Song Kol is a high-altitude lake fed by the glacier water of the surrounding mountains, smack-bang in the centre of Kyrgyzstan. The jailoos surrounding the lake have been a summer camp spot for Kyrgyz shepherd families for centuries.
These days, the shepherd yurts have gotten the company of tourist yurts and the tents of hikers and cycle tourists. Don’t worry, the lake is huge, it won’t be difficult to find a quiet spot.
There is a good reason Song Kol has become a fixture on most Kyrgyzstan itineraries. The views are great all over Kyrgyzstan, but Song Kol has more than just a view. There is a special stillness here. Nightfall brings pitch-black skies with masses of stars, while during the day, the constantly changing cloud formations are mirrored in the lake.
The lake also has its detractors. Some people find the yurt camps too touristy, others get bored. We think their expectations are too high. Most people really enjoy it, though.
For those that aren’t keen on quiet reflections, the journey is better than the destination. Whether you are on foot, on horseback, on a bicycle or in a car, you can get to Song Kol from the 4 corners of the compass, and you are guaranteed a spectacular ride.
Or you can use Song Kol as the start and/or finish of a longer hiking or horse riding jaunt through the Central Tien Shan mountains.
When to go
In July and August, there will definitely be yurt camps ready to receive guests. If you are coming in June or September, it’s best to ask around in advance. When people start setting up and breaking up camp depends on different factors: the weather, if there have been advance bookings, how hungry the wolves are, …
If you are up for an adventure, come in winter! A winter yurt camp gets set up each year in the boundless snow. A wonderful time to visit, with lots of activities, and you only have to share space with a few other intrepid travelers.
Song Kol sits at an altitude of 3016 m. In other words, rain and snow is always a possibility, and evenings and mornings are always chilly. Bring a hat, something waterproof and a warm jacket. Outside the summer months, it’s even colder.
Things to keep in mind
Because the lake is situated at a great height, you might get a headache. It normally passes after a good night’s sleep. If the headache gets worse, or you get other symptoms of altitude sickness, you should descend.
Song Kol is still a remote place. There is no cellphone reception, no ATM and no shop. Bring everything you need. If at all possible, make sure your money comes in small notes, so you can give correct change.
How to get there and away
The transport section is usually at the back of the article, but in this case it makes sense to put it at the front, for 2 reasons.
1. Song Kol is accessible from all corners of Kyrgyzstan, which gives you a lot of planning options. Since the only connection between East and West Kyrgyzstan on public transport is Bishkek, Song Kol can serve as a router for a switch between east and west, without having to pass through busy Bishkek again.
2. You cannot hike at the lake. But you can hike to / from the lake.
On public transport
There is no public transport, so you will need to arrange a ride, either in advance, or on the spot in Kochkor or Suusamyr. It’s best if you arrange the ride back before your driver drops you off. Remember, there is no cell phone reception on Song Kol, so without an arranged ride, you need to wait until someone with a spare seat is going down.
Aim for 20$ for a seat in a car to get from Kochkor to Song Kol and back.
By car or bicycle
You see locals driving up to the lake in beat-up old Soviet clunkers. Although a 4WD is not necessary, we recommend at least a car with a higher clearance to dodge loose rocks and cross small streams on the way.
There is nothing specific cycle tourists need to know. All 4 roads are decent gravel roads.
The Suusamyr valley is beautiful, and this road leads you via Kyzyl-Oi to Song Kol (map). A popular option in combination with the way in/out via Kochkor for those short on time.
If you do not have the time to see the south of Kyrgyzstan, the shortest loop gets you in via Suusamyr and out via Kochkor, onwards to Issyk-Kul (or vice versa). While this road (map) is not as spectacular as the Song-Kol – Naryn road, it still brings you over 3500m, so, not bad either.
The Song Kol – Naryn road (map) goes by the name of 38 parrots because of its many hairpin curves. It’s a superlative road with wonderful views, and a good surface of compacted gravel.
The least used road to get to Song Kol (map) crosses the Moldo Ashuu Pass and connects directly to Kazarman. You won’t find many tourists on this winding path.
On foot or horseback
A 2-day hike or horse ride gets you to the north shore. If you don’t have your own wheels, this is a great way to arrive. You can approach the starting points from the direction of Kochkor (closest) or Suusamyr and Kyzyl-Oi (bit further) by taxi. A shared taxi from Kochkor to Kyzart costs 200 som/seat.
Plenty of routes are possible, see the following gpx tracks for inspiration:
- Kyzart (most popular option)
- Doshkulu, or easier route via Tuz Ashuu Pass
- Uzbek Ashuu Pass (challenging for hikers, usually done on horseback)
Routes from other directions are longer. For instance, from the west, you could start from the abandoned mining town of Ming Kush to reach the lake in 4 days.
Things to do
Not mentioned here specifically, but of course, a major “thing to do” is diving into the shepherding way of life. See if you can’t help out with the tasks at hand, like milking a horse. Tasting some fresh kymys is a rite of passage.
There is of course, much more hiking to be done in the Song Kol area. Here are some ideas.
- South of Song Kol (3-4 days)
- South shore panorama (3 days)
- Sary-Kol loop (3 days)
- The Song Kol trekking map has more ideas
If you are looking for something more leisurely, it takes an afternoon to hike up to the hills above Song Kul for a great panorama view.
Any of the hiking trails above can also be done on a horse. If you are not experienced, perhaps a few hours in the saddle along the shore will be enough, horse riding can be tough on an untrained arse. You can discuss it with a tour operator in advance or on the spot at a yurt camp or in Kyzart.
If you are arranging it yourself, aim for 700 som to rent a horse for a day, and 1500 som for a guide. As always, it’s really your call to determine how hard you want to bargain.
Swimming and fishing
There is some fish swimming around in Song Kol. You might get some served to you for dinner. You could try fishing some out yourself, although you’d have to find a fishing rod first.
You can also join the fish. Be warned, the water is cold.
The slopes surrounding Song Kol are a paradise for backcountry skiers. You can hike up the slopes yourself, or go up on horseback.
Horseback riding, cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoeing are other options. The lake can be used for ice skating, ice fishing and curling matches.
It’s really a magnificent place to be in winter, and we’d love for more people to experience Song Kol this way. Let us know if you are interested.
Accommodation and food
There are about 15 yurt camps spread around the lake. Most yurt camps these days have dedicated themselves to tourism. The average price is 15$ for a night, meals included.
The standard sleeping yurt will have between 5 and 9 mattresses on the floor with a stove in the middle. The stove gets refueled in the middle of the night, but the fire goes out near the morning and yurts do go cold quickly. There is one designated dining yurt, which usually requires cross-legged seating around a spread of food on a table cloth on the floor.
Some yurt camps are more luxurious. They have beds and tables and seated toilets, and private yurts for singles or couples. There is no need to book in advance if you are okay with a simple mattress on the floor, there will always be space, but if you want a bed or a private yurt, you should make arrangements in advance, because they do sell out.
Any tour operator can book a yurt for you, or you can book yourself via booking.com. In the glamping section, Azamat has come recommended to us several times, but Muras should be good as well. Certain tour operators, like Sergey, have their own glamping yurt camps reserved for their clients.
Except for the few deluxe yurt camps, it’s difficult to say in advance what kind of experience you will get. There are several umbrella organisations (CBT, Shepherd’s Life, Eco CBT, Jailoo Tourism), but they all have similar standards. The lady of the house could be extremely hospitable and fun, or a bit grumpy. She could be a great cook, or perhaps not. It’s a bit of a gamble. English is usually spoken to some degree by the kids.