Big Skies in the High Kyrgyz Pamir

For whatever reason, it’s often the places where I have the most transformative experiences that get the least amount of screen time on this blog.  I think it’s because I can never really find the right words to do a place or experience I really love justice.  It’s happened in the past – there’s a reason why you don’t see any posts about things to do and see in Tbilisi or Seoul here.  But, having just written an account about nature that terrified me, I thought it would be best to get my thoughts down about our time in the high Kyrgyz Pamir, where we were fortunate enough to take a three-day trek last September while we were in Kyrgyzstan.

The Pamirs, or, more specifically, the Trans Alay range, in Kyrgyzstan don’t have much in common with the dense jungle rainforest of Suriname on paper, but to me the two represent similar types of experiences.  The uniting thread is that of dominance of the natural over the man-made.  Our time in the Pamirs of Kyrgyzstan, between Turpal Kol, Peak Lenin Base Camp, and Tuyuk Valley, wasn’t as daunting as in the dense jungle, I think due to the vast expanses of land visible from every vantage point.  This isn’t to say that obstacles didn’t exist – just in this case the antagonist was altitude over 12,000 feet, whereas in Suriname it was the hypothetical threat of creepy crawlies in every nook and cranny.

The 12,000 feet part was at least cured by prophylactic acetazolamide, with the added bonus of making all our food taste like metal!

The most common treks in Kyrgyzstan are far and away those around the picturesque lakes of Song Kul and Issyk Kul in the northern part of the country.  Wanting to get a little more off the beaten track (the World Nomad Games were happening at Issyk Kul when we were in Kyrgyzstan), we opted for a trek in the Pamirs, straddling the border with Tajikistan in the south.  Originally we had wanted to tack on a week do traverse the Pamir Highway, but timing wasn’t on our side, so we stuck to the Kyrgyz side of the border.

The day before starting, we made our way from Bishkek to Osh via Air Manas, Kyrgyzstan’s national carrier, and then had a shared taxi from Osh to Sary Mogul.  The morning of our trek, we piled into a 4X4 and trundled an hour inland, over dry river beds and pastureland, to reach our first night’s yurt camp at Turpal Kol. (For more information on what this camp is like in peak season, check out this piece by Kathmandu and Beyond)

At Turpal Kol we met Dilbar, a young Kyrgyz woman raised in Sary Mogul, but educated in Osh, who would be our guide during our trek.  Dressed in jeans, kitten heels, and a headscarf, she bounded ahead on our first days walk up (literally, up about a thousand feet of vertical elevation) toward Peak Lenin.  While we may have felt overdressed in our convertible pants, performance t-shirts, and camelbacks, Dilbar navigated the terrain with relative ease.  I’d say something about our male egos, this and that, but we had those removed years ago.

We chose to stop at around 13,800 feet.  The views were like none I’d ever seen.  Growing up in the shadow of the Cascade mountains in the Pacific Northwest, I’m not a stranger to jaw-dropping scenery.  But the Kyrgyz Pamir views were heads and tails that.  Actually, the views were about 10k greater – literally.  From where we sat, at the base of Peak Lenin, the elevation was about equal to that of the highest mountains in my home state.

We ambled back to camp, ate a dinner of potatoes, cabbage, and rice, and went to bed under a blanket of stars.  Cliché cliché cliché, I know.  There’s a reason why I don’t write about these things – my vocabulary can’t do the experiences justice.  Here are some pictures instead:

The next day we packed up our belongings and hit the road to our next yurt camp, two valleys over.  Turpal Kol, the lake for which our first yurt camp was named, shone in an opaque, electric cerulean.  We had hoped to take a polar plunge in the lake – but no deal, the lake is sacred to the people who have been grazing their herds there for hundreds of years.  In this way, Kyrgyzstan felt closer to Mongolia than Russia, with native animist practices keeping strong despite nearly a century of repressive Communist rule.

The yurt camp at Tuyuk Canyon was markedly more rustic than at Turpal Kol.  We arrived as the last patrons of the year, and only a few yurts remained.  We were greeted with a lunch of fresh non and butter made from the herd grazing all around us.  That same herd, FYI, serenaded us for most of the night, and to be honest, didn’t put on as palatable of a show as the cosmos looming overhead.

That night we also got to spend more time with Dilbar.  She told us about her life growing up in the village, studying in Osh, and working in Moscow.  I’ve never personally been to Moscow, but thinking about the dichotomy between any of the world’s great cities and the vast expanse of the Kyrgyz Pamir was enough to make me anxious.  I can’t imagine going from one to the other and functioning as a grown-up person.  But Dilbar’s resilience and positive outlook was indicative of her ability to transform and adapt with the times.  Just one generation ago, ethnic Kyrgyz like Dilbar were 100% nomadic, grazing their flocks in the summer, and holing up for the winter in warmer parts of the country.  Today’s Kyrgyz are just as adaptable, albeit the brunt of that adaptability is shown in being able to thrive in a modern developed nation rather than a traditionally agrarian one.

The next morning we were shuttled back to Osh with Dilbar, who decided she wanted to see some friends from her university days for the weekend.  As we descended from 12,000 to just over 3,000 feet, we bobbed our heads to Kyrgyz pop music and the Black Eyed Peas while weaving through flocks of goats and sheep.  We arrived to the door of our apartment building dirty and tired (and ready for a toilet with an actual seat), and exchanged pleasantries with Dilbar and our driver before parting ways.

As I’ve said before, I’m not always the most “down for nature” person – generally I find something about the human history of a place is more compelling – but to say that our trek in the Kyrgyz Pamir was anything other than the highlight of our trip in the Stans would be a lie.  The combination of the views, vaster than anything I or my travel mates had ever seen, with Dilbar’s personal narration were an excellent intro to real life in that sliver of Central Asia – an intro that has me longing to return for a more extended period of time.

We organized our tour through Community Based Travel (CBT) Kyrgyzstan.  CBT’s aim as an organization is to improve living conditions in remote mountain regions by developing a sustainable model that utilizes local natural and recreational resources.  Their website is a great resource to help you find a trip/destination that is right for you and your activity level.  There are also many horse trekking options.

Our trek cost $220 per person, and included a day trip to Uzgen, an important Uzbek-majority market town about an hour north of Osh.  The cost included transport to and from Osh to Sary Mogul – about a three hour trip in good conditions – and a night in a Sary Mogul guest house before beginning our trek.  Food is also provided, but vegetarian options are limited.  Make sure to let them know ahead of time of any dietary restrictions.  Don’t expect creature comforts, we slept on mats on the floor of yurts, and toilets were about as basic as I’d ever experienced, but if you can get over these minor inconveniences, a trek in the Kyrgyz Pamir is about as pure and immersive experience as you can get.

8 thoughts on “Big Skies in the High Kyrgyz Pamir

  • Alison Bennett Christie aka Cookie
    March 29, 2017, 7:13 pm

    What a beautiful recap of your three day hike. I loved it. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to hike at 12,000 feet. Like, can you take a deep breath? I massively envy you your star gazing at night. This is a marvelous recounting of a trek in the middle of parts wwwaaayyy distant. Very exotic and compelling to read about. More, more . . .

    • March 30, 2017, 12:42 pm

      Ha ha, thanks for the lovely note, Cookie! 🙂 Hope you’re well! xoxoNick

  • March 31, 2017, 9:40 am

    Can I go with you guys on your next trip? I love the places you two go. I’d love to spend an night in that little hut.

    Also, that baby is terrifying.

      • April 18, 2017, 12:02 pm

        Ooh, take me too. 😉 Can’t wait to see lots and lots of concrete-y photos from you!

  • travlermb
    April 1, 2017, 6:08 am

    Fantastic pictures! Mind sharing what camera gear you use? Thanks!

    • April 3, 2017, 9:26 am

      Hey there 🙂 I don’t use anything fancy – I have a Nikon D5300 frame and primarily use the kit 18-55mm lens, and for wide shots I use a Sigma 10-20mm lens. I also do a little bit of editing in Adobe Lightroom on the backend.

      I’m hoping to upgrade to a full frame DSLR soon, but the pricetags are so high, it’s a big startup cost to switch from cropped to full frame lens!

  • April 18, 2017, 12:01 pm

    I looooooooove this, Nick! 🙂 The sense of vastness from those photos is almost overwhelming.

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