ITINERARY & MAP
Our Kazakh adventure begins in Almaty, previously the capital of the Kazakh State when it was under Soviet control in the 20th century. The largest city in Kazakhstan, its name translates as “the place with apples”. Due to the wide variety of wild apples found near here, it’s believed that this might be where apples originated from. After being transferred from the airport and an early check in to our hotel, we’ll grab our bicycles and hit the streets of Kazakhstan for a tour of its most memorable sights.
Our comprehensive itinerary includes such gems as Zenkov Cathedral, a wooden Orthodox church built at the turn of the century without the use of nails, and the Almaty Museum of Musical Instruments, created in 1980 to exhibit a collection of traditional Kazakh instruments. It’s housed in one of the oldest buildings in the city. We’ll celebrate the fresh produce for which Almaty is famous with our next stop. You’ll be able to experience local Kazakh culture first hand as you shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, including delicious apples of course. Meat, eggs, flowers, plants, spices, dried fruit, cheese and the mare’s milk known as koumiss can all be purchased at the Green (Zelyony) Bazaar. Leaving the Green Bazaar we’ll ride beside the Almaty River, enjoying the breeze on our faces.
Later, we will go on a workshop tour to see how locals integrate traditional design into modern clothing and accessories and meet with the owners of these modern concept stores that breathe new life into longstanding national traditions. To round off the day, we’ll enjoy a welcome dinner where we’ll deliver a presentation about Kazakhstan and answer any questions that you might have. It’s a great opportunity to meet your tour leader and fellow tour participants.
Transport: Minivan with A/C for transfer, bike for city tour
Accommodation: Hotel 3* by Western standards
Our destination for today is the picturesque Assy mountain plateau, one of the few places in Kazakhstan where you can still see yurts. Yurts have been used as portable dwellings for nomads for thousands of years, and are still relied upon today by semi-nomadic local farmers who move every year to their summer pastures. We’ll ride our bikes taking the scenic route through the plateau that surrounds stunning Bartogay Lake. Technically, this is a reservoir rather than a naturally occurring lake, but you’d be hard pushed to tell as it has great scenic beauty. Bartogay Lake was built in the 1980s as part of an irrigation project, holding back winter rains for use in the hotter summer period. Far from sources of pollution, its waters are clear and unsullied. Look out for the marmots that make their home near the lake as we picnic on the grass. Reaching our overnight base, we’ll enjoy a delicious Kazakh dinner inside one of the yurts here. Tonight, we’ll sleep in one of these traditional felt tents or pitch our own nearby.
Transport: Minivan with A/C for our transfer to the beginning of the biking route and as a back-up during the day
Biking: 5 hours of easy riding
Accommodation: Yurt stay, drop toilet outside
Today we move from the steppe into the mountains. We depart from Assy plateau at around 9am arriving three hours later at the starting point of our biking tour towards Kaindy Lake. It’ll take us around an hour to reach this body of water, whose name translates as “birch tree lake”. Rising from its emerald waters are the slender trunks of a forest, drowned in 1911 as the result of a huge flood triggered by a violent landslide caused by the Kebin earthquake. The lake’s statistics are impressive: 400 meters long and 30 meters wide. The lake is the jumping off point for some scenic hikes along the Chilik Valley and to the Saty and Kaindy Gorges, but instead today we’ll get back in the saddle and cycle the 15km to Kolsai Lake. The crystal clear Kolsai Lake lies in an idyllic location framed by towering cliffs and snowcapped peaks. Their wooded slopes conceal hiking trails but instead of relying on our feet, we’ll bike to a nearby village where we plan to be the overnight guests of a local family. As we’ve worked up quite an appetite, they’ll serve up a feast of traditional home-style cooking and we’ll retire for the night at their simple but comfortable guesthouse.
Transport: Minivan with A/C for part of the road, bikes for 30km
Accommodation: Simple family guesthouse, Saty Village, drop toilets outside
Today after breakfast our destination is the Charyn Canyon. Though not as large at 200 meters deep and 90 or so kilometers long, it is similar in appearance to America’s Grand Canyon with the same rich palette of ochres, umbers, and crimson reds. Over millennia these sedimentary rocks have been eroded and weathered into the incredible canyon that you see today. One of the most famous sights within the canyon is the “Valley of Castles” known locally as Dolina Zamkov, where we will go for a bike ride. These imposing rock formations, though natural, look like towers created by people and line the valley for about 3km. After a picnic at the canyon, we will head further to the land border with Kyrgyzstan. After dealing with the necessary border formalities, we will drive through beautiful mountain scenery to the Kyrgyz village of Jergalan. Once a proud, industrial settlement famous for its coal mines during the Soviet era, Jergalan was hit hard by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We will arrive in the evening for dinner at a local Kyrgyz guesthouse. The family will cook us a delicious dinner and then we will enjoy a well-earned rest.
Accommodation: Simple family guesthouse, drop toilets outside
Today you’ll have the opportunity to get acquainted with some of the sports that are played here in Kyrgyzstan. One of the most popular is Arkan Tartmai, which you’ll know as tug of war. Afterwards, you can join in to prepare the bread typical of this area: boorsok. These deep fried pieces of dough are often eaten with tea. They taste delicious, as you’ll discover. After lunch at the guesthouse, the time is yours to explore a little or to relax. There are plenty of livestock in the yard which you can meet, including cows and sheep. You might like to saddle up one of the thoroughbred horses and go for a ride. Alternatively, there are places to fish or you could try your hand at archery, a popular sport with nomads in this part of the world.
Accommodation: Simple family guesthouse, drop toilets outside
Early this morning we’ll leave Jergalan bound for the Karakol Valley, swapping vehicles in Karakol itself. Continuing on to the Karakol Valley we’ll reach the starting point for our trek to the Sirota Eco Camp. This rewarding hike takes us 16km to complete so we’ll be walking for around five to six hours. For a time we’ll follow the torrent that is the Karakol River, steadily gaining altitude as we set our sights on the Sirota woodland. Surrounded by a barren rocky landscape, Sirota can be likened to an oasis. Its name translated from the Russian means “orphan”. Reaching the camp, we’ll pitch our tents for an overnight stay at an altitude of 2850m. The views from here are very special so we’ll want to make the most of them before darkness falls.
Leaving the campsite we will trek to the pass that leads us to Ala-Kul Lake (altitude 3800m). The hike is just 9km long but the difficult terrain means that covering this distance is likely to take us seven or eight hours. The lake is a stunner, its colors changing with the light in a spectrum that encompasses emeralds and violets and everything in between. We’ll nab a picnic spot by the lake shore and watch the colors change as we eat. Ascending to Ala Kul Pass we’ll enjoy uninterrupted views of some of the area’s highest peaks: Karakol (5273m), Djigit (5170m) and Oguz Bachi (5165m). It’s downhill after that as we head into Keldike Valley and pitch our tents at 3000m.
Leaving the campsite you will trek to the Altyn-Arashan valley, a 10km hike that we estimate will take between two and three hours. This area is famed for its geothermal scenery and is dotted with hot springs and mud pools. The lush pastures of Altyn Arashan were the choice of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin as he looked for somewhere to spend time recovering after landing back on Earth after his expedition into space. We’ll meet the minivans that will take us to Karakol, where we’ll enjoy dinner in the company of a Uighur family. Over dinner, you will listen to some Kyrgyz national music and watch Kyrgyz traditional dances. Pay attention and you might learn some new moves. Overnight will be spent at a hotel.
After breakfast, we’ll set out to explore Karakol. Known as Przewalsk during the Soviet period, Karakol used to take its name from Nikolai Przewalsky, the Polish explorer and naturalist who was hired to explore Central Asia on behalf of the Russian Tsar during the 19th century.
We visit the city, making sure we allow plenty of time for its Chinese style Dungan mosque, built in 1904, and also the orthodox wooden church dating from 1855, proof of the ethnic and spiritual diversity of the Issyk Kul region. The latter’s copper roof panels are set off beautifully against the grain of the wood that holds them up. Any city tour of Karakol could not be considered complete without seeing the Karakol Historical Museum with its new exhibition about Ella Maillard. She was a famous Swiss traveler that took many pictures of Karakol in the 1930s. It’s fascinating to see how her photographs differ from the cityscape we see today. Eventually though, we’ll need to drag ourselves away and set off for Bel-Tam. On the way, we’ll break the journey at Skazka Canyon. Translating from the Russian word for fairy tale, the burnished reds, ochres and yellows of the canyon’s sedimentary rocks seem almost other-worldly.
On arrival at Bel-Tam, we’ll have a bit of free time and if the weather’s hot it’s the perfect excuse to take a dip in the lake. Overnight, we’ll lay our heads in one of the traditional yurts that cluster by the lake shore.
Accommodation: Yurt camp with shared western toilets and showers
After breakfast, you will be treated to an eagle hunting demonstration. Local people will show how our grandfathers hunted many years ago and after the show, there’ll be plenty of chances to take photos with the eagles. Leaving Bel-Tam, we’ll drive towards Kochkor. On the way, we’ll stop at Kyzyl-Tuu, where you can watch how yurts are produced, their skeletal wooden framework covered in thick layers of felt and canvas to cope with all weathers. Continuing our drive, we’ll cross a 2160m mountain pass and see the Orto-Tokoi reservoir. Leaving the reservoir, the road hugs the bank of the River Chu, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest river. Arriving in Kochkor, we’ll see close up how the traditional Kyrgyz felt carpets are made. You will be taught how Kyrgyz people make their amazing shyrdaks, a carpet that is commonly found in Kyrgyzstan. After the demonstration, there’ll be the opportunity to purchase handicrafts made by this cooperative should you wish. Tonight, our accommodation is a homestay where we’ll enjoy a tasty home-cooked supper before turning in.
Minivan: 170 km, 4 hours
Accommodation: homestay, shared western toilet & shower
Departing Kochkor this morning, we‘ll cross the Kyzart Pass (altitude 2700m) to reach the Kilemche Valley. Pulling on our hiking boots, we head through the Chaar Archa Valley and over the pass of the same name. The river is a torrent here, adding to the atmosphere as we eat a tasty lunch by its banks enjoying views of holy Baba Ata Mountain which looms over us at 4400m. We’ll trek until we reach the Kilemche jailoo and there we’ll stay for the night, enjoying dinner and overnight accommodation in a yurt.
Trek: 5-6 hours.
Altitude: start from 1400m up to 3000m
Saddling up our horses, today, our sights are fixed on Son Kul Lake. Slowly, a beautiful scene unfolds before us as we reach the Kilemche Valley. This is the jailoo, the name given in these parts to the summer pastures. Yurts lie scattered across the landscape, a telltale sign that nomadic families make their living here as they seek grazing for their animals. We’ll follow a trail that leads up to the Son Kul Pass, a rocky and uneven path brimming with potential to spur on the adventurous. Crossing the pass, the view down to Son Kul is utterly breathtaking.
This lake, situated at 3013 meters above sea level, is an oasis nestled within the mountains, where many migratory birds stop on their way from Siberia to Pakistan. Nomadic herders have been making their temporary home on the shores of the lake for centuries. It’s a world-class view, without a doubt. Riding down to the lake, our minds will be on the scenery – what a change from the noise, crowds, and pollution of city life. Reaching Son Kul, we’ll take a leisurely stroll along the lakeshore and soak up the scenery before descending upon the nomadic family which has offered to put us up for the night.
Staying here will give us a fascinating insight into daily life in the mountains and we’ll sleep soundly in our yurt tonight.
Horse riding: 5-6 hours.
Altitude: highest point 3400m, accommodation altitude at 3160 m
Accommodation: Yurt camp, drop toilets outside
It will be a wrench to leave Son Kul Lake but we have another delightful day ahead which will ease the pain. First, we’ll drive towards Chon-Kemin, crossing the Kalmak Asu Pass on the way. By mid-afternoon, we’ll reach scenic Boom Gorge and swap the minivan for rafts to experience the white water of the Chu River. Our adrenaline will be pumping as we lurch and slide for 15km along the river. These rapids are intense, powerful and turbulent and we’ll rely on our guides to steer us around boulders and other hidden obstacles without coming a cropper. They are Class 4 rapids so we are guaranteed a thrill, but hold on tight as you won’t want to end up in the water. Back on dry land we’ll meet the vehicle again and drive to Chon-Kemin village where we plan to stay the night at a local guesthouse.
Minivan: 250km, 4-4.5 hours
Accommodation: Guesthouse, shared toilets and shower
Rafting: 15km, 1 hour
Rafting Level: 3-4
Leaving Chon-Kemin, this morning our target is the Burana Archaeological Complex. This impressive place is known for its petroglyphs and ancient carved stone statues known as balbals. Originally, the tower here stood 45 meters high, but the upper floors were toppled in a 15th century earthquake, reducing its height to the present 25 meters.
Burana was constructed in the 11th century in the ancient city of Balasagun, itself established by the Karakhanid Empire two centuries earlier and an important city on the famous Silk Road. There’s an interesting museum to explore which counts among its exhibits remnants of Buddhist religious relicts, Nestorian crosses and ancient burial ossuary, a reminder that other religions had a foothold here before Islamic domination.
Having seen the tower up close, we’ll witness the staging of a popular horseback game known as “Ulak Tartysh”. It’s a little like polo, but with a twist – instead of a ball, the players chase the headless carcass of a goat.
Moving on, we have the Kyrgyz capital firmly in our sights. We’ll get settled into our Bishkek hotel and then head out for a city tour. On a clear day, the mountain peaks of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too form the perfect backdrop to the city’s many parks. We’ll also catch a glimpse of national hero Manas, protagonist in the epic tale recited by many a Kyrgyz storyteller. His statue takes pride of place in Ala-Too Square where you’ll also see the changing of the guard ceremony performed.
Bishkek has several great bazaars but the most popular is Osh Bazaar and it’s to there we’ll head. It’s fun to visit the bazaar and haggle over purchases; there’s a fantastic atmosphere as people bustle about doing their business. Smiling women in colorful headscarves preside over stalls piled high with fresh produce and household items. In the evening, we’ll mark our final night in Central Asia with a farewell gala dinner, our last chance to eat the delicious local food and reminisce about the fun we’ve had.
Hotel 3* by Western Standards
Today it’s time to say a fond farewell to beautiful Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan. Our driver will provide your transfer to Bishkek International Airport. We hope you’ve enjoyed your trip and will return soon to explore other Central Asian countries