Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyzstan Trek Heightens the Senses

Excited but tired after a day of hiking and riding horses at the bottom of a 5,200-meter glacier, we finally returned to the throat of a ravine where a family of Kyrgyz yurt dwellers were keeping an eye on our jeep.

Feeling slightly drunk from the fresh air and the fermented mare's milk that the herdsmen gave us, we headed for Lake Issyk-Kul, hoping to spend the night in tents on the beach. By the time we left a small village where we bought meat from a just-slaughtered pig and a bottle of moonshine vodka, it was dusk. Half an hour later, the night was completely black.

Frightened hares and owls flashed through our headlights. Everyone fell silent. Suddenly, a powerful floodlight blinded us and seemed to follow our car. We had taken a wrong turn and driven past a huge prison camp.

Once we reached the beach, one of our group went around some bushes to relieve herself and came rushing out with a squeal after suddenly finding herself in the roving spotlight. The place was too spooky to stay the night.

We drove on, following a road that was a combination of bumps and potholes. With no lights or road signs, we had to count on the intuition of our guide. Unfortunately, darkness and exhaustion took their toll. After a particularly deep nosedive into a monstrous hole, our 4 wheel drive jeep ended up with three broken wheels. The journey was definitely over for the day. We camped on the side of the road, drank some moonshine around the gas stove to soothe our nerves and went to sleep under the open sky.

With its hideous roads and rundown sanatoriums, Kyrgyzstan may sound like hell if you're looking for elegant resorts and impeccable service. But for an adventurous traveler, it's paradise. A land of nomads, this tiny country squeezed between China and Kazakhstan has some of the most awe-inspiring and pristine nature to be found in the former Soviet Union. In addition to Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan has magnificent mountains and is an excellent place for climbing, hiking, horseback riding and whitewater rafting.

Three friends and I spent a week in Kyrgyzstan this summer on a personal tour with guide Volodya Vakurin and his 19-year-old son, Dima.

Volodya met us when we flew into Bishkek at dawn and took us back to his house to wash up and rest before beginning our adventure. We saw little reason to spend much time in Bishkek, a relatively new and bland town, and by early afternoon, after stocking up on some delicious onion flatbread, resembling Indian chapati, and oversized Bull's Heart tomatoes from the garden of Volodya's neighbor, we hit the road.

An hour and a half later, we arrived at the Alamedin gorge and stopped for the night at a rustic resort built around medicinal hot springs, where we stayed in wooden cottages for $10 a person, including meals in the cafeteria. We swam in an indoor pool, fed by water from the springs, which is said to be good for joints and the nervous system.

We spent the next day there exploring the area, meeting local herdsmen who treated us to kymyz, fermented mare's milk also called kumiss, and a bowl of boiled sheep guts.

Before night fell, we drove to a neighboring gorge, Ala-Archa, where an international alpinist base camp and a Bishkek weather station are located. Ala-Archa is a national park where snow leopards, lynxes, falcons, ibexes, wild boars and wolves abound and hunting is strictly prohibited.

The country's leader, Askar Akayev, has his $30,000 presidential yurt here - the Kyrgyz equivalent of a Russian apparatchik's luxurious dacha. A road lined with 54 electricity poles was built through the thick forest to Akayev's yurt, decorated with handmade carpets and redwood furniture.

Having settled into a nice little wooden house owned by the weather station, we had dinner with our host, Viktor Bortsov, who serves as both a meteorologist and ranger at Ala-Archa. A champion sharpshooter and professional diver, Viktor is a lean, muscular man who dresses in military fatigues. Chain-smoking and with a permanent gold-toothed grin, he told us stories, including how Akayev gives gifts, such as a $3 million snow leopard cub, to honored guests and about the black market in rare hunting falcons, where a bird goes for $25,000.

In the morning, we climbed a nearby mountain to see an alpinists' cemetery. In the shadowy, humid forest, there are a number of graves of mountaineers, some of them women, who died on the steep slopes of the Tian-Shan range. A massive stone column with a bell on top was put up to commemorate an Italian explorer who perished in these mountains.

Volodya, our guide, is an alpinist, and he is enchanted with the dangerous romanticism of the mountains, even though two of his friends lie in that cemetery. Dima, is soberly skeptical about his father's hobby. Life is more precious than the dubious pleasure of sitting on a narrow ledge at 6,000 meters with the risk of falling to your death, he said with a frown.

After visiting the cemetery, we hiked up to the bottom of the closest glacier, climbing the wall of a vast winding canyon carved out by a fast-flowing river. We stopped a few times to boil some spring water on a portable stove, which we drank with candy while sitting on lush grass among bright, multicolored flowers and admiring the view. Looking up, we could see the sharp edges of rocks, wrapped in soggy fog, and icy waterfalls. Behind us was a wide-open country of soft hills coated in pine forests. And far below, the river, lined by a scattering of large boulders.

Thanks to Viktor's trained eye, we caught glimpses of the mountains' wild life. Fat marmots sat immobile on the rocks; foxes played in the bushes; herds of ibex grazed together with their young; eagles and falcons glided in the sky. It felt blissfully peaceful.

The next day, after stopping in Bishkek to pick up tents and supplies of food, we were back on the road, heading toward Lake Issyk-Kul. Seventy kilometers wide and 170 kilometers long, the lake used to be one of the Soviet Union's most popular tourist spots. Over the last 10 years its sanatoriums have fallen into disrepair and become virtually deserted. While disastrous for the Kyrgyz economy, it's good news for travelers who want to stay off the beaten track.

It was a five-hour drive to the lake from Bishkek, and along the way, especially after we entered the Issyk-Kul national park, the landscape changed wildly. Red granite walls, dangerously hanging over the road, suddenly became soft wrinkled hills, covered with velvety moss. A semi-desert with tall dunes that looked like frozen waves was transformed into fresh green pastures or flat savannas with trees here and there.

We passed numerous Moslem cemeteries with graves shaped like mini-castles and mosques, looking like Hollywood sets built in the middle of a California desert. Thanks in part to the efforts of Turkish and Iranian missionaries, Islam is slowly growing in Kyrgyzstan.

We chose the southern route around the bulging belly of the lake. While the north of Issyk-Kul is relatively developed, the south is sparsely populated. We seemed to cross more graves than people in the few villages we drove through. A bunch of dirty children dragged a donkey behind them; an occasional old man wearing a kolpak, the national felt hat, rode past on a horse. With no tourism infrastructure whatsoever, or any other kind of work, young men killing time squatted along the side of the road.

For dinner, we stopped at a scattering of yurts serving as cafes and decorated in a wonderfully kitschy Kyrgyz style, with gaudy felt and artificial velvet rugs and tablecloths with parrots. A friendly hostess served us delicious shorpo soup, made from lamb and potatoes, and a bar of Titanic chocolate.

In the Russian village of Tamga, where we spent the night in a cozy, whitewashed house engulfed in rosebushes, people also seemed to be obsessed with the movie. They wore Titanic T-shirts featuring Chinese actors posing as Kate and Leo, played Titanic cards and chewed Titanic gum.

In the morning, we finally had a chance to take a dip in the lake. Swimming in the pure green water, which had a slightly salty taste, felt good on our tired muscles after the tough climb of the day before. Only a few cars drove past us, we spotted not a single boat and the pebbled shore was wonderfully deserted - no cafes, no music, no beach chairs or umbrellas. A boy rode his horse to the edge of the water to let it drink and left, showing no curiosity about the strangers.

From the shore of the lake, we drove to the Dzheti-Ogus gorge, located not far from Kumtor, which contains one of the 10 biggest gold deposits in the world. The rough drive in the gorge ended at a bridge that had been swept away by a river running so fast that it seemed to be boiling over its banks. We spent the night there in tents.

The next morning, after giving a local family some candy and fruit to keep watch over our car while we were gone, we headed off on a long hike. The valley was framed with soft, woody mountains and crowned with the 5,200-meter Dzheti-Ogus peak, white from top to bottom with a glacier. On a gentle descent, we walked past herds of horses, and cute white-eared cows and sheep grazing peacefully on the meadows along the meandering river.

We met a group of locals and hired three horses from them for the equivalent of only $5. Two of us sat on each of the obedient horses and we rode toward the glacier, crossing springs so powerful that they seemed capable of carrying us away together with our mounts. Several hours later, we reached the base of the glacier. There, we had a simple lunch of flatbread, tomatoes, coffee and kymyz, enjoying the majestic mountains at an altitude of 3,500 meters. On the way back down, the herdsmen offered us a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.

The plan was to camp on the shore of Issyk-Kul for the night. That's when we took the wrong turn, found ourselves on the spooky prison beach and drove off, hitting a tremendous pothole in the dark. At noon the next day we were still sitting on the side of the road waiting for Volodya to fix the three broken wheels in a car repair shop in the nearby town of Karakol. I had to catch a plane to Moscow at 7 p.m. that evening, and we had still had to drive back to Bishkek.

Luckily, Volodya soon returned and we raced back around the lake - this time along the shorter and more developed northern shore. We whisked through Cholpon-Ata, the center of Issyk-Kul tourism, where most sanatoriums and holiday homes are located. The contrast with the south was striking. A multitude of tiny Asian-style cafes resembling little theater stages with open flowery curtains and diners sitting inside on an elevated platform lined the road. Old ladies sold jars of local honey and sun-dried fish that hung from hooks on wooden stands, their bellies gaping open.

Before leaving the lake we were rewarded for our troubles with a blissful good-bye swim near Mount Prishib just past Cholpon-Ata, where the road runs closest to the waterfront. We made it to the airport just in time.

How to Get There

Three airlines fly to Kyrgyzstan, including Aeroflot. We flew on Kyrgyz Airlines, leaving Moscow's Domodedovo airport at 12:40 a.m. and arriving in Bishkek at 6:35 a.m. Tickets cost about $330 round-trip.

A Kyrgyz visa costs $70 and can be obtained in one day at the Kyrgyz Embassy at 64 Bolshaya Ordynka Ulitsa, Tel. 237-3364 or 237-4882. Russians do not need a visa.

There are a number of travel agencies in Bishkek that arrange adventure trips from hiking to whitewater rafting to mountaineering on the country's 7,000-meter peaks, but they proved hard to get hold of. Many telephone numbers seem to have changed or appear to no longer be working.

We found our superb guide, Vladimir Vakurin, through Kyrgyz Travel, an agency run by his friend Alexander Danichkin, Tel. (996-312) 279-975. The four of us paid $100 each for a week of traveling, excluding the costs of food and lodging when we were not camping out. Danichkin also owns a homey hotel in Tamga near Lake Issyk-Kul where you can stay for $5 a night. You have to provide your own food.