A 506-mile network of hiking trails is opening up Kyrgyzstan, a country fast emerging as a traveller favourite. Stephen Lioy has everything you need to know to hike the new trail, including key sections...
Jyrgalan Passes trek (Nicholas Wharton)
Length: 506 miles
Starts/Ends: Trails start in the west, near the traveller hub of Kochkor, stretching from the small Köl-Ukok lake over passes at 12,700ft and 12,614ft into the Issyk Köl region. Routes in the east terminate at the small ecoresort village of Jyrgalan, grazing the border with Kazakhstan before looping back around. In-between, trailheads can be accessed from the southern shore of lake Issyk Köl, the world's second-largest alpine lake, at 2,408 square miles.
Number Of Days To Complete: Though the disconnected nature of individual routes makes a through-hike impractical, the entire network is projected at 60 days of hiking including 'restock days' and transportation between trailheads.
Skazka canyon (Stephen Lioy)
Kyrgyzstan's hiking trails present the unique opportunity to combine high-mountain landscapes with living nomadic cultures, as most of the routes pass alongside active yurt camps where local shepherds bring their flocks up to high altitude jailoo mountain pastures to graze for the summer. You can trek up and over a 12,000ft+ pass, then descend to share a cup of kymyz fermented mare's milk or a few shots of vodka with the next valley's resident herders.
Routes through the Issyk Köl trail network range from quick 4km strolls up to viewpoints over the lake to week-long treks that cross a pass or two each day, so there are options for hardcore hikers and day-trippers alike.
Though these routes are largely new to international trekkers, most have seen pastoral activity since ancient times as nomadic Kyrgyz tribes moved in and out of these mountain valleys each year to keep their herds of livestock on the move.
Don't be deceived, though: this is rugged nature, with very little infrastructure once you depart from trailhead towns. Along the way, keep an eye out for local wildlife, including marmots, whose chirping seems to sound from every field, or the recovering populations of snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep and ibex that populate these ranges.
Issyk-Kol Panorama trek (Maxim Anosov)
The 44-mile route from Jyrgalan to Ala-Köl lake takes in all the best valleys and beautiful passes of the eastern stretch of the trail network, while south of Bokonbaevo the 39-mile circle route to Teshik-Köl lake climbs the moraine of a former glacier to a 13,660ft pass with panoramic views over Issyk Köl and the Terskey Ala-Too range.
Ak-Suu Arboretum day-hike (Stephen Lioy)
June to October. Trekking is possible from early June, though higher passes won't thaw out until late June or early July. The season stretches into late September or even early October, but, as always in mountain climates, hikers should be prepared for the possibility of inclement weather.
Hiker in the Issyk Köl region (Maxim Anosov)
In between hikes, don't miss the opportunity to interact with Kyrgyzstan's traditional nomadic culture at yurt camps in the Issyk Köl region, at bazaars and at the livestock market in Karakol, as well as experiencing village life in Jyrgalan.
Hikers completing Ak-Suu Arboretum day-hike (Stephen Lioy)
Information on route descriptions, trekking maps and access for trailheads can be found on the Discover Kyrgyzstan Facebook page (www.facebook.com/discover.kg/) or you can find info from regional DMOs (Destination Marketing Organisations) in Jyrgalan, Karakol and Bokonbaevo. Regional DMOs can also arrange guides, horses and gear hire through local community-based tourism initiatives.
The Issyk Köl trail network opened on June 20, while Discover Kyrgyzstan completed additional marking of horse trails in the Naryn Region in late July. Completion of an Alay Mountains trail network is expected in September.
Main image: Boz-Uchuk Lakes trek (Stephen Lioy)
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