With over 90% of its territory covered in mountains, Kyrgyzstan has no shortage of treks filled with stunning landscapes, alpine lakes, shepherds, yurts and a feeling of being very far out, immersed in nature. It's why we often recommend Kyrgyzstan to travelers interested in trekking with a taste of the offbeat. Our recent trek of the newly developed Boz-Uchuk Lakes Trek in the Tian Shan mountains above Jyrgalan village reminded us again why we make such recommendations.
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan, you'll find you don't often run into too many other travelers; there's plenty of space and elevation to go around. But if you really want to go offbeat and have the mountains to yourself, consider the newly developed Jyrgalan (Jergalan) to Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek in eastern Kyrgyzstan.
You'll share the peaks and alpine lakes with just a handful of shepherds and their animals grazing on the jailoo (high pastures). It's this sort of trademark experience that makes Kyrgyzstan an unusual trekking destination.
We felt fortunate to be among the first to experience this new trek in Jyrgalan Valley. Its path takes you 55km (33.5 miles) through the Terskei Ala-Too Range of the Tian Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan, over mountain passes, across river valleys and up to alpine lakes.
Given our previous visits to Kyrgyzstan, our expectations were high. Yet they were exceeded in terms of landscape and overall trekking experience.
Here’s why, day by day. Here’s also why you might want to consider putting trekking in Kyrgyzstan — with over 90% of its territory covered in mountains, 40% of which are over 3,000 meters / 9,840 feet — on your travel wish list. We’ve included all you need to know to plan, prepare for and enjoy the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek.
What to Expect on The Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek in Jyrgalan Valley: Day by Day
Originally a coal mining village, Jyrgalan has had a rough time of things since the mines closed a decade ago. The local economy and business declined and half the population left. The setting of Jyrgalan, surrounded by mountains, makes it a prime location for trekking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Within the last year, a few community members have joined together to form a DMO (Destination Management Organization) to promote tourism development in the area with the goal of increasing local economic opportunities. The Boz Uchuk Lakes trek is among its initial experience offerings.
We did the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek with a mountain guide, cook, and horses to carry camping equipment, food, and our gear. We were thankful for the full support. Because we only carried a daypack and camera during the day, we could focus on the experience at hand. Our big backpacks, tent and other supplies were all carried by horses.
Food appeared at lunch stops and our tents and backpacks, complete with clothes for cooler nights, appeared at our campsites at the end of each day, just as we needed them. Not to mention, the local horsemen served as our unofficial cultural ambassadors by sharing videos of Kyrgyz music, sports and family stories from their phones.
With detours to alpine lakes each day, the Jyrgalan trail and surrounding landscape proved more beautiful and varied than we'd expected. Our photos don't fully do justice to the fluctuations of mountain light and color.
Note: The route below represents the three-day Boz Uchuk Lakes trek route we experienced, as tracked by our use of the Endomondo app. You can also find the official GPS tracks here. It is possible to extend the trek to five days, or to shorten it to an overnight experience.
Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek, Jyrgalan Valley – Day 1
Distance: 16.9 km / 10.5 miles
The trek begins from the town of Jyrgalan (2,260 meters / 7,415 feet) so you are able to get a taste of early morning life in the village before crossing the stream and ascending into the mountains. It's a relatively easy climb at first, allowing you to ease into things and accustom yourself to walking and hiking at altitude. You'll likely pass a shepherd or two, hundreds of sheep and dozens of horses running through the valleys. Don't worry about the animals; they know to make their way around you. Their presence is one of the facets of beauty of this trek, a feature of immersive life in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
After a couple of hours you'll have the option to climb further to an alpine lake (5km roundtrip). It's a steep ascent, so take it slow and zig-zag up the hill. For the views and the mountain air, it's worth the effort. Your final stretch of the day, a descent, tracks the river through the valley until the first campsite (2,800 meters / 9,186 feet). For us, this was our coldest night. If you trek in the shoulder season, be sure to have extra layers with you to stay warm (see packing below).
Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek, Jyrgalan Valley – Day 2
Distance: 16.6km / 10.3 miles
This is a two mountain pass-day, so it's longer and more challenging than the first. After a hot breakfast to warm up in the early morning, you'll climb from the campsite up to Terim Tor Bulak Pass at 3,467 meters / 11,375 feet. The view from the top of the pass across the layers of snow-covered mountains is nothing short of stunning. Creative ideas come to those who spend time in open spaces. Take time to enjoy the moment.
What goes up must go down, and descend rapidly at that. The descent from the pass is challenging and steep, eventually ending in the glacier blue waters of the Tiorgei Ak-Suu River. After crossing a rickety wooden bridge, the trail continues up again through more jailoos (high pastures) towards the second mountain pass of the day: Boz Uchuk-Ashuu Pass at 3,362 meters / 11,030 feet. We also took a detour to visit a few alpine lakes before descending to our campsite and settling in for the night.
If you are in doubt, always opt for the optional hikes to the alpine lakes. Depending on light conditions, the views will range anywhere from beautiful to jaw-dropping, and the time walking will release you further, as any good trek should, from whatever happens to be burdening you.
Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek, Jyrgalan Valley – Day 3
Distance: 19.65 km / 12.2 miles
The final day begins with a 10 km / 6 mile walk out to a cluster of alpine lakes that once formed part of a massive glacier. Even if you are tired, push yourself to do this part of the trek — the views, light and color will likely be your visual highlight, the grand finale. In the early morning light the lakes reflect surreal shades of turquoise and blue, and are filled with crisp reflections of the surrounding mountains. Just gorgeous.
There's quite a lot of distance covered on this day, but after the alpine lakes in the morning it's mainly flat, rolling downhill, and all goes fairly quickly.
Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek Difficulty Level and Conditions
We’d rate the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek a medium-high difficulty, primarily due to a few of the steep ascents and altitude. This means that you will not require special training, but you should be relatively active and in good physical shape. You should either be accustomed to or be prepared for day-long treks with steep, slow uphill climbs and be acclimatized to trek at above 3,000 meters/9,840 feet.
Not a Technical Trail
The Boz Uchuk Lakes trek is not at all technical, meaning that you will not need any special equipment like crampons, ropes or other fittings. There are some boulders to climb over and streams to cross, but nothing especially difficult. We did not carry walking sticks with us, but several others in our group did and appreciated having the extra stability going up and down hills. We highly recommend having a guide to navigate as the trail is not currently marked or signed. Instead, the general path of the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek follows streams, valleys and shepherd paths.
Altitude and Steep Hills
If you are sensitive to altitude and have just arrived in the region, you may consider acclimatizing in Jyrgalan village for a day or two before beginning the trek. This means taking a day trek (or horseback riding trip) where you will go higher during the day and then sleep at a lower altitude in the village at night.
You will be trekking at over 3,000 meters / 9,460 feet for most of the trek, with the highest point at 3,515 meters/11,532 feet. Our advice is to take it slow and steady on the uphill. It’s not a race. The more you pick your head up to look at all that's around you in the Kyrgyz mountain landscape, the less you'll think about the steep slope. It’s better to proceed slowly and deliberately with fewer breaks than to quickly wear yourself out and have to recuperate with frequent and longer stops.
Weather and When to do Trekking in Jyrgalan Valley
The trekking season runs from mid-June to mid-September, which mirrors the schedule of the local shepherds. At this altitude the temperature fluctuates widely, particularly between the sun-warmed days and occasionally very cold nights. When we undertook the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek at the very end of August/early September, the nights were already quite cold and we were a bit under-prepared.
This is why we suggest packing many layers since you may need them all at night. (Yes, we literally wore all our clothes during the first night's camp.) Especially before full sunrise when the sun finally appears over the mountain peaks, it can be cold. Wear layers and peel them off quickly during the daytime as it warms up with the powerful sun. We've been told that mid-June to early July is an especially beautiful time to trek because the hills are covered in wildflowers.
You will certainly not go hungry. We were very well fed with warm meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were treated to some Kyrgyz specialties like besh barmak (noodles in a broth topped with meat and onions) and plov (rice with meat and vegetables). In addition, we also were given sizable packets of trail mix, dried fruit, and cookies each morning so we'd have something to snack on between meals.
Most Kyrgyz meals are rather meat-heavy, so if you are vegetarian or have food allergies or dietary restrictions, alert the organizers and guides in advance so they can prepare accordingly.
It's important to continue to drink water throughout the trek, especially since you'll hiking at altitude. Bring a refillable water bottle or carry a water bladder in your backpack so you always have at least one liter of water on you at all times.
Our trekking guide would alert us to clean water sources along the way. Our group also carried purification drops. Although the water was likely clean, we used sterilization drops in a couple of circumstances simply as a cautionary measure. A Steripen or Lifestraw are also good water purification options that don't involve chemicals.
Water is boiled for tea at every meal, so it's also possible to consume that purified water as well. A good option is to fill your water bottle at night with purified hot water, use it as a hot water bottle to warm up your sleeping bag (and you) and then it will be perfect drinking temperature in the morning.
Campsites and Sleeping Arrangements
There are no official campsites along this route, so all camping and cooking equipment needs to be carried with you (or on horseback). We would typically arrive at the campsite area around 4PM to allow enough time to set up the tent, put on extra layers of clothing, and enjoy a little relaxation time before dinner. We were usually ready for sleep by the time dinner was finished.
Although we recommend taking care when consuming alcohol, especially at altitude, we and others found that a shared bottle of whiskey, vodka, or Kyrgyz cognac was appreciated by just about everyone. So if you are inclined, slip a bottle in your big backpack, share it at tea time or after dinner, and notice that the chill of the evening retreat as the stories go a thread longer than they otherwise might.
Toilets and bathroom business. In general, open air. Along the trail and at the first night's campsite, find a spot out of sight. At our 2nd night's campsite, a camp latrine was set up since the terrain was flat and there weren't many rocks or bushes nearby to hide behind. There are no showers along the way, but you can wash your hands and face in streams near the campsites.
Organizing the Boz-Uchuk Lakes Trek in Jyrgalan Valley
As mentioned above, one of the goals of this new Jyrgalan community organization is to develop tourism products and services in the area to provide more economic and job opportunities locally. So, choosing the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek really does allow you to have a unique trekking experience while contributing directly to the local community and its people.
The community organization or guesthouses in Jyrgalan can organize the trek we did (or a similar one) for you. For more information or get the process started to book your own Boz Uchuk Lakes trek, contact Destination Jyrgalan.
Accommodation and Meals in Jyrgalan
We stayed at Alakol Guesthouse run by Emil and Gulmira. They work closely with the community and offer comfortable private rooms with ensuite bathrooms for 1,500 som ($21) per person, including breakfast. The dinner we had there was also delicious and plentiful.
They also run a small yurt camp in Eki Chat, about a 1/2 day hike from Jyrgalan village, where you can spend the night with a shepherd's family (700 KGS ($10)/night/person, including breakfast + 350 KGS ($5)/dinner or lunch).
There are ten family guesthouses or hostels in Jyrgalan that vary in terms of style and level of services available, but the costs per person (including breakfast) will range between 600 som ($8.50) for the most basic (shared bathroom and several people in one room) and up to 1,000-1,500 som ($15-$21)/person for private double room and bathroom. (You can check out all Jyrgalan guesthouses and book a room directly here.)
A home cooked lunch or dinner cost 400 som ($6) each, while a lunchbox to take with you on a day trek or horseback ride costs 350 som ($5).(Note: there are no restaurants and only very small food shops in Jyrgalan so you need to eat at the guesthouse or bring your own food.)
If you enjoy horseback riding, mountain biking or want to spend some time acclimatizing before going into the mountains on this trek consider spending a couple of nights in Jyrgalan.
Hiring Jyrgalan mountain guides and horsemen
Depending upon the size of your group, a standard supported trek would include a mountain guide, cook, horsemen and horses. Although you can opt for a more streamlined version where you carry your own camping equipment, stove and food, we really enjoyed having the support of the horses and cook so we could simply focus on the experience at hand. The Destination Jyrgalan DMO and guesthouses will be able to organize all this for you.
Estimated Trekking Costs: Guides and Gear
Here are the basic costs you should expect if you want to organize a supported trek — i.e., with a guide, horse porter, cook, etc.
- Local Trekking Guide (up to 5 people): 2,500KGS ($37)/day. If you are interested in having the guide also do cooking, then the daily rate is 3,000 KGS ($44)/day (up to 2 trekkers) + 250 KGS ($3.70)/day for cooking tent rental. Note: A separate cook is needed for 3+ trekkers at the cost of 2,500 KGS/day.
- Horse porter (to carry gear): 2,000 KGS ($29)/day. Note: One horse can carry gear for two trekkers (up to 60kg).
- Food: 750 KGS ($11)/day for breakfast, lunch, dinner
- Renting Camping Gear: 250 KGS ($3.70)/day for a tent (sleeps 2 people), 240 KGS ($3.50) for a sleeping bag and mat, 150 KGS ($2)/day for trekking poles, 400 KGS ($6) for a camping stove with gas cylinder (if you choose not to hire the guide as a cook). Trekking equipment is available in Jyrgalan from Alakol Guesthouse.
- Transport Transfer at end of Boz Uchuk Trek: 1,500 KGS ($22)
Price of the Boz Uchuk Trek for Individuals and Groups (Everything Included)
Sometimes it's nice just to know what the total price is for a trek with everything included – guide, cook, food, horse porter, transfer, tent, sleeping bag, walking sticks, everything. Here's the breakdown and per person prices for different group sizes for a fully supported Boz Uchuk Lakes Trek (2 nights/3 days):
|Number of Persons||Total Cost for 3 Days (Per Person)|
|1 Person||22,400 KGS / $328 (3 days)|
|2 Persons||12,900 KGS / $190 per person (3 days)|
|3 Persons||13,200 KGS / $194 per person (3 days)|
|4 Persons||10,800 KGS / $159 per person (3 days)|
If you are already a group or can join a group that's departing, you can see that the per person price does get considerably lower as you can share the cost of the guide, cook, horses, and transfer. Note: After five people a guide and cook assistant will need to be hired.
How many days do you need for the trek?
Our Boz Uchuk Lakes trek was three days (two nights). However, it would be easy to extend the journey through the surrounding valleys to four or five days. Alternatively, if you aren't interested in two nights of camping, a shorter version featuring just one overnight in the mountains and return by road from Tiorgei Ak-Suu river the second day is also possible.
Transportation: How to get to Jyrgalan and pickup from Boz Uchuk
Karakol, the largest town in eastern Kyrgyzstan, is the region's central transit point and is around 60km from Jyrgalan. Your easiest option is to pick up a minibus (mashrutka) for 80 som ($1.20) per person. Currently, mashrutkas leave Karakol at 8:30, 13:30, 17:30 daily from Ak-Tilek Bazar at the intersection of Zhamansariev and Bektenov streets (here's a map for the exact location). A private taxi should cost you around 1,300 som ($19) for an entire car (4 places). More information on all transport options to Jyrgalan.
Whomever you make arrangements with for your trek and trekking guide should be able to arrange for you or your group to be picked up in Boz Uchuk and taken you can continue to either to Jyrgalan or to Karakol.
Other Treks and Outdoor Activities in Jyrgalan Valley
If hiking isn't you're thing and you prefer to go horseback riding or mountain biking, that's also now possible from Jyrgalan. There are several 1/2-day to full-day horseback riding and mountain biking trips (some can extend into two or three days, if desired) in the area. Many of the overnight trips spend the night in a yurt in the nearby Eki Chat Valley (you can book an overnight stay there from Alakol Guesthouse).
As for new treks in the area, there's the new 4-day Keskenkija Loop Trek that looks fabulous. We've also heard good things about the Ailampa Glacier Loop trek. And, there are several other 1/2-day to full day treks in the Jyrgalan Valley so that you can get a bit of exercise and stunning mountain views, but still return to a warm bed and meal at night.
Just ask Destination Jyrgalan or at your guesthouse for information, costs and how to organize everything.
Jyrgalan Valley Trek Packing List
Much of what we include in our How to Pack for a Trek article still applies here. However, we offer a customized Boz Uchuk Lakes trek packing list to ensure you have what you need for the mountains yet don’t overpack.
Consider packing your nighttime clothes, toiletries, and heavy layers in one bag for the horses to carry during the day. Then, you can trek with a light daypack with water, sunscreen, light layers, and camera. As always, pack light. You’ll quickly begin to feel the extra weight going up steep hills.
You really don’t need much in this department. Don’t worry about wearing the same thing every day. Everyone does it. It's more about having the proper layers as the temperatures may rise and fall dramatically between day and night. Here’s what we suggest:
- 1 set of hiking clothes: T-shirt (preferably quick dry), long-sleeved hiking shirt (his and hers) or pullover, shorts or trekking pants, hiking socks.
- 1 set of evening clothes for sleep: T-shirt, long pants (or pajama bottoms), socks. To ensure these remain dry, pack them in a plastic bag or other impermeable container inside your backpack.
- Ski hat and gloves: This may not be necessary earlier in the season, but by late August we were very thankful to have these.
- Hiking shoes: Low-rise hiking shoes are fine. Other people wore light trainers, however some mid-ankle support is useful because of the pitch of the terrain. I found my Hi-Tec Women's Altitude V medium-rise hiking boots were good to me on this trek.
- Extra t-shirt: Just in case.
- Underwear for every day of your trek: With an extra pair thrown in for good measure, if you like. Recommended his and hers
- Extra pair of socks: Just in case you want to switch out or it's freezing and you need an extra layer to stay warm in your sleeping bag.
- Fleece or other shell jacket: For cool nights or sleeping.
- Rain jacket (optional): Just in case it rains. We used ours as an extra layer to stay warm at night.
- Thermal underwear (top/bottom): If you're trekking either early or late in the season, consider bringing along some silk long johns as they are warm, comfy and take up almost no room at all.
Other Trekking Gear
- Waterproof backpack cover: You never know when a rainstorm will hit, so it’s essential to keep a rain cover for your backpack close at hand.
- Quick-dry travel towel: To dry off your hands or face after washing it in the stream.
- Sleep sack: To provide an extra layer between you and the sleeping bag. Plus, this helps keep you warm if the temperatures drop at night.
- Headlamp: The campsites do not have electricity or lights. Carry your own headlamp to find your way to the toilet and to sort through your stuff at night in and around your tent.
Toiletries and Health Kit
You won't have access to a shower along the way, but you don't really miss it as the evenings and mornings are quite cool.
- Soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss: You know, the basics. And don't laugh at us that we put dental floss as a basic. You'll thank us after eating a meat-heavy meal.
- Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the better. At this altitude the sun is very powerful.
- Sunglasses: Necessary. That sun is darn strong.
- Hand sanitizer: To be on the safe side.
- Pack of tissues or roll of toilet paper: There were rolls of toilet paper available, but it’s always a good idea to carry your own…just in case.
- Duct tape or Compeed: Effective for hot spots and blisters on your feet.
- Medical Kit (for emergencies): Band-Aids, anti-bacterial gel (for cuts), rehydration powders, ciprofloxacin (or another medication against stomach bacteria), Tylenol (anti-headache/aches), Immodium (or some sort of “stopper” if you get diarrhea). Note: All this can be easily and inexpensively purchased at local pharmacies, including in Karakol.
Electricity and Charging Batteries
There is no electricity available after you leave Jyrgalan village so prepare yourself with extra batteries or chargers. Some tips to handle this and further your battery power.
- Put your smartphone on airplane mode. There is no connectivity along the trek anyhow, so don't waste your phone’s battery power trying to find a network.
- Consider buying a phone case that doubles as an extra battery. Here’s an example for an iPhone battery case. Alternatively, you could carry a Mophie charger. They all provide another 1-1.5 charges.
- Take an extra camera battery or two.
- Don’t spend time reviewing your images on your phone or in the camera viewfinder, as this will quickly consume battery power. Unless you are reviewing images to determine whether you’ve captured a specific shot, there will be time enough for photo review when your trek is finished.
Have other questions about the Boz Uchuk Lakes trek in Jyrgalan Valley? Just ask in the comments below and we’ll incorporate the information in the article so others may benefit.