One of the many highlights of my second trip back to Kyrgyzstan was spending 3 days living the yurt life on the southern shores of Issyk Kul Lake. I had just come off a 3-day horse trek so I was pretty content to just chill out at camp, feast on delicious Kyrgyz food in the communal tent, and enjoy a little walk along the lake, but it wasn’t long before I was lured away to go sightseeing; it turns out there are some pretty cool half-day trips that take you through forests, valleys and canyons!! The following is my mini travel guide to Issyk Kul’s south shore with a bit of adventuring and a bit of chilling on the itinerary.
Stay at a lakeside yurt camp
One of my favourite things about visiting Issyk Kul’s south shore was staying at the Bel Tam Yurt Camp. Their yurts were set right on the lakeside, which meant that every night we would fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves.
When it’s windy out, Issyk Kul sounds a lot more like an ocean than a lake, so it was super soothing going to sleep at night. Add the fact that there was no electricity in the yurt, and I was out within minutes!
Another bonus is that the weather was a lot more temperate by the lake, so it wasn’t quite as cold at night as some of the other places we visited – one duvet during the summer months was more than enough.
However, the highlight at Bel Tam Yurt Camp was the communal feel. Every night at dinnertime, all the guests would gather in the main yurt where there were tables set up in a horseshoe formation.
Here, we would all dine together while swapping stories about where we had been in Kyrgyzstan and where we were going next. There was always an international crowd that ranged from backpackers in their late twenties to lifelong hikers in their seventies, so we would all hang out long after dinner.
Visit the Fairy Tale Canyon
One of the excursions we took from Bel Tam Yurt Camp, was a half-day visit to Skazka, also known as the Fairy Tale Canyon.
The canyon is home to a red sandstone landscape, where wind and water have carved bizarre sculptures and rock formations.
There is one area where it looks like a carpet has been rolled out over the Earth and you get these rich red, ochre, and brown strips of colour running across the hills. It’s a mystical landscape and it’s a fairly easy hike, where you decide how far and how high you want to climb.
Hike to the Seven Springs at Manjaly-Ata
On that same day, we visited Manjaly-Ata, a sacred site for Muslims that is home to a series of springs which are believed to cure illnesses. There is a path that winds through the valley taking you up, down, and around the hills, sometimes through lush stretches of greenery and other times through arid, cracked earth – the landscape changes so quickly!
Along the way, small trails break away from the main path, leading down to springs that are said to cure everything from poor eyesight to digestive issues, however, our guide explained that the most famed spring of them all is one for couples who can’t have children. At each of these springs, we found cups for pilgrims to drink from.
All that being said, this site is open to both pilgrims and visitors, so don’t let that keep you away. On our visit, we met a family of hikers and a group of scholars visiting religious sites across Central Asia, so it’s worth a visit even if you’re not planning to drink from any springs.
Learn how to build a yurt from the pros
This being my second trip to Kyrgyzstan and having stayed in plenty of yurts, it was time to see what goes into building one!
For this, we made our way to Kyzyl-Tuu, a small village that is renowned for its high-quality hand-crafted yurts. These yurts are created by one single family from start to finish, and they have such a high reputation in the business that they get orders from all over the world, with each yurt taking one full month to complete.
At the workshop, we learned about the whole yurt-building process, from steaming the wood to give it its bend, to the handmade felt patterns designed by the matriarch of the family.
We even got involved in the yurt decorating process towards the end, because it’s not just about functionality – your yurt’s got to look good as well! And in true Kyrgyz fashion, at the end of the workshop, we were invited to have tea with the family.
Go on an easy day trek
Having just completed a 3-day horse trek from Bokonbayevo, we weren’t looking to do anything too strenuous, so we signed up for the Shatyly day trek. We met up with our guide in town, drove out to the Bozsalkyn Jailoo, and picked up our horses from one of the yurt camps in the valley.
We were lucky enough to get the same guide we’d had on our previous horse trek, so we were glad to see him again, and even more thrilled when we discovered he had packed a picnic for this outing.
Once we were all saddled up, we trekked to the first lookout point where we had views of Issyk Kul Lake and Bokonbayevo, and then we came back down and trekked through the forest and up another mountain to a different lookout point where we spread out a picnic consisting of cherries, bread, juice, cookies and more. Even the horses got a snack with all the wildflowers in bloom.
Learn about the tradition of eagle hunting
Salbuurun is the word used to describe traditional Kyrgyz hunting culture, a practice that encompasses hunting on horseback with the use of golden eagles, taigans (a Kyrgyz hunting dog), and bows and arrows. This is a tradition that was nearly wiped out during the Soviet era, when nomadic practices were suppressed, but it’s slowly making a comeback as people are looking to reconnect with and celebrate their culture.
If you’re not travelling in Kyrgyzstan during the World Nomad Games or one of the smaller regional festivals, it can be tricky to see some of the nomadic traditions the country is known for, but this is where The Salbuurun Foundation comes in. While hunters would typically be looking for foxes and hares, the Salbuurun Foundation puts on demonstrations using furs and stuffed animals, so no live animals are hunted.
I know this will be a sensitive subject for many people, but hunting with golden eagles is a Central Asian tradition that dates back millennia, and the foundation tries to teach visitors about its culture and explain the bond between a hunter and his eagle (a hunter will typically only have 2 eagles in his lifetime, raising them from the time they’re a young chick and eventually releasing them back into the wild), so if this is something you’re interested in learning more about, you can attend one of their demonstrations.
Go in search of ancient petroglyphs
So this excursion kind of tanked when it started pouring buckets, so while there are lots of ancient petroglyphs you can hike to, we had to readjust our plans.
Rather than continuing on the grand petroglyph walk we had planned, we ended up at the Jaichy Yurt Camp, where you can see balbals, carved stone heads used to remember ancestors by.
The man who runs this yurt camp also happened to be an artist, so aside from the balbals in his backyard, he also showed us some of the modern petroglyphs he had created as well as some cool wood carvings and handmade furniture he’d designed himself.
It may not have been what we had in mind when we left camp for the day, but it turned out to be a really fun outing and at the end, he invited us in for tea and bread, as you do! Oh, and we learned that he organizes hikes to a glacier lake not far from his camp, so if you somehow end up there, it’s worth inquiring about that.
Chill out on the shores of Issyk Kul
And then, there was plenty of chilling on the shores of Issyk Kul Lake…quite literally! I think it was a bit too early in the summer season to go for a swim – Sam, who doesn’t mind the cold, only made it up to his knees! – so I was perfectly happy to just enjoy some quiet sunset walks along the shore. The yurt camp we were staying at also had kayaks available for guests, so that’s another option.
- If you’re planning to travel along Issyk Kul Lake’s south shore, you’re going to pass through the town of Bokonbayevo, which is the gateway to many of the tours and activities in this area. You can visit the CBT Bokonbaevo offices for suggestions of things to do or help arranging tours and drivers.
- Alternatively, you can also message Destination South Shore on Facebook to get travel information and arrange activities. (I know it sounds a bit strange to organize things via Facebook, but this is pretty standard practice in Kyrgyzstan.)
- Regarding accommodations, I stayed at the Bel Tam Yurt Camp just 15 minutes outside of Bokonbayevo, which I would highly recommend as it was an amazing spot with a great vibe, however, if you’d prefer a bit more comfort, there are hotels and guesthouses in the town.
- There aren’t very many restaurants in Bokonbayevo, so for convenience sake, we often ate at our yurt camp. Most guesthouses also offer a meal service, so it’s just a matter of letting them know the day before. Alternatively, you can purchase snacks and fresh produce from the local market for some easy do it yourself meals.
- Travel insurance should always be a must, but even more so when you’re going to be travelling so remotely and taking part in adventure and outdoor activities, so don’t leave home without it!
This trip was made possible in partnership with Discover Kyrgyzstan. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.