It’s hot, it’s muggy, and it’s not even the peak of summer. You are in Tashkent: annoyed with the constant police surveillance, sweating your balls off, waiting for your visa to come through.
There really is only one way out, and it’s to head for the mountains. You could say that mountains are not what you came to Uzbekistan for – that’s what all the other Stans are for!
And you would be wrong.
A 2-hour ride northeast from Tashkent lies Chimgan, Tashkent’s mountain resort. In wintertime it’s the place to be in Uzbekistan for skiing and heliskiing. In summer, it’s a great weekend getaway from the city: cheap, quiet, and right in the middle of an endless stretch of glorious mountain scenery.
Chimgan’s surroundings are a great place for mountain biking and hiking, and just feel sooo relaxing after the oppressive atmosphere occupying Tashkent.
For those who just want to relax by the water, the road to Chimgan ends 20 minutes earlier in Bakachur at the Charvak reservoir. The brilliant blue of the reservoir attracts large crowds in summer. Uzbeks generally content themselves with a little plop in the water, while the Russians are more likely to be seen windsurfing, paragliding or performing their inimitable standing-up-sunbathing routine.
You will see lots of tents along the shore, with meat-scented smoke emanating from the fires grilling shashlik on the beach. If you don’t have a tent yourself, you can stay at one of the hotels or grab your sleeping bag and stay in a choikhana offering beds under the open sky. Beware, it gets cold.
Coming from Tashkent, Chimgan really feels like a different world. Mountain flowers are blossoming, in the distance lie snow-capped peaks, and the village guys are riding a horse. It really felt to me like we had already arrived in Kazakhstan as we visited one June afternoon, and as it turned out, 80% of the population of Chimgan is actually ethnically Kazakh.
It’s remarkably quiet in Chimgan in summertime; Uzbeks aren’t hikers. When we were there, 95% of the visitors were ethnic Russians. They had all come for a bard festival, which is a sort of open mic night in nature centered around bluesy songs about prison life and odes to Mother Mary.
As for hiking, anywhere is great. Ask for Kyzyldzhar or Aksay peak, Mramornaja Reka (the Marble river) and Gulkamsay waterfall.
Chatkal biosphere reserve
Going up further inside the extended finger digging into Kazakhstan’s belly, you will find nothing but loneliness, and excellent rafting on the Pskem and Chatkal rivers. Or you can try kayaking from Koksu to the Saryram lakes.
The sky is the limit here, really, and since everyone is focused on Kyrgyzstan or nearby Aksu-Zhabagly in Kazakhstan, you have this gorgeous, unspoiled nature all to yourself. We met one English man who had been in Chimgan for a month already, exploring new tracks every day.
Even more unspoilt is the Chatkal biosphere reserve; 350 km² of forested slopes harboring bears, boars, snow leopards and Siberian goats. Petroglyphs can be found on the banks of the Tereksay river, and in spring, the area is covered in a flush of red, as blossoming wild tulips spill over the borders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
- In Chimgan, you can camp or stay in a dacha for 10$/night. A number of hotels offer accommodation options ranging from rock-bottom to stylish luxury.
- Marshrutkas to Chirchik and Gazalkent start at Buyuk Ipak Yoli metro station. Don’t be fooled by the taxi drivers, it’s just a bit further than the metro exit. A shared taxi will cost about double what you pay for public transport. If you are lucky, it takes the same amount of time with the marshrutka.
- At Chirchik or Gazalkent, get in another marshrutka or a shared taxi to Chimgan or Charvak reservoir.
- A bit lower than Chimgan lies Beldersoy, another, quieter option with good walking options, or skiing in winter.