TORUGART PASS AND THE SILK ROAD ROUTE BETWEEN KASHGAR AND KYRGYZSTAN

SILK ROAD IN CENTRAL ASIA AND THE ROUTE TO KASHGAR

The route from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang is one of Central Asia’s premier overland adventures.The distance between Bishkek and Kashgar, China is about 710 kilometers (440 miles) and takes between 15 hours and two days depending on the vehicles you take, the stops you make and your luck clearing customs and immigration on the Chinese side of 3752-meter-high Torugart Pass. Along the way many travelers stop in and around Kochkar, Song Kul lake or Naryn.

It is said that this route follows the Silk Road route in Central Asia. The Silk Road routes in Central Asia were very complicated and usually defined by oases and passes which were open and accessible. Many goods carried across Central Asia were transported on the backs of shaggy, two-humped Bactrian camels or horses, or, in the high elevations, on yaks. The Himalayan caravan routes from India that passed through Karakoram Pass and Khunjerab Pass (on the modern Karakoram Highway) joined the Silk Road in Kashgar or Central Asia.

The two main routes that entered Central Asia from China were: 1) the northern route, which passed from western China into what is now Kazakhstan and went through or near what is now Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Krygyzstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan); and 2) the southern route which left Kashgar and passed from western China in Central Asia through passes of the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains that are now on China's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

The main route likely passed through Irkeshtam Pass between Kashgar and the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. Many Silk Road tours go from Kashgar over Torugart pass to Bishkek and then Tashkent and Samarkand because modern roads traverse this route. This route however is much longer and out of the way than the direct route from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley. Marco Polo used a route through the Pamirs between China and Afghanistan.

Torugart Pass

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Torugart Pass (3,672 meter, 12,100 feet,165 kilometers north-northwest of Kashgar) is regarded as one of the sorriest, most problematic and adventurous border crossings in the world, complete with a howling wind, chilly temperatures, excruciatingly long waits, patrol dogs and the meanest and most difficult border guards you are ever going to meet. Even so many travelers jump at the opportunity because of scenery along the way, its association with the Silk Road, the stories they can tell afterwards and the sheer adventure of doing it.

The Torugart Pass was used by Silk Road caravans but was not the most heavily used one. Irkeshtam Pass was the primary one because it linked Kashgar with the fertile and bountiful Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan . Traveling over Torugart Pass and the mountains on the what is now the Kyrgyzstan side required much more work.

Irkeshtam Pass (100 kilometers south of Torugart Pass) was one of the main passes used by Silk Road caravan traveling between China and Central Asia linking up Kashgar with the Fergana Valley. It is strictly off limits to foreign travelers because of its sensitive location between Chinese and Kyrgyzstan border, which was even more sensitive when it was the border between China and the Soviet Union until 1991.

Traveling Across Torugart Pass

Backpackers and Western travelers are generally not allowed to take the weekly bus between Kashgar and Bishkek. Those who try to do it independently are often turned back at the border. The only way to realistically make the journey is with the help of a tour operator that specializes in the trip. There are several such tour companies in Bishkek and Kashgar. The cost for the trip is generally between US$50 and US$150 per head, depending on how many people are doing the trip (the more people doing the cheaper the trip is). Don't deal with a fly-by-night operations. Go with a reputable company that is guaranteed to get you there. Make sure all the necessary paper work is provided and there are no hidden costs.

Make sure you have a Chinese visa and you registered in Kyrgyzstan if you are going to Kashgar, or have a Kyrgyzstan visa if you are traveling to Bishkek. If you make arrangements with a Kyrgyz travel company make sure they have an agreement with a Chinese company to supply transportation on the Chinese side. If you make arrangements with a Chinese travel company make sure they have an agreement with a Kyrgyz company to supply transportation on the Kyrgyzstan side.

The distance between Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar, China is about 440 miles and takes between 15 hours and two days depending on the vehicles you take, the stops you make and your luck clearing customs and immigration on the Chinese side of Torugart Pass. The pass itself can be quite cold and some people get stuck waiting there for a long time so make sure you have enough warm clothes and food. Cigarettes come in handy as bribes.

Generally a vehicle leaving from Bishkek stops a the Kyrgyzstan-China border and travelers cross the border on foot and board another vehicle that will take them to Kashgar. Those leaving from Kashgar do the same thing in reverse. The vehicles that do the Kyrgyzstan part of the journey can be minibuses, Ladas or converted military transports that looked like a cross between a tank, a jeep and a cabin cruiser boat. Minibuses or small buses usually do the job on the Chinese side.

At the border itself there is a monument that is reminiscent of the Arc de Triumph with the letter C.C.C.P. on it. The Kyrgyzstan border control is about four miles from the border on the Kyrgyzstan side. The Chinese border control is about four miles from the border on the Chinese side.

Torugart Pass is often closed for this reason and that. During the winter is often closed due to snow. The remainder of the year it is closed from weekends of Chinese, Russian and Kyrgyzstan holidays and for maintenance and some other reason. It is worthwhile to e-mail the tour companies that do the trips to find out when they are going. They are pretty well informed as to when the border is open and when it is closed.

Tian Shan Mountains

The Tian Shan (between Kashgar and Kyrgyzstan) 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 Tian 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 "Tian Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese. The northern The Tian Shan mountains are is located in the southeastern part of Kazakhstan. The Western Tian Shan runs along the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border in the Almaty and Bishkek areas and extends all the way to Uzbekistan. region. The Central Tian Shan runs from central Kyrgyzstan to China. The Eastern Tian 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 Tian 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 Tian Shan was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov who traveled extensively in the region in 1856.

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Tien Shan mountains

Nomadic Sites on the Silk Road of the Inner Tien Shan

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “These series represent cultural heritage of high-mountainous region of Kyrgyzstan located in the north of the country. First of all, these are monuments of tangible culture of the nomadic population, represented by grave and funeral complexes, rock carvings and epigraphics, dated from last centuries B.C. to 18th centuries AD inclusive. Kochkor valley, called Yarysh in the Middle Ages, is identified with the reserved zone of Turkic kagans, mentioned in the written sources of early Middle Ages. Images of horsemen-soldiers with falcons, accompanied with ancient Turkic inscriptions (24 pieces) and tribal tamgas (symbol) can be seen on separate boulders (1 to 3 meters height) in the Kara Too mountain ridge, in the southeast of the valley. Turkic stone grave enclosures with gravestones were found in the same area. Kyrgyz necropolises, vivid example of which is Kyrk-Choro complex near the Kum-Aryk village, have also doubtless value. [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

“Natural mazars (sacred places) tell about elements of archaic beliefs and people's ecological culture, later adapted for Islam, in particular, sacral mountains of Kochkor-Ata in Kochkor and Chesh-Tobe in At-Bashy areas. One more type of monuments of this region is quarters of medieval nomadic rulers: sites of Koshoj-Korgon and Shirdakbek settlements. Koshoj-Korgon, located in the centre of the high-mountainous At-Bashy valley, at the altitude of 2500 meters, is a square construction with the sides 250 х 245 meters long. Walls are made of paksa and mud blocks (remained height from 4 to 8 meters). The structure is surrounded by a ditch, from 11 to 14 meters in width. Excavations revealed remains of inhabited and manufacture constructions inside the settlement, as well as outside. It is identified with the medieval historical city of At-Bash, which mainly functioned in 9th-12th centuries AD, but was also live in Timur's times.

“Shyrdakbek site is also qualified as a quarter of local nomadic rulers, is located to the southwest from At-Bashi, in Ak-Talaa area, in the Valley of Ala Buka river. Lay-out and building materials are similar to the previous monument; its sizes are 120х117 meters, width of walls is 6 meters, remained height is about 6 meters, construction is surrounded by a ditch. Square adobe construction is located separately in 0, 5 kilometers to the south. Limited excavations revealed traces of craft and agriculture. Period of functioning is from IX to the beginning of 8th centuries AD. It is identified with the historical city of Kadzhingar-Bashi.

“Natural climatic conditions of the region, suitable for cattle breeding, dictate preservation of many components of a traditional way of life of mountain nomads. It is specific cuisine with specific processing of products, crafts from manufacturing of yurtas to felt and jewelery. The technology of felt and felt products manufacturing is not only remained, but also develops, having turned into a separate industry of arts and crafts. Traditions of the leather processing and manufacturing of leather products are not forgotten. Forms, methods and skills of traditional hunting, including hunting with the Kyrgyz hounds and falcons have remained, too. Traditional land tenure: djailoo - summer pastures and kyshtoo - winter station has remained, too. Other kinds of intangible heritage: toponymics, Sanjyra (oral transfer of genealogy), art of story tellers, ceremonial songs, national games, - demonstrate a traditional way of life of the Tien Shan nomads.”

Xuanzang on Aksu and Eastern Kyrgyzstan

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Xuanzang visited on Aksu (northeast of Kashgar) and went from there to eastern Kyrgyzstan. He reported: “The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia (Aksu, border of China and Kazakhstan, formerly called Che-meh or Kih-meh) is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or, so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and literature (laws of composition), these are the same as in the country of g'iu-chi. The language (spoken language) differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by neighboring (frontier) countries. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]

“There are some ten sangharamas here; the number of priests (priests and followers) is about one thousand. These follow the teaching of the "Little Vehicle," and belong to the school of the Sarvastivadas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po). [p.25] Going 300 li or so to the north-west of this country, crossing a stony desert, we come to Ling-shan (ice-mountain). This is, in fact, the northern plateau of the T'sung-ling range (Tian Shan mountains) and from this point the waters mostly have an eastern flow. Both hills and valleys are filled with snowpiles, and it freezes both in spring and summer; if it should thaw for a time, the ice soon forms again. The roads are steep and dangerous, the cold wind is extremely biting, and frequently fierce dragons impede and molest travellers with their inflictions. Those who travel this road should not wear red garments nor carry loud- sounding calabashes. The least forgetfulness of these precautions entails certain misfortune. A violent wind suddenly rises with storms of flying sand and gravel; those who encounter them, sinking through exhaustion, are almost sure to die. |::|

Going 400 li or so, we come to the great Tsing lake (Lake Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan). [p.26] This lake is about 1000 li in circuit, extended from east to west, and narrow from north to south. On all sides it is enclosed by mountains, and various streams empty themselves into it and are lost. The colour of the water is a bluish-black, its taste is bitter and salt. The waves of this lake roll along tumultuously as they expend themselves (on the shores). Dragons and fishes inhabit it together. At certain (portentous) occasions scaly monsters rise to the surface, on which travellers passing by put up their prayers for good fortune. Although the water animals are numerous, no one dares (or ventures) to catch them by fishing. Going 500 li or so to the north-west of the Tsing lake, we arrive at the town of the Su-yeh river. This town is about 6 or 7 li in circuit; here the merchants from surrounding countries congregate and dwell. The soil is favourable for red millet and for grapes; the woods are not thick, the climate is windy and cold; the people wear garments of twilled wool." This area refers to Suyab, also known as Ordukent (modern-day Ak-Beshim), an ancient Silk Road city located some 50 kilometers east from Bishkek, and 8 kilometers west southwest from Tokmok, in the Chui River valley, present-day Kyrgyzstan.

Between Bishkek and Kashgar

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Scenery near Korla
People going from Kyrgyzstan to China, generally begin their trip in Bishkek or a picked up along the route from Bishkek to Torugart Pass. For the first eight to 10 hours of the trip, the journey is routine and uneventful. The road is paved most of the way and cross a couple of 3000 meter passes.

After the town of Naryn the traffic thins out. About 40 kilometers later you reach At-Bashy. About 40 kilometers after that paved road becomes a gravel. About 70 kilometers from there reach the outer checkpoint. If your paperwork is not in order or there is some other problem you usually get turned back here. From here it another 60 kilometers to main customs station. The road is in bad condition and passes over 3574-meter-high Tuz Bell Pass, where you can see Chatry Kol, a highland lake.

The main immigration and customs station on the Kyrgyzstan side is 7 kilometers from the border. Processing is time consuming but fairly straight forward if your visas and registration are in order and you are traveling with a reliable travel agency that has taken care of other paperwork for you. If your driver has the correct paperwork the guards call to see if your transportation for the Chinese leg is ready. Sometime there is long wait until confirmation comes and you can go. The wait can be cold.

If everything is alright you proceed the 7 kilometers at the border. Then change vehicles and continue you on to the Chinese border station five kilometers on. Here your have bags searched and X-rayed. The landscape is much drier and desolate on the Chinese side.

The road between the border and the Chinese immigration post is poorly maintained and dotted with by washed out sections. The road is sometimes closed from landslides. The journey is bone-jarring. Often the driver has too drive on a dry stream bed or mountain slopes to avoid bad sections of road.

The immigration post is 65 miles after the border. Travelers generally endure about five hours of waiting, having their luggage X-rayed, passport checks, money changing and various kinds paperwork. Sometimes the Chinese official can be very surly and create problems and give people a hard time. In the end usually every thing works out. After that you are home free and it a one and half hours downhill drive to Kashgar.

From Kashgar to Bishkek: Coming from Kashgar, the buses usually leave around 7:30 in the morning and take about two hours to reach the Chinese immigration, where there are more hassle than if you the other direction. It is not usual for someone the guards to pick through baggage with a fine tooth comb, accuse some with a valid passport of having a fake one and threaten to lock up someone for taking a leak. The border crossing is easy enough if your vehicle is waiting for you on the other side. Afterwards it is all down hill. Kyrgyzstan immigration is much quicker and hassle free than the Chinese immigration.

Kochkor

Kochkor (160 kilometers south of Bishkek) is a town that some people stop at. There isn’t much in the town itself other than a small regional museum but it has reasonably good accommodation options for Kyrgyzstan and is where people come to organize trips to Song Kul and other places on the way to Naryn. There are many homestays in Kochkor.

According to the Lonely Planet website: “Multiple competing community-tourism outfits make Kochkor an eminently practical base from which to visit Son-Köl and other Kyrgyz jailoos nearby. Do be aware that such activities are generally only practicable in summer and part of the shoulder season, as shepherds move their herds back to the villages during cooler months. The town is not an attraction in its own right, despite a distant backdrop of mountain peaks, but is at its most interesting on Saturday mornings for the animal bazaar.”

Orto Tokoy Reservoir (20 kilometers northeast of Kochkor on the Chu River) was the first reservoir built in Kyrgyzstan. Filled in 1956 and located at an altitude of 1700 meters, the reservoir is 18 kilometers long, 3-5 kilometers, wide, 47 meters deep, with a total surface area about 24 square kilometers and volume more than 4.7 billion square meters. The reservoir was built with the purpose of helping to irrigate agricultural lands in Kyrgyzstan (86,000 hectares) and Kazakhstan (34,000 hectares).

Lake Song Kol

Lake Song Kol (80 kilometers southwest of Kochkor) is one of the most beautiful spots in Kyrgyzstan and one the best places to experience the nomadic life firsthand. Located at an elevation of 3016 meters, the lake is surrounded by high “jailoos” (summer pastures) with sweet green grass. Herders gather here in the summer and sleep in yurts and move the their flocks of sheep and goats across the pastures on horseback. In the winter it becomes the domain of hunters. Shepherds Life, C.B.T. and other travel agencies organize transportation, overnight accommodation in yurts, hikes and horseback riding trips in the area. There are plenty of places to go hiking.

Song Kul is located in the southwestern part of the Naryn province, within a basin between the Song Kul Too and Moldo Too mountain ridges. It is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, after Issyk-Kul, with a surface area of 278 square kilometers and a maximum depth of 14 meters. The lake is fed by several mountain rivers. The spacious meadows around the lake have been used as summer pastures by nomadic shepherds since the ancient times.

There is a rough road that follows the western shore of the lake. The level of the lakes rises and falls with the seasons and from year to year so that sometimes the lake is a considerable distance from the road. In the distance are impressive looking mountains. There are no regular buses. You either have to walk, hitch a rid, or hire a taxi or car. There are three approaches to Song Kul. 1) The main one is along a 40-kilometer mile gravel road off the main road to Torugart Pass, about 25 kilometers south of Kochkor. The second is a 45-kilometer jeep track off the main road 16 kilometers north of Ottuk. A third starts from the town of Aktal.tal west of Naryn. Transportation to the lake is about $20. I hiked on the second jeep road to the lake and had an interesting experience and was able to hitch a ride to Kochkor.

Shepherds Life and CBT

Shepherds Life is a network of local herders and families who provide homestay accommodation, overnight stays in yurt on Song Kul, transportation to Song Kul, horse rentals and horseback riding trips at Song Kul and trips and accommodation in and around the towns of Chayek, Ay-Bashy, Ottuk and Kurtka (near Ak Tal).

Shepherds Life was set up with the help of Swiss aid agency as way for local people to make money and traveler to become acquainted with Kyrgyz nomadic life. The rates for a night in yurt or a homestay are relatively low. A meal that usually consists of bread, yoghurt and pasta or noodles is often included. There are also set fees for horses and drivers and cars. The woman who runs it in Kochkor is regarded as unreliable by some people. Many say her teenage son, who is the only one who speaks English, is the real brains behind the operation.

One person posted in Trip Advisor in 2014: “I want to warn everyone about Shepherd's Life ( shepherdslifekochkor@mail.ru , run by a woman named Ainura). I did a 3-day Song Kul trek with Shepherd's Life, and my Shepherd's Life "guide" was absolutely awful and made for a miserable Song Kul experience. In addition, Ainura is a cheater and engages in unethical business practices: she charged me for a private car from the end of the trail on day 3 back to Kochkor (she said there was nobody to share with and split the costs), yet I had to wait an hour to share a car with two of her other customers (who also were charged the full cost of transport).

“As for my Shepherd's Life guide, "Max" — He abandoned me on the trail for almost the entire three days. He was often so far from me that we couldn't see or hear each other. I don't need a guide to hold my hand, but his job is to stay near me for emergencies, to show me the route, to make conversation with me, etc. Max completely failed to perform his basic job.”

C.B.T.(Community Based Tourism) is recommended by many people, who consider it better than Shepherds Life. They off overnight stays in yurt on Song Kul, transportation to Song Kul, horse rentals and horseback riding trips at Song Kul, interesting trips to a salt mine and visits to a local school. The woman who runs it is a teacher who speaks good English. According to their website: “Community based tourism (CBT) was initiated in May 2000. This initiative has great support from local people and today there are 5 actively working CBT groups throughout almost the whole of Kyrgyzstan. For further development and coordination of the activities within the country, these groups have established their own umbrella organization, The Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association (KCBTA) – “Hospitality Kyrgyzstan”. The main objective of the KCBTA is to improve the living conditions of people in remote mountain regions, by developing rural tourism without harming the natural environment and culture of local people. Website: cbtkyrgyzstan.kg

Naryn

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.

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.

Between Nayrn and Torugat Pass

At-Bashy (40 kilometers south of Naryn on the way to Torugart Pass) is a pleasant place, much nicer than Naryn. It is smaller and is surrounded by nice countryside and not far away the At-Bashy Range, whose highest peak is 4786 meters high. To the west of are some badlands with rock formation reminiscent of the American southwest. About 10 miles form At-Bashy near the village of Kara-Suu is Koshoy Korgon, a ruined fortress possibly dating to the12th century.

Ak-Sai (border area between At Bashy and Torugart) is a broad alpine valley situated at an altitude of 2900-3800 meters in the inner Tien Shan. Ak-Sai is surrounded by 3900- to 5000-meter- high mountains, covered with glaciers. Among the ecosystems found in the valley are sub-alpine semi-deserts (up to 3100-3600 meters), alpine meadows with tundra in some areas (3600-3900 meters), and nival-glacial zones (above 3900 meters). There are swampy areas and lakes at moderate elevations. The vegetation consists of short, thick grass. Marco Polo sheep and ibex are famous inhabitants of the valley.

Chatyr-Kul Lake (between At-Bashy and Torugart-Too ranges) is situated at an altitude of 3530 meters above sea level and is 23 kilometers long, 11 kilometers wide, 20 meters deep, and covers 170.62 square kilometers. In the winter, the water surface is covered with about a meter thick layer of ice. In the spring, the lake is filled with streams of mountain rivers, which flow down from the glaciers. The southeastern shore of the lake is swampy, while the northern shore is rocky. Some of the animal species that live in the surrounding area include wild ducks, mountain geese, snow leopards, marmots, and mountain goats. The lake is a part of the Karatal-Japyryk State Reserve.

Kel-Suu Lake )closer to Chinese border) is located in the Kakshaal Too range of Inner Tien Shan at an altitude of 3400 meters above sea level. Surrounded by high rocky cliffs, it was formed as a result of large rockfall that blocked the narrow channel of the river. Kel-Suu stretches for more than 12 kilometers and is 2 kilometers wide. The depth varies, depending on the season of the year - reaching the maximum depth towards the end of summer as a result of the melting snow and ice in the mountains. The water in the lake is fresh and is greenish in color. One can experience the lake in its full beauty by going for a ride on a motorboat.

Tash Rabat and Caravanserais on the Silk Road of the Inner Tien Shan

Tash Rabat Caravanserai (110 kilometers from the town of Naryn,) is a fortified Silk Road caravanserai that dates back to the 15th century and was restored in 1984. One of the best Silk Road spots on Kyrgyzstan, it is beautifully situated among highlands and mountains in the valley of Kara Koyun at an altitude of 3200 meters. It is built of stones and particularly beautiful in the winter when it is surrounded by snow. It contains a well, a dungeon, a tunnel and some rooms once used by well-heeled travelers. There are some nice hikes in the area. It is expensive and hard to get to.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Another type of the monuments located on the Tien Shan branch of the Silk Road is caravans-sarays. Two sites have preserved: Tash-Rabat and Manakeldy (Chaldyvar). [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

Tash-Rabat is located in the western part of the At-Bashy valley, on the small river of Kara Koyun, at the altitude of 3200 meters. Square construction, with the length of external perimeter of walls 32,4х34,8 by 32,4х35,1 meters, is made of slate plates. Facade, decorated with towers, is turned to the east. Internal lay-out consists of the central corridor, the square hall and a number of premises ceiled with the big dome and 19 domes of small diameter. It was constructed in Karahanid times, in A.D. 11th-12th centuries, functioned till Timur's time and served as caravan-saray for the routes going to Kashgar through Tash-Rabat and Torugart passes.

“Manakeldy is located in Ak-Talaa area, at the altitude of 2500 meters, on the bank of Ala Buka river inflow. It is a square construction, with the sizes 64х64 meters, maid of mud bricks and pakhsa. Entrance was in the centre of the northern wall, limited by two rectangular towers-pylons. Other corners and walls of the construction were fortified by towers, and the front northern wall was decorated by a half goffers. The internal lay-out had the following appearance: two lines of corridors along the walls and square and rectangular premises between the corridors. Adobe feeding troughs for animals were traced in different places of the external corridor. A court yard occupied the centre of the construction. Casing and domes were applied for ceilings. The caravan-saray provided services for travelers of the route from Fergana valley to areas of inner Tien-Shan and Issyk Kul. Main period of functioning is 10th-12th centuries AD.”

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Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020


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