If you follow a lot of bloggers, you may have noticed this past summer it seemed like everyone and their mom was invited to explore Kyrgyzstan as an up-and-coming adventure tourism destination. Which it 100% is.
Indeed, I was one of the lucky ones and while I didn’t necessarily fit the bill of their perfect participant (I don’t own a serious pair of hiking boots or any clothing from Patagonia), I knew that it was going to be an amazing experience regardless of my adventure skill level. I also knew I was going to prove that as much as it’s being pushed as an outdoor adventure hotspot, that it wouldn’t have to mean hardcore hikes and carrying a tent on my back just to experience the magnificence of the country.
With some 90% of Kyrgyzstan covered by mountains, the average explorer might be baffled on where to go, what to do, and most importantly – what they can do depending on their outdoor experience. Whether you are all geared up in North Face with a backpack full of supplies to see you through Armageddon or arrived with a rolling suitcase wearing ankle boots and a leather jacket, I’m here to tell you about a lovely little place called JYRGALAN about 2,400 meters above sea level which stole my heart and is absolutely one of the best places to discover the alpine beauty of Kyrgyzstan for all different types of travelers.
Hiking and horse trekking are two of the most popular activities you can find in Jyrgalan so consider this also a “guide”, as gypsy as it can get, which includes my firsthand experience spending four nights there as an amateur adventurer and other useful information for those interested in exploring this off-the-beaten yet very accessible gem of a destination in northeastern Kyrgyzstan .
How to Get There
The easiest way to arrive to Jyrgalan is from Karakol which is about 400 kilometers from Bishkek and well connected by minibuses. Once in Karakol, there are three minibuses up to Jyrgalan at 8:30am, 1:30pm and 5:30pm. Minibuses returning from Jyrgalan to Karakol leave at 7:30am, 11:30am and 4:30pm. One-way tickets cost around 80 SOM – or you can always hire a private taxi for about 1300 SOM.
Where to Sleep
With Emil & Gulmira aka Alakol Guesthouse
Everyone keeps talking about “Alakol Guesthouse”, but Emil and Gulmira ARE Alakol Guesthouse. Emil is essentially the biggest mover and shaker in the village and Gulmira is his boss lady wife who I would love to call my Kyrgyzstan mother. They are both huge characters to say the least and thanks to my gypsy Russian language skills, I got to know a side of their personalities that I think a lot of non-Russian speaking foreigners miss out on.
Their guesthouse is the largest in Jyrgalan and most of the rooms (of which there are 10) have been newly built/renovated giving it more of a guesthouse feel than homestay. They also have a gorgeous yurt in the backyard that you can opt to sleep in if that tickles your tangle.
Rates start at $18 per night and go up to $36 depending on whether you require breakfast and dinner (which you should) – and it gets slightly higher if you are visiting over the New Year period.
If you’re looking to get more OG, there are quite a few other families in the village who have recently done work on their homes specifically to host more tourists and trekkers. You can find out more information on those by contacting Destination Jyrgalan as things there seemed to be changing frequently and they are the main “on the ground” resource.
Where to Eat
There are no restaurants in Jyrgalan and unless you want potato chips or candy bars from the local kiosk (“store” is a bit too generous), then you need to bring your own supplies or make sure all of this is provided by whichever guesthouse you’re staying at. Or check what’s happening in Emil and Gulmira’s kitchen.
Believe me when I say this is the best scenario ever as you will be served up things you didn’t even realize were missing in your stomach’s life. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were my favorite times to be conveniently hanging around the kitchen because I got to watch the local legends like Norgul (love you, Norgul!), work their culinary magic. Prices are nominal and the happy food coma memories will last you a lifetime.
Where to Party
Unlike Karakol where I can legitimately say I had a couple of pretty wild nights, Jyrgalan is a straight up village and if you are looking to go bar hopping then you are on the wrong planet. It’s also a place you want to bring your own stash if you fancy a nightcap because resources seemed pretty limited – almost nonexistent. The one time I tried to buy vodka from the local kiosk they seemed very suspicious and I kind of got the vibe they were trying to hide their arsenal of alcohol as they said they didn’t have any first. After we broke out our sad faces and he could see the desperation in our eyes, one bottle magically appeared on the counter. Moral of the story: better to come prepared than risk being stuck without should there be no pot of gold at the end of the liquor supply rainbow.
Depending on who you are with and like anywhere else, you can always make your own fun with a house/yurt party which we ended up doing a couple of nights. YouTube and a bottle of vodka is usually a guaranteed good time for me and when mixers are lacking – you just improvise. With homemade jam and that fresh mountain water.
Depending on the atmosphere and Emil, you might even be able to catch a live acoustic performance from him of Kyrgyzstan’s greatest hits or one of his own creations if enough vodka and cognac is flowing and the company is good.
What to See & Do
One of the mildest hikes you can take from Jyrgalan is to the Eki-Chat jailoo (summer pasture) which I had the privilege of tagging along behind the local dudes responsible for marking the first of that trail and beyond.
As I just had my Nikes and pair of yoga pants, I wasn’t prepared for the four-day trek most of the crew was about to embark on from there which would reach altitudes above 3,300 meters, but I still felt like I had a little glimpse into jailoo heaven and got to check out the Tulpar Tash rock which they say the horse of Manas (the hero from the famous Kyrgyz epic poem) climbed up and left footprints on before jumping off.
June is an amazing time to travel around most places in Kyrgyzstan as flowers are in full bloom and legit nomads are setting up camp in all the most beautiful pastures so that Eki-Chat is right in Jyrgalan’s backyard is pretty convenient and only takes about an hour and half to reach.
Hike: Emil’s Peak
Another hike that is easy to do from Jyrgalan and just a bit more challenging (but still do-able in Nikes and yoga pants) is up to Emil’s Peak, named after none other than the Emil from Alakol Guesthouse.
I was teamed up with Azemat who is an active and very sturdy army officer who does mountain guiding on the side. His friend Altin Bek joined us a little further up the trail and just like that we became the Three Amigos for the next few hours blasting Kyrgyz pop tunes and stopping to eat some wild herbs here and there on the way up (not those kind of herbs).
It’s worth mentioning that during the time I spent in Jyrgalan, most of the guides I met spoke little to no English – just Kyrgyz and Russian. This wasn’t a major problem for me since I was able to dust off what is still left in my brain from my Russian studies and the time I lived in Ukraine, but for others you may need to request someone join you that will be able to translate. You could also try and go some of these hikes alone though I wouldn’t recommend it quite yet as most trails have just been developed and this particular one not yet marked.
It is a pretty steep climb up towards the end but once you reach the top you will be rewarded with incredible 360 degree views and a pretty perfect place to post up for lunch. You can also see China and Kazakhstan from what I could gather.
Wildflowers were more abundant on our walk down the other side of the mountain and the greenness of the grass seemed to intensify. We even met a Kyrgyz cowboy with cool style who let me climb on his horse for some photos with Azemat’s assistance since I was still a bit skeptical at that point about putting my life in the hands – rather, on the back of a horse.
We arrived home to the guest house about four hours after we had initially set off and I felt good. Nothing like doing a fulfilling hike and still having energy to enjoy the rest of the evening which is the great thing about Jyrgalan – you can hike for one hour or you can hike for one week, it all just depends on what you want.
Wander Around Town
Jyrgalan is relatively small with a population of around 1,000 and about 300 homes so it’s pretty much impossible to get lost so long as you orientate yourself with the main landmarks. Entering through the gate which was being guarded by a woman every time I went in and out, you’ll first pass by an old mining area (Jyrgalan was a big mining town several decades ago though now that sector is barely operating) before you reach the center where the public bus stops. From there, wander up and down its roads, say hello to its super friendly locals, admire the village mosque, check out the beautiful new playground my friend Ashlyn fundraised for and had built, or literally watch the cows come home from grazing. Doesn’t get more authentic than this as far as mountain communities go, so soak it in.
Horse Trekking to Turnali Kul
As someone who is legitimately terrified of horses, I was a little worried how I would fare on a trek through the Tian Shan mountains on top of one. I also knew what probably wouldn’t kill me could make me stronger and it was a good time to try and conquer that lame fear – so I went for it. If not in one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in the world, then where else?
I was pretty much freaking out for the first ten minutes even though Klitchko (the nickname of the guy leading my horse) informed me that being scared was the worst reaction as horses can sense that and then might be more likely to also freak out. After I finally calmed myself down, things were starting to look good, super enjoyable even…
And then we reached the edge. At least I thought it was the edge as I couldn’t imagine a horse being able to scale the side of such a steep mountain solo let alone with a blonde gypsy on his back, so again I started to panic as they proceeded to lead him down inch by inch. I wanted off and decided I would walk/slide down in my ankle boots before I would ride this pony any further, but I was also very conscious of the fact that I had to remain cool and couldn’t let him feel my fear.
After Klitchko, Azemat and Altin Bek all assured me it would be fine and that it would actually be safer to stay on the horse than attempt to conquer the slope alone, I kind of just closed my eyes and let God – actually Klitchko – take the reins and before I knew it we were back to solid ground.
Not long after we finally reached what we set out to find and that was Turnali Kol, or Turnali Lake, where the first thing we encountered were some beautiful cranes just hanging around. We had a short break there to eat lunch – at least I ate lunch as all three of those guys were fasting for Ramadan. Can’t tell you what troopers they were with all the strength and stamina they still had in light of this to accompany me so many strenuous days in a row.
It was an easy ride back from there into the village with the whole thing lasting about five hours in total. In the end it’s one of the coolest experiences out in nature that I’ve ever had and I’m really glad I didn’t let my fear of horses hold me back which is all but gone now.
If you need help organizing any of the activities mentioned above or want any further information about hiking and horsing around in Jyrgalan, get in touch with the Destination Jyrgalan. Rahmat to USAID for getting me up into the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen and for helping to develop these cool experiences for the world to enjoy.