09 Aug Starry Song Kul Nights Trail in Kyrgyzstan: From Kyzart to Kilemche
I have all the components that would make up a terrible trekker. I am afraid of heights. I am claustrophobic, which comes into play when trying to stuff me into a tent to sleep. And all animals distract me, which can be a horrible problem when trekking during spring and all the baby animals are frolicking on the land that I am supposed to be conquering with my hiking skills. I mean, these cute animals aren’t going to play with themselves. Lastly, I am in the worst shape of my life. I don’t even have an excuse for this except that I like beer more than I like going to a gym. I have a very sports-heavy background and love to hike, despite all of this. So, when I embarked on a trail-marking project with Discover Kyrgyzstan last month, I was pretty sure things would go smoothly despite all of the factors I listed above. I was finally going to trek to Song Kul Lake (from Kyzart through the Kilemche jailoos), one of the most famous places in Kyrgyzstan, and I was going to help one of my favorite countries bring in more tourism- it was a win/win if I ever knew one.
The trail I was going to be marking started at Kyzart down in the Naryn Region of Kyrgyzstan and went through Kilemche all the way to Song Kul Lake. I hadn’t been to this region but I knew it was famous for Song Kul and its surrounding jailoos (summer pastures) and being the heart of Kyrgyzstan. I was excited to finally see all of these images with my own eyes instead of through someone else’s. I was also looking forward to finally doing some proper trekking in Kyrgyzstan. I had traveled to Kyrgyzstan nine times before this trip and each and every time was during the middle of winter. Needless to say, trekking opportunities weren’t plentiful.
Two days before the trek, I got extremely sick. My friend, Cynthia at Journal of Nomads, and I both came down with the flu and were not in great physical conditioning for anything more demanding than lifting our coffee cups at Social Coffee during our co-working days. She was sick prior to me and was able to heal to a somewhat human state before trekking. I played it off like I was going to be able to do the same. I figured rest and relaxation would do my body well and I took it easy as I attempted to prepare myself for the hike.
There were several groups of us going out on separate trail-marking projects around Song Kul at the same time, so we all met at the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan office in the Bishkek city center and packed up our vans and vehicles with all the equipment needed for the duration of our hikes. After an hour and after saying our goodbyes, my group went on our way to Kyzart.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Starting at Kyzart
Upon arriving in Kyzart, we unloaded the car and met our local guide. There was only three of us- the local guide (Bexultan), the guide from TUK (Myrza), and me. I was informed that we would be staying at the local yurt village that evening and would have space and a warm meal awaiting us.
We were slow getting over the initial pass and it took us almost the entire first day to do so. Just getting into the groove of what we were doing, we stopped and chatted with local sheepherders and dogs (only one of us engaged in canine conversation… I will let you guess who). We eventually hit a spot where the gravel was loose and an accidental slip on it would have taken you down the side of the mountain. Naturally, my fear of heights kicked in and I began to panic. Unsure of what to do and also completely unaware of some of my irrational fears, Myrza asked me if I could ride a horse over the loose gravel to a point where I could continue hiking. I neglected to mention that I had a failed attempt at riding an Icelandic horse in the Lofoten Islands just six months prior and obliged. Our horse, Pelet, had too much weight to carry already, so a local sheepherder lent me his horse to make the journey over the loose gravel. His horse was a legend and got me across with no problems. Making it across this, even with the help of a horse, empowered me to continue the hike and it even motivated me for the days ahead.
Night 1 at Uu-Tor
Dusk was settling upon us and we were ready to stop for the evening. I quickly learned that we did not quite make it to the yurt village we were supposed to stay at and were stuck pitching our own tents for the night around Uu-Tor. I have never pitched a tent before, so I watched and tried to learn how to do it so I could participate the next time. Once the tents were pitched, the skies began to take a turn for the moody and we unpacked all of our food to see what options we had for our long trek. We were stocked up with a lot of canned goods, pasta, tinned fish, fresh vegetables, and much, much more. We all worked together to create a meal for the night- Bexultan washed dishes in the stream, I created a fresh salad, and Myrza made a broth and soup that we tossed spaghetti and canned meat into later. Once we were done eating, we took the rest of the soup to the nearby family who was staying in a yurt in the same valley as us.
I started to feel a bit run down from my lingering illness and decided to call it a night right after dinner. I crawled into the tent and before I was able to zip shut the door to it, I saw a mouse run across the grass and I screamed. I don’t like rodents. At all. The tent was cold and I buried myself in my sleeping bag and attempted to get some shut-eye. After hours of tossing and turning, I finally came to terms with the fact that my claustrophobia was not going to allow me to get any sleep that night. Heights, rodents, and claustrophobia all in a matter of half of a day. If someone had vomited in my sight that day, I could boastfully say I faced all of my fears there at Kyzart.
I stepped out of the tent and walked around in the darkness to find a place to go to the bathroom and catch some fresh air before wandering back into my tent. Once I arrived back in the tent, the skies opened up and the rain came down. And it came down in droves. Every so often, it would slow down and I could hear something right outside of the tent loudly making noises and eating. I remember secretly hoping that a snow leopard had found its way to say hello to me. Snow leopards and I don’t tend to hang in the same ‘hoods, if you get my jist, so I knew it was a slim chance, but you just never know in Kyrgyzstan. The rain made its way back and the noise was once again drowned out.
Morning arrived and the rain was still pretty incessant. I got absolutely no sleep that night but I was curious what was happening outside of the tent as the noises were still pretty loud and I needed to give a proper greeting to the snow leopard that inevitably wanted to say hello. I unzipped the tent and there it was. A beautiful, graceful, not so elusive…. donkey. Being the animal lover that I am, I begrudgingly got over my disappointment over what species the animal was and said hello before making a cup of instant coffee to get my day started. But I felt like crap.
Hiking to Kilemche Via the Chaar-Archa Pass
We packed up and started our trek to Song Kul. The weather was bad and was getting increasingly worse as we made progress toward our final destination. We stopped for several breaks and continued to mark the trail for future trekkers. At some point high above the Kilemche Valley (around 2500m), I started to feel dizzy and nauseous so we stopped to eat. We sat down and devoured tomato and mackerel with some soggy bread that was falling apart in our hands from the downpour that was drenching us as we ate. The nausea subsided a bit, but I was soaked to my core and my legs were weak from the constant shivering from the cold rain that wasn’t letting up. I had completely inappropriate clothing for the occasion, wearing some thin leggings from H&M and no hat except the hood of the jacket I borrowed which refused to stay up on my oversized head. I threw my headphones in my ears along with some of my favorite music to distract myself from the cold and walked high above the Kilemche where the Chaar-Archa and Bazar Turuk rivers met. The landscape started to turn a vibrant hue of red and the mud caked itself on my Keen hiking boots so heavily that I was having to kick it off with every step. I like getting dirty, so that was actually quite fun.
Night 2 at Yrys Yurt Camp
The river and scenery were out of this world and almost made me forget that I was started to feel like death. We slowly made our way to a yurt camp for the evening. I asked if I could pay to sleep in the yurt camp so I wouldn’t have a claustrophobic fit with the tent again. I also needed heat as I was shivering and pale and felt like I was on the verge of passing out. I paid 600 soms to sleep in a heated yurt that evening. I am not sure if I was paying for myself or our whole crew as we all slept inside of them. We ate a hearty dinner of soup and bread, enjoyed some tea, and then called it a night. I was asleep almost instantly that evening and was actually frightened because I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the worst of what was to come. I was definitely right.
Jalgyz Karagai Pass to Song Kul
The next morning, I woke up feeling extremely ill. I couldn’t see straight and I was still shivering despite sleeping beside a stove inside of the yurt all night. My guides told me that if I paid the family, I could take a horse over the pass to our final destination, Song Kul, that evening. This pass was meant to be the most demanding and my health was in no condition to make it. I had no more soms on me and had spent it all paying for a warm place to sleep that evening (and to avoid the crowded tent situation).
I ate some kasha for breakfast and enjoyed some hot tea and reluctantly made my way outside. The weather was the worst we had seen it and the rain was coming down hard. I immediately got soaked and was hoisted up onto my horse. I was so sick that I couldn’t even keep my eyes open and opted to almost sleep on top of it in a state of delirium. I had no idea how I was going to make this pass and wished that I could have just been left behind until I was feeling better- but we were on a tight schedule to finish this trail marking.
We started on our way up the snowy Jalgyz Karagai Pass. About an hour and a half into the pass, my entire body numb from the cold, and my clothes soaked to the bone, the mud thickened and was everywhere. My horse had done fairly well, but things changed. As we went up a narrow path on the side of the mountain, my horse slipped and fell down the side of the mountain, hurling me off of it and falling hard on my leg. The horse was able to catch itself a few feet down and I was covered in mud from head to toe. My legs were so numb from the cold that I couldn’t feel what had happened, but I knew I had hit the end of my journey. I told the guides I wasn’t going to continue. They offered to put me on top of our horse because the horse I was on initially didn’t have shoes (why would you have put an inexperienced rider on top of a horse without proper shoes in this weather was beside me) but I refused. We made our way back toward the yurt camp. The couple, Marat and Yrys, and their son, Aidar, welcomed me back to the camp and put me by the heater to warm up while they worked on getting me evacuated out of the mountains. There is little phone reception out in those parts, so getting in touch with someone was difficult, but they finally had arranged me a ride to take me to the CBT guesthouse in Kyzart Village. Around six hours later, I was on my way out of the village, dejected from a failed hike but too sick to even care.
The mountains were flooded out in many parts and leaving the yurt camp was no treat. But I knew that I could soon lay somewhere warm and rest until my body no longer hated me.
I arrived in Kyzart at the CBT guesthouse and was immediately served a dill-icious bowl of soup before crashing. I slept for nearly twelve hours that night and woke up feeling a bit better the next morning. The owner of the guesthouse was friendly and there was a sweet puppy on-site that surely helped the process. Early that morning, I was taken to the bus station and caught the next marshrutka to Bishkek. Somewhere during that bus ride, I began feeling a lot better. The flu, which had hit its worst while I was trekking, was slowly making its way out of my body (and probably into someone else’s that I met on that marshrutka ride- sorry!)
Back in Bishkek
I arrived back in Bishkek feeling like a new person. The weather was warm again and I wasn’t wet from the rain. I arrived back at my hotel looking like a hot mess from several days of not showering and sliding around in the mud. I immediately met a traveler, Bettina, who had just arrived in Kyrgyzstan from Hamburg, Germany and we instantly clicked and made dinner plans. The next few days I spent recovering and catching up on emails and work.
Reflecting back on everything that had happened on the hike, I am pretty disappointed in myself for not listening to my body earlier and quitting. While the hike is easy (the guides told me they view it as ‘moderate’ but it is listed in places as ‘easy’… so whatever), it should definitely not be done in the condition I was in. The weather was a fluke. The Song Kul jailoos and scenery actually offer some exceptional stargazing opportunities when the weather cooperates and isn’t temperamental like it was when I was there (which isn’t especially common during that time of year).
(Obvious) Trekking Tips for Song Kul and Kyrgyzstan
I’ve considered writing a whole post on this and perhaps I will some time, but for now, here are a few obvious trekking tips that I didn’t adhere to while at Song Kul.
-Dress properly. Okay, so this is obvious, but I wasn’t dressed well for the trek. I didn’t know I was going to be on this trek until I was already traveling in Central Asia and didn’t have the proper attire and made no attempt to purchase it because I didn’t really know what I was going to need. A snowstorm hit Song Kul the week before the trek (which actually postponed our trek a bit), so anything can happen. Be prepared.
-Make sure you’re healthy or don’t go. Again, obvious for most, but I had the philosophy that if I was out in ‘nature’, I’d feel better. It doesn’t quite work like that if you have the flu. It will only exacerbate the illness… trust me.
-Waterproof everything. While this kind of fits into the ‘dress properly’ part, just make sure you have the right clothing if things get a bit wet.
-Let your guide know if you have issues with heights before the trek. I didn’t even think about this for some reason. I only had one issue with heights and it was at the beginning and only because the ground was kind of uneven. I took them by surprise when I had to sit down and explain my fear of heights.
-Bring a bag for trash. Super obvious one, of course, but don’t expect trash cans along the hike. Don’t litter. We saw plenty of litter along the way and this hike wasn’t even really being done, hence the trail marking. Leave a place in better condition than how you found it.
-Don’t waste food. Give it to the locals. They will happily accept it and will be grateful in return. There are several yurt camps and locals you may meet along the way. This is a great way to strike up a conversation or interact with people.
-Be prepared. Study the terrain before you go and know what you’re up against. Fortunately, this hike would have been well-suited to my level of endurance and my physical condition had I been healthy. But it is always good to know beforehand what you’re about to embark on. A topographic map of the hike doesn’t hurt, either.
The Starry Song Kul Nights trek is now marked and ready for you to come to Kyrgyzstan and use it! The skies are big and the weather is usually better than what I faced when there, hence the name of the trail (which I named, by the way). And there is a 97% chance that you’re in better shape than me even at my healthiest. I definitely recommend this hike or the several others that Kyrgyzstan offers. To see more about the Starry Song Kul Nights trek, click here.
*Special thanks to Discover Kyrgyzstan for inviting me to take part in this Song Kul trek and marking it for future travelers. All failures and dumb decisions were made solely by me and will hopefully not be recreated by any future trekkers.
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