Yurt Stays and Horse Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is blessed with natural beauty and scenic landscapes. The location on the old Silk Route and in the Tien Shan Mountains (means heavenly mountains) means that 90% of this country is mountainous which makes it a paradise for hikers and horse trekking.
Kyrgyzstan has been described as Central Asia’s Patagonia and it’s one of the world’s most spectacular trekking destinations but is still mostly undiscovered by tourists.
As tourism is still just developing in Kyrgyzstan, it’s a great place to hit the trail, experience gorgeous untouched, rugged landscapes and, in many places, you’ll have the mountains all to yourself!
One of the best ways to see the stunning mountain vistas and the nomadic culture is to saddle up and join a horse trek.
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While out exploring the mountains you can still get an insight into the nomadic lifestyle of the genuinely friendly Kyrgyz people as they move from pasture to pasture with their yurts (called bosuy in Kyrgyz) and livestock.
Due to the great Community Based Tourism (CBT) initiatives, its easy and affordable to arrange treks and you can even stay in a yurt with a shepherds family while exploring the mountains.
Many treks in Kyrgyzstan can be done either on foot or on horse back. The Song Kol Lake Trek (3013m) is one of the most popular routes for horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
It’s a gorgeous lake surrounded by mountains and summer pastures. In the summer there are many horse trekking routes from Kyzyl Art to Song Kol lake, most take 1 to 3 days, and there are many overnight yurt stays there.
But I wanted to do something a bit different and bit more off beat….
My experience horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
I was lucky enough to do several horse treks, my photos really don’t do justice to the incredible scenery and views – (its harder than I thought to take good photos while on the back of a moving horse going up a steep mountain!) so for the full effect you’ll just have to go yourself!
I did a fabulous horse trek through the lush green hills of the offbeat but now up and coming Jyrgalan Valley. We trekked from the sleepy, rustic, adorable village of Jyrgalan over several passes to a small waterfall and a lake.
I loved how a couple of foals came with us and on our return to the village at sunset we joined the local shepherds as they herded their sheep across a rickety bridge. For more info check out https://jyrgalan.com/
Next I explored Karakol and Bokonbayevo, saw some interesting natural wonders and took some interesting cultural programs like cookery classes, an eagle hunting display and learnt how to built a yurt and how to make a traditional shyrdak (beautiful patterned felt rug) and swam in the beautiful Issyk Kul Lake. Contact Destination Karakol or South Shore DMO for more info on these activities.
From Bokonbayevo I embarked on a 3 day horse trek on the Panorama Trail. The trek loops through the valleys, over passes as high as 3,500m, staying in shepherds yurts and ends back in Bokonbayevo.
With a horse guide, his friendly dog, and an English speaking guide/ translator we rode for about 6 hours each day. It was more like Western riding than the horse riding I’ve done in the UK and I learned a very important Kyrgyz word – chut which means go!
At first the terrain was quite flat and the riding was easy, we saw wild horses and local horseman riding past, passed shepherd yurt camps surrounded by animals freely grazing on the lush summer pastures, crossed alpine rivers and as we climbed higher the views over the mountains and the snow capped peaks in the distance was just spell bounding.
The weather changed alot, from sunny to overcast to hail! We stopped for lunch either having a picnic on the side on the mountain or in taking shelter in a basic sheperds huts or yurt and enjoying the hospitality of a local family wher the lunch consisted of the regular Kyrgyz food – bread, homemade jams and cream and many bowls of hot tea.
For the first night we stayed with a shepherds family at Jazuu Kechuu Jailoo, they had a yurt connected to a small, basic hut in a remote but picturesque location in a green rolling valley, beside a shimmering alpine lake and surrounded by snow capped mountains.
It was chilly and inside the hut was basic but the stove, the hot cups of tea, bread and jam, Qurut (cheese balls), plov (traditional Central Asian rice dish) and the friendly Kyrgyz hospitality kept me warm while outside the family milked and herded up the animals ready for the night.
Even though it’s a beautiful location it must be a tough life living up here, the family all sleep on the floor in one room, there’s no toilet or shower but they can make a little electricity from a solar panel.
Through the translator, I asked the families about their lives in such a raw and remote place. Kyrgyz people were traditionally nomadic but nowadays these families only live up here in the Summer, they take the animals up to these summer pastures to fatten them up before the winter comes.
The way they earn their money is because they also look after other people’s animals who then pay them when they return. They also have to milk the animals twice a day and each morning old soviet trucks come to collect the milk and bring essential groceries and supplies from the town.
In Winter this valley is covered in snow and the family live in a house in Bokonbayevo where the children go to school and they say that they spend most their winter going to weddings and celebrating. So not such a bad life!
The next day the weather started off really sunny and warm. As we climbed higher the views got even more astounding but the trail got stepper and smaller as we zig zagged across the mountains upto the Tashtar Ata pass at 3,500 m.
I can’t imagine horses in the UK being able to do this but the Kyrgyz horses are hardy, they reminded me of mountain goats the way they didn’t lose their footing even on rocks on the side of a mountain at altitude.
Just as I thought the views couldn’t get any better we would climb even higher and the views were even more mesmerising.
At the top of the pass we had a picnic lunch of bread, veggies, cheese, sausage and dried fruits and nuts. On one side was gloriously sunny with views for miles while on the other side instead of seeing the panoramic view over the mountains and Issyk Kul lake, the thick fog below obscured everything from sight and combined with the sheer drop it almost felt like we were on the edge of the world.
But what goes up must come down and actually going steep downhill through the fog which then turned into a torrential hailstorm was hard and quite uncomfortable in places but we took it slowly and got down safely.
You can always get off and walk if you ever feel uncomfortable on the horse, although I found the steep decline hurt my knees and preferred to let the horse do the hard work!
The second night we stayed at a more touristy yurt camp down in Boz Salkyn Jailoo. You can actually come here without trekking on a day trip from Bokonbayevo.
Apparently some people come to stay here as a kind of health retreat to drink fresh kymz fermented mares milk every 2 hours.
The valley was really beautiful and not being so high altitude as the previous night meant that it wasn’t so cold.
From Boz Salkyn you can take a short trek up Shatyly panorama to get an amazing view over Issyk Kul lake. I did this at sunset on my last day in Kyrgyzstan and it was the perfect ending to adventures through Kyrgyzstan!
How to arrange horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
The Discover Kyrgyzstan website has lots of information about visiting Kyrgyzstan. Unlike other Central Asian countries Kyrgyzstan offers free 60 day visas on arrival for many countries including USA, Canada, UK, Australia, NZ, most European countries and more. See here for more info.
It’s easy to arrange treks through the network of CBT Kyrgyzstan (Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan) offices across the country.
I organised this trek from the CBT office in Bokonbayevo, they speak good English and can arrange everything from homestays, drivers, treks, cultural activities and more. You can just pop into the office and they should be able to get you out on a hike the next day or so or you can email them if you want to get things organised before you go. See here on their website for a list of horse treks around Bokonbayevo.
You’ll probably want a translator/ guide too as most people in Kyrgyzstan do not speak English and having an English speaking guide was invaluable for me to be able to speak to the shepherd families. (Many still speak Russian though so you could converse in Russian)
If you are vegetarian, tell them in advance. Kyrgyz people eat a lot of meat but most of the time they should be able to cater for vegetarians with advance notice.
Pack layers and waterproofs because, even in Summer, while it’s warm and sunny down on the shores of Issky Kul Lake, the weather up in the mountains is totally unpredictable so take lots of layers and waterproof clothing.
Just in one day it would go from being hot and sunny, to being foggy, overcast and then torrential hailstorm downpours in the space of a few hours but the storms usually pass quite quickly and sometimes the guide got us to a hut for shelter in time, other times we just had to brave it and get totally soaked!
Night times were quite cold too so bring a warm sleeping bag but the homestays often have heaps of blankets.
My amazing trip to Kyrgyzstan was made possible by Discover Kyrgyzstan with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) The contents of my blogs are, as always, my own opinions and experiences and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
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Have you been horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan? Where did you go?