip:
There is no shortage of yurts at Song Kul
An going series of photos I call ‘Trash Cow’
Tay and I at Song Kul
The sight of Song Kul just makes some people want to dance
This is a cow house.
See? Cow house.
Many horses and other animals roam Song Kul, this one is tied up
The hills opposite us as the sun was setting
The little boy kept things running in our yurt
We had some fun under the Song Kul stars
More fun at night writing our names
‘Eric’ at Song Kul
Song Kul yurts under the Milky Way
Song Kul yurt camps
Song Kul baike squat
The long valley road to Song Kul
Finally saw the Kyrgyzstan camels
I also made a short video testing out doing timelapses
Details: You can either go to Naryn or Kochkor and just find a driver on your own (should be about 1500KGS each way) or pre-arrange a ride through CBT or Shepherd’s Life (no website, located in Kochkor near the taxi stand) for a bit higher price but everything is much more convenient. CBT or Shepherd’s life can arrange your yurt stay but there are many up there if you are taking your own taxi. A stay in a yurt, dinner and breakfast will be 900-1000KGS per person.
Before visiting Tash Rabat, in the deep Southern part of Naryn, we were warned two things: It can snow any time of the year and the (possibly haunted) fort itself had an unknown number of rooms as it was impossible to count them accurately. With that in mind, four of us set off with our former host father to At-Bashy where we stayed the night with another volunteer before our morning ride out to Tash Rabat. As our SUV drove South of At-Bashy, much farther South than we’d been before, we stopped at the decaying ruins of Koshoy Korgon. This Korgon (one of the Kyrgyz words for fort) is named after Koshoy Baatyr, one of Manas’ generals, who is thought to have ordered the fort’s construction. The fort was interesting but really hard to envision what once was. Also strange that you can just walk all over what in the States would certainly be protected in some way.
We continued the drive towards Tash Rabat and as we entered the valley we finally saw yaks! Yaks are a centuries-old tradition in Kyrgyzstan but was largely lost during the Soviet days. Now, the government is actively trying to promote the practice and dramatically increase the number of yaks from the approximately 31,000 there are now (here’s a brief Reuters video with a little more info.) Our driver laughed at our delight in seeing yaks but at least the whole group was entertained. We pulled up to the yurt camp and unloaded our bags quickly so we could start our hike.
Our first stop was Tash Rabat itself. Tash Rabat is a 15th century caravanserai restored (poorly?) by the Soviet Union in the 80s. The origin and use is argued about but it was likely some sort of rest spot, market and occasional prison for travelers/traders on the ancient silk road. There’s a fee to enter and after a brief negotiation the woman agreed to give us the locals price since we spoke Kyrgyz (she quizzed us.) Tash Rabat turned out to be surprisingly interesting and much larger than it looked from the outside.
Tash Rabat, the ancient hotel and trading post from the Silk Road
Legend has it, you’ll get a different number every time you count the rooms
Light streams into Tash Rabat, lighting up the dusty interior
Looking up at the main dome in Tash Rabat
Group shot in Tash Rabat
We left Tash Rabat and the road behind as we hiked up the valley. Soon, the valley filled with shrieks every time we came around a corner. It didn’t take long to spot the source of the noise, marmots, hundreds of them lived on both sides of the valley. When we came into view of a new group they would shriek out a warning call and we would get glimpses of the furry animals scurrying down into their holes. The trail had patches of snow we crossed while walking up a narrow river valley. The scenery was incredible and after 5 or 6 miles in we decided we had gone far enough, the end of the valley in site but too far to make today.
Tash Rabat itself is pretty high in elevation and snow can persist year-round
Looking back up the valley towards Tash Rabat
Like many valleys in Kyrgyzstan, this valley was really wet so we stuck to the rocks
Andrew tried to photograph a marmot, they are super fast
The valley was covered in thousands of marmots
While resting, we saw our friends who had left much earlier hoping to get a glimpse of Chatyr Kol. The skies began to darken and as a group we all headed back towards camp. Along the way, the dogs who had followed our friends on their hike found a dead marmot which the larger one devoured, a bit disconcerting given the story about the teenager who contracted bubonic plague and died after eating a marmot three years ago. Nearing the camp, rain began to fall and we could see flashes in the sky from lightning in the next valley over. We were a bit tired and cold but when the rain turned to hail it was motivation enough to hurry up back to the safety of our yurts. We rested until dinner and had a nice time in the large dining yurt making food and talking with the daughter of the yurt camp owner. Snow began to fall, ensuring we would indeed experience all four seasons in a day at Tash Rabat. The next day we woke up to beautiful, fresh snow on the ground.
Leaving the narrow part and heading up the hill
More snow as we kept going up Tash Rabat Valley
A ‘gaggle’ of marmots (apparently there is no name for a group of marmots?)
This dog from a yurt camp followed our friends for their entire hike
This dog found a dead marmot – and ate it
Our yurt in the morning after a fresh snowfall
Want to visit Tash Rabat? Trips to Tash Rabat can be arranged from the CBTs in Kochkor or Naryn but we stayed at Sabyrbek’s awesome yurt camp. They can arrange for taxis out to Tash Rabat and beyond as well from either At-Bashy or Naryn. They can be reached at 0772 221 252, 0773 889 098 or email@example.com.
It’s been a bit since our last blog post but we’re still alive and mostly healthy (it’s a bit hard to eat how we’d like to here in winter.) Continuing our mission to see the entire country, we planned a trip to Naryn, the highest and coldest of all oblasts in Kyrgyzstan. I asked my counterpart, Nurlan who is from Naryn, when the best time to go would be and he immediately suggest January. Knowing he wouldn’t steer us wrong we picked a weekend, hopped in a taxi and headed to Naryn city.
A typical Kyrgyz rest stop
The large outdoor ice skating rink in Naryn
The torch from the Naryn Winter Olympics
A woman selling products at the Naryn City bazaar
Naryn city turned out to be surprisingly close. The road isn’t great but our driver seemed to not mind pushing his ancient car to its limit, constantly bottoming out when we hit bumps. Forty-five minutes into the ride and into the first pass, the road is covered in snow (not that it slowed our driver down.) Once in Naryn City we met up with another PCV, David, set down our bags and took a little tour of Naryn. We really liked the city and it was nice to walk around and not have all the vendors attempting to talk to us in Russian. They don’t really get many tourists in Naryn so they don’t have the instinct to switch to Russian when they see white people. We stopped by the bazaar, ice skating rink(s), saw a hockey game and the normal Lenin statues.
The next day we found a taxi to At-Bashi to visit some other volunteers. By coincidence we ended up in a taxi with an English teacher who was a little bit confused as to why we chose January for our first visit to Naryn and kept telling us we must come back in summer. We were enjoying it though, we don’t get any snow where we live so it’s fun to be in the snow for a bit. After arriving we had some tea with our friend Tamera and her host-mom before taking a tour of At-Bashi. We walked through the village to the Sunday animal bazaar which was pretty entertaining. There are hundreds of bazaars in Kyrgyzstan but they all feel a bit different somehow. At-Bashi is the highest and coldest village that volunteers live I believe and the cold air felt great. Even the animals seemed well-adapted for the weather, they had the furriest cows I’ve ever seen.
The baby cow that PCV Tamara helped her family get through donations from America
The famous horse head statue in the center of At-Bashi (which means horse head in Kyrgyz)
An array of animal parts for sale at the At-Bashi animal bazaar
These are some of the remaining animals for sale at the bazaar. Most are already gone.
I assume due to the cold weather, I noticed most of the animals in Naryn have much thicker coats than elsewhere in the country.
A goat for sale(?) at the animal bazaar in At-Bashi
A woman selling produce out of the back of her van
Our last day in At-Bashi we went to the volunteers’ worksites before getting lunch at the new pizza parlor right next to the giant horse-head statue where you can find free wifi sitting in the park (there are so many odd things here.) We had lunch with another PCV, Jonathan, and talked about some ideas for hiking/climbing trips nearby (he lives in the best place to hike in KG, IMO.) Appetite satiated, we found another taxi, which is always fun here, and headed back to Naryn City. That evening we met a former PCV who convinced me I need to spend a few weeks in India (sorry mom, I guess I’m pushing my return home back even more!)
These guys wouldn’t leave me alone so I just picked them up
This baby lamb come coming up to Taylor and eating her pants
Erica pets a baby lamb
A baby lamb stumbles towards me
A Kyrgyz woman helps a lamb feed from her mother
This goat kept crying about something
Sunset through the smoky haze
Naryn is awesome! Of course it’s not the best oblast, that would be Issyk-Kul but we loved our trip there and will be back soon!