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06/06/21 – Shepherd’s Way to Toktogul


The Lakes of Sary Chelek and Mynteke


Wind rippled through the lush grasses in the Sary Chelek Biosphere. One of Kyrgyzstan’s most protected reserves, the main attraction of the park is the Sary Chelek lake. Enveloped by cliffs and framed by snow-capped mountains reaching over 4000m, we dreamt to camp on the shores. Only, camping is forbidden. But there are always exceptions, those being slipping a cool €5 to the park guardian and setting up camp in a hidden spot on the east bank. A bribe well spent to enjoy a dip in the lake, and a sunrise reflected off its cool waters.

Our friend Laura joined us from France on a rented horse. Our stallions accepted him into the herd without fuss, of which there was not much time for: we had mountains to climb. The Kuturma pass (2446m/8024ft) open, we climbed the sheer cliff on foot, stopping to catch our breath and encourage the horses every few hundred meters. On the other side, the Kara-Suu/Karakamysh valley lay nestled between the rocky peaks. Unlike the Sary Chelek reserve this area is not protected and the visible imprint of the livestock grazing it a stark contrast to the neighboring valley. A long descent to the river and lake Karakamysh reserved a broad shoreline, with amble grass for the horses. The peak across the lake kissed the sky, and the final névés of snow hid in the cru of the vallon, reaching almost to the shores.

15km away, the village of Kyzyl Kol was our next stop. Though the road was clear, we found ourselves fighting traffic the whole way down. Not vehicular traffic, but herds and herds of livestock and shepherds on their way to the jaïloos, or high pastures. We seemed to be riding against the grain, our mission was different than the nomadic shepherds. While they just wanted to reach the high pastures, we wanted to cross them and keep going. And for that we needed a helping hand..


Over and Around the Mountains

Zackie and his friend Ruslan agreed to guide us from Kyzyl Kol to the artificial lake, Toktogul reservoir. Teaching us the true meaning of ‘minimalist,’ Ruslan joined our expedition without a tent, and so took charge of finding datchas, or summer houses, for us to camp at so he could sleep with a roof over his head. Empty or occupied, every night we slept near to a datcha. The families who’d already arrived for the summer were eager to host us. Laura learned the Kyrygz concept of drinking a “small” vodka; here, once the bottle is opened it must be finished. Tired and usually soggy from the afternoon mountain storms, we welcomed this tradition by participating in lengthy toasts and draining glasses of the clear liquor.

The snow softly crunched under our horses’ feet as we climbed the Kumbel pass at 2900m (9500ft). Without our guide Quentin observed that we probably would have hesitated to ride over névés with a river running underneath. Taking courage in Ruslan’s nonchalant air and confidence, we encouraged our horses onwards. Chai especially enjoyed tasting the snow. At the top of the pass, valleys upon valleys unfurled below us, green grass framed by rocky peaks. A family of beekeepers gifted us with a liter of honey, and a sack full of honeycomb, physical sweetness to accompany the sweet success of knowing we’d see the shining shores of Toktogul.


To the Toktogul Reservoir

A steep climb awaited us our last morning with the guides, and we hiked up alongside our horses to the pass. On one side, grey clouds tumbling around the peak. But on the other, hidden until the last moment, a long valley doused in sunshine and the blue of the lake in the distance. Though we still had 50km until we reached the stables where we’d rest a few days, we celebrated as though we’d already arrived. Three young girls tending to a handful of cows celebrated with us, taking selfies and showering us with the flowers they’d been collecting.

With just 35km to go, the unfiltered water Laura drank the night before rendered her unable to ride forward. But the final gift from our guides was the contact of a taxi driver who took Laura and all our gear to the Satarov family’s home in town. Here Laura found herself being fed plain rice and tea from the caring hands of Ilatbu, the retired French professor.


Free from our baggage, we were able to trot and canter our horses across the hills. It seemed they’d forgotten their fatigue of prior days and trotted without tiring (or in Tian’s case, wanting to slow down at all). A Kyrgyz horse is like a diesel engine, once you warm it up, it just keeps going! With a quarter of our trek complete, we think the horses are just getting warmed up; the next leg is calling.

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