Cold blue alpine lakes sparkling below the crisp and open skies, rolling grasslands mounted by sturdy felt yurts and the lone Kyrgyz cowboy galloping aback a long-maned mountain pony, icy peaks rising stony above the plains – I suppose this is our ideal, the traveler’s ideal, of Kyrgyzstan. A pristine natural wilderness found in pockets of land like Song Kol, Kel Tor.
Two summer ago – my first in Bishkek – E, I and a local friend of our recently returned from Turkey headed up to Kegeti for a weekend of hiking. We stayed a night in a guesthouse (Kegetz Tour) at the bottom of the gorge, strayed all over the mountain following blind cowpaths until we eventually located the alpine lake (Kel Tor Lake), and vowed we would later return with a tent.
This summer I called the same guesthouse and arranged for us to drive out on Friday and stay until Sunday, with plenty of time to hike to both lake and waterfall. I’m not quite sure why we didn’t think to camp.
Like most things in Kyrgyzstan, Kegeti and Kel-Tor Lake is a mixed bag: beautiful, but not easily accessed, a tiring drive and a limb-rendering hike.
On the website the guesthouse is listed as being 95 km away from Bishkek. Google Maps proclaims it a mere hour and twenty six minutes from our house. It took us four hours to get there, in part because of the road quality (the last 10 kilometers alone take an hour, unless you have a jeep or dare risk bottoming out your car), in part because the directions we had weren’t very good (i.e. said to drive 35 km after Ivanovka and turn left before a bridge, when we passed the bridge after only 27 km and ended up in Burana), in part because we got stuck behind several cow herds, and in part because we encountered some very friendly (and not entirely sober) local residents who invited us to tea when we asked for directions. Going back, even without the missed turns, it took three hours.
So, getting to Kegeti: We took the old Bishkek-Issyk Kul Road, passed through Kant, turned South at the stoplight in the middle of Isanovka Village, and then meandered south and east and west and every which way among the old road bouncing through roadside villages, one after another appearing the same to my untrained eyes – messy fields stripped of hay, Russian-style cottages with their white plaster walls and light blue lattice work, gates hanging crooked and fences collapsing into their road, once grand Soviet Squares with paint peeling and weeds growing in the cracked cement. Kyrgyzstan (as Bishkek itself) must have looked lovely in the waning of the Soviet age; now all but a few fresh houses look like they’ve been abandoned to the winds and time.
After wandering so far we found ourselves by the Burana Tower, and calling the guesthouse to be given only the name of a village even google didn’t know, we stopped at one store to inquire after directions. I’ve forgotten how friendly people are outside of Bishkek. Despite us not buying anything, the old woman sitting behind the counter stood up with matronly cheer and directed us on the right path, even stepping out of her store and pointing us the right way down the street to make sure that we, complete strangers, wouldn’t repeatedly lose our way. In Bishkek the most common answer to any inquisition is generally a languid “ya ne-zhaaaayo” (I don’t know). But outside of Bishkek we’re back in communities where residents have historic bonds between each other and great incentive to cultivate good relations through daily interactions. In Bishkek, remember, as late as 1989 there were only 142,000 Kyrgyz residents in Bishkek (23% of 620,000); by 2009 the estimated Kyrgyz population had risen to 710,000. Most of these people migrated in from diverse villages and towns within the last two and a half decades, and have little connection with their neighbors – especially not shared relations that stretch back for several generations. If you’re rude to someone in Bishkek, you’ll likely as not never see them again. In the village – potentially huge social repercussions. Obviously this isn’t the only reason villagers show such hospitality, but it is a factor in enforcing certain behavior.
We next stopped to inquire whether we were on the right road (as we hadn’t seen the sign for the supposed village) and were greeted with elbows rested on the car window, and a smile breaking open to reveal a mouth of gold-plated teeth as inquiries were made as to where we were from, where we were going, what we did, who we were, and how we had ended up in their little unmarked village two dozen kilometers from even the old Issyk Kul road. One of the pair said that his daughter had just returned from Istanbul on holiday, and invited us down the road to his house for tea. “Just for five minutes” we acquiesced, and went along, as it was on our general way. Five minutes is, of course, not a set time in Kyrgyzstan.
It turned out his daughter had graduated from the same university in which E works and – remember that friend who accompanied us the first time mentioned in the beginning? – it seems there were both in the same class, different branches of the same major. Our host’s daughter and her husband, who hails from another village ten kilometers off, work in Istanbul, where they reside with their two Turkish-speaking and indefatigably politely adorable daughters. Small world is Kyrgyzstan. We chatted along, swished tea, and tried to refuse the offerings of watermelon and syrupy fried dough set out on the outdoor table for the end-of-Ramazan holiday, all thick under the cover of sticky-legged flies. We had a small bottle of Finlandia in the car, of which E offered our (already lubricated host), and the son in law took out beer to toast our tea. A holy festival was had by all – and just a reminder that, as some parts of Kyrgyzstan are turning conservative, other parts are decidedly not. We were invited back, to stay the weekend or the day, and agreed to drive the Istanbulu family of four back to Bishkek on our Sunday return. Not sure how we would have fit them all in the car, though I once saw a family of nine in a Lada.
On we proceeded and…discovered that, though the keys were in the door, no proprietor would arrive at the guesthouse for another four hours. So we looked around at the rooms (small, neat), took a short walk, made a picnic lunch out on the sole splintery table furnishing the wide porch overlooking the gorge, and rested in the spacious (but empty and plastic-smelling) living room. An odd guest-house, Kegetz-Tour: nearly brand new, impeccably white and clean, and yet not an ounce of real comfort. Everything is finished in metal and plastic and tile instead of the soft solid woods, plaster and stone of surrounding residences. The rooms are big, but empty and not airy. A broad porch gives views up the gorge and to the surrounding fields, but has only a grey and weather-worn table for furnishing – nowhere to sit, enjoy or repose. It could be lovely, but it feels incongruous with the surroundings.
When the gentle-spirited caretaker arrived she informed us that 1) all of the upstairs rooms were without electricity, due to some problem that would be fixed this week or next [maybe] and, (more important for us) 2) Though breakfast was included in the room price, full board was not to be had. Having lunched and dined at the guesthouse on our previous visit, we were not expecting this, and had brought along only a bounty of fruit and some stuffs for maximum of three picnic lunches, not enough to tide us over for two and a half days of both lunch and dinner, especially in post-hiking hunger. So we settled into the one available room, with a cracked window that flopped open of it’s own accord and a bathroom clean, albeit also full of cleaning supplies. Our ill-fitting sheets were laid out on the beds, for us to make ourselves.
Dinner was an amalgamation of picnic supplies and half a bottle of red wine; breakfast the next morning a cheery offering of instant coffee and hot oatmeal cooked with milk beside some untouched white bread and butter. I guess for 1800 som (for the two of us) the room wasn’t a bad price, though it lacked the charm of better guesthouses, and both hominess and value of a CBT (usually 400-700 som/person for accommodation and breakfast). Unfortunately there are no CBTs in the area, but there are plenty of places to camp alongside the wide river bed snaking up the gorge, and tent rental is possible from Trekking Union Kyrgyzstan.
Guesthouse and Surroundings:
As for hiking… it’s a long trek up to the alpine lake, the first part flat, the second part a series of shale and gravel switchbacks that are particularly difficult when descending (I could see hiking poles being quite useful), the third through forests and alpine meadows. We started a few naked Russians camped out by some rapids, came across three groups of hikers (all Russian), snacked a few times, only wandered off the path once, and made it up to the lake within about three hours. It’s a hard hike on gluts and thighs but less exhausting, I found, than our excursion around Issyk Ata. Photos will have to suffice for a full description:
Difficulty: Medium. My gluts definitely burned on the slopes, but I didn’t feel dead at the end.
Length: No idea; perhaps 2 km on the flat and quite a bit going uphill. Plan 2-3 hours for ascending and 1.5-2.5 hours for descending at a moderate pace.
Bring: Plenty of water (unless you have iodine tablets, I’d be wary of taking any water from the mountain streams, however tempting, just because of the number of livestock around); food (no shops within 10-15 kilometers of base); sunglasses and hat, possibly a picnic blanket to lay by the lake.
Wear: While it might rain in the afternoon, it’s probably not going to be cool. There’s not a lot of undergrowth on the trail, so you can wear shorts (I just wore running shorts). If you burn easily, wear a UVA-ray blocking breathable long-sleeved shirt, otherwise just go for a t-shirt and sunblock. Because of the shale and gravel coming down, it would have been nice to have actual hiking boots with better-gripping sole.