One of Kyrgyzstan’s top treks that showcases much of what trekking in Alay is all about: high mountains, big vistas and serendipitous encounters.
Green river valleys lead up to wide alpine meadows where shepherd families have their summer homes in yurts, tents or mud-walled summer shacks. On top of that, Jiptik Pass and Sary Mogol Pass offer glacier-fed moraine lakes and black walls of ominous rock. And yaks.
It is a 5-day trek starting and ending at Sary Mogol, but you can taxi through the less interesting bits and do it in 4, or just do 1 pass and get a ride back at Kichi Sary Mogol or Kojokelen.
With 2 passes over 4000 m, this is not an easy walk. For something lighter but equally spectacular, try the 1-day hike to Traveller’s Pass. For more interaction and lower altitude, see Trekking around Gulcha.
It should be possible to do the whole hike without the need to carry a tent and sleeping bag, or even much food thanks to yurtstays along the way (July-August only).
Before you go
This is the most popular multi-day hike in Alay. That does not mean much for now: you can still count the other tourists you will meet during 5 days on your fingers.
You can do this loop both ways. We would recommend to start at Jiptik Pass and end at Sary Mogol Pass. In terms of elevation it does not matter much, but this way the scenery gets gradually more spectacular with Sary Mogol as the climax.
To get to the start of the hike (whichever way you choose to go), it is a 1-hour drive from Sary Mogol. A taxi costs 1500 som. Ditto for the pick-up at the end of the hike.
You can buy a printed trekking map of the area for 300 som at TES guesthouse in Osh, and at the CBT office in Osh and Sary Mogol. CBT Osh/Sary Mogol can also organise guides, horses and pre-booking of yurtstays at short notice; book at their VisitAlay website.
There are plenty of river crossings, but there is no need to get wet feet. For more general tips, see trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
Trek reports and Q&A
We did this trek in 4 days, but we cheated a little. To do the whole route, you will need an extra day.
It is the 21st of August, and haymaking season is coming to an end in the Alay. The mustard hills got a shave and shaggy yellow haystacks now herald the coming of winter. Fuel reserves are being built up: rectangular bricks of cow dung mixed with straw have started piling up on the flat roofs of stables and simple shacks.
In Sary Mogol, the wheat rises to a child’s waist and no higher. Tomorrow, we start our hike.
Day 1: Over Sary Mogol Pass
With a little push to get it started, Ashur’s battered Niva bolted towards the mountains a bit past 8, passing yurts, tents and wagons on the way. An hour later we arrived. It was quiet on the trail. Choughs hovered, a lone butterfly sunned before it started to flutter.
For the next 5 hours, we gradually moved up towards the Sary Mogol Pass at 4300 m. The landscape was a mix of boulders and wild onions, surveyed by stonechats and eagles.
Lunch was disturbed by a bit of hail, but we were lucky; although the clouds stayed ominous for some time after, no rain or snow would follow.
The top of Sary Mogol Pass is quite a sight. The rocks are black as coal, as mines, as industry. Like gas stoves in the dark, 5 cyan-blue lakes light up the darkness with the meltwater from the surrounding snows. Right in front of the hiker, a monumental wall rises up to separate the 2 valleys.
Together with the vista from Traveller’s Pass, it is one of the most impressive landscapes I have seen in Kyrgyzstan so far.
Once we caught our breath, we descended. It is a very steep descent of loose rock on the other side of the pass, so if you plan to do this trail the other way round, this is your major challenge (the next day we met a girl on a horse going that way, so it is possible on horseback, but you might have to get off for the steepest bit).
We camped about 45 minutes down from the pass. This was not ideal, since we were still at around 3800 m: I went to bed with a headache and I woke up with a runny nose.
Kuat, my guide, reasoned that further down, the ground was less flat for camping. I would have to disagree and recommend you continue for 2 hours after the pass for a camp site at lower ground, or go all the way down to Kichi Sary Mogol (long day, though) where you can find a homestay.
Day 2: To Kosh Moinok
Yaks have a piggish grunt. They live by themselves up here, their owners only check up on them once a month.
The night brought a dusting of snow to cover the mountain slopes, and our tent was frosted on the outside. Soon it warmed up though, and from our campsite it was a 3-hour walk down to the rural idyll of Kichi Sary Mogol. On the way, we popped in for tea at the yurts from the people who owned the herd of yaks.
You can eat and sleep in Kichi Sary Mogol or in the next village, Kyzyl-Chara. Nothing is advertised, though, so you have to ask around. It’s 200 som for lunch and 1000 som for a bed + breakfast and dinner.
Between Kichi Sary Mogol and Kyzyl-Chara lies 3 km of boring car road. There aren’t a lot of cars, but we were lucky to catch a ride with a coal truck to Kyzyl-Chara, where we had lunch.
After lunch, we walked up along a pretty steep trail for 4 hours, past people making hay and big herds of sheep.
Our camp spot for the night was the Kosh Moinok jailoo. Cradled by sandstone peaks, I felt positively cozy pitching our tent on the deep-green next to the cold river.
In the evening, we had dinner at with a woman and her 2 sons in their small adobe hut, their summer camp to take care of their animals. The house might have been simple, but her plov was fit for a king.
Day 3: Kojokelen and beyond
A daunting climb over the Sary-Bel pass was staring us down all last night. After breakfast, it took us a spirited 2-hour walk to get to the top it. The sandstone on Kosh Moinok turned out to be only a foretaste of the magnificent cliffs once over the pass.
We came to a fork in the road, and decided to shortcut to the right of the valley. This way, it took us only 2 hours to get to Kojokelen, along some lovely jailoos still stalked by red cliffs. The longer route would have taken about twice as long.
After lunch at a homestay in Kojokelen, we took a taxi (1000 som) to the yurt camp close to the Jiptik Pass.
It is a dirt road suitable for cars (not so much for our car, it needed a push on several occasions), but if you are not pressed for time like us, it is nice to hike this stretch, as you trace the whitewater river upwards for 3 hours.
The yurt was warm and the daughter of the house, Rakhima, spoke some English, so tourists could have a chat about what it’s like to spend your summer holidays in such a remote location.
Day 4: Over the Jiptik Pass
The next day, our surroundings got progressively rougher once we took the trail again. A near-mystical silence was punctuated by the shrill alarms of marmots bouncing off the dark walls. The rusty skeleton of a Ural truck bore silent witness to the fact that Jiptik pass used to be navigable by car. Definitely not anymore.
At the pass, the sky was blue, giving us a clear view over the snow-capped border with Tajikistan, Peak Lenin front and center. The perfect reward.
Beyond Jiptik, the valley was still blossoming with wild flowers, mint, rhubarb and sage. And adorable yaks.
It took us 4 hours from the yurt camp to Jiptik pass, and then another 2 hours down to where another beat-up Lada was waiting to take us back to Sary Mogol.