The Tien Shan is a formidable mountain range in Central Asia and one of the great mountain ranges of the world. Extending for 3000 kilometers in a northeast-southwest direction along the border between China and Central Asia from the Altai area — where Mongolia, Russia and China all come together — to the Pamir Range in the Tajikstan and southwest China. The highest point is 24,406-foot-high Pobeda Peak in Kyrgyzstan. The most impressive mountain — and highest point of Kazakhstan — is Khan-Tengri peak (6995 meters) in on the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border.

The Tien Shan are lovely mountains with some of Central Asia and China's most beautiful scenery: towering cliffs, massive glaciers, snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, sweet-smelling spruce forests, boulder-strewn gullies and deep gorges. The name "Tien Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese. The northern The Tien Shan mountains are is located in the southeastern part of Kazakhstan. The Western Tien Shan runs along the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border in the Almaty and Bishkek areas and extends all the way to Uzbekistan. region. The Central Tien Shan runs from central Kyrgyzstan to China. The Eastern Tien Shan is in western China. The entire range extends about 300 kilometers from north to south.

Of the five mountains that exceed altitudes of 7000 meters in ex-USSR territories, three are found in Kyrgyzstan. The Pobeda Peak (at 7439 meters) is the highest and most difficult to climb, due to unpredictable weather conditions. The second highest peak, Lenin (at 7134 meters), on the other hand, is the most accessible. Khan Tengri (at 7010 meters) is on the world climbers’ elite list. In the view of climbers from Russia and in the former Soviet Union every self-respecting mountaineer must climb this peak, at least once in their life.

The Tien Shan were first described by the 7th century Chinese explorer Xuan Zang who spent seven days crossing a snowbound pass, where half of the 14 people in his party froze to death. The first European to extensively explore the central Tien Shan was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov who traveled extensively in the region in 1856.


Karakol (8 hours by minibus from Bishkek) is small city lying at the foot of the Tien Shan, roughly with Western Tien Shan to the north and the Central Tien Shan to the south and east. Home to about 80,000 people, it is a major jumping off point for treks, horseback riding trips, and adventures in the mountains and a pleasant town in its own right.. There are some old gingerbread houses, Orthodox churches and lots trees as well orchards with delicious apples surrounding the town. The town went through hard times after the Soviet tourism industry collapsed and has resurrected itself somewhat by attracting foreign tourists.

Karakol is near the mountains but not so near Lake Issyk-Kul. Worth checking out in the town are the Sunday bazaar, regarded as one of the best in Central Asia and featuring an interesting animal market; a Chinese mosque that resembles a Buddhist Temple, and was built without nails; the Holy Trinity Cathedral, an interesting wooden church in the process of being restored; a regional museum, with some Scythian artifacts, Kyrgyz art and other stuff. There are a hippodrome, Pushkin Park and some neighborhoods with gingerbread houses. Karakol is also a good place to sample Dungan food (Buddhist-influenced Muslim food).

The Holy Trinity Orthodox Church is located in the center of Karakol. It was built in 1894-1895 on the site of an older church, which was destroyed by an earthquake. The facade of this four-column church is decorated with carvings, a bell tower at the top, and a gilded dome on the roof, characterizing a traditional Orthodox church. The church is home to the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin.

The Dungan Mosque was built in 1910-1912. This particular style of architecture was created by the best masters, headed by architect Zhou Si, who Haji Ibrahim specially invited from Beijing. The local people also took part in the construction of the mosque. This one-storey wooden building was made without a single nail. The corners of the roof were decorated with dragon figurines; the walls with images of plants and mythological animals which, according to popular belief, bring abundance and ward off evil spirits, respectively.

Near Karakol

Teresky Alatau is the range of mountains that rise up behind Karakol. The trekking is excellent. There are 5,000 meter-high peaks that are snowcapped year round, wild rivers, refreshing pine forests, and high altitude pastures for shepherds and herders. There are numerous hiking routes.

Alakul Lake is located amid the rocky ridges of the Terskey Alatau range, at an altitude of 3532 meters. Although the surface area of this glacial lake is just under 1.5 square kilometers, the waters reach a depth of more than 70 meters. This is a motley lake: its colors entirely contingent on the weather.

Karkara Valley (100 kilometers from Karakol, east of Lake Issyk-Kul) is set around the Kanaka River which runs along the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan for about 40 kilometers. Reportedly used by Tamerlane as his summer headquarters, it contains large pastures used by Kazakh and Kyrgyz herders. During the summer many herders bring their animals here and the valley is dotted with yurts. The Chabana festival with traditional horse-mounted sports is held here in June. There are no towns or even houses, Bring a tent and become a nomad yourself.

Altyn Arashan

Altyn Arashan (about 40 kilometers miles from Karakol) is the primary base for hiking in this part of the Tien Shan and main destination from Karakol. Situated in a lovely valley at an elevation of 2,600 meters, it is a hot spring area with some very basic dormitory-style hotels that serve food and offer basic hot spring baths. The main attraction is the scenery. There are wild streams, evergreen forests glacier-covered mountains and pastures used by herds of horses.

Altyn Arashan can be reached by 14-kilometer jeep road from the town of Ak-Suu, which is about 10 kilometers form Karakol. The road can be traversed in a very rough steep jeep trip or by a very pleasant hike along the Arashan River. One at Altyn Arashan you can do some day hikes to small glaciers and 4,000-foot peaks. Horses can also often be hired here.

There are spruce forests and green meadows on the banks of the Arashan River. The hot springs have a high mineral content and radioactivity. The springs contain radon which is used in the treatment of diseases relating to nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and the musculoskeletal systems.

Treks form Altyn Aarshan

There are a number of one-day and multi-day treks that can be done in the area. They essentially involve climbing over one pass, descending to a valley and climbing another pass. Sometimes the passes are closed due to snow. There is lots of water and places to camp. You need a tent. Be prepared for rain and cold weather. For many routes it is difficult to the find the way without a guide. There are lots of horse trails and it is hard to find exactly which trail to take.

There are four main hikes: 1) Two or three days: One day from Ak-Suu to Altyn Arashan and one or two days over 3600-meter-high Adyr Pass back to Ak-Suu.: 2) Three days: One day from Ak-Suu to Altyn Arashan, another day over 3860-meter-high Ala-Kol Pass and camp at 3530-meter-high Ala Kol lake, and a third day to Karakol;

3) Four or five days: The same as hike “2" but instead of going to Karakol, you head over 3800-meter-high Teleti Pass and make your way to Jeti Oguz resort then to the town of Jeti Oguz; 4) Five to seven days: The same as hike “3" but instead of going to Jeti Oguz you head over 3800-meter-high Archa Tor Pass and make you way to the village of Jyluu-Suu. These hikes can also be done on reverse. See the Lonely Planet Guide for more details.

Jeti Oguz

Jeti Oguz (28 kilometers southwest of Karakol) is a village near a canyon with impressive red sandstone cliffs. The name means in Kyrgyz means 'seven bulls,' referring to the seven large red-brown cliffs, reminiscent of seven fierce bulls. According to legend seven calves grew into strong bulls here. The Jeti Oguz Health Resort, located in the gorge, is well known for its geothermal springs. This sanatorium has seen better days but is still open. Boris Yeltsin met Kyrgyzstan’s president Akayev here in 1991.

Picturesque Jeti Oguz gorge is near the village of Jeti Oguz. Jaralangan Jurok (Broken Heart Rock) is located at the entrance to the gorge. According to legend says two suitors spilled their blood in a fight for a beautiful woman; both died, and this rock is her broken heart. Another must-visit destination is Kyzdyn Koz Jashy (Maidens' Tears Waterfall), situated at a height of 2500 meters high. It is formed by a stream that runs along a steep 40 meter rock wall and breaks up into hundreds of small streams and drops that resemble tears. There are some nice hiking trails and picnic areas. The Valley of Flowers is famous for, well, flowers.

The Jeti Oguz rock formation is a well-known landmark in Kyrgyzstan and symbol of the Lake Issyk-Kul region. It has been seen featured in paintings, songs, and even music videos. The legend of Seven Bulls goes on to say that the growth of the seven bulls has produced the valley’s rich pastures and erosion has meant that the bulls have multiplied. The rock formation is best viewed from a ridge to the east above the road. From that same ridge, according to Lonely Planet, you can look east into Ushchelie Drakanov, the Valley of Dragons.

Sarychat-Eеrtash State Reserve: Snow Leopard Haven

Sarychat-Eеrtash State Reserve (near the villages of Akshyirak and Inilchesk) is a 1341 square kilometers (518 square miles) protected area set among 4,000-meter-high Tien Shan mountains. It is home to about a dozen snow leopards, a fair number and scientists have come here to study them.

Sarychat-Eеrtash State Reserve is situated in the Jeti-Oguz district of the Issyk-Kul province, covering the basins of the Sarychat and Bordu rivers on the southern slope of Teskei Alatau. The primary task of the reserve is preservation of the alpine ecosystems and endangered species such as mountain sheep, alpine ibex and snow leopards

Perhaps the main reason there is a healthy number of snow leopards here is that there is plenty for them to eat. According to Snow Leopard Trust: The Sarychat-Ertash Reserve is a “key component of the Issyk Kul Biosphere Reserve. As a Nature Reserve, Sarychat-Ertash has not been used for any commercial activities in over 20 years. No livestock grazing or hunting is allowed in the core zone, while seasonal grazing is allowed in the buffer zone. The neighboring Koiluu Hunting Concession, located between Sarychat-Ertash Reserve and the newly established Khan-Tengry National Park, has intensive livestock grazing, with over 10 herders using the valley year around to graze their sheep, goats, horses, cows and yaks. It is also a licensed hunting concession for Asiatic Ibex (Capra sibirica). [Source: Snow Leopard Trust, snowleopard.org, December 12, 2017]

“Ibex and argali and the key prey species of snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan. The more of these ungulates there are, the more snow leopards can live in an area”, says Kuban Jumabai uulu, the Snow Leopard Trust’s country director in Kyrgyzstan. To estimate populations, Kuban and his colleagues used the so-called Double Observer method, where two observers survey a defined area independently of each other, but at the same time. In Sarychat, they worked in partnership with the Nature Reserve rangers from the State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry, while the work in Koiluu was carried out with the support of the Kyrgyz Hunting Department.

“In Koiluu, we estimate that there are little over 200 ibexes, or about 0.5 individuals per square kilometers . That’s comparable to ibex densities recorded in places like Pin Valley National Park in India, or Tost Nature Reserve in Mongolia”, Kuban says. “But in the Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve, the numbers were more than four times higher! There were more than two individuals per square kilometers , and around 1,300 in total! That’s a remarkably high number, and should be capable of supporting quite a large snow leopard population.”

“Based on camera trap studies he has done over the last few years, Kuban estimates that there are around 18 snow leopards living in the Sarychat Reserve. He does not have a solid estimate for the Koiluu Hunting Concession, but based on the number of available prey and preliminary camera trap studies, it’s reasonable to assume that Koiluu’s snow leopard population is quite a bit smaller than that of Sarychat.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kyrgyzstan Tourism website, Kyrgyzstan government websites, Wikitravel, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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