JOURNEY FROM BISHKEK TO THE FERGANA VALLEY
The journey From Bishkek to the Fergana Valley is spectacular, rugged, uncomfortable, scary and often filled with hassles. Some people do the whole thing in one shot, and it takes anywhere from 17 to 30 hours. Many people stop in Toktogul which is about the midway point. Some vehicles that make the trip are very dodgy and people are glad they are alive when they finally make it. The route is also popular with drug smugglers.
Not long after leaving Bishkek you reach the Kyrgyz range and begin a long climb to 3586-meter-high Tor-Ashuu Pass, which is bypassed through a tunnel. You then descend and cross a relatively flat basin and then climb 3184-meter-high Ala-Bel and eventually arrive in Toktogul, where you can find some basic accommodation. The 300-kilometer trip between Bishkek and Toktogul takes about eight hours.
From Toktogul you pass through Karakol, located at the site of large hydroelectric dam. After this you follow the Naryn River along a dizzying route that follows a deep gorge with steep cliffs. The Naryn River itself is often a trickle due to water diverted by the dam. Along this section you pass the coal mining town of Tashkomur and Sary Chel, a lovely right-kilometers-long Alpine lake created by an earthquake 800 years ago and surrounded by wild pistachios. From Toktogul it takes five hours to reach Jalal-Abad.
From Jalal-Aban it is about two hours to Osh, the largest city in the Fergana Valley. The route between Tashkomur and Osh is sometimes fraught with hassle because some roads — which were built in the Soviet era before Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were divided into countries — , traverse both countries, passing in and out of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and the policy about visas is unclear. Check with other travelers to suss out what the situation is. It is possible to take a long route from Tashkomur to Jalal-Abad and then Uzgen, where you can catch a bus to Osh without traveling into Uzbekistan.
Mountains and Alpine Areas Near Bishkek
The Kyrgyz Alatau is a spur of the Tien Shan that extends from Taraz to Bishkek and provides a backdrop for Bishkek. It features snowcapped peaks, wild rivers pine forest, high altitude pastures and numerous hiking routes.
Too-Ashu Pass (135 kilometers south of Bishkek) is famous for koumiss. Located at 3400 meters (11,000 feet), it is surrounded by pastures with sweet grass that horses love. Too- Ashu (also spelled Teo-Ashoo) means “Camel Pass.” The name is derived from the fact the hills on either side of the pass resemble the two humps of a Bactrian camel. Too-Ashu is on the main highway, linking the northern and southern parts of Kyrgyzstan. The road to the pass snakes back and forth. The views from it are outstanding. The popular Too-Ashu Ski Resort is situated on the southern slope. The Suusamyr Valley is located just behind the pass.
Suusamyr Valley (150 kilometers south of Bishkek) is one of the largest alpine valleys in Kyrgyzstan. Located at an altitude of 2000-3200 meters between the Kyrgyz Alatau, Suusamyr Too, and Djumgal Too ranges, it stretches more than 150 kilometers from the Ala-Bel Pass in the west to the Kokomeren River in the east. The entire surface of the valley is covered with thick lush green meadows. Jailoo experiences, koumiss, paragliding, skiing, and heli-skiing can all be enjoyed here. It Kyrgyzstan it is known as the birthplace of Kodjomkul, the greatest Kyrgyz wrestler of the 20th century.
Talas (northwest Kyrgyzstan) is one of Kyrgyzstan’s largest towns but is not on any major route and is usually bypassed by travelers. It According to legend the great Kyrgyz legendary hero Manas is buried in Talas, where there is a 14th century mausoleum that is said be Manas’s final resting place. A special shrine has been built nearby for pilgrims to feast on sacrificed sheep. There is also a 1.2-mile racetrack, where horses and horse-mounted sports take place.
Gumbez of Manas (22 kilometers northeast of Talas) is a medieval architectural monument situated in the Kenkol valley. Although widely regarded as the Mausoleum of Manas, an inscription on the wall reads that the tomb belongs to the daughter of one of the rulers of the Mongol Chagatai Khanate.
There is a famous legend saying that Kanykei, Manas’s wife, ordered masters from Bukhara and Samarkand to build this monument in memory of her deceased husband and that the girl’s name on the tomb was inscribed in order to mislead enemies. The walls of this building constructed of brick are decorated with Kyrgyz patterns and Arabic inscriptions. Today, it is surrounded by an architectural complex called Manas Ordo.
Kirov Reservoir (in the Chon-Kapka gorge in Talas province) covers an area of 39 square kilometers, and reaches depths of up to seven meters. The reservoir was built for the purpose of irrigating lands in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. With a picturesque scenery, the coastal areas are ideal for fishing as well as other recreational activities.
Besh Tash National Park (13 kilometers from Talas) is located on both sides of the Besh Tash river. The park, with an overall area of 324 square kilometers is home to rare plant and animal species included in the Red Book of the Kyrgyz Republic, such as argali, Turkestan lynx, snow leopards, golden eagles, Himalayan vultures, and saker falcons. There is a high altitude lake (2997 meters high, 28 meters deep) with the same name. Osman, marinka, and trout are some of the different fish that can be found in the lake, along with the rainbow trout found in the Besh Tash river.
Manas Peak is the highest point of the Talas Alatau range. Located in the western part of the range, it is 4482 meters high. Its slopes are so steep that no snow and ice ever cling to the mountainsides. Named after the great Kyrgyz hero Manas, this peak is a symbol of independence of the Kyrgyz people. Climbing to its top requires considerable skills and enormous efforts due to the steepness of the slopes.
Battle of Talas
In 751, Chinese forces of the Tang dynasty attempting the extend Chinese control into Central Asia were annihilated by a Muslim army in Talas. The defeat of the Chinese in 751 gave Muslims control of the Silk Road. The exact location of the battle has not been confirmed but is believed to be near Taraz and Talas on the border of present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese name Daluosi was first seen in the account of Xuanzang. Du Huan located the city near the western drain of the Chui River.
As China became strong during the Tang dynasty it began expanding westward, for the most part relying more on diplomatic skills than military might to achieve its goals. The strategy worked well until one Chinese viceroy went too far and ordered the murder of the khan of the Tashkent Turks.
In 751 an alliance of enraged Turks, opportunist Arabs and Tibetans maneuvered a Chinese force into the Talas Valley in present-day Kazakhstan and Kyrzgzstan. In the ensuing battle — the Battle of Talas — the Chinese were routed and forced back across the Tian Shan. Tibetans moving up from the south were driven out of the Tarim basin by Uighur Turks, allies of the Tang. The Uighars have been in the region ever since.
The Battle of Talas, ended Chinese ambitions in Central Asia. After the battle, the Turk, Arab and Tibetans splintered and instability was the rule in Central Asia until the 9th century when the Samanid dynasty rose up.
Silk Road Sites of Talas and Manas Ordo
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The sites of Talas and Manas Ordo “are located in the northwest of the country, in the upper Talas valley, on the right bank of the river Kenkol, inflow of Talas river, in the entrance of the Kenkol gorge. They were connected with the Silk Road branch, serving sub-region of Semirechie and South Kazakhstan in the Middle Ages. The series consists of monuments of tangible and intangible heritage on the territory of Manas-Ordo complex and its vicinity. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
The first group includes archaeological monuments of different historical epoch: 1) barrows of the well-known Kenkol burial ground (end of the I-st millennia B.C. - first half of the I-st millenia AD) connected with Huns and entitled the whole archaeological culture of the region; Rich archaeological material, including number of finds of silk clothes, demonstrate communications with the various historical and cultural regions located along the Silk Road. 2) petroglyphs, located near to the burial ground which repertoire reflects an economic-ceremonial life of the nomadic population, dated from the same epoch. 3) architectural monument - mausoleum of 14th century AD, a single-chamber cube-shaped construction; ceiling with two domes: internal dome of spherical form and external - ribbed peaked roof. Ornamented portal is in the southern wall. The mausoleum belonged to one of Chagatai princesses, but Kyrgyz people traditionally connect it with the Kyrgyz epic hero Manas. 4) Muslim cemetery of the late Middle Ages which was functioning until the end 60th of XX century.
Kenkol gorge is rich in different types of nomadic monuments dated from the early Iron Age to 18th centuries AD inclusive. Petroglyphs and barrows make considerable part. Ancient Turkic runic inscriptions were also detected. In 4 kilometers to the northwest there is one of the largest medieval sites of the valley - Ak-Tobe (Talassky), identified with Tekabket which is known in written sources as a city at the mountains with silver mines. The intangible cultural heritage is presented by various rituals and the ceremonies connected with initiation of Manaschy-storyteller of national epos Manas, and also with different pre-Islamic beliefs - Shamanizm, often presented by women, cults of trees, waters, mountains, fertility, animal-worship, including ant heaps worship. Throughout long time traditional form of land tenure, i.e. use of summer pastures - djailoo in Kenkol gorge, has not changed. It is important that the epos "Manas" remains an active social factor and its influence to the modern Kyrgyz society is huge. The sites of these series demonstrate economic, trading and cultural exchanges both on regional, and on international levels.
Naryn (about 100 kilometers south of Kochkor, 310 kilometers southeast of Bishkek) is a town with about 45,000 people, nearly all of them Kyrgyz. It is not a particularly nice place but many people stop here on the way from Bishkek to Torugart Pass. There is a regional museum with some stuffed animals and exhibits on nomadic life, and a mosque built with Saudi money. So people go through Naryn on the way from Bishkek to the Fergana Valley
Naryn was established as a Russian fortress on the important caravan route between Kashgar and Zhetysu (Semirechye, Kazakhstan) in 1868. It is situated on both banks of the Naryn River (one of the main head waters of the Syr Darya), which creates a picturesque gorge through the town. From Naryn, the main road follows a branches of the Silk Road through the sparsely settled central Kyrgyz highlands to the Torugart Pass and China. At present, this is the main transport link from Kyrgyzstan to China.
Naryn hosts one of three campuses of the University of Central Asia (UCA). The University was founded in 2000 by the governments of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, and His Highness the Aga Khan. It is the world’s first internationally chartered institution of higher education. The city has a bandy club. Bandy is a hockey-like game played with a ball that is popular in Central Asia.
Places Nears Naryn
It is possible to possible to go hiking or take a drive in the hills and mountains around Naryn. Among the destinations are the former pioneer camp at Salkyn Tor and the Little Naryn valley northeast of Naryn. The Naryn area is well known in Kyrgyzstan for its eating clay. In recent years it has found a degree of prosperity as a stop for trucks and traffic coming back from or heading to China.
Naryn State Reserve (east of Naryn) is located in the eastern part of the Naryn province. Covering 250 square kilometers and part of 534 square kilometers of protected land, it begins at the source of the Naryn River and embraces the hillside forests of the Naryn-Too mountain range. The primary task of the reserve is to protect the region’s flora and fauna, whoch includes 1870 plant and 50 animal species. The most commonly found plants are spruce, rowan, willow, juniper, wild rose, and currants. Deer, mountain goats, mountain sheep, bears, wolves, snow leopards, lynxes, and martens are just some of the animals protected by the reserve.
Eki Naryn Valley (45 kilometers from of Naryn) is situated at an altitude of 2000 meters. Here, large and small tributaries of the Naryn River merge together, giving it the name that means 'two Naryns.' This area is characterized by meadows, pastures, and pine forests. Located within the territory of the Naryn State Reserve, it is also the habitat of bears, wild boars, mountain goats, and snow leopards. CBT Naryn organizes some hikes and horse treks in this area.
Forest Swastika (40 kilometers from the town of Naryn, on the way to Naryn Eki), is a forest plantation of conifers 180 meters wide in the form of a reverse swastika on a hillside near the village of Tash-Bashat. There is no known explanation for how it appeared, although it's theorized that the officer who supervised the tree planting work was an alleged Hitler sympathizer.
Between Naryn and the Fergana Valley
There is a road that goes from Naryn via Kazarmen and Jalal-Abad to Osh. The route is rugged and the landscape is mountainous but dry and dusty. Travelers cross the Fergana Range over a 3100-meter-high pass and pass through the mining town of Kazarman The buses that traverse the route are sorry-looking and unreliable. You are better off in a shared taxi. Things get greener when you enter th Fergana Valley.
Ak-Talaa (east of Naryn, south of Lake Song Kul) is region that reminds some people of the American Southwest. It features awesome rock formations, deserts, badlands and villages with trees and irrigated plots of farm land. A road heads north to the jailoos of Song Kul. Moldo-Ashuu pass is one of the gateways into the jailoo at Song Köl.
Kazarman is located on the Naryn River and has about 9,500 people. One source called it a “poor dust-blown settlement” with “something of the sinister reputation of a tough mining town down on its luck". The Makmal open-pit gold mine that once empoyed many people is now closed. The town is largely cut off in winter when the roads are closed by snow. The road southwest to Jalal-Abad city is tough going and requires and SUV as far as the Kaldama Pass over the Ferghana range. Once over the pass the country opens out to the Ferghana Valley. The road east through Baetov and Dostuk to Naryn is somewhat better. Saimaluu Tash is accessible from Kazarman.
Saimaluu-Tash area (accessible from Kazarman) is one of the largest petroglyph sites in Central Asia with thousands of stone carvings and images. The earliest ones date to Neolithic and Bronze Ages). The drawings are invaluable sources of information about the day-to-day life, mentality, history, and culture of the ancient hunters, herders and farmers of Central Asia.
The area was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Situated high up in the Ferghana mountain range, Saimaly-Tash is a grandiose natural sanctuary containing one of the biggest collections of rock pictures not only in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia but also in the whole world. About 10,000 stones with pictures have been identified, the earliest dating back to the third to early second millennia B.C., that is to the Eneolithic and Bronze Ages. [Source: Kyrgyz National Commission for UNESCO]
“Saimaly-Tash is remarkable in that it has been in continuous use as a sacred site by the populations of Tien-Shan and Pre-Ferghana from the third millennium B.C. until the middle ages, and even until the present day. It is thus a rich source of knowledge about the everyday life, mentality, history and culture of the ancient tribes of hunters, cattlebreeders and first peasants in Central Asia, about the development of their spiritual culture, their religious beliefs and their worship of mountains, nature, totems and solar-cosmic images.”
Sary Chelek Lake
Sary Chelek lake(500 kilometers from Bishkek and 300 kilometers from Osh) lies in the Sary Chelek State Biosphere Reserve lies on the boundary of At-Oinok and Chatkal ranges, at an altitude of 1940 meters. The lake covers an area of five square kilometers, has a length of 7.5 kilometers, and a depth of 234 meters. It is the second and third deepest lake in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, respectively.
The Sary Chelek lake coastline is covered with dense forests and has rocky places in some areas. Sary Chelek is fed by several mountain rivers. The water temperature in summer does not exceed 19 °C and in winter ranges from 0 °C to 4 °C. Sary Chelek in Kyrgyz means 'yellow barrel.' The Sary Chelek State Biosphere Reserve (area 23,8 ha) is included in UNESCO’s international network of nature reserves. It was established to preserve the flora and fauna of the walnut forests and alpine landscapes.
According to legend, there was once an old beekeeper who, one spring, decided to place hives on the shores of an unusually beautiful lake. When the time for harvest had come, the beekeeper was so mesmerized by the golden color of honey, he named the lake Yellow Barrels referring to the barrels full of honey on the shore. Additionally, there is also another explanation to the name of the lake. As autumn rolls around, the golden color of the trees on the coastline reflected in the water form a fabulous whole golden landscape.
Another legend regarding Lake Sary-Chelek goes . Thousands of years ago people wearing golden clothese came to the valley where the lake is now located from the Dragon’s Country (China). These people worshiped the marine god Kho and established the city of Sai-Kho on the river which flowed through the valley. The people lived in peace for many thousands of years, worshiping their God, who had the body of a fish and the head of a man and lived in a marble basin inside a temple devoted to him. He taught the local tribes to farming and cattle breeding and other trades. [Source: advantour]
The valley was ruled by a high priest who died once in a century. To elect a new leader a ritual was held in which a beautiful girl was selected and brought to the basin of Kho. The god emerged from the water and kissed the girl on to the lips. Nine months later she delivered a child who became high priest. Later disaster struck. Conquerors found the secret pathways to the valley and attacked the city. Almost all the inhabitants were killed. The high priest cried out to Kho and asked him to defeat the conquerors. The marine god emerged from the water with a loud roar. The rocks which surrounded the valley crashed down and the water rushed down from the mountain peaks. All conquerors were killed and the water washed away Kho and all the valley’s inhabitants. Lake Sary-Chelek was formed, Some say Kho may still live there.
Jalal-Abad (80 kilometers from Osah) is former resort town that has seen better days. Home to around 75,000 people and located in southwest Kyrgyzstan near the border with Uzbekistan, it doesn’t have much in its own right but there are some interesting side trips to the mountains and almond groves around the town. Worth checking out are the Jalal-Abad Sanitorium, with mineral baths and saunas. Particularly nice is Arslanbob, a tourist resort with large a Uzbek population in the Babash-Ata mountains, The area is famous for walnuts. There also hikes to waterfalls and 4000-meter-high peaks. The city's main commercial enterprises are food processing plants and other light industries.
Mausoleum of Shah Fazil (Gulistan village of Ala Buka district) is a part of the Shah Fazil Historical and Architectural Complex It is the burial place of Mahmud ibn Nasir (nicknamed Shah Fazil, fair shah), a Kara-Khanid dynasty ruler from the 10th-12th centuries. The mausoleum has a pyramidal shape and is 15.5 meters high. The structure consists of a step drum with a tall dome resting on it. The interior of the building is decorated with ganch-stucco carvings of bright colors.
Arslanbob Walnut Forests (50 kilometers north of the city of Jalal Abad) is picturesque area covering an area of 6,085 square kilometers. It is home to 130 different tree and shrub species. The most common plants are walnut trees, each providing 200-400 kilograms of nuts per year. A common legend says that Alexander the Great came to these lands in 329 B.C. and was so delighted by the taste of the nuts, he brought them back home and cultivated them, later spreading them all throughout Greece.
Saimaluu Tash State Natural Park (in Toguz Toro district of Jalal Abad province) is located, along the Kugart River and covers 320.5 square kilometers. It is home to 16 species of mammals, 45 species of birds, and 1500 species of plants. Saimaluu Tash means 'patterned stone' in Kyrgyz. Rock carvings are the main cultural and historical value of the park. The area has the largest accumulation of petroglyphs (about 90,000 stones) in Central Asia.
Silk Road Sites of Safid Bulan
There are a series or archaeological sites located on the northeastern end of Safid-Bulan village (Ak-Korgon administration of Ala-Buka district of Jalal-Abad oblast), on the border with the Namangan area of Uzbekistan, at the foot of Archa-Mazar mountain.According to a report submitted to UNESCO: These sites are connected with the branch of the Silk Road serving the northeast of Fergana in antiquity and the Middle Ages; includes sacral complex consisting of constructions of various chronological periods standing on a medieval Mazar site, natural sacral components and rich intangible heritage in the form of legends, rituals and practice of sacrifices. Historically these monuments are connected with the time of distribution of Islam to the northeast of Fergana valley where it entrenched in 9th-10th centuries. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]
“Existing ancient sanctuary was adapted for new religion. The first mentioning of this Mazar was made by Djamal Karshi in the end of 8th century, who spoke about two tombs. The central complex is protected by a wall with a main entrance from village street. The mausoleum of Shah-Fazil occupies its southeastern corner. It is a dome centered building with the corners oriented to the cardinal points, with rich carved ganch interior, which includes wide strips of epigraphics. Adobe mausoleums of 18th-19th centuries AD with a traditional name of Safid-Bulan and Keldekhana (Kellahana) were erected on a place of earlier structures. In the northeastern corner of a court yard, near Shah-Fazil a phallic shaped stone so-called "fertility stone" or Tash-Mazar is located. Gravestones - sagona, are connected by local people with characters of the legendary events which entailed emergence of this complex, i.e. with Shah Fazil, son of the Arabian military leader who fell in battle here, girl-servant Bulan who collected, washed and buried heads of 2700 soldiers-martyrs.
The collection of gravestones - kairaks from the medieval necropolis, containing valuable information on a composition and a religious status of the buried is presented here. To the north from this Mazar complex there are: new mosque constructed on a place of old, hauz and small constructions, making a service infrastructure for pilgrims. There is one more complex (closer to the floodplain terrace of Chanach-Sai river), which centre is ruins of the Kyrgyn-mosque standing at Mazar on a place of burial of 2700 soldiers. To the southeast, on a slope of Archa-Mazar, there is one more adobe construction attributed to a standard-bearer of Arabs. Natural components are : sacred trees, a stone plate, a path on Archa-Mazar slope, considered to provide longevity, the mountain, abovementioned "fertility stone".
“Intangible heritage makes a whole cycle of legends connected with occurrence of sacral functions of this place, rituals and practice of sacrifices which along with Islamic traditions of honouring Mazar, contain also elements of archaic cults. Preservation of Ethnic, language and cultural variety are remarkable in this district, with prevailing Turkic language component - Kyrgyz and Uzbek, the Tadjik community which has not lost ethnic identification lives here. Families - descendants of sheikhs who remember traditions of teaching of this profession and ethics of behaviour in similar places have remained too.”
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