At Song Kul Lake - An Unforgettable Experience

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Kochkor, Naryn, Kyrgyzstan
Saturday, September 22, 2012

Guidebooks rate Song Kul  lake (3000+ m) highly as a place to experience classic Kyrghyz high-alpine scenery.  They call it one of the loveliest spots in central Kyrgyzstan.  All around the lake  are lush pastures favored by herders from the Kochkor valley who spend June to September here with their animals. Visitors are welcome to stay in the yurts for a small cost. You can get there from the town of Kochkor, a short 2 hour detour from the main road going south around the lake Assyk-Kol.  Besides it was a good way to break up the distance between Karakol and Bishkek which we had covered in a single journey just two days ago. 

We got an early start from Karakol to give us enough time in the afternoon to organize the trip from Kochkor to Song Kul for the next day. We opted for a numbered marshrutka (minibus) ride on the southern lake road (thereby completing a full circumnavigation when we reached Balykchy) but found out that it cost the same as a shared-taxi and was slower due to frequent stops on the way, some lasting almost a full hour. The views of Lake Assyk-Kol from the southern side were much better than from the northern side. We saw evidence of tourism development in some towns close to the beach,  but for now it still looked calm and unspoilt, at least in the low season. At Balykchy, we got into a private vehicle (lower fare compared to the shared-taxi swarm) heading towards Kochkor.

The local CBT helped us with a homestay just behind the main market. This one was the most luxurious one so far. The house was tastefully furnished, had  a well appointed dining room and the delicious fare laid out on the dinner table was a quite a feast.

There were two options to visit Song Kul. One involved a significant part of the journey on horseback with 2 nights in a yurt and the other was to hire car and driver, drive right up to the lake and stay there just one night. As it was late in the season and it was expected to be below freezing at night, we opted for the latter.

The first 40 km of the road (towards Naryn) is paved but once we turned onto the Song Kul road, it got rough and wild. The description would read the same as our earlier ones "wide green valleys with horses, cattle and sheep, beneath high brown mountains capped with glaciers and snow". But each one was more spectacular than the other. Another big difference on this trip was that with a car and driver at our disposal we could stop as often as we wanted. We could barely put our cameras down as every hairpin bend would open up a new vista eliciting appreciative sighs. This was a very remote location and we saw no towns after Sary Bulak at the Song Kul turnoff. We spotted two bicyclists on the uphill stretch and shook our heads in amazement and horror at what they were attempting.

As we neared the high point on the road (3400 m), we could see evidence of fresh snow and icon the road but they were clearly melting in the sun during mid-day. We caught sight of the lake once we went over the pass. We could see the unmistakable round white yurts by the lake and passed several groups of animals (sheep, cattle, donkeys, horses) at various intervals. At some point down, we veered off the dirt road and straight onto the wide grassland. We could scarcely believe our eyes as the VW sedan negotiated the untamed surface that seemed to have 4WD written all over it. After 7 km of this terrain, we arrived at the yurt camp by the lake. It was chilly at 10,000 feet.  

Lunch was served in the yurt which we shared with the host family (2 women, a 12 year old boy and a 17 month old boy) and another couple. We lost no time putting on all our layers after lunch for some horseback riding. The 12 year old boy served as guide. There was no fixed route as the land stretched as far as the eye could see before the mountains rose on one side. On the other side, the lake formed a natural boundary. In between was as much land as our eyes could take with an open blue sky. We were prepared for the cold but the winds made it a bit uncomfortable. Those who wished for an adrenalin pumping ride on horseback were disappointed. Some of the horses were content to just stay put ignoring any commands from their temporary (upstart) masters. Only the determined barks from our juvenile guide would get some reaction from them before lapsing back to their natural lethargic gait. Regardless of the behavior of the horses, it felt special to be there that day in conditions that seemed to go back centuries. No electricity or running water or flushing toilets. 

Time stood still that afternoon allowing everyone to experience the place fully. The half hour before sunset was the most magical and all cameras were put to full use to capture all that reddish glow amidst lengthening shadows that seemed to go on forever.

This was also the first occasion on our entire Central Asia trip where we saw a significant number of foreigners in a single place. We got to exchange stories with several of them. At our dinner table were a group of four who were riding their 4WD from London to Dushanbe before donating their vehicle to a charity and flying back home. They had covered 21 countries in 40 days and had some very interesting tales to share about driving a car in strange countries. Everyone who had arrived at the lake on that day spoke about the 2 bicyclists we saw on the way and we all wondered about their progress. Those who had stayed there the previous night talked quite a bit about the snow fall (six inches on the ground!) which had vanished by the time we got there.

The yurt was kept warm by the furnace (also used for cooking) but the high altitude made it difficult to get restful sleep for some. Trips to the bathroom required dressing up in several layers, putting on shoes and walking a fair distance to the pit toilet. But the clear night sky was a reward for these troubles. We enjoyed a nice quiet walk along the lake in the morning. While it was still cold it, the wind had died down overnight which made it much better than the previous evening .

We expected to put our cameras away on our return journey, but the views in reverse were still captivating and we still kept clicking until we reached the paved road to Kochkor. 


Google Maps Link

Pictures & Video

Karakol-Kochkor-Song Kul Route Map
Karakol-Kochkor-Song Kul Route Map
What motivates these cyclists?
What motivates these cyclists?
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Road from Kochkor to Song Kul lake
Over the pass and down to the lake
Over the pass and down to the lake
Lone rider Yurt camp by the lake
Yurt camp by the lake
Inside the yurt Getting ready to go horseback riding
Getting ready to go horseback riding
M's horse wants to go it alone
M's horse wants to go it alone
Following a herd V's lazy horse being nudged from behind
V's lazy horse being nudged from behind
At the dinner table with the host family
At the dinner table with the host family
Grazing horses Song Kul panorama
Song Kul panorama
Yurts from across the lake
Yurts from across the lake
Sunset at Song Kul
Sunset at Song Kul
Sunset at Song Kul
Sunset at Song Kul
On the way back to Kochkor
On the way back to Kochkor
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