By Audrey Scott
With over 90% of its territory covered in mountains, Kyrgyzstan has no shortage of treks filled with stunning landscapes, alpine lakes, shepherds, yurts and a feeling of being very far out, immersed in nature. It’s why we often recommend Kyrgyzstan to travelers interested in trekking with a taste of the offbeat. Our recent trek of the newly developed Jyrgalan trail in the Tian Shan mountains above the towns of Karakol and Jyrgalan reminded us again why we make such recommendations.
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan, you’ll find you don’t often run into too many other travelers; there’s plenty of space and elevation to go around. But if you really want to go offbeat and have the mountains to yourself, consider the newly developed Jyrgalan (Jergalan) to Boz Uchuk trek (aka, Jyrgalan trek) in eastern Kyrgyzstan. You’ll share the peaks and alpine lakes with just a handful of shepherds and their animals grazing on the jailoo (high pastures). It’s this sort of trademark experience that makes Kyrgyzstan an unusual trekking destination.
We felt fortunate to be among the first to experience this new trek. Its path takes you 55km (33.5 miles) through the Terskei Ala-Too Range of the Tian Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan, over mountain passes, across river valleys and up to alpine lakes. Given our previous visit to Kyrgyzstan, our expectations were high. Yet they were exceeded in terms of landscape and overall trekking experience.
Here’s why, day by day. Here’s also why you might want to consider putting trekking in Kyrgyzstan — with over 90% of its territory covered in mountains, 40% of which are over 3,000 meters / 9,840 feet — on your travel wish list. We’ve included all you need to know to plan, prepare for and enjoy the Jyrgalan trek.
If you’d like to skip ahead:
- What to Expect on the Jyrgalan Trek, Day by Day
- Jyrgalan Trek Conditions and Difficulty Level
- How to Organize the Jyrgalan Trek
- Jyrgalan Trek Packing List and Preparation
- Jyrgalan Trek Photo Gallery
What to Expect on The Jyrgalan Trek: Day by Day
Originally a coal mining village, Jyrgalan has had a rough time of things since the mines closed a decade ago. The local economy and business declined and half the population left. The setting of Jyrgalan, surrounded by mountains, makes it a prime location for trekking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Within the last year, a few community members have joined together to form an NGO to promote tourism development in the area with the goal of increasing local economic opportunities. The Jyrgalan trek is among its initial experience offerings.
We did the Jyrgalan trek with a mountain guide, cook, and horses to carry camping equipment, food, and our gear. We were thankful for the full support. Because we only carried a daypack and camera during the day, we could focus on the experience at hand. Our big backpacks, tent and other supplies were all carried by horses. Food appeared at lunch stops and our tents and backpacks, complete with clothes for cooler nights, appeared at our campsites at the end of each day, just as we needed them. Not to mention, the local horsemen served as our unofficial cultural ambassadors by sharing videos of Kyrgyz music, sports and family stories from their phones.
With detours to alpine lakes each day, the Jyrgalan trail and surrounding landscape proved more beautiful and varied than we’d expected. Our photos don’t fully do justice to the fluctuations of mountain light and color.
Note: The route below represents the three-day Jyrgalan trek route we experienced, as tracked by our use of the Endomondo app. It is possible to extend the trek to five days, or to shorten it to an overnight experience.
Jyrgalan Trek, Day 1
Distance: 16.9 km / 10.5 miles
The trek begins from the town of Jyrgalan (2,260 meters / 7,415 feet) so you are able to get a taste of early morning life in the village before crossing the stream and ascending into the mountains. It’s a relatively easy climb at first, allowing you to ease into things and accustom yourself to walking and hiking at altitude. You’ll likely pass a shepherd or two, hundreds of sheep and dozens of horses running through the valleys. Don’t worry about the animals; they know to make their way around you. Their presence is one of the facets of beauty of this trek, a feature of immersive life in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
After a couple of hours you’ll have the option to climb further to an alpine lake (5km roundtrip). It’s a steep ascent, so take it slow and zig-zag up the hill. For the views and the mountain air, it’s worth the effort. Your final stretch of the day, a descent, tracks the river through the valley until the first campsite (2,800 meters / 9,186 feet). For us, this was our coldest night. If you trek in the shoulder season, be sure to have extra layers with you to stay warm (see packing below).
Jyrgalan Trek, Day 2
Distance: 16.6km / 10.3 miles
This is a two mountain pass-day, so it’s longer and more challenging than the first. After a hot breakfast to warm up in the early morning, you’ll climb from the campsite up to Terim Tor Bulak Pass at 3,467 meters / 11,375 feet. The view from the top of the pass across the layers of snow-covered mountains is nothing short of stunning. Creative ideas come to those who spend time in open spaces. Take time to enjoy the moment.
What goes up must go down, and descend rapidly at that. The descent from the pass is challenging and steep, eventually ending in the glacier blue waters of the Tiorgei Ak-Suu River. After crossing a rickety wooden bridge, the trail continues up again through more jailoos (high pastures) towards the second mountain pass of the day: Boz Uchuk-Ashuu Pass at 3,362 meters / 11,030 feet. We also took a detour to visit a few alpine lakes before descending to our campsite and settling in for the night.
If you are in doubt, always opt for the optional hikes to the alpine lakes. Depending on light conditions, the views will range anywhere from beautiful to jaw-dropping, and the time walking will release you further, as any good trek should, from whatever happens to be burdening you.
Jyrgalan Trek, Day 3
Distance: 19.65 km / 12.2 miles
The final day begins with a 10 km / 6 mile walk out to a cluster of alpine lakes that once formed part of a massive glacier. Even if you are tired, push yourself to do this part of the trek — the views, light and color will likely be your visual highlight, the grand finale. In the early morning light the lakes reflect surreal shades of turquoise and blue, and are filled with crisp reflections of the surrounding mountains. Just gorgeous.
There’s quite a lot of distance covered on this day, but after the alpine lakes in the morning it’s mainly flat, rolling downhill, and all goes fairly quickly.
Jyrgalan Trek Difficulty Level and Conditions
We’d rate the Jyrgalan trek a medium-high difficulty, primarily due to a few of the steep ascents and altitude. This means that you will not require special training, but you should be relatively active and in good physical shape. You should either be accustomed to or be prepared for day-long treks with steep, slow uphill climbs and be acclimatized to trek at above 3,000 meters/9,840 feet.
Not a Technical Trail
The Jyrgalan trek is not at all technical, meaning that you will not need any special equipment like crampons, ropes or other fittings. There are some boulders to climb over and streams to cross, but nothing especially difficult. We did not carry walking sticks with us, but several others in our group did and appreciated having the extra stability going up and down hills. We highly recommend having a guide to navigate as the trail is not currently marked or signed. Instead, the general path of the Jyrgalan trek follows streams, valleys and shepherd paths.
Altitude and Steep Hills
If you are sensitive to altitude and have just arrived in the region, you may consider acclimatizing in Jyrgalan village for a day or two before beginning the trek. You will be trekking at over 3,000 meters / 9,460 feet for most of the trek, with the highest point at 3,515 meters/11,532 feet. Our advice is to take it slow and steady on the uphill. It’s not a race. The more you pick your head up to look at all that’s around you in the Kyrgyz mountain landscape, the less you’ll think about the steep slope. It’s better to proceed slowly and deliberately with fewer breaks than to quickly wear yourself out and have to recuperate with frequent and longer stops.
Weather and When to do the Jyrgalan Trek
The trekking season runs from mid-June to mid-September, which mirrors the schedule of the local shepherds. At this altitude the temperature fluctuates widely, particularly between the sun-warmed days and occasionally very cold nights. When we undertook the Jyrgalan trek at the very end of August/early September, the nights were already quite cold and we were a bit under-prepared. This is why we suggest packing many layers since you may need them all at night. (Yes, we literally wore all our clothes during the first night’s camp.) Especially before full sunrise when the sun finally appears over the mountain peaks, it can be cold. Wear layers and peel them off quickly during the daytime as it warms up with the powerful sun. We’ve been told that mid-June to early July is an especially beautiful time to trek because the hills are covered in wildflowers.
You will certainly not go hungry on this trek. We were very well fed with warm meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were treated to some Kyrgyz specialties like besh barmak (noodles in a broth topped with meat and onions) and plov (rice with meat and vegetables). In addition, we also were given sizable packets of trail mix, dried fruit, and cookies each morning so we’d have something to snack on between meals. Most Kyrgyz meals are rather meat-heavy, so if you are vegetarian or have food allergies or dietary restrictions, alert the organizers and guides in advance so they can prepare accordingly.
It’s important to continue to drink water throughout the trek, especially since you’ll hiking at altitude. Bring a refillable water bottle or carry a water bladder in your backpack so you always have at least one liter of water on you at all times.
Our trekking guide would alert us to clean water sources along the way. Our group also carried purification drops. Although the water was likely clean, we used sterilization drops in a couple of circumstances simply as a cautionary measure. Water is boiled for tea at every meal, so it’s also possible to consume that purified water as well.
Campsites and Sleeping Arrangements
There are no official campsites along this route, so all camping and cooking equipment needs to be carried with you (or on horseback). We would typically arrive at the campsite area around 4PM to allow enough time to set up the tent, put on extra layers of clothing, and enjoy a little relaxation time before dinner. We were usually ready for sleep by the time dinner was finished. Although we recommend taking care when consuming alcohol, especially at altitude, we and others found that a shared bottle of whiskey, vodka, or Kyrgyz cognac was appreciated by just about everyone. So if you are inclined, slip a bottle in your big backpack, share it at tea time or after dinner, and notice that the chill of the evening retreat as the stories go a thread longer than they otherwise might.
Toilets and bathroom business. In general, open air. Along the trail and at the first night’s campsite, find a spot out of sight. At our 2nd night’s campsite, a camp latrine was set up since the terrain was flat and there weren’t many rocks or bushes nearby to hide behind. There are no showers along the way, but you can wash your hands and face in streams near the campsites.
Organizing the Jyrgalan Trek
As mentioned above, one of the goals of this new Jyrgalan community organization is to develop tourism products and services in the area to provide more economic and job opportunities locally. So, choosing the Jyrgalan trek really does allow you to have a unique trekking experience while contributing directly to the local community and its people.
The community organization or guesthouses in Jyrgalan can organize the trek we did (or a similar one) for you. For more information or get the process started to book your own Jyrgalan trek, contact Tynchtykbek (Tynch) Zhanadylov from the local Jyrgalan NGO or get in touch via the Destination Jyrgalan Facebook page.
Accommodation and Meals in Jyrgalan
We stayed at Alakol Guesthouse run by Emil and Gulmira. They work closely with the community and offer comfortable private rooms with ensuite bathrooms for 1,000 som ($15) per person, including breakfast. The dinner we had there was also delicious and plentiful. (Note: there are no restaurants or shops in Jyrgalan so you need to eat at the guesthouse or bring your own food.)
By the 2017 trekking season there will be several other guesthouses in Jyrgalan ready to host travelers. These will vary in terms of style and level of services available, but the costs per person (including breakfast) will range between 500 som ($7.50) for the most basic and up to 1,000 som ($15) for private room and bathroom. If you enjoy horseback riding or want to spend some time acclimatizing before going into the mountains on this trek consider spending a couple of nights in Jyrgalan.
Hiring Jyrgalan mountain guides and horsemen
Depending upon the size of your group, a standard trek would include a mountain guide, cook, horsemen and horses. Although you can opt for a more streamlined version where you carry your own camping equipment, stove and food, we really enjoyed having the support of the horses and cook so we could simply focus on the experience at hand. The Jyrgalan community organization and guesthouses will be able to organize all this for you.
Renting camping gear
Our group rented tents, sleeping bags, trekking backpacks, and camp stoves from EcoTrek in Karakol. However, from Spring 2017, all of this equipment should be available for rent from guesthouses in Jyrgalan.
How many days do you need for the trek?
Our Jyrgalan trek was three days (two nights). However, it would be easy to extend the journey through the surrounding valleys to four or five days. Alternatively, if you aren’t interested in two nights of camping, a shorter version featuring just one overnight in the mountains and return by road from Tiorgei Ak-Suu river the second day is also possible.
Transportation: How to get to Jyrgalan and pickup from Boz Uchuk
Karakol, the largest town in eastern Kyrgyzstan, is the region’s central transit point and is around 60km from Jyrgalan. Your easiest option is to pick up a minibus (mashrutka) for 80 som ($1.20) per person. Currently, mashrutkas leave Karakol at 8:30, 13:30, 17:30 daily from Ak-Tilek Bazar at the intersection of Derbishev and Bektenov streets (here’s a map for the exact location). A private taxi should cost you around 1,300 som ($19) for an entire car (4 places).
Whomever you make arrangements with for your trek and trekking guide should be able to arrange for you or your group to be picked up in Boz Uchuk and taken you can continue to either to Jyrgalan or to Karakol.
Jyrgalan Trek Packing List
Much of what we include in our How to Pack for a Trek article still applies here. However, we offer a customized Jyrgalan Trekking packing list to ensure you have what you need for the mountains yet don’t overpack.
Consider packing your nighttime clothes, toiletries, and heavy layers in one bag for the horses to carry during the day. Then, you can trek with a light daypack with water, sunscreen, light layers, and camera. As always, pack light. You’ll quickly begin to feel the extra weight going up steep hills.
You really don’t need much in this department. Don’t worry about wearing the same thing every day. Everyone does it. It’s more about having the proper layers as the temperatures may rise and fall dramatically between day and night. Here’s what we suggest:
- 1 set of hiking clothes: T-shirt (preferably quick dry), long-sleeved hiking shirt or pullover, shorts or trekking pants, hiking socks.
- 1 set of evening clothes for sleep: T-shirt, long pants (or pajama bottoms), socks. To ensure these remain dry, pack them in a plastic bag or other impermeable container inside your backpack.
- Ski hat and gloves: This may not be necessary earlier in the season, but by late August we were very thankful to have these.
- Hiking shoes: Low-rise hiking shoes are fine. Other people wore light trainers, however some mid-ankle support is useful because of the pitch of the terrain.
- Extra t-shirt: Just in case.
- Underwear for every day of your trek: With an extra pair thrown in for good measure, if you like.
- Extra pair of socks: Just in case you want to switch out or it’s freezing and you need an extra layer to stay warm in your sleeping bag.
- Fleece or other shell jacket: For cool nights or sleeping.
- Rain jacket (optional): Just in case it rains. We used ours as an extra layer to stay warm at night.
- Thermal underwear (top/bottom): If you’re trekking either early or late in the season, consider bringing along some silk long johns as they are warm, comfy and take up almost no room at all.
Other Trekking Gear
- Waterproof backpack cover: You never know when a rainstorm will hit, so it’s essential to keep a rain cover for your backpack close at hand.
- Quick-dry travel towel: To dry off your hands or face after washing it in the stream.
- Sleep sack: To provide an extra layer between you and the sleeping bag. Plus, this helps keep you warm if the temperatures drop at night.
- Headlamp: The campsites do not have electricity or lights. Carry your own headlamp to find your way to the toilet and to sort through your stuff at night in and around your tent.
Toiletries and Health Kit
You won’t have access to a shower along the way, but you don’t really miss it as the evenings and mornings are quite cool.
- Soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss: You know, the basics. And don’t laugh at us that we put dental floss as a basic. You’ll thank us after eating a meat-heavy meal.
- Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the better. At this altitude the sun is very powerful.
- Sunglasses: Necessary. That sun is darn strong.
- Hand sanitizer: To be on the safe side.
- Pack of tissues or roll of toilet paper: There were rolls of toilet paper available, but it’s always a good idea to carry your own…just in case.
- Duct tape: Effective for hot spots and blisters on your feet.
- Medical Kit (for emergencies): Band-Aids, anti-bacterial gel (for cuts), rehydration powders, ciprofloxacin (or another medication against stomach bacteria), Tylenol (anti-headache/aches), Immodium (or some sort of “stopper” if you get diarrhea). Note: All this can be easily and inexpensively purchased at local pharmacies, including in Karakol.
Electricity and Charging Batteries
There is no electricity available after you leave Jyrgalan village so prepare yourself with extra batteries or chargers. Some tips to handle this and further your battery power.
- Put your smartphone on airplane mode. There is no connectivity along the trek anyhow, so don’t waste your phone’s battery power trying to find a network.
- Consider buying a phone case that doubles as an extra battery. Here’s an example for our iPhone 6 battery case and iPhone SE battery case. Alternatively, you could carry a Mophie charger. They all provide another 1-1.5 charges.
- Take an extra camera battery or two.
- Don’t spent time reviewing your images on your phone or in the camera viewfinder, as this will quickly consume battery power. Unless you are reviewing images to determine whether you’ve captured a specific shot, there will be time enough for photo review when your trek is finished.
Have other questions about the Jyrgalan trek? Just ask in the comments below and we’ll incorporate the information in the article so others may benefit.
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