The mountains north of Gulcha are a bit lower in altitude to what you will find elsewhere trekking in the Alay region. It is therefore a bit less spectacular than the Sary Mogol hikes in terms of landscape.
However, the fact that the passes are at ~3500 m rather than ~4000 m brings benefits. It is easier on the legs and lungs, obviously, and you do not get a headache from the altitude. It is a few degrees warmer, and with Peak Lenin acting as a hiker-magnet, the Gulcha region attracts few tourists for now. More plants grow here, which means more wood, so you can make a campfire.
Horses roam freely on the jailoos in numbers. While the main Truly Nomadic Land trek outlined on the new trekking map is not suited to horseback riding due to a lack of decent grazing, the trails north of Murdash and Karabulak are very much so.
The potential to delve into Kyrgyzstan’s rural life is excellent in this area. In July and August, yurts dot the landscape and kymiss is flowing freely. While some take in tourists, these are not “tourist yurt camps”. They are shepherds who let you stay in their yurt and share their lifestyle for a day while they go about their business. Great if you like a side of culture to go with your nature.
A bonus: you do not have to carry a tent or sleeping bag if you go the yurtstay way, or even a lot of food. If you are travelling independently, ask CBT Osh what the latest situation is with the yurtstays and have them book for you in advance.
Before you go
You can buy a printed trekking map of the area for 300 som at CBT guesthouse and TES guesthouse in Osh, and at the CBT office in Sary Mogol. CBT Osh can also organise guides, horses and pre-booking of yurtstays at short notice.
Options to make your own trek are legion. Yurt camps are everywhere between July 1st and August 20th.
Scenically, highlights include the Ak Tor pass and Kosh Moinok (as far as we have seen).
For more general tips, see trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
Trek reports and Q&A
Please leave us your trek reports, and any questions you might have regarding trekking in the Gulcha area, at the forum: Trekking in Alay.
Trek report: Karabulak – Ak Tor – Kosh Moinok – Murdash
As part of their BaiAlai project to promote tourism and create new job opportunities in the Alay and Chon-Alay districts, Swiss NGO Helvetas provided a guide, porter and transport for my trek, through their partner CBT Osh/Alay.
Day 1: Karabulak to Bel
We started our trek at Karabulak (black spring), a little village of just 42 houses 10 km before Gulcha, 90 minutes drive from Osh.
It so happened my guide Kuat was from Karabulak, so we stopped over at his place. Of course, we had to stay for tea, which soon turned into a full-fledged lunch. Kuat’s family lived very simply, with just a few animals and a bit of land to work. Quite a difference from my own comfortable life.
After lunch, we followed the Karabulak valley south at a gentle incline for about 3 hours towards Bel Pass. The valley is flanked by outcrops of craggy dolomite that form the first outposts of the massive grey fortress of Ak Tor that would come into view on day 2.
Locals call the place At-Jailoo (horse meadow) and it is easy to see why: strings of horses in shades of brown from beige to beaver occupy the valley. We saw a big rabbit rushing through the junipers, and choughs captained by an eagle patrolled Bel pass. Kuat told me wild mountain goats can be seen here in spring and fall.
Just behind Bel a big flat area begs for you to camp there. 2 families were living here in yurts throughout the summer, but they had just packed up before we arrived, in the final days of August, citing wolves and a lack of grass. This would be a familiar refrain throughout our hike, so we suggest you time your hike to end before the 25th of August if you want to do yurtstays.
As night fell, like a second sun, the full moon rose over the ridge to spotlight the jailoo. No howls were heard, although we knew the wolves were out there somewhere, preying on those poor sheep.
Day 2: Towards Ak Tor via Sary Oi
After breakfast the next day we took a sharp right up the Airybel pass. 2 types of mint grew on this slope: the standard purple one you find everywhere in the Tien Shan, and a rarer light blue peppermint. Great for tea. Swallows and falcons circled overhead, while a couple of partridges scurried away on our arrival at the pass.
It took us 3 hours to get to Sary Oi (yellow flat land). The valley walls are deeply carved and plant life is abundant on this bit of the trek, which saw us searching for contours and occasionally bushwhacking the erica. In the distance, already the limestone fortress tower of Ak Tor (white top) beckoned.
A steep descent along the river followed. We saw 3 sets of sheep intestines and legs. Down at Sary Oi, the lady of the yurt told us wolves took 20 sheep 2 days ago.
We had lunch at the last remaining yurt at Sary Oi. Usually there are a lot of yurts at Sary-Oi and you can stay overnight, but we were obviously a bit too late. Besides the wolves, september was just around the corner and kids needed to return to school.
From Sary-Oi, it is 6 hours to the top of the Ak Tor pass. Good places to pitch your tent start appearing after 2-3 hours, all the way until the final ascent to Ak Tor. We camped not too far from the pass after 4 hours of walking.
The valley here is steep-sided, but it is a relatively easy hike with little ups and downs that gradually take you higher. There were many river crossings but the water was never so high that we could not cross with the help of a few strategic boulders. We made a campfire again to cook dinner, and a new moon made for a starry night.
Day 3: Ak Tor Pass to Kosh Moinok Pass
Tor means top, or end, in Kyrgyz. You can find tor in a yurt as well: it is the head of the table, the centre of the yurt where the oldest man sits.
Surrounded by peaks, the Ak Tor pass is steep on both sides – breathtaking. At the pass, 7 steep ridges unfolded in front of us.
Once across the pass, it took us 2 hours to get from Ak Tor down to the Murdash – Kojokelen road. If you are driving in the area, this is a cool alternative to the standard Osh-Sary Tash highway.
The road is used mostly by coal trucks coming from the coal mine near Kojokelen. You can hitchhike a ride here with a coal truck or arrange a pick-up to Murdash.
Instead, we turned right into a narrow gorge, home to a flurry of white-capped redstarts who obviously enjoyed the freshness of the whitewater river.
After 30 minutes, we arrived at Uch Tash (3 valley bottoms), a very scenic jailoo caught between powerful mountain flanks on all sides. It is a popular holiday spot for locals in summer. A wonderful camp spot for our last night in the Alay mountains.
Day 4: Uch Tash to Murdash
The next day we headed over the Kosh Moinok Pass east of Uch Tash. It takes 2 hours to the first pass, and an extra hour to the next pass. We had already seen some really wonderful scenery over the past 3 days but I was still surprised by what awaited us once over Kosh Moinok.
You really shouldn’t miss it if you are close.
The road is even doable by car, and halfway we accepted the offer of an old timer driving us over the pass. When we arrived, the kymiss was already waiting.
After the second pass, it took us a final 2,5 hours via Jelondy Valley (meaning “Snakes Valley” – didn’t see any) down to prettily situated Murdash, where we stopped over at Kuat’s sister’s place. She just got back from working in Moscow and was now in the planning stages of building a new house.
We got picked up by our driver at the edge of the village. If you continue on foot, it is another 30 minutes to the main Osh-Sary Tash road.