“Our worst fears lie in anticipation.” – Balzac
It took two years of planning to get this tour of the ground.
Not necessarily by choice either but out of necessity.
After conducting a thorough reconnaissance mission of Kyrgyzstan together back in 2019, EBT co-founder Chris Lininger and I decided to start organizing tours there.
Kyrgyzstan, to us, was the perfect candidate: wild, remote, gorgeous, and, most importantly, a thrillingly good time. Being tour operators who specialize in Northern Pakistan – one of the most beautiful places on Earth, not to mention difficult – we aren’t easy to please either. We thought that Kyrgyzstan could easily compete with other naturally-endowed countries, like New Zealand or Nepal, and were eager to get the word out.
So we got to work: making arrangements, crafting the perfect itinerary, and communicating with our good friend and partner, Andrei, back in Bishkek. To say we were excited about this trip is an understatement – we were possessed by it.
By the end of 2019, we had already filled an entire trip. A second was on its way to being full. Our momentum carried into the new year.
Everything was going well and then…COVID.
I’ll spare you the gruesome details but long story short, all Epic tours were suspended in 2020 at the decision of Epic founders Chris Lininger and Will Hatton, a decision that I was fully behind. It seemed that Kyrgyzstan would have to wait.
Fast forward one year and I’m sitting in one of my favorite restaurants in Bishkek, Navat, having a shot of kumis and eating mantu with Andrei whom I hadn’t seen since a raucous birthday party back in 2019. How we managed to limit our lunch to a few hours and a few vodka shots is still a mystery to me today – there was so much to catch up about.
But this lunch was about the tour. We were finalizing preparations – crossing our Is and dotting our Ts – as the trip we had been planning for the last two years was about to commence. In three short days, our epic tour was about to begin.
The tour starts
We wasted no time hitting the road. After meeting in a more-hushed-than-usual Ala-Too Square we all piled into the van that would be our loyal steed for the next two weeks. There was myself, Piri, a local Kyrgyz-Kazahk guide who would be my right-hand woman, Ivan, a highly experienced driver, and seven guests who all hailed from the United States.
After making introductions on the bus it became immediately clear that this group was already special. The group chemistry was spectacular – Mendeleev himself couldn’t have concocted a better mixture of hearts and minds. Within a few days, the group was already sharing their most intimate life stories and cracking more than a few ridiculous jokes (grind train never stops).
Our first stop was one of my favorite places in all of Kyrgyzstan, Song Kul: an alpine lake situated at 3000 meters high and less than a day’s drive from the capital Bishkek.
We had gone from the warm, semi-arid steppes to an amphitheater of snow-capped peaks gazing down at a glassy lake in the same time that it takes to drive from LA to San Francisco. Nomads, with their yurt camps and herds of Kyrgyz horses, surrounded the entire shore.
Some of the guests had literally clocked out the day before from work. Now, they were in the mountains.
And after all of the trials and tribulations of 2020 due to COVID, the mountains are exactly what they needed.
Getting into the “meat” of the trip
After spending a day relaxing at Song Kul, we departed for another superlative location, the legendary Issyk Kul. This is where the trip really kicked into high gear.
Aside from being one of the largest alpine lakes in the world, Issyk Kul also features some of the most surreal scenery. Imagine a crystal clear body of work – akin to the Mediterranean – with fine, red sand beaches, backed by Utah-esque desert formations, topped with snowy mountains in the distance.
This is not the invention of a science fiction writer – this is an actual place in Kyrgyzstan.
The day ends with a demonstration from a local eagle hunter and his avian partner, Nur Sultan, followed by a sunset session at the beach. A couple of guests who hail from frigid Chicago decide to brave the sub-10-degree (Celsius) water. They came prepared with booties and intertubes; this clearly wasn’t their first rodeo.
After Issyk Kul, we move onto the Karakol area, a Dungan enclave that has become the trekking capital of Kyrgyzstan. From here, we will launch into one of the most rewarding and demanding portions of the trip: a 3-day hike up to Ala Kul and over Ala Kul Pass.
This trek is not for the uninitiated. At 3300 meters, Ala Kul is not accessible to everyone. The walk up from the valley floor entails 1100+ meters in altitude gain (a leg that we will be breaking up on future trips) and features some steep, exposed terrain.
Having spent several days with the group already, I knew they would crush this hike though.
In faster than expected time (5.5 hours), the group made it to Ala Kul. Many were gassed; most were full of excitement. Ala Kul – which in Kyrgyz means Lake of Many Colors – is a special place and is rumored to have a personality of its own. When it’s happy, the water turns a brilliant turquoise; when upset, the water is an unsettling ebony.
Luckily, Ala Kul seemed to be content for most of our stay.
We spent one breathless night at the lake before crossing Ala Kul Pass at 3800 meters. Being early in the season, the descent was tricky and required some technical rope work with the assistance of our porter team but we made it down to the other side in no time. At the next valley, Altyn Arashan, guests were treated to hot springs and some hard-earned beer.
All-in-all, the hike to Ala Kul was a great success and everyone did a marvelous job physically and mentally. An unfortunate downside was, to be frank, some repetitive lunches. Every day, the cook team gave us the same packed meal: summer sausage sandwiches with snacks and enough Choco Pies to last a nuclear winter. Needless to say, many people felt like a summer sausage upon completing the hike and, in fact, wished they had opted for the vegetarian option: a refreshing cucumber and tomato sandwich.
On the topic of food in Kyrgyzstan, despite it being a predominantly carnivorous culture, I’d say that the vegetarians fared very well on this trip. Despite the overabundance of beef and bread, there is still plenty of fresh fruit, salads, and whole grains to be had. All four of our vegetarians – one of which was vegan – were surprised to see such options available to them and seemed very satisfied. One guest, in particular, seemed to develop an unhealthy addiction to the local jam.
The Final Leg
The most physically demanding portion of the trip being over, we were now in the home stretch. The only thing that remained was a mini-expedition to the fringes of Kyrgyzstan: to the remote jailoo of Sary Jaz and the Soviet ghost town of Inylchek.
Sary Jaz and Inylchek are very unique places. Both are located very close to the Chinese and Kazakh borders, meaning they a) require special permits to visit and b) are really out there. This is an opportunity to see a different side of Kyrgyzstan that few have the chance to experience.
First stop was the ghost town of Inylchek. Gone were the lush pastures and the icy blue rivers that typically define Kyrgyzstan, replaced instead by an arid, desolate landscape and a brown, angry river fed by glacial melt. The town itself (population a few hundred) was composed of the ramshackle remains of an old Soviet mining community that slowly faded away after the fall of the Union.
Inylchek is a hard place to be in – god knows how the 20,000+ former residents were able to do it. We usually spend a night there camping but our usual spot was made uninhabitable by a growing sandstorm. We opted to stay closer to the river where it was more protected and comfortable.
The next day we headed to Sary Jaz bright and early. Sary Jaz couldn’t be more different than Inylchek: green, grandiose, and much, much colder. Aside from the handful of military personnel who man the checkpoint, this area is mostly inhabited by nomads. They don’t get many visitors either – few if any can even speak Russian.
Following the dust bowl that is Inylchek, everyone was happy to be back in the alpine again. The plan was to just chill. Half the group went on a horse ride around the jailoo while the other half decided to just hang out at camp. The following morning, we departed back to Karakol and were afforded clear and rare glimpses of Khan Tengri – a remarkable and regal 7000m peak – in the distance.
Joining, and leading for that matter, an adventure tour is never a straightforward experience. Plans change, conditions become erratic, and the unexpected is always around the corner. During COVID times, this is especially so as mandates and outbreaks cause sudden closures and cancellations.
I could say that these hiccups are the bane of my existence and that they haunt my waking life…
But the truth is, these are some of the best parts of the journey. These are the moments that make us appreciate the places we are actually in: we overcome the obstacles and earn our passage. In the process, the group becomes stronger and the country more vivid. As much as I try to mitigate the unforeseen as a group leader, I accept it for what it is as well.
It is, after all, an adventure, right?
The rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We returned via the north shore of Issyk Kul and dropped by one of my favorite accommodations, a ranch-style lodge in Chong Kemin that appeared straight out of Montana, before eventually making it back to the capital, Bishkek. We had one last dinner together followed by cocktails at one of my favorite speakeasies in the city before saying our final goodbyes.
I want to thank everyone who came on this trip and helped make it happen. Andrei, Piri, Ivan, the various local guides and porters, and my wonderful guests: Lauren, Tim, Dana, Paulia, Katja, Emily, and Yossi. It was, and always is, a team effort and everyone did their part. I couldn’t have done without all of you and I look forward to seeing everyone again on the next one!
We’re going back to Kyrgyzstan in 2022! Want to come with us? Stay tuned for new tour dates to be published soon!