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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Lake

Sary-Chelek Lake

Sary-Chelek Kyrgyzstan

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 has been declared one of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 1978.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Turquoise Waters in Sary-Chelek Lake

Turquoise Waters in Sary-Chelek Lake

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 is deepest point lies at around 755 feet (230 meters). Swimming is forbidden.

Though Sary-Chelek lake is the major one, there are actually 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.
Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Marshrutka minibuses in Jalal-Abad Bus Station

Marshrutka minibuses in Jalal-Abad Bus Station

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.
Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Park Entrance to the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve

Park Entrance to the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve

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 actually 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 entrance 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 with local people and tourists alike. In Fall, we saw maybe four cars and trucks going up.




Sary-Chelek Trekking

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 all the way 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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Horses in the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve

Horses in the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve

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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // A villager picking up walnuts

A villager picking up walnuts

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 road 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.

 

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve - One of the smaller lakes before Sary-Chelek Lake

Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve – One of the smaller lakes before Sary-Chelek Lake

 

 

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

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Fall Colors at the Sary-Chelek Lake

Fall Colors at the Sary-Chelek Lake

Sary-Chelek Camping

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.

 

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Lake - Camping with a View

Sary-Chelek Lake – Camping with a View

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. Or 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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sunset over Sary-Chelek Lake

Sunset over Sary-Chelek Lake




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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Walnut Trees

Walnut Trees

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. 

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Horses, Fall Colors, Blue Skye - What's not to like

Horses, Fall Colors, Blue Skye – What’s not to like!

Since we were away from the main road, the scenery among 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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Hiking Back to Arkit

Sary-Chelek Hiking Back to Arkit

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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek: Trekking along the river

Sary-Chelek: Trekking along the river

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!

Sary-Chelek Map

Kyrgyzstan // Sary Chelek Hiking Map and Elevation Profile

Sary Chelek Hiking Map and Elevation Profile

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.  

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Lake Boat Ride

Sary-Chelek Lake Boat Ride

Sary-Chelek Accommodation

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!

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Lake At Night - Amazing Milky Way in the Dark Sky

Sary-Chelek Lake At Night – Amazing Milky Way in the Dark Sky

Arkit Village 

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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Kids bringing back bags full of walnuts and apples

Kids bringing back 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 his owner to finish his shopping.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Sary-Chelek Main Street, Shopping Store, and Transportation

Sary-Chelek Main Street, Shopping Store, and Transportation

Walk up to the Mosque at the end of the village, built along the river.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Arkit Mosque under the Fall colors

Arkit Mosque under the Fall colors

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

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Lovely stay with our host Kamilla

Lovely stay with our host Kamilla

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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Our host Kamilla and her kids

Our host Kamilla and her kids

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.

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Play time with Kamilla's younger children

Play time with Kamilla’s younger children

Cost: 400 som (5.5 US$) per night for two persons, 100 som (1.50 US$) per meal per person (applies to all meals)

Kyrgyzstan Cuisine

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).

Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Hearty and tasty meals at Kamilla Homestay

Hearty and tasty meals at Kamilla Homestay

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 food was so good we quickly learned to say “Ashbolsun” – very good!

Sary-Chelek Weather

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. 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! Click to find the latest on Konok Center Hostel in Osh.

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Kyrgyzstan Trekking: Guide to Sary-Chelek in the Tian Shan Mountains // Admiring Sary-Chelek Lake

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