Intrepid travellers visit Kyrgyzstan on a mission to find cultural experiences, adventurous activities and off-track spots – of which, there are many. Those in the know have been travelling here for years, while enjoying the rugged landscapes and warm hospitality.
Still, Kyrgyzstan is a destination that few people have heard about as a travel destination, and even fewer have explored. When we were invited by USAID – BGI and Discover Kyrgyzstan to return to our favourite “Stan” in the region, we jumped at the opportunity.
When we found out that we would be hiking on a trail that had yet to be plotted, and that we would be the ones marking it for future travellers, we were ecstatic!
The Village of Jyrgalan in an up-and-coming hotspot in the country. This pristine area is for those with an adventurous spirit and a love for the wilderness. With our bags packed, we set off from Athens to Bishkek and prepared ourselves for the upcoming journey with our friends, Jarryd & Alesha.
📝 NOTE: For any inquiries about Jyrgalan, the Keskenkija Loop Trail or other experiences and activities in the area, please feel free to Contact Us with any inquiries. We will answer as soon as possible.
Jyrgalan was everything we hoped it would be, and more. With just 1,000 residents, it has a very welcoming feel to it. We passed by small homes made from wood, brick and cement, and numerous cows, chickens, horses and sheep roamed the dirt roads. Women carried laundry in buckets down the street, while the men herded their livestock from horseback.
There was one school, a cemetery and a mosque. Surrounding the village were rolling green hills on one side, and towering snowy peaks on the other. This was a proper mountain village!
We arrived at our guesthouse, Alakol Eco-Center, which was constructed in 2014 by Emil and Gulmira. Prior to the funding and support given by the USAID – BGI Kyrgyz Project, the village of Jyrgalan could only sleep 15 tourists, and they all had to come to this one guesthouse.
As of October, 2016, there are now a total of 5 guesthouses in Jyrgalan, and 64 beds! Accommodation is available year-round.
We were greeted with smiling faces at the Alakol Eco-Center and were shown to our room, which was newly renovated and had a private bathroom. We then noticed that there was a yurt raised up on a wooden platform. Since the four of us (Jazza, Alesha, Nick & I) love yurts, we asked if we could sleep there instead.
What better way to kick off our two-week trip together than having a sleepover on Day #1?
How to Get to Jyrgalan
First of all, if you’re searching on GoogleMaps.com, it’s not actually where it says it is! They spelled it Jergalan and placed it in the wrong location. Click the link above or view the map below to see the real location.
If you’re searching on Maps.me, it’s spelled Dzhergalan. If you read the topographical maps, it’s spelled Jyrgalan. Confusing, I know.
The Village of Jyrgalan is located approximately 47 kilometers northeast of the city of Karakol.
To get to Jyrgalan from Karakol, you simply get on a marshrutka (mini bus) from the main bus station. These run 4 times a day and the cost is around $1 per person. The journey takes roughly 45 minutes. If you’re unsure of how to catch the bus to Jyrgalan, speak to the DMO in Karakol, which is located next to Fat Cat Cafe at 22, Gagarin Street. They can also help you arrange any tours in Jyrgalan from this office.
The Trekking Plan
The family, staff and travellers all met in the round kitchen and enjoyed a fantastic homemade meal together – the food was delicious! But, before we could move the party to our yurt for some after dinner cognac and guitar playing from Emil the guesthouse owner, we needed to have a meeting with our trekking team and the local guides to plan our route for the next day.
We weren’t the only crew planning an adventure from Emil’s guest house. There were a few other travellers who had guides and plans as well, but Jazza, Alesha, Nick & I followed our group of horse guides and mountain experts to a small room near the kitchen. Gathering around the topographical map, we discussed the route and the plan for the excursion that we were to embark on the following morning.
The plan was for us to trek to Echkili Tash, taking 4 days and around 70 kilometers. But, we had just received word that there was still four meters of snow on the second pass that we would have to cross at around 3,200m. If we were able to make it over, we weren’t sure what the 3rd pass would have in store for us, and at 3,800m, going in blind wouldn’t have been the smartest decision.
There was also the chance that if it snowed anymore during the trek, we could be stuck between two high passes.
Within a few minutes, the talks turned from English to Russian and more pointing at the map and consulting with the local mountain expert ensued. I looked at Nick and whispered “I feel nervous about this”. It was the night before we were supposed set off on what would already be a difficult trek, and now there was the possibility of being stranded on a mountain in the snow.
As if reading my mind, the trekking guide and the horse guide abandoned the initial plan, deciding it wasn’t safe enough. They came up with a new route – literally right then and there! Talk about spontaneity.
Azamat (our horse guide) has spent his entire life in the mountains and since he was a child he has been hunting and exploring the peaks around Jyrgalan. He knew of an area that might make for a great trek – but there were still many factors that we all were uncertain of.
Was there a bridge to cross the rushing river? How high was the water right now? Was one of the passes covered in snow? Exactly how many kilometers was this route? Was it doable in three days?
We decided that we’d cross those bridges (both literally and figuratively) as they came.
(NOTE: We all completed this trek in 3 days, but having done so, it has now been decided that it should be done in 4 – 5 days. Click here to see the how-to article, which explains the 4 and 5 day options.)
The following morning we awoke to a buzz at the guesthouse. Everyone was up and getting ready to set off on various journeys around the village. Some were going horseback riding to a nearby lake, others were on an overnight trek to a waterfall, and the four of us with our guides and crew were setting off into the unknown.
Together with Begayim (trekking guide & GPS tracker), Azamat (local horse guide and mountain expert), Ruslan (local horse guide), Anvar (chef), Kyle (American working on the USAID project) and Jarryd & Alesha (from NOMADasaurus), we set off on foot into the mountains.
We had three dogs and four horses with us – two were ridden by Azamat and Ruslan and two were used as pack horses to carry our tents and food. The rest of the gear, including our clothing, water and personal belongings were carried by us on our backs.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue and we were all excited to be pioneering this trek for future travellers to Jyrgalan.
The scenery was perfect. We hiked alongside a rushing river before heading up a grassy mountain and past our first shepherd camp. During the summer months, many Kyrgyz people live in the mountains in yurts, while herding their livestock through green pastures.
Just before our lunch break, we met up with a man named Danik in the Eki Chat area who has a new yurt available for tourists to stay in. You can either do a day trek here from Jyrgalan and have lunch with the family for 450 som ($6.50), or you can choose to spend the night.
Continuing along the beautiful valley, we stopped for lunch before tackling the Jyrgalan Pass (Ak Kiya as it’s known by the locals) at 3,332m. The ascent up to the pass wasn’t overly difficult, but the nasty blister that had formed on my heel wasn’t making it any easier. Unfortunately, our views were obscured as the mountains were shrouded in clouds by this point. There was still a decent amount of snow on the pass, making for a pretty ominous looking view!
Descending down from the pass, we arrived at another incredible lookout point, before continuing to the valley floor below.
We were hiking and painting rocks with bright red arrows to mark this path. Anvar was mostly on painting duty, although we all did our part. After one more (small) river crossing, through some marshy grassland and over one more hill, we finally arrived at our first camp of the trek.
The horses were unloaded and unsaddled, the kitchen tent was erected and Azamat & Ruslan started a bonfire. We all set up our own tents and gear on the most level ground we could find, before helping out with the dinner prep.
All of us huddled in the “kitchen” and enjoyed a traditional meal of kurduk (beef with potatoes, onions and spices), and a fresh salad. The conversation was good and so was the food.
When we asked what the plan for the next day was, Azamat and Begayim said they weren’t sure because they didn’t know if the river and the pass were crossable. We’d have to see how high the water was in the morning, and speak to a shepherd in the jailoo the next day…
- READ MORE: The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Kyrgyzstan
We slept like the dead and awoke to a sunny morning and semolina porridge for breakfast. Breaking camp, we wandered along a beautiful path with stones and boulders dotting the green field, before eventually making it to the Tup River – the river we weren’t sure if we would be able to cross.
On the opposite side of the Tup River we spotted Azamat and Ruslan with their horses. This was a good sign. Eyeing up the river, the seven of us who weren’t on horseback knew there was no way we could cross it on foot – it was too aggressive and deep.
The horses came back to get us and we crossed the river in shifts on horseback, with Ruslan and Azamat’s dogs sticking by their owners and swimming across each time.
Once we were all safely across, we continued on along the lush valley floor which was covered in in a blanket of buttercups and dandelions. This portion of the day was very flat and easy, which was a good thing as we had quite a bit of incline ahead of us.
Banking right, we made our way up the mountainside on a horse trail, leaving the meadow behind. We now found ourselves surrounded by gorgeous pine trees. Finding a stream high up on the mountain face, we filled up our bottles with clear, clean water before making our final ascent to around 3,000m where the pine trees gave way to a flat plateau.
This is where Azamat’s friend and shepherd, Bata, was camping out for the summer with his family and livestock. The setting of their home was absolutely breathtaking, and we were fortunate enough to be invited to eat some lunch and share their company! Seeing as we were the first travellers to ever take this route, we knew that this encounter was completely authentic and not put on for tourists.
Lagman soup was freshly made in a pot and served to us in little bowls – this was the fuel we needed to continue on, and conquer the upcoming mountain pass, the pass which Bata said was possible to tackle.
We trekked by a picturesque, multi-coloured canyon before hiking alongside a mountain face to a small resting spot. From here, we trudged upwards, over a little bit of snow and to the top of a 3,380m pass! The ascent was difficult, but once we arrived at the top of the pass, we were rewarded with the ultimate 360° view.
At the start of this trek, Kyle had announced that he recently had a mountain pass named after himself. So, as you can imagine, we all wanted something named after us. The past days had been filled with questions: “Does this lake have a name yet?” “Is that mountain named?” “Can we name this river?!”
But, sadly, everything was already claimed and had a title.
Until we came to our next epic pass. Apparently some of the locals call it “Archutor” pass, but it wasn’t officially named, so we’ve dubbed it “Goatasaurus Pass” – which is a combination of GoatsOnTheRoad and NOMADasaurus blog names. Original, we know.
After reveling in our new mark on the world, we descended down through the snow and past numerous reflective ponds that dotted the landscape like a mirror mosaic. After another hour or so, we arrived at our second and final campsite of the trek.
This was the ultimate place to pitch our tents.
Once everything was set up, a bottle of Spiced Rum was cracked open and shared with everyone – this was the first time Azamat had tried rum! Needless to say, he enjoyed it. This evening was my favourite because we all sat around in the kitchen tent chatting about how life in Kyrgyzstan differs from that of Australia, Canada and the USA. We learned about our guides’ childhoods, customs and culture.
The most interesting tidbits that I took away from the conversation were about family life.
The first-born child is “given” to the grandparents and is raised entirely by them. The youngest son is obligated to stay home his entire life to take care of his parents – no matter his aspirations. The daughters are married off, and our (female) guide even said “daughters are like guests in the family home, because they don’t stay for long”. Because of this, parents enroll their daughters in school at a later age, around seven or eight years old, in order to keep them at home for as long as they can. The eldest son is free to do as he pleases.
After great conversation and many laughs, we all headed to our respective tents. The horse guides had said the last day should be “easy”, which was comforting considering my blister had gone from bad, to worse.
We awoke to Anvar cooking up french toast in the kitchen. We couldn’t believe the meals he came up with out in the mountains, the food really was tasty.
Unfortunately, my blister was huge and painful, but I was determined to continue – despite Azamat urging me to hop on a horse. I refused the ride, but I did hand over my backpack which they strapped to one of the horses.
Hobbling along, we had another pass to hike over, this one named Anvar Pass at 3,310m. Considering we had just camped at 3,240, the ascent wasn’t so bad. After Anvar Pass, we descended down into the gorge with a rushing river to cross. This part was truly unmarked and in fact, the group of us each sort of took our own routes down the mountainside before meeting up at the bottom.
We pushed on through the grass and marsh until we came to a horse trail, leading us on another small ascent. The panoramic views of Peak Koitor were spectacular! It was all downhill from here before arriving at a yurt camp with another shepherd and his animals.
We could feel ourselves inching closer to civilization.
This would be our final lunch spot, and if we wanted to, we could have called a car the night before to pick us up from this point.
By lunchtime, we had already hiked for approximately 15 kilometers. According to our map, we had about another 15 kilometers back to Jyrgalan. According to Azamat, it was more like 8 kilometers. So, we set off to complete the loop back to town.
By this point, Nick had resorted to wearing flip-flops due to blisters, my foot had gone numb because of my blister pain, and we were all exhausted, but our spirits were high and we were all (honestly) loving the scenery and the adventure!
Each time we came over another hill, thinking we’d see Jyrgalan in the distance, all we saw were more hills. Azamat laughed every time he saw our faces. “One more pass!” we’d all say, and kept trucking along.
After enduring some pouring rain, a hail storm and a 30 kilometer day (!), we finally arrived back in the little village of Jyrgalan. We all gave each other high-fives, hugged and celebrated our accomplishment over beers and vodka.
Creating a trail is something we’ve never done before and it was an experience unlike any other. We’ve always been sheep when it came to hiking and have always followed the paths made by those before us. But this time around, we were able to be GOATS! We led the way and pioneered the Keskenkija Loop.
We truly went with the flow on this adventure and trusted our guides 100%, and even though we tried our best to mark the trail, I’d still recommend having a guide for this trek. We’re all for independent treks and USAID BGI has every intent of marking this trail so that trekkers don’t need guides, but at this point the trails are still new and it’s best to have someone with you who knows the mountains.
We all gave input into where to mark the rocks for upcoming trekkers and mountain guides, and helped out one another when needed. This really was a team effort and we love this group of intrepid souls!
If you’re interested in doing this trek or any others in the Jyrgalan Valley, contact Tynch, the head of the DMO in Jyrgalan and he can help you out. He is super friendly and speaks great English! His email is [email protected] or check out the Destination Jyrgalan Facebook Page.
Jyrgalan is the new adventure destination in Kyrgyzstan and if you haven’t been to this Central Asian country, you need to put it on your list. We’ll be writing much more about exactly how to do this trek, plus the other activities available around the village and around the country. Stay tuned!
For more on travelling and backpacking around Kyrgyzstan, check out our articles:
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Disclaimer: We feel so honoured to have been invited by Discover Kyrgyzstan and USAID to explore Jyrgalan and share our experience with you. Although this was a press trip, if you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that we’ve loved Kyrgyzstan ever since we first visited back in 2013, and that all opinions in this article are entirely our own.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of myself, the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.