When it comes to horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan most travellers tend to make a beeline for Song Kol. This is one of the best-known routes in the country and it’s the same route I took on my first trip to Kyrgyzstan.
Song Kol is as beautiful as can be and reaching the lakeside camp around sunset is about as postcard-perfect as it gets, but coming back to Kyrgyzstan for our second trip, Sam and I were looking to veer off the trodden trail and maybe try something new.
Luckily for us, in the past year, the tourism board has been developing a whole bunch of new trekking routes along Issyk-Kul’s south shore so we got to be one of the first travellers testing out one of the trails!
We ended up doing a 3-day horse trek along the Panorama Trail, which starts and ends in Bokonbayevo doing a big loop through the valley. Physically, it was a challenging 3 days that involved a mix of horse trekking and hiking, but it was also a rewarding 3 days where we shared meals with our host families, picnicked by alpine lakes, befriended the sweetest Kyrgyz hunting dog, came face to face with ancient petroglyphs, and saw the hard work that goes into being a shepherd in the summer pastures.
Here’s a recap of that adventure:
Riding to the jailoo, a crazy hail storm, and a light hike.
Our tour started at 9 in the morning when we were met by our guide who came to pick us up from our guesthouse in Bokonbayevo. He already had the horses saddled up and ready to go, so after saying goodbye to our host for a few days, we hopped on the horses and started the journey out of town.
This was a very easy day of riding with most of the terrain being relatively flat. We briefly rode through a residential area as we maneuvered our way out of town, but it wasn’t long before the landscape gave way to pink fields in bloom and mountains off in the horizon.
We rode a total of 4 hours that morning reaching camp right around lunch time, and let me tell you, we were ready for food!
Our host family had a large plot of land in the valley consisting of one modern two-story home and an older traditional stone house where they had the kitchen and ate their meals.
Feeling famished from a day of riding, we sat down at the table where we had a typical Kyrgyz food spread consisting of fried bread known as borsok, fresh-churned cream, raspberry jam, biscuits, fresh apricots, and non-stop cups of tea; the Kyrgyz are renowned for their hospitality and they’ll ensure your cup of tea is never empty!
Shortly after lunch, a hail storm unleashed above us, so we retreated to the yurt for cover. From the intensity of the thundering and lightning, I was expecting rain for the rest of the day, but the storm passed as quickly as it arrived. Within a half hour, the skies had cleared, the rain had stopped, and we just had a bit of hail left on the ground as evidence.
With the storm past us, our guide suggested an afternoon hike, so we walked up one of the hills for views of snow-capped mountains off in the distance. It was on this hike, that we also befriended the cutest Kyrgyz hunting dog who would become our companion for the rest of the trip! He was happy to tag along with us, take a detour or two when he spotted some prey, and then rejoin our trio for pets and ear scratches.
That evening we had dinner with the family. The wood-burning stove had warmed up the entire kitchen, so it was very toasty despite the low temperatures outside. We all sat down around the table, where we enjoyed heaping bowls of plov; a mixed-rice dish with carrots and beef.
Since it was already dark out but still too early to go to bed, we sat around in the kitchen watching a kok-boru match on their television. This is a popular game across Central Asia, often compared to polo, except instead of using a ball, players are trying to score with a sheep or goat’s carcass! This brought back some memories from the World Nomad Games where I first watched the game.
Steep inclines, an idyllic picnic, and the best views!
After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, bread with cream and jam, and many cups of piping hot chai, it was time to say goodbye to our host family. We took lots of photos together on their smartphones (because rural living doesn’t mean you have to be disconnected!), and then it was back on the horses to continue the journey with our new dog friend in tow.
This was the hardest day of riding since it involved some steep inclines, but it was also the most beautiful day of riding bringing us ever closer to the snowy mountain peaks. The highest pass was 3,080 meters, but don’t let that scare you off; just be prepared to take it slow with lots of zig-zagging up the face of the mountain.
Also, lunch that day was about as scenic as it gets. We rode to a small alpine lake at the very top of one of the mountain passes where our guide laid out a picnic for us to share. Our meal consisted of loaves of bread, smoked cheese, sausage, juice, peanuts, dried apricots, bananas, chocolate bars, and more snacks than I can remember.
The whole experience was rather mystical because we had this thick fog rolling over us, so there were moments we were shrouded by a veil of grey, but then it would part and we’d get a glimpse of the scenery in front of us. It was one of the coolest picnic locations ever!
The afternoon trek was a bit challenging; now that we had gained all that altitude, we needed to come down the back face of the mountain. There were parts that I did on horseback, and other parts where I hopped off and hiked instead – if you’re not an experienced rider or your knees can’t handle going downhill, this is always an option.
It was a slow descent and I had to slide down on my rear on a couple of tricky sections, but in the end, we managed. I think we were all pretty thrilled to reach our camp – our guide included!
That night we stayed with a shepherding family in their summer home. It was a simple 2-room structure made of stone, mud and straw. The first room as soon as you entered the house was a dining area and kitchen; here they had a wood-burning stove, a low table, and a few mats for people to sit on. The other room was the family bedroom, which looked empty by day, but this is where they rolled the mats and blankets out at night.
I will admit that this was unlike any homestay I’ve ever done in the past and at first I felt a bit out of my comfort zone. In total, we slept 11 people to one room all lined up next to each other on the floor, but at the same time, everyone welcomed us so warmly and they were willing to share everything they had with us, that we couldn’t help but feel humbled by their generosity.
Without distractions like Wi-Fi, television, or books to pass time, we spent the afternoon watching the family herd their 700+ sheep and get them back into their corral for the night. We then had a dinner of oromo; a steamed layered dough filled with carrots, cabbage and potato, and then it was time for bed.
That night I fell asleep to the sounds of the family’s cooing baby, soft snoring, and the smell of fermented mare’s milk in the air.
Ancient petroglyphs, easy riding, and a farewell.
The following morning I woke up feeling refreshed by some of the best sleep of my life, but I guess fresh mountain air and some heavy blankets will do that to you.
For breakfast, we had white semolina porridge, bread with jam, and many cups of chai, and then again, it was time to say goodbye to our host family and hop on our horses.
This turned out to be a really easy day of riding, starting out with a slight downhill incline, before levelling out into flat terrain.
Halfway through the morning, we stopped off at a field that had giant boulders with petroglyphs. We were able to spot a camel, a mountain goat, and a man on horseback, who our guide claimed was Marco Polo himself. How cool is that? The petroglyphs were hiding in plain sight making history feel so palpable.
After visiting the petroglyphs, we had another picnic lunch. It was another generous spread consisting of flat bread, sausage, canned fish, biscuits, juice, nuts, raisins and more. Of course, we also fed our dear Kyrgyz hunting dog who was still with us on day 3. Our guide actually had to approach some locals to find out who owned the dog, and then leave him in someone’s yard to be picked up by his owner because otherwise, the dog would have walked with us all the way back into Bokonbayevo. It was bittersweet parting with the pup, who had earned the name Dog Friend, but he had a home and we were moving on.
After 3 days up in the mountains, it felt a bit strange arriving back in town. Even though Bokonbayevo has a population just over 10,ooo people, it still felt very busy!
Back in town, we returned to our guesthouse, picked up our luggage, and hopped in a taxi to Bel Tam, where we would spend the next 3 days doing a lakeside yurt stay, but that’s another story for another blog post.
Planning your trek from Bokonbayevo
CBT Kyrgyzstan (Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan) has offices across the country, including the town of Bokonbayevo. They can help arrange everything from drivers and homestays, to horse treks and day hikes. The best thing you can do is pop into their offices once you’re in town, or send them an email if you prefer to organize things in advance.We did our 3-day trek through them and had a great experience. They speak English in their offices and they can offer suggestions on routes that often aren’t even listed in your guidebook.
A few tips for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
- Pack for all kinds of weather. Over the course of our 3-day trek, we had sunshine and overcast skies, hail storms and light rains. You could experience all of the above in one single day, so go for light and breathable layers that you can easily add and take off. Also, always have a rain-jacket on hand.
- Protect yourself from the sun. Needless to say, the sun is a scorcher at high altitudes, so you’ll want to bring sunscreen and apply it more frequently than you normally would.
- Drink lots of water. On that note, it’s also important you stay hydrated. We brought two bottles each and always finished them by mid-afternoon. Your guide will usually also be carrying extra water, but re-confirm that before you set out on your trek.
- Wear the right shoes. Go for something sturdy that provides arch and ankle support. I did not pack the right shoes on this trip and regretted it. Hiking boots are ideal but at the very least a good pair of running shoes with tread.
- Bring your bathroom essentials. That means toilet paper, baby wipes (no chance of a shower), and hand sanitizer.
- Keep a flashlight handy. You’ll need it at night to find your way to the outhouse.
- Choose what’s right for you. There are all kinds of treks in Kyrgyzstan in varying lengths and levels of difficulty. Some treks involve homestays, some yurt stays, and others camping in tents. Some treks are 2 weeks in length and others are only a half-day. Ask for information at the CBT offices so you know what you’re getting yourself into and then make an informed decision. You can find a few more tips for travel in Kyrgyzstan here.
Also, here’s a video from our 3-day horse trek so you can get a better idea of that trip:
Have you been trekking in Kyrgyzstan?
What were some of your favourite spots?