Quiet Toktogul, set between the sharp undulations of the Kyzyl-Too range and the blue shimmer of Toktogul lake, gets little love from travelers rushing past to more famous destinations. We understand, its charms are understated. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant place to break your journey from Bishkek to Osh and while away a day. And once you slowed down to the pace of small-town Kyrgyzstan, Toktogul emerges as a hub for adventure sports, smack-bang in the middle of Suusamyr, Arslanbob and Sary-Chelek.
A peaceful, resort-like atmosphere hangs over town on a sunny day in late April. A walk through the park up to the sports field is about as exciting as it gets in downtown Toktogul. At the end of the walk, a panoramic view over lake Toktogul awaits. With the sun setting over the photogenic village of Kara-Su, the defunct Ferris wheel complements the scene for the perfect picture.
Out on the bazaar, few items are hotly contested. It feels categorically lazy. But we did not come to shop. We came for ice cream, a Toktogul specialty. The gelateria has kept its Soviet charm – spare decoration, quiet cleanliness – and the ice cream reflects the decor: simple, pure and downright milky. It’s really good.
The next day, we head to the Kyzyl-Too (red hills), still green, folded like a yet-to-be-invented Ikea lamp. Hiking up the trail, we meet tulips below and eagles above. Chabans herd their horses up the valley, where they can finally feed after a long winter. As the freshness of spring gives way to the heat of summer, and the Kyzyl-Too will live up to their name, these cowboys will head over the ridge to their jailoo pastures, to live in summer yurts with their livestock outside, on a feeding frenzy.
We pause for lunch at Eagle Head Rock, with a panorama view over Toktogul and the lake. The reservoir is new, created in 1974 when the Toktogul dam was finished to generate hydro-power from the Naryn river. 26 communities were flooded, and many ancient treasures were lost, as archaeologists scrambled to dig out some of the many Sakh barrows that now lie underneath the water. According to townspeople, the compensation money for displacing them disappeared for a large part into the pockets of influential politician Tayirbek Sarpashev, whose building company never managed to finish a working irrigation system.
Back home, and back to the ice cream place. Another evening stroll up to the sports field, and this time all the way to the shore of the reservoir. Unlike Issyk-Kul, the water warms up in summer, and it becomes eminently swimmable, but so far, no discos or beach yurts have popped up. It’s a beautiful pink sunset that ends our visit to Toktogul, one we share with the only inhabitants of the shoreline – a flock of sheep.
From Toktogul, it’s a 3-4 day hike to Suusamyr, Arslanbob and Sary-Chelek. All practical details surrounding staying in and coming to Toktogul (and where to get that ice cream) can be found in the Toktogul travel guide.