Alay Region, Kyrgyzstan: An Experiential Travel Guide

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Last Updated on September 17, 2019 by Audrey Scott

Travel to the Alay Region in southern Kyrgyzstan and you’ll find a growing, off-the-path, accessible adventure destination. Experiences run from mid-alpine treks and horse treks in the Alay Mountains to high-alpine experiences up into the Pamir Mountain peaks and epic Pamir Highway road trips into the high desert. Paths are dotted with yurts, shepherds and high pasture nomadic culture along the way. For pan-Central Asia travels and itineraries, the region also serves as a crossroads between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.

This article explains how to plan and organize a trip to the Alay Region, including what to do and see in the Alay Mountains and Pamir Mountains.

Peak Lenin, Kyrgyzstan
Our introduction to the Alay Region 12 years ago = fresh snow in the Pamir Mountains.

As our jeep gripped the road and moved us closer to the sky, I began to understand the words of the friend who urged us on our first visit 12 years ago.

“So, there's this part of Kyrgyzstan most travelers don't really know about.”

Horses gathered in their own orchestrated processions, layers of freshly snow-draped mountains as their backdrop. The light bent as it tends to do in this part of the world, arcing into the otherworldly. The wind kicked up, delivering a floating, faraway sensation. Villages and lives and culture had stitched themselves into tiny pockets, scattered within stacks of mega-mountains as far as the eye could see.

Before I even knew I wanted to travel, it was places like this that called me.

That feeling of alpine lift, of high desert mystery along the Pamir Highway was only a taste. Since then, we've visited the region twice more, widening our view — immersing ourselves in the Alay Mountains and getting up close to the Pamir peaks we'd seen only from a distance those years ago.

Dramatic mountains and yurts cut the sky, as local families and roving shepherds offer a sense of what it means to be human here. For visitors, peak experience with a touch of nomadic grounding.

Alay Region Southern Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide - Yurts and Mountains
Nomadic culture and high mountains. The Alay Region of southern Kyrgyzstan.

The Alay Region — a remote trading and transport crossroads between cultures and neighboring countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China — is easier to get to than it first appears. Despite this, Alay has a distinctly Kyrgyz feel, as exhibited by families in yurts tending to animals on the jailoo (high pasture) in the summer.

As such, most tourism in this region is community-driven and family-run, and travelers' money tends to stay local. This article is a resource to access it all.

Alay Region Travel Guide - Kyrgyzstan
Layers of the Alay Mountains, from Ak-Tor Pass.

A note on naming convention to keep things straight: Locally, the Alay Region = Alay District + Chong-Alay District. Relevant for travelers: Alay Region = Alay Mountains + Pamir Mountains.

How to use this Alay Region Experiential Travel Guide: In this comprehensive travel guide we’ve included everything you need to plan and organize a trip to explore the Alay Region of southern Kyrgyzstan. This includes not only ideas of what to do, places to visits and treks in the Alay Mountains and Pamir Mountains, but also what to expect in terms of landscape, altitude, how to get around (transportation), connecting with local people and cultures, accommodation, food, and more. For more general information on the country, check out our extensive guide on traveling in Kyrgyzstan

Alay Region Travel Guide: What to do and See

Trek in the Alay Mountains to Experience Nature and Kyrgyz Culture Together

There’s no shortage of stunning mountains and landscapes in a multi-day Alay Mountain trekking experience. Thanks to a network of family yurt camps across the main Alay Mountain treks and trails, the experiences are set apart by a connection with local people and culture.

Alay Region Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide, Yurt Stays
Dan settles in at our yurt stay on the Heights of Alay trek.

After a long day of walking, you are welcomed by a family to their yurt camp. Families not only provide a home-cooked meal and warm place to sleep, but also a glimpse into what their summer life is like on the jailoo (high pasture) as they tend to their animals, make fresh creams and breads, and go about daily life.

In addition, the trails you’ll walk tend to trace traditional local shepherd paths. You’ll encounter curious people along the way who want to know where you’re from and what you think of Kyrgyzstan, its landscape and its nature. In other words, when you trek in the Alay Mountains you’ll never forget that you’re in Kyrgyzstan thanks to the engagement with people and nomadic culture along the way.

Where to trek in the Alay Mountains:

Our Alay Mountains trekking guide provides comprehensive information on all the different treks, how to organize them, how to book a tour or guide, when to go, and everything else you need to know. For simplicity in this article, we’ll divide the Alay Mountains into two areas: low and high, and we'll provide examples of the different types of trekking and cultural experiences you’ll find in each.

Trekking in the Lower Alay Mountains

This section of the Alay Mountains is further north in the region and a bit closer to the city of Osh. The trek trailheads begin near the town of Gulcha. Landscapes tend to be green, textured by layers of valleys and hills, and accented by granite peaks.

Alay Region Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide
Enjoying a break and the views at Ak Tor Pass in the lower Alay Mountains.

Don’t let the “lower” fool you — many of the treks cross Ak-Tor pass (3,500 meters/11,500 feet) and feature sweeping views. If you don’t have experience hiking at altitude, this area offers a nice way to acclimatize on a three to five day trek before tackling a trek in the high Alay Mountains or heading up into the Pamirs on a road trip or trek.

In full disclosure, we set off in this area with relatively low expectations since our time followed time in High Alay Mountains and the Pamirs. Despite that, we found the three-day Ak-Tor Pass trek really enjoyable — landscapes were varied and the layers of granite peaks and valleys all around did not disappoint.

Alay Region Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide - Trekking in Lower Alay Mountains
Surveying the first big ascent of the trip. Ak-Tor Pass trek, Day 1.

Note: We did a 3-day Ak-Tor Pass trek on foot. Other options include a two-day trek or extending this a three-day trek to five days either on foot — or on horseback as the Truly Nomadic Lands tour. Although multi-day horseback riding treks are not our preference, we can see how these hills would be enjoyable and also appropriate for a beginner on horseback.

Trekking in the High Alay Mountains

This is the more southern segment of the Alay Mountain range, whose trailheads tend to cluster near Sary Mogul village. Our first trekking experiences in this region were the Koshkol Lakes and Heights of Alay Treks (4-6 days). This area still holds a special place in our hearts – for the combination of otherworldly mountain vistas like Sary Mogul Pass (4,303 meters / 14,100 feet) and the diversity of alpine lakes, green valleys, red rock canyons and views of nearby snowcaps.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Trekking in the Alay Mountains - Kyrgyzstan
Otherworldly Sary Mogul Pass in the high Alay Mountains.

Today, all of the main treks in the high Alay Mountains are also connected by yurt camps. Though you can camp if you wish, carrying tents and camping equipment is no longer required. This makes the treks easier and less expensive to organize, and also provides more interaction with locals along the way.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Southern Kyrgyzstan
Views open up of the snow-covered Pamir Mountains as we cross Jiptick Pass.

Note: Since treks in this area reach some pretty high altitudes, consider acclimatizing with day treks around Sary Mogul or some short treks in the lower Alay Mountains.

Trek into the Pamir Mountains for High Alpine Extremes

The Pamir Mountains are among some of the world's highest mountains. Located in the southern part of the Alay Region, the Pamirs form a natural mountainous border between southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. The line of high, snow-covered peaks— with Peak Lenin (7,134 meters/23,406 feet) as the highest of the Pamir peaks in Kyrgyzstan — is impressive and seems to float just above the plains below where animals graze.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Trekking in the Pamir Mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan
Peak Lenin and the Pamir Mountains guide our way towards Traveler's Peak.

Peak Lenin attracts alpinists and serious mountain climbers from around the world. However, there are other day trek and multi-day trekking options in the area for non-alpinists hoping to get a close-up taste of the Pamirs, its mountain routes splashed with colorful minerals, alpine lakes and glaciers. And you can access it all without the need for any special gear or training.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Trekking in Pamir Mountains
A close-up view of the Pamir Mountains.

As you ascend into the Pamir Mountains, and once you leave the yurts of Tulpar-Kol Lake, the atmosphere becomes less coupled to Kyrgyz culture and more connected to the survival demands of professional alpinism. Particularly at the various Peak Lenin camps, many of the people you’ll encounter aim to summit Peak Lenin, and are spending time at the different base and ascent camps in an effort to acclimatize.

For us, this provided an interesting glimpse into the world of mountaineering and all that it takes to prepare and undertake such a climb. While we weren’t tempted to join them (this time, anyhow), it made us appreciate even more the beauty and stunning landscapes that we were able to experience as ordinary hikers and non-professional mountain climbers.

Where to trek in the Pamir Mountains

The jumping off point for treks in this area of the Pamir Mountains is Tulpar-Kol Lake, located about an hour outside of Sary Mogul village. Several yurt camps are located there and can serve as your base. The treks available are typically only available in July and August since the mountain passes are otherwise snow-covered and impassable.

Day hike to Traveler’s Pass (4,100 meters/13,450 feet)

This is a long day of hiking (19 km/12 miles), with an early start from Tulpar-Kol Lake. You hike your way past Lenin Peak Base Camp and nearby high pastures to the ascent up Traveler’s Pass. Don’t just stop once you get to the sign at the pass, though. Go just down the grassy area below and enjoy the lower panoramic view of the snow and glacier-covered Pamir Mountains.

Alay Region Travel Guide - Pamir Mountain trekking, Traveler's Pass
Traveler's Pass opens up to great Pamir Mountain views.

If you have more time continue down the pass for another couple kilometers until you reach what might be described as “Watercolor” valley. Then, return the same way you came and enjoy a well-earned dinner back at Tulpar-Kol yurt camp.

2-3 Day Trek to Lenin Peak Camp 1 and Yuhina Peak (5,100 meters/16,730 feet)

This trek is designed for those with a bit more time and experience trekking at high altitudes. It's also for those who want to see more of the Pamir Mountains and its extreme landscapes.

The first day includes hiking from Tulpar-Kol Lake over Traveler’s Pass to Lenin Peak Camp 1 (4,400 meters/13,150 feet). It’s a challenging 15+ km / 9+ mile day that takes you through some surreal high mountain landscapes and colors between Traveler’s Pass and Camp 1. Enjoy a hearty dinner at Camp 1, and drink plenty of water well before bedtime to help with the high altitude.

Alay Region Travel Guide - Pamir Mountain hiking
Pamir landscapes, like a watercolor painting.
Alay Region Travel Guide- Pamir Mountain Trekking
A night at Peak Lenin Camp, an alpinist's world connected to summiting Peak Lenin.

Wake up early the next day to begin climbing up to Yuhina Peak. (You may need to request an early breakfast box for 7AM, since standard breakfast at Ak-Sai Camp 1 does not seem to begin until 8AM.) It’s a challenging, steep ascent through scree to get to the peak. Be sure to proceed slowly and steadily. Allow your body to adjust to the altitude. At the top you’ll cross a snow field to reach the peak.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Pamir Mountain trekking in southern Kyrgyzstan
Crossing the snow on the final ascent to Yuhina Peak (5,100 meters/16,730 ft).

Enjoy a well-deserved break at the top. Panoramic views of Lenin Peak and the Pamir Mountain sweep around you in all directions. Return the way you came to Camp 1. Have lunch there before beginning the walk back down.

Note: Several trekking agencies run Lenin Peak Base Camps, as well as camps at higher elevations. Our trek was arranged and all our accommodation was booked by Visit Alay in Osh. We stayed at Ak-Sai Camp 1 and found it well-run, clean and professional. Although the tent and sleeping mat is provided you'll need to bring a very warm sleeping bag comfort rated to -10 C/14 F with you (Visit Alay provided this to us). It’s geared more towards professional climbers than day-trekkers so it has a bit of a hearty mountaineering atmosphere, complete with sun struck alpinists and gruffly-spoken Russian.

Experience the Pamirs on a 2-day horse trek to Tuyuk and Booke yurt camps

If you want to enjoy the backdrop of the dramatic snow-covered Pamir Mountains, but with less extreme climbs and altitudes, consider the two-day trek on horse or foot from Tulpar-Kol Lake to Tuyuk and Booke yurt camps. The route takes you around and through high pastures and rolling hills. This should also be suitable for beginner horse riders.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Pamir Yurt Camps in southern Kyrgyzstan
Late afternoon light over Booke yurt camp at the foot of the Pamir Mountains.

Both yurt camps are at the base of the Pamir Mountains and also feature beautiful views of the Alay Mountains across the valley.

Note: To avoid back-tracking to Tulpar-Kol Lake you can arrange a pickup through the yurt camp or CBT Sary Mogul to take you from Booke yurt camp to Sary Mogul or Osh.

Learn about Kyrgyz nomadic traditions and life on the jailoo

Not far from the village of Daroot Korgon is a lush valley filled with agricultural fields, high pastures for animals, wildflowers, beehives and yurt camps. It’s a beautiful place to spend some time to learn about traditional Kyrgyz culture and life on the jailoo (high pasture).

Alay Region Travel Guide, Cultural Tour - Southern Kyrgyzstan
Several families live together at this yurt camp during the summer.

Our host for the morning, Yrysbubu, has come up to this area for 54 years – spending each summer living on the jailoo. She takes care of cows, sheep and other animals, lives in the family yurt, and continues the traditions and foods of Kyrgyz nomads of her ancestors. She showed us how to make chavaty, or bread cooked on a kazan (big metal pot) directly on the fire.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Cultural and Culinary Tour - Southern Kyrgyzstan
Baking bread on a kazan and open fire.

Before retreating to the yurt to enjoy a lunch of freshly cooked chavaty and mylama (flat bread slathered with kaimak or fresh sour cream), we also had a chance to roll out korut (salty yogurt balls). This traditional Kyrgyz snack is dried out in the summer sun and can then be stored and eaten throughout the winter. Our guide explained that korut mixed with water creates a hearty drink or soup base that can keep people full for hours, providing a necessary source of energy for workers in the mountains and fields.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Cultural Tour of Yurt Camp - southern Kyrgyzstan
Time to make the korut (salty yogurt).

Although we'd spent time in yurt camps along our treks, it was fun to have the time to take part in daily rituals on the jailoo and absorb a more thorough explanation of the traditions and history behind them.

How to organize: Contact Ak-Bata Guest House in Daroot-Korgon. The owner is the daughter of the grandmother on the jailoo.

Bonus: If you have extra time, stop by one of the nearby beekeepers on your way back to Daroot-Korgon to sample esparcet honey. This valley is known for a high quality, pesticide-free honey made from sainfoin (esparcet) flowers and nettle. If you can't buy honey directly from the beekeeper, you can find containers of local honey at the markets in Daroot-Korgon or at certain shops and hotels in Osh.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Esparcet Honey - Southern Kyrgyzstan
High altitude beekeeping…with a view of the Pamir Mountains.

Stay in a yurt

There is certainly no shortage of opportunities to stay in a yurt when you’re traveling in the Alay Region. It's one of the highlights.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Yurt Stays - Southern Kyrgyzstan
A night in a yurt, an Alay Region highlight.

Even if you don’t plan to hike or trek, spending a night in a yurt is a must. There are several yurt camps accessible to non-hikers that are worth seeking out. For example, Tulpar-Kol Lake in the Pamir Mountains is accessible by car and offers several yurt-stay options. It's also possible to arrange a transfer to/from nearby Booke yurt camp instead of making your way there by horse or on foot. Ask around at Visit Alay, CBT Sary Mogul or your guesthouse in Sary Mogul or Sary Tash for options.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Community Tourism in Southern Kyrgyzstan
One of the best things about staying in a yurt = local family hosts.

What to expect when staying in a yurt

Yurts are traditional circular Kyrgyz nomadic homes that can be easily assembled, disassembled and transported. They are constructed from cured wooden components, secured with handwoven straps and covered with heavy felt. The inside is usually decorated with colorful felt carpets called shyrdaks whose designs are nature-inspired. The roof of the yurt features the tunduk, a circular opening serving skylight and ventilation. At night, the felt cover is drawn over the top of the yurt, making it dark and warm.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Eating in a Yurt - Southern Kyrgyzstan
Welcome tea and snacks in a yurt.

Upon arriving at a yurt camp, you will typically be invited inside for a welcome tea. Given the typical late afternoon arrival to yurt camps on a trek, think of this as the Kyrgyz version of high tea. Often a cloth is set down, and large cushions arranged around it for seating. In addition to the actual tea you will likely be served a combination of bread, borsok (traditional fried bread), homemade jams, honey, sweets, nuts and perhaps freshly-made yogurt or kaimak (cream). You may even be offered kymys, fermented mare’s milk. Although you may be tempted to eat everything in sight, remember to pace yourself for the dinner to follow.

Staying at a yurt camp usually includes a welcome tea, dinner, and breakfast. Be sure to let your guide or your host know in advance if you are vegetarian or have any food allergies or restrictions (e.g., lactose or gluten intolerant) as they will prepare all food fresh for you. Dinner will consist of a hot meal — soup or a hearty dish of plov (rice, vegetables and meat), potatoes mixed with meat or something similar. Breakfast often includes more bread with honey or preserves, as well as soup or sometimes fresh yogurt (ayran).

Everything happens inside the yurt – eating, sleeping, and occasionally even cooking. At night your hosts will clear everything out and lay a series of mats on the ground for you to sleep on, atop which they’ll pile heavy blankets. A yurt in the mountains approximates a womb-like environment. It’s perfectly dark and quiet. We’ve been known to accidentally sleep more than twelve hours in a yurt, so set your alarm if your plans require an early start the next morning.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Staying in a Yurt - Southern Kyrgyzstan
At most yurt stays you'll sleep on the floor, but a few also include simple beds.

Some yurts feature wood-fired or coal-burning stoves inside, making it easy to heat the yurt at night in case temperatures drop outside. There are almost always extra blankets available so don’t be afraid to ask for more if you think you might get cold. Although the bedding includes sheets and duvet-covers, we often bring a sleep sack so as to provide an extra layer of warmth and comfort.

Yurt camps are typically located near streams so there is easy access to water. Most will have a simple gravity-fed sink available for washing hands and brushing teeth. An outhouse or dry toilet (usually with toilet paper) will be a short walking distance from the yurt area. Don’t expect a shower.

Things slow down at the yurt camp, so enjoy the quiet, peace and disconnection from the world. Re-connect to nature and life around you.

Start your Pamir Highway road trip to Tajikistan

The Pamir Highway serves up one of the most epic road trips in the world as it winds its way, including through the Alay Region of southern Kyrgyzstan. This begins (or ends, depending upon the direction you choose) in Osh and continues along the M41 through the Pamir-Alay Region to the Wakhan Valley and along to Khorog, Tajikistan.

Central Asia Guide, Planning and Itinerary
Planning our route along the Pamir Highway from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan.

The journey can take anywhere from five days (if you’re moving quickly and not stopping much) to up to two weeks for side trips and treks. Many people only spend one night in Sary Mogul or Sary Tash village in Kyrgyzstan before moving onto Tajikistan.

However, if you have more time and flexibility we’d recommend stopping off for a couple of days for day hikes, multi-day treks or yurt stays in the Alay Region. You'll immerse yourself in some stunning mountain scenery and have the opportunity to connect with Kyrgyz nomadic culture and people. Moreover, you'll also help your body acclimatize to the high altitude. Particularly if you aren't visiting other destinations in Kyrgyzstan, don't miss this opportunity to learn.

Booking a Pamir Highway trip: When we did our Pamir Highway trip twelve years ago from Osh to Khorog (similar to this Pamir Highway tour) it was challenging to organize as there wasn't a lot of information available on how and where to book a tour or driver from Osh. Or, how to find other travelers to share the jeep and costs. Fortunately, that has changed so it's easier to plan and book a trip. Visit Alay (the local tour company in Osh that arranged our treks above) has an online departure schedule of Pamir Highway tours with available spots if you want to join an existing trip. They also offer different options of Pamir Highway tours, from 5 to 13 days, that cover different routes and include some hiking as well.

Travel Information for the Alay Region

There's not a lot of information available online about traveling in the Alay Region and how to organize a trip. We've tried to incorporate the most relevant and important travel details here.

How to organize treks and experiences in the Alay Region

If you want to travel independently and do self-guided treks, you have a lot of options. All the treks mentioned in our Alay Trekking Guide include links to uploaded digital GPS tracks. With the network of yurt camps along the trails, you don't need to worry about carrying camping equipment.

If you are like us, however, and prefer to trek with a local guide and have everything organized so that the only thing you have to worry about is enjoying yourself in the mountains, then Visit Alay in Osh is your best option for the region. They organized all the treks and visits that we've done in Alay over the last two years. We were happy with the guides, transportation, accommodation and other logistics. Disclosure: Our visits were part of tourism development projects so these treks and experiences were provided to us without cost so we could evaluate them. In any event, we confidently recommend them to anyone.

Visit Alay not only knows well all the treks and experiences possible in the Alay Region, but as the local Community Based Tourism (CBT) organization they have been responsible for some of the infrastructure and are focused on working with and supporting local family businesses. A portion of their profits goes back to training and providing investment for family yurt camps, trekking guides, and other small businesses and local providers. The manager of Visit Alay, Talant Toksonbaev, is dedicated to ensuring that tourism benefits local people. He's assembled a solid network to do this and is always trying to include more people as tourism grows in the region.

When to visit the Alay Region

The best time to visit the Alay Region is during the summer months, mid-June to early September. This is when the mountain passes are cleared of snow so the trekking trails are open, the yurt camps have been set up on the jailoo, and it's warm weather during the day. High season is mid-July to mid-August. Most yurt camps begin to close up late August or early September as they have to get their children back to the village to begin the school year.

One benefit of going early in the season – late June to mid-July — is that the valleys will be more green and filled with wildflowers. We've visited the Alay Region twice in late August and although the hills are more dry as it's the end of the summer we had the trails and yurt camps to ourselves.

The treks and trails in the lower Alay Mountains (e.g., Ak-Tor Pass Trek or Nomadic Lands) are accessible from May through September and even possibly to early October. You can also travel the Pamir Highway during most months of the year, but May to September tend to be the best months because of cold and snow.

What to pack for the Alay Region

The Alay Region is mostly about the outdoors and adventure activities, so don't worry about bringing anything formal or fancy. Since much of the Alay Region is high desert it's important to pack layers as it can get quite warm during the day and drop to low temperatures at night. In addition, some areas are really windy (e.g., Sary Tash or Sary Mogul) so it's important to have windproof or waterproof jackets to help cut the wind. Sturdy clothes and gear that can be mixed and matched and worn multiple times works best as there's not a lot of laundry opportunities.

For more details read our packing list for trekking in the Alay Mountains and our general trekking packing list.

Using Osh as your organizing gateway for Alay

Osh is not only the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, but it's also the easiest transportation and organizing hub for any treks or exploration of the Alay Region. You'll find all the services and you need in Osh for your travels in Alay — tours and organized treks, trekking guides, camping and trekking gear rental, snacks and food for the mountains, and more.

Not to mention, Osh is worth a visit due to its mixing bowl of cultures and Silk Road history. It's worth hanging out there for a couple of days to rest up, plan your Alay adventures, do a foodie tour or walking tour of the city, explore the huge Jayma Bazaar, and enjoy the services (e.g., good coffee) of a big city before heading into the mountains.

Accommodation in Alay Region

Accommodation in the Alay Region usually includes small, family-run guesthouses or yurt camps (mentioned above). Don't expect luxury, but you can expect clean rooms with access to a shower (often hot water) and toilet. Many places offer shared rooms, usually divided by gender. However, we've noticed that the availability of double or private rooms seems has steadily increased over the last couple of years. For example, Peak Lenin Guesthouse in Sary Mogul now offers double rooms with shower and toilet facilities inside the building. This is very welcome for traveling couples like us.

A few Alay guesthouses now offer the option of online booking. Check availability and prices of accommodation in Sary Mogul, Sary Tash, and Gulcha.

If you're coming through Osh on the way to Alay, you can easily book hotels in Osh online. On our last trip through Osh we stayed at Rayan Hotel and found it comfortable and well-located. It also serves a hearty breakfast.

Food and Clean Water in the Alay Region

Most of the food you'll eat in the Alay Region will be served by guesthouses or yurt camps. On the plus side, this means that it's always homemade and cooked fresh. On the down side it means a limited choice of what you'll eat since there are usually no menus and everyone tends to eat the same thing. This often includes a variation of rice, potatoes or pasta combined with some meat and vegetables. Usually, there are several rounds of bread on the table served with some combination of honey, jams, ghee (clarified butter), kaimak (local sour cream) or homemade yogurt.

Alay Region Travel Guide - Eating in Yurts
Yurt eating. You'll never go hungry.

If you are vegetarian or have food allergies (e.g., gluten, lactose, nuts, etc.) be sure to let your guide or hosts know immediately so they can prepare something different for you. Meat features prominently in many Kyrgyz dishes so vegetarians may want to bring nuts or other protein snacks to ensure a balanced diet. You can also request an egg be added to your rice or potatoes.

Possible cooking class option: If you're interested in learning how to cook traditional Kyrgyz food, and specialties from the Alay Region, ask at Lenin Peak Guesthouse if this is an option. We were able to test a cooking class with Baktugul, the mother of the house. She taught us how to make kesme plov handmade noodles stewed with meat, potatoes and tomatoes.

Alay Region Travel Guide, Cooking Class - Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan
The granddaughter looks a little skeptical of Audrey's noodle-making skills.

The 1-hour cooking class was fun and interactive. Plus, the resulting meal made for a great lunch. We've also suggested a manti (dumpling) class. So ask about that if you happen to stay there.

Trekking snacks

Our trekking guide kept us well fed with picnic lunches and snacks along the trail. Nuts and dried fruit from the Osh bazaar make for tasty, healthy snacks. However, Snickers bars (don't laugh) are also kind of magical, particularly when they're offered after a grueling ascent. They are available in most villages.

Clean water

Most guesthouses and yurt camps will provide you with boiled water if you request it. So you can refill your reusable water bottle or water bladder. We carried both as we found that the water bladder was best for drinking continually during the trek to stay hydrated while the water bottle was better for drinking water at stops.

Please do not buy bottled water and carry it into the mountains. This approach will only leave a trail of plastic waste since there is no recycling in the area. Read more on how to reduce single-use plastics when traveling.

We recommend carrying water purification drops or a SteriPEN with you just in case. This way, you'll always be assured of having a path to purifying your water. Use them if you need to refill your water bottle along the trail and you're not sure of the cleanliness of the stream or if you want to be extra careful about the water you've received from your host.

How to acclimatize in the Alay Region

Altitude sickness is nothing to mess with. It's not only uncomfortable, but it can actually be very dangerous for your health if not addressed properly and immediately. The best way to help yourself avoid altitude sickness issues is by taking a few days to acclimatize properly before going into the high mountains for a high altitude trek or a Pamir Highway road trip.

At a minimum, consider spending a couple of days in a mountain village (e.g., Sary Tash or Sary Mogul) and be sure to walk around a lot to see how your body handles movement in the thin air. Even better, do an acclimatization hike. For example, hike up to Koshkol Lakes where you go up in altitude during the day, but then sleep at lower elevation (e.g., Sary Mogul village). Another good option is to do a short two to three day trek in the lower Alay Mountains to accustom your body to hiking and sleeping at slightly higher altitude.

In addition, be sure to drink lots of water when in the mountains. Move slowly, too. There's no race to the top. Slower movement and fewer breaks is better for your body then moving quickly and taking longer breaks with a heaving chest to recover.

How to get to the Alay Region

Although the Alay Region (southern Kyrgyzstan) is remote, it's more accessible than you might think. There are several transportation options and routes to get there from within Kyrgyzstan, and from neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or China. The city of Osh serves as the main transportation jumping off point for shared taxis, marshrutkas and private transport going into the Alay Region. Then, there are public and private transport options between villages and towns inside the region.

For a full description of all the ways to get to Osh, read this.

Traveling to Alay Region from inside Kyrgyzstan

If you're already traveling in Kyrgyzstan and want to get to Osh and then the Alay Region you have a couple of options with flights or land transport (e.g., shared taxi, marshrutkas, private transport).

Flights from Bishkek to Osh: During our recent visits to Osh we flew from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital. It's a quick 45-minute flight to Osh on Pegasus Airway/Air Manas that is inexpensive (e.g., $30-$45) and easy to book online (we usually search for flights with Skyscanner). If you time it right you can even arrive in Bishkek from your international flight and then hop on a flight to Osh a couple of hours later.

Note: In the summer months, 50-minute flights to Osh from Tamchy (north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul) are sometimes offered. If you're spending time in Karakol or the Issyk-Kul region, this is a good option.

Traveling to Osh and Alay by land: Kyrgyzstan has a network of shared taxis and marshtrutkas that will take you almost everywhere if you have enough time. The most common land connections to Osh are from Bishkek (shared taxi only), Jalal-Abad (2 hours), and Naryn. From other parts of the country it's often easiest and fastest to return to Bishkek and travel south from there.

To Alay from China and Tajikistan border crossings

If you're crossing the Irkeshtam border from China (Xinjiang Region) there are usually shared taxis available that will take you to Sary Tash village, which is one of the jumping off points for the Alay Region. If you're coming from the Kyzylart – Bor Dobo border crossing with Tajikistan along the Pamir Highway you'll go through Sary Tash and/or Sary Mogul villages.

To Alay from Uzbekistan and Dostuk border crossing

It has become much easier the last years to travel to Alay (and Kyrgyzstan) overland from Uzbekistan. The borders have opened up and Uzbekistan now offers a visa-free regime (up to 30 days) for many countries. The Dostuk border crossing with Uzbekistan is just 10 km outside of Osh and there are shared taxis or marshrutkas waiting at the border to take you to the city. From there you can arrange onward transport into the Alay Region.

Transportation Options: How to get around the Alay Region

Alay has a network of shared taxis and marshrutkas that will take you between villages and towns in the region. However, you will often need private transport to get to many of the trailheads or yurt camps. This can either be booked in advance as part of an organized trek or tour, or you can organize it at your local guest house. Try to join an existing transfer or departure to reduce your costs and your environmental footprint.

For example, the route between Sary Mogul and Tulpar-Kol Lake is quite popular in the summer months as many travelers spend time at the yurt camps there and do some hiking in the Pamir Mountains. Ask around at your local guest house, with other travelers, or contact Visit Alay to see when a vehicle might be heading up there and if space is available.

Disclosure: Our experiences in the Alay Region are drawn from our recent visits as consultants on the Helvetas Bai Alai tourism development project and previously on the USAID Business Growth Initiative (BGI) program. These projects included evaluating existing and emerging treks and tourism products in this region; experiences were provided to us. In addition, we traveled through the Alay Region in 2007 as part of our own journey across Central Asia. As always, the thoughts and opinions contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

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