After more than two years of waiting for the perfect time to visit the remote country of Kyrgyzstan, one of our groups was able to adventure in the mountainous terrain and discover the unique landscapes, rich culture, and empty trails on our Kyrgyzstan: Hiking in the Celestial Mountains journey. Read more about the trip from one traveler who joined his father on the adventure.
Incalculable beauty. Rich tradition. Kyrgyzstan is truly a once-in-a-lifetime destination. As the sun rises on our adventure, these truths were unknown. Locked far away from any typical tourist trail, it feels secretive and alien. Yet we are here. We awake from a tent in this remoteness of stunning scenery. The secrets of this place don’t dissolve, but rather transform into legend. The locals call Kyrgyzstan’s pillars of granite Tian Shan, meaning “Celestial Mountain” or “Mountains of Heaven.” Here we take boundless steps from cloud to cloud in the glittering sun of this magical place.
The mountains here are geologically young; proudly flaunting their youth with sharply uplifted peaks. While they are quite spectacular and inspiring, they are far from the only majestic site. The variety of geographical wonders housed in this small country was unexpected. Deep gorges cut by thundering rivers, pristine virgin forests of towering pines, wide valleys of verdant green soaking in high altitude sun. Each new valley, a different experience that could have been at home in New Mexico or Scotland! Song Kul Lake sits high at almost 10,000 feet, surrounded by wide open plains ringed by snow-capped ridges. Jeti-Oguz rocks define the valley with their striking deep red and robust texture, intricately carved by the gods of wind and water. Jeti-Oguz means “seven bulls”, for their resemblance to charging bulls. These sandstone landmarks are one of the most famous in the country.
The Legend of Manas is an epic poem of extreme cultural significance to the Kyrgyz people. The tale extols the hero Manas and his descendants in their exploits against their many foes. The glow of our campfire frolicked around our faces as the tale was recited once again. At over 500,000 lines we did not hear it in its entirety, but it was a fascinating glimpse into the oral and musical traditions of this land. On multiple occasions, we were treated to performers of traditional Kyrgyz music, dress, and lore. Gently gripping her komuz (the best known national instrument), our young musician serenades our awestruck audience with sweetness and skill.
The table was always immaculately set for our meals; a hospitable warmth emitted from the kitchen. As a crossroads of many cultures, the food was a pleasant surprise with variable flavors. Fresh skewers of grilled meats (try the horse!), Chinese Dungan-style hot pot, flash-fried farm trout, Russian borscht, and other soups all tickled the palate. The lush mountain valleys produce some of the richest fruits and vegetables. Their jams, jellies, and honey are some of the best we’ve ever tasted. Even the locally made brandy was fantastic and always kept well supplied. From modern restaurants in the capital to the basic facilities of tented life, we were always fulfilled with delicious fare.
These mystical mountains don’t give away their secrets easily. When the road slowly disappears, one can only proceed on foot or hoof. The opportunity to delve into these exclusive areas was a hiking experience of epic proportions. Difficult, but not overbearing, the sights along the way always lightened the load. The silent nod of a knowing fellow nomad as we pass their yurt camp. The constant cascade of crystal water is a reassuring soundtrack. The mountain weather danced in and out on its own whims. With every stride, we progressed towards the bluff or valley that is certainly the most majestic site ever realized. That is, until the next day’s hike.
A grand cathedral of snowy peaks and red rocks encircles a verdant field of green. It is here we gather to watch Ulak Tartysh. By far the most exhilarating and unique cultural event was this ancient nomadic equestrian game. A freshly slaughtered goat carcass serves as the “ball.” Horses rattle the sky as they race across the grounds then crash, wrestle, and whip one another in attempts to attain the coveted animal. The two teams vie to make more salyms to their circle (score a point in the goal). The horse mastery is a sight to behold. The contest is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
The merging of the two rivers, flush with summer melt, set the perfect borders of our camp. White smoke billows out of the yurts, and dogs bark feverishly in anticipation as the men prepare their steeds for the day’s work. The nomadic shepherd’s life is alive and well in Kyrgyzstan. Every year they return to these high mountain pastures to continue a centuries-old tradition. We established our temporary camp across the river from them, allowing a brief glimpse into their rugged, beautiful way of life.
When the sun begins to hide beyond the rugged peaks that encircled us, a comfortable place to lay your head was important. Comfortable guest houses, lodges, and hotels provided excellent shelter for the first part of the journey. Then we stayed in our tented and yurt camps. The colorful tradition and intricate details of the yurt helped tie us more to the culture. The isolation and dominating terrain around the tented camp helped express the grandeur of the land.
Ranging aloft from cloud to cloud, scanning, searching. Then the target is set and in an instant, it’s done. Golden feathers and gripping talons boldly protect its new-found prey. Overall a stunning display of ferocity and elegance. Once greatly suppressed by outsiders, the ancient art of eagle hunting still remains in this land. A beautiful symbiosis of man and bird, this tradition is stunningly unique. Once an efficient, moral, and necessary form of hunting, today it is more about conserving natural and cultural heritage. Captured from the wild, the magnificent golden eagles spend years training and bonding with a berkutchi (eagle hunter) on an almost sublime level. Witnessing this profound relationship was a remarkable experience.
Pure in its simplicity, the nomadic life has deep roots. But true to its nature, it is fleeting in its permanence. The large ruins of previously glorious kingdoms are nowhere to be found, but that does not mean there is no story to discover. Remnants of the silk road city-state of Balasagun and its sophisticatedly bricked tower still stand resolute over the valley. Stone remembrances called balbalii dot the landscape. Carved between the 6th and 10th centuries, these grave markers eulogize the long forgotten with their likeness. Even older petroglyphs lie in a great garden of stone near the shores of Lake Issyk Kul. Ancient deer, horses, and goats frolic amongst the boulders as hunters lob spears and arrows in attempts at glory.
Their faces portray a stoic ambivalence, yet an inherent hospitality lies just beyond the surface. A neophyte on the modern global tourism spectrum, we are clearly not a common sight in this territory. Yet we never feel ostracized or out of place. For if we take a moment, the reveal of these warm and compelling people offers a real glimpse into the culture. The gold-toothed grin of a man selling his livestock at the animal market (he promised if we bought a sheep, they would ship it to the US for us!). A young shepherd prepares his horse before riding off after their cattle herd. Our yurt camp host dresses in traditional clothing in order to bestow a kindly farewell of good travel. These are the faces of Kyrgyzstan.
I hope you enjoyed a few of my pictures and thoughts about this wondrous place. While Kyrgyzstan might not be your first thought for travel, it is an absolutely beautiful and unique destination that I highly recommend.
—Text and photos by three-time WT adventurer Jon Parker, Kyrgyzstan: Hiking in the Celestial Mountains.