With over 150 ranges, the mountains in Kyrgyzstan offer first-class trekking opportunities. Most of these mountains are in the Tian-Shan mountains towards the Chinese border. The Pamir mountains overlap the border with Tajikistan, a small but famous section thanks to the high 23,406 ft (7,134 meters) Lenin Peak. However, trekking in Kyrgyzstan is not limited to these mighty ranges, and the rest of the country offers plenty of trail options. One of these destinations is the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve, where we went trekking in Fall, a relaxing 2-night trip that has us camping by the lake.
Sary-Chelek is actually in the Western Tian Shan Mountains, in the Chatkal Range west of Kyrgyzstan. But because it’s so far remote from the usual corner of where one would place the Tian Shan mountains, it’s easy to forget that it’s part of the same mountain range in Kyrgyzstan.
Some called the Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve, other time the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve, the site had been declared one of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 1978.
Surrounded by mountain ridges, the Sari-Chelek lake sits at about 5,900 feet (1,800 meters), covering almost 500 hectares. The depth varies across the lake, but its deepest point lies at around 755 feet (230 meters). Swimming is forbidden.
Though Sary-Chelek lake is the major one, there are seven lakes in total in the area, including Kyla-Kol, Iyri-Kol, Aram-Kol, Cherek-Kol, and Bakay-Kol.
How to Get to Sary-Chelek (Arkit)
From Osh to Sary-Chelek (Arkit)
- Take a taxi from the city center to the new bus terminal north of Osh (intersection of Kasymbekov Street and Kurmanzhan Datka Street). Cost: around 100-150 Kyrgyz som (1.50 – 2 US$).
- Get on a minibus (marshrutka) to Sary-Chelek, which leaves daily at 7:40 am. Be there early if you want to secure a seat as there is only one bus a day to Sary-Chelek and they tend to full out. The minibus stops at Jalal-Abad, Kotchkor-Ata, and Toshkomur along the way. Cost for one person: 250 som (3.5 US$) per person
- Duration: Between 7 to 8 hours, with a rough 30-minute pause in Jalal-Abad. There is no lunch pause, bring snacks and water.
- Travel Tips: Watch for the shared taxis that are lined up before the bus terminal, which is somewhat hidden further back. The taxi drivers will tell you that there is no marshrutka, that you have to take a shared taxi for the cost of 500 som (7 US$) per person.
From Bishkek to Sary-Chelek (Arkit)
- Head to Tashkomur on a shared taxi, for about 800 som (11 US$) for a seat.
- From Tashkomur, hop on the marshrutka that runs the Osh to Sary-Chelek route.
- Travel Tips: Because there is only one bus per day, make sure to time your arrival in Tashkomur with this minibus, which should be around noon.
- Overall the trip should be around 9 to 10 hours.
From Arkit to the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve
The minibus stops at Arkit (or Arkyt), which is the village at the entrance for getting to Sary-Chelek proper.
From there, there is a gate at the park entrance, where you need to pay 400 som (5.50 US$) per person. Make sure to ask for a receipt. We did not, and a park ranger came to check while we were camping.
Camping comes at an extra cost of 500 som (7 US$) per tent per night. That ranger gave us a receipt, which came handy as several people asked us on the way back whether we had paid the park fees or not. If the park entrance is not occupied, the ranger living at the lake will surely find you as he sees you or your tent. If you bring your car, the fee is 100 som (1.50 US$) per vehicle.
The lake is 9 miles (15 km) away from the park entrance. It seems that hikers can only enter from 7 am to 2 pm, probably because there is no camping allowed between the gate and the lake, and it takes about 4 hours to reach it. If you want a ride, taxis can be arranged for 1,500 to 2,000 som (21 – 30 US$), which we found was rather hefty.
Hitchhiking is also an option, though depending on the seasons, there might be few cars going up, and these might already be full of local people and tourists alike. In Fall, we saw maybe four cars and trucks going up.
Hiking from the Arkit Park Entrance to Sary-Chelek Lake
From the park entrance in Arkit, follow the maintenance dirt road that will lead you to the lake shore. The road is well graded most of the time and will take you from 3,930 feet (1,200 m) to 5,900 feet (1,850 m) in about 9 miles (15 km). The landscape varies from groves of walnut trees, small grazing fields, where you can encounter cows and horses wandering freely.
As it was Fall already, the villagers spent their time picking up walnuts and apples, and we met several of the local folks filling their bags with the wild fruits.
The road follows the river most of the time, but from high above. There are, however, two small water points where you can refill your water along the way.
Once you pass the highest point of at 6,230 feet (1,900 m), you are almost there, and the road snakes an additional 30 minutes passing by one of the small lakes. The trail splits in two shortly after, keep right to reach Sary-Chelek lake. Soon you will see the ridge of the lake, with a few buildings coming in sight.
Sary-Chelek Trail Distance: 9 miles (15 km)
Elevation gain: 1,970 feet ( 600 m). From Arkit at 3,930 feet (1,200 m) to 5,900 feet (1,850 m) at the lake
Difficulty: Moderate, flat and well-graded maintenance road
The slopes around the lake are quite steep, and there are two areas where you can camp. The more popular and developed spot is on the left side of these structures, with firepits and restrooms. The camp area comes with unobstructed views of the lake, but the easy access to water also means that cows and animals come all day and night to drink. We met several campers who all stated they could not sleep at night given the constant flow of animals. One couple even left a day earlier because of that.
Another area is about 15 minutes away on the far right side of the structures. After one of the small restrooms, cross the small field, and you will find a path skirting the slopes. The site doesn’t have a lot of flat spots, and the view is not free of trees, but we had the most relaxing and calm nights ever. We did see two cows one of the mornings though they stayed clear of our tent.
We ended up spending two nights around the lake, enjoying the quiet scenery of the area.
A park ranger came on the first morning and asked for the fee receipt, which we did not have. Moreover, we had to pay the 500 som (7 US$) for camping, which the ranger at the park entrance failed to ask. The visiting ranger gave us a receipt for the payment. As we hiked our way back, several villagers, as well as a park ranger, asked us whether we had paid. The receipt came handy for sure. Not sure why the first ranger at the park entrance did not ask us to pay for camping or did not give us a receipt.
Sary-Chelek Hiking from the Lake to Arkit
For the return path, you can either take the same road back to Arkit. Or you can use an alternate trail which follows some of the mountain ridges. As you reach the pass again, keep left where you will see a small gate and a path behind. The gate was open when we were there, do not cross if closed.
The trail took us along the edge of the hills with sweeping views of the valley. We also crossed groves of walnut trees, meadows packed with apple trees, and green pastures where cows and horses roamed free.
Since we were away from the main road, the scenery in the mountains was more peaceful hidden. We did see a couple of trucks picking up dead trees as they bring the wood back to the village ahead of winter.
After an hour going downhill over steep slopes, the trail flattened as it follows the river. There we enjoyed even more Fall colors from willow trees. Simply stunning.
Sary-Chelek Trail Distance: 6 miles (10 km)
Difficulty: Moderate, over a mix of dirt roads, small paths, and steep, narrow horse trails
While this Sari-Chelek trek might not rank among the top treks ever, we enjoyed our trek and nights out in the remote area. Moreover, given the late season and dropping temperatures at higher elevations, we appreciated that we could still camp out there without freezing!
What to Do in Sary-Chelek
Besides trekking to Sary-Chelek, you can go for a day trip from Arkit. Rent a car, or go horseback riding, or organize a boat crossing to explore the lake. The local CBT office can help you put your trip together.
The CBT office for Sary-Chelek is actually not in Arkit but in the small village of Kyzyl-Köl (formerly Kuzgun-Tas) in the nearby Kara-Suu Valley.
Since we were trekking in Sary-Chelek, we brought our tent and camped two nights by the lake. However, you don’t a have to camp there. Go for a day trip from Arkit. Book a cabin through the local CBT Sary-Chelek office. There is no Sary-Chelek hotel to speak of otherwise.
With a view like the one below, we felt that camping was the best option to appreciate the Sary-Chelek Lake. Sleeping under the Milky Way is not something we get to enjoy every night!
Arkit is the gateway to the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve. The village is rather small, with its main street lined up with houses, farms, and fields. But make sure to wander for an hour or two to get a sense of this lovely village. Watch young children leaving schools in their school uniforms. Follow others kids on donkeys or hoses coming back from the forests with bags full of walnuts and apples.
Step into the one convenience store for some sweets or cookies, while a villager’s horse is patentiently waiting for his owner to finish his shopping.
Walk up to the Mosque at the end of the village, built along the river.
Arkit Lodging: Kamilla Homestay
In Arkyt, the CBT has two guesthouses from which to choose. We would, however, recommend Kamilla Homestay. We got fortunate to meet Tatteububu in the marshrutka to Sary-Chelek. Tatteububu is a former biology teacher who is now a librarian, who introduced us to her sister-in-law Kamilla. Kamilla’s house is close to the entrance of Arkyt. There is currently no sign in front of the house, but you can contact Kamilla on her Whatsapp number at +996778847005
Kamilla, a 33-year old former teacher, is now home taking care of her four children (11-year old Kaiirat, 8-year old Bekten, 6-year old Doron, and her 3-year old girl Akrmanaii) and her 91-year old Grandmother. We slept in the guestroom, enjoyed a hot shower in a new and modern bathroom, and savored her home cooking served family-style in the kitchen.
Staying in a homestay and with a family like Kamilla’s is a great way to meet local people, and learn about the local culture. From playing with the kids, meeting with one of the English teachers, learning about the local economy of walnuts (jang jarg), dried plums (khainale), and apricots (erluk), we experienced the daily life of villagers in Kyrgyzstan. Most of them make a living selling dried plums for 80 som (1.15 US$) a kilo, and walnuts for 100 som (1.50 US$) a kilo, which business keep the family busy as they spend their days picking up the fruits in the forest.
Cost: 400 som (5.5 US$) per night for two persons, 100 som (1.50 US$) per meal per person (applies to all meals)
Kamilla is a great cook, preparing tasty Kyrgyz meals in no time. Our first lunch was a yummy Tohrk (mutton and braised potatoes). For dinner, we enjoyed Dimlama (a hearty stew of potatoes, mutton, sweet peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, and garlic). Upon our return from the trek, Kamilla served us Lagman (a noodle soup of Chinese origin and now a main Uzbek staple, made of long homemade noodles, mutton, and vegetables).
And of course, for our last dinner in Arkit, we savored Plov (or Pilaf, Pulau, or Pilau – pick your spelling!) which is, in fact, the national dish of Uzbekistan! The meal is a feature of Southern Kyrgyzstan thanks to the large Uzbek population in the region close to the Uzbek border. Plov is a rice pilaf made of boiled or fried mutton, carrots, onions, and garlic, and is a must-try while in the country. Breakfast was a feast of fresh bread (nan), served with Honey (Asseiil), Butter (Maii), Egg (Tukum), Sugar (Sarhar) (the sound is between L and R, really guttural – on that, all spelling is based on my writing since it’s hard to ). The Kyrgyzstan food was so good we quickly learned to say “Ashbolsun” – very good!
Thanks to the mountain ranges surrounded the reserve; the weather is Sary-Chelek is wetter though milder than in most of the country. The tall peaks protect the area from the cold temperatures, but don’t prevent some areas to get heavy rain and snow come winter. Summers tend to be warm if not damp in May and June. However, the relatively low elevation allow for late season trekking. We were there in early October, which presented mild temperatures: around 60°F (15°C) during the day, around 40°F (5°C) at night.
Return to Osh from Sary-Chelek (Arkit)
The daily minibus leaves Arkit at 6 am and goes directly to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Your homestay or guesthouse can let the driver of the minibus know to pick up along the road in the morning. Given the early hours, you will need to spend another night in Arkit.
Where to Stay in Osh
Osh does not lack accommodation, but we can only recommend Konok Center Hostel. One of the most budget places price-wise, but with terrific amenities (hot shower, clean, kitchen, including breakfast, central and close to several restaurants, coffees, and a well-stocked supermarket). Yrys is an awesome hostel manager, and though she doesn’t speak much English (though she speaks more than she lets on!), she understands a lot and will make your stay the best possible. Try her plum or raspberry jam, so yummy!
Arslanbob Sary-Chelek Connection
Take the same minibus from Arkit towards Osh, but get off at Jalalabad Kyrgyzstan, from where you can grab one of the other minibusses going to Arslanbob.
- Costs Sari-Chelek to Osh/Arslanbob intersection: 600 som for 2 people
- Osh/Arslanbob intersection to Arslanbob: 200 som for 2 people
Have you been to Sary-Chelek? Do you have any Kyrgyzstan hiking adventures to share?
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