The lake and surrounding Biosphere Reserve of Sary-Chelek are oft-quoted as one of the most beautiful sights in Kyrgyzstan. A habitat for 1.000 different plants and rare mammals such as bear and lynx, Sary-Chelek is a great place to hike or horse ride, observe nature or to simply get away from it all.
If you allow enough time, it also works well as a stop-over on the Bishkek-Osh road. That’s quite a detour though, so only if you are not in a hurry.
After a difficult uphill approach from Arkyt, finally, at 1.800 m above sea level, the lake of Sary-Chelek comes into view. Tucked in by the Chatkal mountains that spill over into Uzbekistan to mark the edge of the Ferghana Valley, and looked over by 4.000 m+ peak Muztor, Sary-Chelek offers a milder, more humid climate than the rest of Northern Kyrgyzstan. Winters are snowy, summers are wet.
The forests around the lake offer walnuts and wild apples to the animals that live here. In the high reaches, the snow leopard is said to roam.
Around the star attraction of Sary Chelek lake a number of other, smaller lakes form an invitation to explore the landscape. Try to catch a glimpse of fish darting in the shallow waters, stroll across the meadows and put your pick-nick basket near the shore. There are trails crossing the sanctuary, used by rangers and locals.
Villages outside the boundaries of the reserve evoke the garden of Eden, should there have been vodka in Eden. Coming down from the valleys, the endless scream that man calls silence drifts through the orchards onto the banks of the Kara-Suu river, punctuated by the chirping of warblers and tits.
Trekking and horse riding
For experienced hikers who want to truly experience all the Northwestern Tien Shan has to offer, a trek entering the Biosphere Reserve from the north is the way to go. You can start in Arkyt and loop through the wild western Chatkal mountains. Or you can start in Talas and cross two 3.000 m+ passes across the mountains and valleys of the Talas range.
A bit easier, but just as beautiful, is an entry from Kara-Suu or Arkyt, with a reconnaisance of the different lakes in the neighbourhood. Still, 2.000 m+ passes need to be conquered. If you’re not a trained hiker, take this route.
Besides nature, jailoos and yurt life can be found in this area in summer.
How to get there and when to go
There are 2 entry points close to Sary-Chelek, Arkyt and Kara-Suu (aka Kyzyl-Kol). Arkyt is the closest to the lake, and the easiest to access with public transport. Kara-Suu is still a 2-day hike removed from the lake.
If you have a car or a tour operator, you’re in luck. If not, it’s an even longer drive. With your own transport, take 9 hours minimum to get there from Bishkek, 6 hours from Osh. From Tash-Komur, it’s 60 km of asphalt and 40 km of dirt road to Arkyt. From there, it’s another 15 km of dirt road to the lake.
By public transport: take the bus to Tash-Komur (3 hours from Jalalabad, 6 hours from Osh or Bishkek). Hop on the bus to Kara-Jigat (2 hours). From there, a road heads north for another 25 km to Arkyt, the gateway to Sary-Chelek. There might be a bus, otherwise you need to bargain for a taxi from a local.
From mid-May until the end of September, the area should be snow-free. At night, it’s always cold. The best time to go is July and August. A small entry fee is charged at the entrance in Arkyt. You can also visit a little museum and arboretum for that price where you can learn more about some of the plants growing here.
Camping is the only way to sleep close to the lake. If you don’t want to camp, there are homestays in Kara-Suu and Arkyt.
In Arkyt, Mazetov Amapgeldy has a friendly family and speaks some English. Stay with him for 100 som, dinner and breakfast available for a few more som. A blue gostinitsa sign points the way. No shower, toilet is outside. There is at least one other homestay available.
In Kara-Suu, similarly Spartan, cheap and friendly accommodation awaits you.