I opened my eyes. It was cold. Too cold to sleep. The fire must have burned out. I looked up. Colourful patterns danced above me, knitted wool that decorated the yurt ceiling. I heard voices. Horses neighing. A light wind. I raised up and opened the door. Reflections of blue and green, mixed together in the early morning sun. A new day was about to rise on the heights of the Kyrgyzstan mountains.
Have you ever slept in a traditional yurt by a remote lake at 3,000 meters height? Woke up to the sound of eagles circle above you? Or had a splash of fresh horse milk in your morning cappuccino? I guess not. If travelling is about new experiences, then Kyrgyzstan is the essence of travelling. And there is no better introduction to the country than a journey to Song-Kul Lake.
If travelling is about new experiences, then Kyrgyzstan is the essence of travelling. And there is no better introduction to the country than a journey to Song-Kul Lake.
The journey to the Kyrgyzstan highlands started in Bishkek, the Silk Road caravan stop that turned Soviet planned city and capital of former Kirghiz SSR. An obscure and low-key place, only few people ever heard of. We navigated the grid lined city and headed south, taking off from an elevation of 800 metres above sea level. But we were about to get higher. Much higher.
An empty road took us through a flat and dry landscape. Abandoned Lenin statues, decayed bus stops, and lonely countryside dachas. A second hand-hand bazaar was selling portraits of past Soviet leaders. The Burana Tower, one of few remnants from the old Silk Road, desperately lured us in for a stop. But a journey to Kyrgyzstan is not about culture. It’s all about the nature.
There are two lakes in-reach from Bishkek. Issyk-Kul, the most popular resort in former USSR, and still the number one tourist destination in the country. And the remote, high altitude Song-Kul Lake, not attracting too much people due to its isolated location, but with a scenery not found anywhere else.
The long climb to Song-Kul Lake, situated at 3,016 metres above sea level, started about half way of the journey. The paved road transformed into gravel, just to metamorphose into off-road terrain taking us cross rivers, stones, and eroded land masses. We were suddenly traveling the Kyrgyzstan Alps, balancing between deep valleys and snow-capped mountains. A green and lush surrounding, blended together into a fantasy like landscape.
The paved road transformed into gravel, just to metamorphose into off-road terrain taking us cross rivers, stones, and eroded land masses. We were suddenly traveling the Kyrgyzstan Alps, balancing between deep valleys and snow-capped mountains.
Meaning ”Heavenly Mountains” in old Uyghur language, the Tian Shan cuts right through Central Asia, with a highest peak of 7,439 metres. A remote and wild mountain range, untouched by mankind. The only encounter for miles was a blue East German Trabant from 1968. Not to mention the group of musk oxen that blocked the road, staring at us, wondering what kind of business we could possible have in their neighborhood. Luckily, they had better things to do. Grazing.
We arrived in the afternoon. “Sit down and get some rest”, the old woman in our newly family home said. “People tend to get dizzy of the altitude change”. It was a quiet and humble welcome for a place known as the ”Switzerland of Central Asia”. But there was no reason to brag. Mother nature had nothing to prove here. It was pure beauty. Something the nomads figured out long ago.
Dinner was served in a traditional Kyrgyz way. Gathered in a yurt, a traditional tent used by the nomads, we sat down on the floor in a big cirlce. A man from Mongolia, three Japanese girls, and two “westerners”, being a little bit too worried about getting food poisoned. Hot water poured from the Russian samovar and an aroma of green tea filled the room. Food was served on the floor; laghman, the signature noodles dish, manti, vegetarian dumplings, and shorpo, a hot soup of lamb, carrots, and finely chopped onions. We were treated like family, in a family home.
Dinner was served in a traditional Kyrgyz way. Gathered in a yurt, a traditional tent used by the nomads, we sat down on the floor in a big cirlce. Hot water poured from the Russian samovar and an aroma of green tea filled the room.
The nomadic life in Kyrgyzstan dates back for generations. The locals move around their home, family and cattle throughout the year, depending on the season. Each yurt is big enough for a family and can be set up in less than three hours. Winters are spend in the valleys, sheltered from snow and wind. During summer, the graze land and fresh water brings the nomads to the mountains, making their yurts sprout along the lake shores like big mushrooms in the grass.
The Community Based Tourism, or CBT, was established in Kyrgyzstan in the late 1990s. Started as a counter reaction to the Soviet model of mass tourism, it has today developed into a tool for improving living conditions in rural areas. A kind of ecotourism that lets you explore fragile and remote areas, without damaging the natural habitat. A small-scale, low-impact kind of traveling, constituting an antithesis to global travel companies.
The extensive network of CBT throughout Kyrgyzstan makes traveling convenient, environment friendly, and safe. The organizer provides you with transport, home-stay, recreation, horse riding, and English speaking guides.
The extensive network of CBT throughout Kyrgyzstan makes traveling convenient, environment friendly, and safe. The organizer provides you with transport, home-stay, recreation, horse riding, and English speaking guides. You get the opportunity to live in a traditional way, and are welcomed by local families as a guest. A mutual exchange that gives an insight into daily life, while improving the living conditions in undeveloped areas.
Summers at Song-Kul Lake are characterized by an ever-changing weather, giving the visitors a chance to experience all seasons in just one day. Cold frosty mornings transforms into sweet summer days, interrupted by an autumn’s rain, and followed by a spring evening. The sun is strong, but not too hot. Winters are cold, marked by stormy winds, making the mountain areas best visited in a short period if time, from June to September.
I walked down to the lake. Everything was still and quite. The sun glowed over the horizon, flickering, as if it was fighting for its life. It finally passed away behind the mountains. The sky went red and a starry sky appeared above me. A yurt skeleton silhouetted against the sky. A calm feeling spread through my body. It was time to sleep. One day and four seasons later.
All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.
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