If Kyrgyzstan had nothing else to offer but hiking and trekking in the mountains, it would still be worth visiting. That is how amazing it is to immerse yourself into the Tian Shan Mountains, most of the time with nobody but you, the guide and the mountains. This is a place where you can have a real adventure, if you want to, and trekking in Kyrgyzstan should not be overlooked by the adventurer.
There are an abundance of options for hiking in Karakol ranging from flat valley hikes to aggressive mountain trekking that will take you over high elevation passes. You can head for a day or weeks, the options are endless.
On our first visit to Kyrgyzstan we wanted something that would give us a true taste of what’s offered in the mountains and opted for an aggressive 3 day hike across 2 large valleys, over a pass and through the countryside. The Chon’ Kyzyl Suu – Jeti Oguz Trek over the Archaly Tor Pass delivered everything that’s epic about the outdoors in Kyrgyzstan.
It was an irresistible introduction to the beauty and adventure that the area offers. If you’re looking for a place to get off the beaten track, we may have just found what you’re looking for. This extensive guide chronicles our 3 days in the mountains along with everything you need to know about trekking in Kyrgyzstan on this route.
Kyrgyzstan Trekking from Karakol
Day 1 – Chon’ Kyzyl Suu Village to Highlands
Elevation Gain: 900m
Time Taken: 5 Hours
Our day started in Karakol with a pickup at our accommodation, where we squeezed into a van with our guide, driver and 4 porters. We headed out of town in what would end up being a 3 hour drive to the small, almost non-existent village of Chon’ Kyzyl Suu where we would unload our gear and set off on foot into the valley.
It was roughly 1pm when we started walking and the first hour followed a rough dirt road through a forested area, over a few rivers, past grazing herds of horses before opening up into an impressive valley. We followed the valley for a ways before stopping to eat our packed lunch that consisted of a cheese sandwich, yogurt, dried fruit, banana, juice box and snickers bar.
Immediately following our lunch stop we headed directly to the river we had been following into the valley. The crystal cool, turquoise glacier water rushed along in contrast to the green valley. It would be our first water crossing and we were lucky to find a pulley system with a transfer box to ensure a dry crossing.
After 4 trips across, we gathered our stuff up and headed straight for the forest. Our ascent from 2500m would begin at that tree line and would be nothing but uphill until we reached the pasture highlands for the rest of the day.
At this point, the trail went from relatively flat and open to a narrow trail, heading uphill through thick forests. I wouldn’t call this an aggressive climb, but it is a calf burner until you get above the tree line because there is limited space for switchbacks and we found that the only way to navigate the trail was straight up.
Cresting the tree line into the highlands was a welcome change in not only scenery but in uphill climbing too. Entry to the valley and the climb up took us roughly 3.5 hours. From this point, we walked with a river on our right shoulder for another 1.5 hours before the Archaly Tor pass came into view up ahead.
This was a conquest we’d be saving for the following day, but the seeing it for the first time was a fantastic feeling of accomplishment. It also told us camp was near and after 5 hours of walking, mostly uphill, we were looking forward to putting our feet up and resting for the remainder of the day.
Our porters had hiked ahead and camp was already setup when we arrived. We’ve both camped a lot in our lives, but the solitude that comes from a mountain camp is unrivaled. It was just us, the mountains and nature all around. Being in the mountains has a way of humbling you and making you feel incredibly small.
The porters set to work preparing food while we settled into our tents, setting up our sleeping bags and adjusting to the effects of the altitude at our 3,400m camp. You lose sun fast in mountains and as the shadows around us began to grow we quickly realized that it would be a cold night in the mountains.
Day 2 – Archaly Tor Pass to Jeti Oguz Valley
Elevation Gain: 600m
Elevation Loss: 1500m
Time Taken: 7 Hours
Waking the next morning, I poked my head from the sleeping bag creating a fog cloud with my first exhale of breath into the chilly morning. Even though I had slept well, despite the cold, it was all I could do to motivate myself to leave the warmth in my tent. The sun was up but the shadows from the surrounding mountains were too long to provide warmth to the campsite just yet.
Of course, morning in camp is all business. Wake up, visit the bush toilet, have some breakfast, pack up camp and set off for the day. Due to the nature of the weather, we had no intentions of setting off before 9am. To our luck, we had awoke to a minimally windy day with bright sunshine and a blue sky. Near perfect conditions to take on the 4,000m pass that stood before us.
While the pass was in clear view in front of us, it would be a solid hour of walking across the rest of the rolling highlands, following the river, before we reached the base of the pass and started our ascent. Once at the base, it was all about climbing. First following a rocky trail with gradual switchbacks before having to navigate only a scree path. It seemed, as the trail got higher and steeper, the path became harder to follow and navigate.
At one point, we were even making our own path because we had completely lost the trail. This made the climbing very slow and in many places left us cutting footholds into the side of the pass with our boots just to maintain our grip. The continuing ascent in elevation making it more challenging to keep consistent breathing also added to the difficulty of the trail.
Despite it all, reaching the top was incredibly rewarding with panoramic views of where we’d been and where we were headed all around us. Exhausted, I took it all in for a few moments then laid down at the top of the pass for some reflection while David put his drone in the air. I was short of breath at 4,000m and closed my eyes to relax. It’s not everyday you get to power nap on the top of a mountain in the sun.
We spent 30 minutes on the pass before starting our descent into the Jeti Oguz Valley. Leaving the pass was very steep with loose rocks resulting in more of a sliding situation than walking. It was a moment I wished for hiking poles to help stabilize the steps because each step caused a large amount sliding rock. Instead, I spent some time crouched down and sliding on my ass down the hill.
Finally reaching the end of the scree, the terrain gave way to large boulders that had been left by the glaciers that moved through the area. There is no set trail here and a bit of bouldering is necessary until you reach the first grassy parts of the valley. Everything on this side of the pass is downhill, sometimes quite aggressive and other times more gradual, but an assault on the quads and knees nonetheless.
The highlands seem to go on forever until you reach the tree line. It was hard to not get excited when we reached this point, but there was still a very steep downhill navigation through the forest before we would actually reach the valley floor. Despite our tired legs begging for a break, we pushed on while sneaking in amazing viewpoint stops of the Jeti Oguz mountains on the right side of the trail. Our total descent from the pass took 5 hours before stopping to make camp in the Jeti Oguz Valley.
Our camp for the night would end up being one of my all time favorite camps to date. The valley floor is cut in two by a bright teal river fed by glacial mountain water. Leading up the valley was the clearest view of the snowcapped Jeti Oguz Mountains. The contrasts, colors and pure splendor of the view will be a tough one to beat.
Setting up camp was a welcome change of task and we even set off to gather some wood for a bonfire to celebrate our feat of conquering the Archaly Tor Pass.
Day 3 – Jeti Oguz Valley to 5th Bridge
Elevation Loss: 500m
Time Taken: 3-4 Hours
The start of today was much like the first night with a slow rise, breakfast, packing up and setting off once the shadows were gone. We walked a short way up the river where we encountered a nomadic family living in the valley. They welcomed us to see inside their yurt and to sample some freshly churned butter.
It’s not everyday you get a chance to mingle with local people in the mountains so we spent the better part of 30 minutes with the family before setting off directly towards the river. Our second adventure of the day would involve a river crossing, this time without any cables.
For David and the guide, the river height was maybe knee high. They were able to remove their boots and roll up their pants to cross. Me on the other hand, was facing a mid-thigh crossing and I knew it wasn’t possible for me to roll up my pants that far.
Instead, I opted to not roll them up and sacrifice the pants. It meant I’d have a sopping set of pants and socks, but I would be able to locate a bush on the other side and completely change before continuing our hike out of the valley.
It took us the better part of 15 minutes to locate a part of the river that wasn’t too fast to cross. At this point, we unhooked our waist belts for our backpacks, locked arms together with our guide and stepped into the rushing waters.
It was cold and I mean REALLY cold. Even though it only reached mid-thigh for me, the temperature took the breath right out of my lungs. Within seconds it felt like hundreds of needles on my feet but we pushed on together and reached the sandbar in the middle.
That’s right, we had only crossed the first part. Navigating the rocky sandbar in socks was a challenge but we eventually found another suitable place to cross and again linked arms to step in the water. It was harder the second time knowing just how cold the water was going to be, but we made it.
I jumped up and down for several minutes to bring blood flow to my toes before setting off up a small hill in search of a place to change into my dry clothes. Thankfully the day was beautiful with a high sun and a pleasant temperature around 70 degrees.
From here the trek is pretty easy, slightly descending out of the valley and meeting up with a road, similar to how we started the trek. We kept the mountains to ourselves until we reached the road. At this point, we met other hikers for the first time in 3 days.
It’s popular for people to hike in the valleys and many people opt to stay in already established yurt camps along the way. Very few people are venturing up into the mountains, which is a shame because it’s spectacular.
Walking out we passed several yurt camps, a handful of other hikers and as we neared our ‘extraction’ point, a couple tour buses bringing tourists in for day trips at the yurt camps. The valley is stunning and in my opinion the better of the two we traversed on our trek.
Loading our gear into the truck and heading back to Karakol was bittersweet. I was looking forward to a hot shower and warm bed but in my heart I was not quite ready to leave the mountains. This made for a reflective journey back to town and I spent the 1.5 hour journey deep in thought. Until next time Kyrgyzstan, until next time.
Plan Your Own Mountain Adventure in Kyrgyzstan
Independent vs Guided Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
With all hikes starting out of Karakol, it is possible to set up this trekking route independently. You can arrange transport to take you to Chon’ Kyzyl Suu and then pick you up in the Jeti Oguz Valley. However, it is not an easy process. There is no phone service when you are up on the mountain trekking, so it is very important that you know exactly where and when to arrange your pickup for. Something to note, there is no public transport from Karakol to Chon’ Kyzyl Suu Village.
It is not smart to take a one-way transfer to the start of this trek and assume that once you reach the end you will call someone. You will not be able to make a call for a ride, even once you start reaching small yurt camps in the Jeti Oguz Valley, there is no cell phone reception.
Additionally, if you’re hiking independent and you haven’t arranged a pickup time and date, if you do have problems on the mountain, nobody will know you are there. With something arranged, if you miss your pickup someone will know to send help up the mountain for you.
I should also note that the way is not well marked on this trek and there are no set trails. You should be proficient in reading topography maps with compass navigation if you plan to set off on this trek alone. It is a backcountry hike and you must carry everything in and out that you need for your trek.
Having done this trek, I wouldn’t recommend going on your own. I have a few reasons for this. The main one being risk of getting lost. Like I mentioned before, there are no trails on this route and the ‘path’ is not marked well. While they are making strong efforts to mark the routes better in this area, this trek goes for long distances in between markers.
There are many horse trails that run through the valleys that can give you a false impression that you are following a trail, this is also not the case. You need to know where you are going.
The other reason I am recommending a guide is for the simple fact that this a strenuous hike that could result in serious injury should you take a misstep. I know this is possible with all remote hiking, but having extra people with you reduces the risk of you becoming stranded if an injury does occur.
At the very least, hire a porter to join you. They know these areas very well and will not only give you companionship but ensure you won’t get lost. Know though, that they will not likely speak English.
To arrange a guided trek, you can contact the C.A.T Travel Agency or make contact with the Karakol Tourism Office. They have the best contact information for hiring an experience that will replicate our time in the Tian Shan Mountains.
What to Pack
Trekking in the mountains is no joke. You have to be prepared, have a decent level of fitness and a damn good blister kit. You’re going to be on a mountain trek and you need to pack appropriately. The weather can change in a second so being prepared is essential to not only enjoy your trek but to be safe from the elements.
Hiking essentials include:
Down Jacket | Rain Jacket | Rain Pants | Fleece LS pullover | Wool sweater | Thermal top | Thermal bottoms | Wool socks | Hiking Pants | Hiking Boots | Hat | Buff or neck gaiter | Gloves | Blister Kit | Sandals for water crossings
It is also possible to rent a variety of equipment in Karakol before your hike. The prices below come from the Equipment Rental Pricelist released by TUK in Bishkek.
All prices are in Kyrgyz Som.
Sleeping Bag Down 160 | Sleeping Bag Synthetic 120 | Sleeping Mat 50 | Tent 2-3 Person New 300 | Tent 2-3 Person Old 200 | Tent 10-12 Person Angara 1300 | New Backpack 65-85L 200 | Old Backpack 60 -100L 100 | Gas Stove 100 | Gas Cylinder – Sale 200gr 500 | Gas cylinder- Rent 2.5L/5L 300 | Plate 15 | Bowl 15 | Spoon 15 | Fork 15 | Plastic Mug 15 | Saucepan / Kettle 40 | Small Folding Chairs 40 | Ice Axe 100 | Crampons 150
Best Time to go Hiking in Kyrgyzstan
The prime Kyrgyzstan trekking season is June – September. You’ll encounter sunny days, less rain and ‘not so cold’ nights of camping in the mountains. That said, it could still dip to freezing when you’re camping at elevation, even in the height of summer. The most optimal time for weather is August.
Our trek took place the first week of September and the weather was perfect. We didn’t experience any rain. It was quite cold at night though, and we at times thought the gear we rented was on the verge of not being enough for the conditions. During the day the sun was high and strong with a good flow of wind.
From what we understood, it is possible to trek in a very short shoulder season, all weather dependent. The upper reaches of many routes receive a fair amount of snow in the winter. This means that the shoulder season is entirely dependent on how much snow was received over the winter, how warm the spring weather has been or alternatively, how cold the fall weather has been. Once the snow starts falling on the passes, you’ll want to stay out of the mountains.
Cost to Trek Chon’ Kyzyl Suu – Jeti Oguz Route
If you wish to trek this route on a fully guided and catered to trip, the current cost is $350USD per person for 3 days and 2 nights. This includes transport from Karakol to the drop point and pickup point back to Karakol, an English speaking guide, 3 meals per day during the trek, tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, 1 porter to carry your supplies, 1 cook porter to carry the food and 1 cook to prepare meals.
As far as piecing together a trip on your own, costs run as follows:
$50/day for guide
$40/trek per porter
$160 for return transport (Karakol – Chon’ Kyzyl Suu / Jeti Oguz – Karakol)
As you can see, booking a package trek is a great value versus piecing it together on your own.
Places to Stay in Karakol Pre/Post Hike
There are a number of tourist suitable places to stay in Karakol for before and after your trek. Some of the original hiking hostels are still open, as well as many new places that will offer a higher standard of amenities.
Tagaitai Hotel- this is the base we used in Karakol and were very happy with it. The hotel is a 3 star property by western standards, very clean, comfortable and with hot showers. They offered a great breakfast, WIFI and were within a very short walking distance to the main center of Karakol. We can highly recommend this property for your pre and post hike accommodation.
Places to Eat in Karakol
Fat Cat Café – This is a small cafe serving sandwiches, pizza, beer and other beverages right next to the tourist office in Karakol. The owner is charming with a big smile and the food is tasty. It’s a great place to hang out with friends and share hiking stories or even to jut grab a quick bite to eat when you’re out exploring the city.
Zarina’s – the staple restaurant of all visitors to Karakol, this place features staple Kyrgyz dishes as well as a few western staples. The atmosphere is good, prices affordable and you’ll meet plenty of other hikers here.
Dungan Family Lunch – for a cultural immersion, book yourself on a Dungan Family Lunch experience. You’ll not only be fed a ridiculous amount of traditional foods but also get a tour of the Dungan village and an intimate look into the history of how they came to be in Kyrgyzstan.
Hiking in Kyrgyzstan – Our Thoughts
We weren’t sure what to expect when we were offered the opportunity to visit Kyrgyzstan. We had heard many great things, seen intriguing photos and read about the culture. However, none of that could prepare us for how incredible the experience would be in person.
The mountains in Kyrgyzstan are a special place, still incredibly wild and somewhere you can go to have a true adventure in the outdoors. You’ll not only see incredible things, test your fitness boundaries and reconnect with nature but also meet locals and get an inside look into another culture. It’s an experience we wouldn’t trade and we can’t wait to return.
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Disclaimer: Our visit to Kyrgyzstan was hosted by Discover Kyrgyzstan. 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. All opinions about how awesome it was to hike in Kyrgyzstan are 100% mine, as always.