A Wonderful Kyrgyzstan Trekking Holiday
'We climbed to 3800m, by the end of that I felt like I had spent the whole day on a Stairmaster!'
If this sounds like fun to you, then maybe you should try a Kyrgyzstan trekking holiday..
‘OMG I can’t wait to hear all about your holiday’... said no one ever!
Those ‘funny’ anecdotes... photos of cocktails... holiday friends… well you really had to be there..
Not this time though! My sister-in-law, Sonia, has just returned from a Kyrgyzstan trekking holiday. She had posted a few photos on Facebook while she was away, and it looked AMAZING! When I had the opportunity to talk about the trip with her I thought I’d share it with you. I’ve never interviewed a relative before, but it was so lovely to get the full insider knowledge.First of all, you should know this about my sister-in-law, she is VERY active. Keen on physical fitness, she’s body pump and 10k a day, ‘about to become captain of the ladies golf team’ levels of fit.
I’m setting the scene because this holiday isn’t for everyone. Sonia, her military husband, Mark and their two adult sons, Joe and Ben, set out on a 15-day trek across mountain ranges in one of the worlds rare undiscovered tourist destinations. I'll let her tell you about it in her own words.
Almost Alpine scenery
Tell me, how come you decided on a Kyrgyzstan trekking holiday?
'Well, like everyone, we’re restricted on holiday options this year because of the pandemic. We were about to book Georgia, in search of a mountainous, hiking, trekking adventure, but Georgia was put on the amber list for us (Sonia lives in Abu-Dhabi).
Joe had been reading about Kyrgyzstan and so we started contacting the tour companies in that area to see what they could offer. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really heard much about the country before that.'
So, what sort of thing does Kyrgyzstan have to offer?
'Everything that we were looking for really. We wanted to be trekking in mountains, enjoying the scenery, and getting away from the hustle and bustle that comes with living in a huge city. After a few email conversations we settled on the Kyrgyz Exploration Company. They took care of all the bookings for us, as each trek is booked through a small family business. Although the trip comprised of several shorter treks, we were able to just request a start and finish point, and have it handled by one company. It was super convenient, and they were really professional. If anyone is considering taking a Kyrgyzstan trekking holiday I would recommend speaking with them.'
That's great. Did they tell you what you need to take? What on earth do you pack to trek the mountains in Central Asia?
'The packing list was quite comprehensive. We had to pack waterproofs and camel packs for the water, and the usual light layers and socks that you’d expect for a walking holiday. Accommodation and beds/bedding was provided by the company, so we didn’t need to bring tents or anything like that. We were told to expect it to be reasonably warm during the day, and that temperatures would drop during the night. During the day it was beautiful, clear blue skies, we were walking in shorts and t-shirts. In some places, when we got to a few thousand feet, as soon as you stop moving around it was cold.'
That does sound like a comprehensive list. So, after you arrived in Bishkek and had a day to acclimatise and get organised, you set off for the first part of the trekking tour? Was it a gentle start to get you into the swing of things?
'It was hard, but it was absolutely stunning! It was one of the mountains in the Ala-Archa National Park. Everything looked almost Alpine, like Switzerland but without the tourists! It was a one-day circular route, to see the mountains and get us used to walking at altitude. Then we stayed in a little guest house overnight that night. It was the owner of the guest house who was our guide the next day. We just had to pack enough for an overnight camping trip, we had pack horses to carry the tents, food and other equipment.
We didn’t see anyone all day, it was like our own, private mountain. In the evening we collected wood and made a campfire, the guides set up the tents and began the cooking. I was amazed by what they were able to carry and prepare. They served us vegetable and meat stew, fresh bread and jams and they had carried it all.'
The definition of 'off the beaten track'
Were you able to freshen up for dinner, after all that walking?
'Yes, we freshened up in the mountain streams!
They were icy fresh, so getting a wash was a bit chilly, but the fresh clear water was perfect to refill our camel packs, great for drinking.'
BBRRR! Then a nice cosy night’s sleep in the tent?
'Not for me. The guys were ok, but I didn’t get lots of sleep, the mountain was so very cold. I was freezing.
The next morning, I was shattered but we were up and off again. We trekked to the base of the mountain on the other side to meet our driver who had collected our luggage and was ready to take us to our next guest house for the night.'
I bet you were ready for a warm shower? Was there any entertainment or were you just ready to sleep after all the exertion?
'Oh yes, it was so nice to be clean and fresh again! Then we went to the shore of Lake Issyk Kul, stopping off at a beautiful Chinese restaurant that was on the edge of a lake. Literally just in the middle of nowhere, it was super popular, and it did the most amazing dim-sum. You wouldn’t have expected it, but actually Kyrgyzstan has many influences from the bordering countries like Russia and China.'
So where did you go from here?
'We stayed in guest house overnight then spent the next day travelling to Balykchy. It was another mountainous area, it had a very Alpine feel to it. We were travelling in a 4X4 for most of the day.
What you have to understand here, is that there are no roads, just tracks, really rough tracks, created by horses. You’re crossing fjords all the time, where the water is rushing down the mountain, and there is no signposting. You have no idea where you are. It’s the definition of off beaten track really!'
I’ve watched too many scary films, I think I would have been a bit nervous!
'Oh, not at all. Our driver Sam was lovely. We felt very safe, and he was a very capable driver over the rough terrain.'
Were there many other people around?
'Not tourists, no, but as we gradually drove up into the mountains, we passed families living in yurts. We stopped to meet a family where the children train eagles to hunt for them and pose for photos to earn some pocket money. They live with very little, there isn’t a lot of money to go around.'
Just don't ask about the toilets..
Where did you stay that night?
'There was a yurt camp up at the top of the mountain. Oh, I must tell you about the food here!
Supper that night was fish soup. I got some tail, my husband and the boys had bits of head with eyeballs and everything. We were just staring at it at first. A big bit of tail, in the bowl. Eyes staring. It didn’t look great!!
We tried it hesitantly, oh it was absolutely delicious! It’s the way it should be really, real fish in the fish soup.
You’re camping at the side of the river and literally, they pull the fish out. It was one of the best soups that I have ever had.'
What is the set up for eating in the yurts? I assume it’s not tables and chairs?
'No, you’re very low down. Everyone sits on cushions around a really low table. Another thing that was new to us was that in the middle of the table there is always a selection of breads, biscuits, jam and sweets no matter what the meal. Delicious! The food here was divine, all freshly made, divine. One thing that wasn’t divine though.. the toilets!'
Eurgh, oh no! That was on my list of questions but I was a bit nervous to ask! What happens with toileting on this trip?
'The toilets oh my goodness! If you’re lucky there might be some sort of corrugated iron room with a hole in the floor with wooden slats. You take your own paper and I suppose it kind of composts. I’ll be honest, I preferred to go more naturally so that I wasn’t touching anything and there were no extra smells and odours. Just take a spade and bury it. There are no sit down toilets out at these camps.'
Oh wow. Not for the faint hearted then! You must have been glad to head back down to the guest house the next day to freshen up and get ready for the next trek, what was that?
'The Ala-kul pass. We left our suitcases at the guest house and just packed for the three day trip. It was a very early start, but the first day was steady away. We walked from Karakol Gorge to Serota.
It was breath-taking. The scenery was absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen my husband take so many photos, ever. It was incredible.'
When you say steady away, was it a flat walk?
'No, it was a steady climb. It was the most beautiful valley with absolutely stunning gorges. It was a long day but not too taxing. We did have to cross very fast-flowing waters though. Our guide insisted that we didn’t stop to take photos on the wooden structure, you couldn’t call it a bridge more like a walkway, as we were crossing the water, it’s too dangerous.'
I bet, especially if you’re carrying all your bags, you could easily topple.
'Yes, although, on this walk we had a guide, a chef and 3 porters! They were carrying all the cooking equipment, the extra tents our sleeping bags, everything. Two of the porters were apprentices and they were absolutely shattered by the end of the day, but still they set up the base camp and prepared a beautiful meal.'
Like spending the day on a stairmaster!
That must have been nice after all that walking.
'It really was. I slept a bit better this time as well. We had an early start the next day, we set off at 7.30am and oh boy, this was this was the toughest day overall. By the end of the day I felt like I had spent the day on a Stairmaster. We climbed to 3800m and you could feel the air was different, cooler. We were thankful for that, it would have been a harder walk if it was hot. There was a lot of moisture in the air and when the boys got to the top they saw a really light snowfall. I was a little further behind, I missed it.'
Aw, if it’s any consolation I would have been miles behind you and missed it too! What was the camp like up there?
'This was the first time we actually met other tourists. There were about 5 other camps going on. The views up here were spectacular, it was all worth it. Absolutely breath-taking.
Coming down though, well, I think that was perhaps even harder. There was loose slate underfoot, and you’re looking down all the time. I was so pleased when we reached the bottom without falling.'
I bet, walking downhill is really hard on your knees isn’t it? What was at the bottom?
'At the bottom we were camping near some hot springs!! That is exactly what you need to soothe your muscles after a very hard trek. There were little bathhouses over the springs and you have your own room. The water is 35 degrees. We really needed it. It was amazing. The springs were very popular and food that night was a group set up, we had a table in the big yurt and there were other groups there.'
After all that did you want to rest at one place for a day and get yourself ready for more trekking?
'Kind of, but you know that it is best to keep your body moving, so we were fine with just an overnight stay before we were on to the next place.'
You’re a machine, you do know that? What did the next day hold?
'We were travelling in the car for quite a few hours Barskoon Gorge for the next section.
Its clay and rock, it looks a bit like the Grand Canyon and Ayers Rock, except there’s so much green around it. So incredibly beautiful. We explored a lot of places this day, there is a place called Fairytale Land, a small canyon! We were resting our legs though, being driven around in the car sightseeing.'
Sightseeing! I can get on board with that.
'You would have loved the next day. It was amazing, we were shown lots of the local traditions, including hunting with eagles, I had a 6-kilo eagle on my arm. They can see for miles, and they must wear the hood, so they are not over stimulated. We tried archery too. Then we were back in the car for a long drive to the next spot.'
Where to now?
'This was a 2-day trek with our overnight bags again. We didn’t need anything else as we were going to a yurt camp that night. We started from a base camp and by the end of it my phone told me that I had walked 31km, a ridiculous number of steps, up a mountain!! And the guide was on a horse!
We reached a spectacular lake, and the plan was to walk another hour and a half to see another lake that was even higher. Then it would be more than 3 hours to walk back down to base camp. I’d had enough, and Mark and the boys continue while I walked back down to base camp. I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t get back down before it was dark.'
OMG I would have been frantic!
'Yes, it’s not an easy climb. I think I worried the guide too! She started to question whether she should have let them continue. It worked out fine though, they got to the lake and ran back down! They were back easily before dark.'
You should have known really…
'Yes, Ben arrived back not much longer after me!
We stayed there that night then walked back down the mountain in the morning. Our driver met us at the base with all our other stuff.'
I’m exhausted just listening to you! Was there more walking the next day? A rest day? Tell me there was a rest day!
'What’s a rest day? Ha-ha, I’m just kidding, there were rest days, just not yet!
We drove to the most stunning place, Song Kul Lake. That was a horse’s paradise, with big open planes. We spent hours getting to it, but it was beautiful, the most stunning lake and mountain in the backdrop.
The yurt camp there was quite new. There was even a shower with a shower tray, and a cabin with a proper toilet. Seriously though, waking up there was incredible, it was the most memorable, stunning place. I think the most beautiful place that I have ever woken up to. We took horses out the next day to really enjoy the journey over the mountain pass, we were on the horses for about 5 hours. The guide leading us must have been about 70, and he was so happy in the saddle in his best clothes. It was his family business, and he was so proud of his work. We got to the next yurt camp for the last night then back to Bishkek.'
Rest day? Come on, this must be where the rest days are?
'Yes. We had tagged 2 extra nights on our own, not part of the trip.
We’d booked into a nice 5-star hotel. It was wonderful, we were so ready for it. There was a sauna, steam room, home comforts, heavenly.'
Did you see much of the real Bishkek?
'We had an invite from Sam our driver to spend the night in their house, we got on really well. He didn’t have lots of English, but his 19-year-old twin daughters spoke perfect English and were able to translate. Family life there is everything. They all always eat together and spend hours talking, eating and drinking. This is how they spend their time. We were so glad we did that, it was a proper view into their real lives. The family were wonderful. We had drinks and food in the hotel too, that was fantastic.'
Did you have suitable clothes for a 5-star hotel?
'We had some outfits that we packed for our Dubai quarantine on the way home, so we were able to get tidied up.'
Dubai quarantine? Explain?
'If we had flown home to Abu-Dhabi we would have had to quarantine for 7 days in our apartment, wrist tags and everything. It would have been so hard. If we were to fly back to Dubai, there is no quarantine, so we were able to stay in a hotel and enjoy our freedom for 7 days, then drive home to Abu-Dhabi.'
Ah, right. Yes, you hear of lots of people moving to an intermediate country to wait out the days rather than quarantining. I guess it makes sense if you have the time.
You must have a real sense of achievement having completed that tour? Would you recommend it?
'Yes, definitely. For an active, outdoorsy family like ours it was absolutely perfect.
Letting the Kyrgyz Exploration Company handle the schedule and bookings was a brilliant way to do it. You really felt that you could relax and enjoy the walking because everything was covered.'
Aw, thanks for sharing your experiences with us Sonia. The photos are fantastic, this has really inspired me. I’m not sure I’m up to that level of exertion, but I think maybe we could be more adventurous with our next holiday booking!
You’re welcome, I’ve enjoyed talking about it!
Thanks for reading!
Sonia and family booked their tour through the Kyrgz Exploration company. They handle all the individual bookings to provide a trek individually catered to your requirements from adventure treks to cultural stays, mountaineering races, and other expeditions on horseback, jeep, or ski.