Son-Kol, Tash Rabat, Kaldama Pass, Fergana Valley & Jalal-Abad

Five days of mountain passes, lush green valleys, countless switchbacks and spectacular views. No wonder they call Kyrgyzstan the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’. It’s also been five days without wi-fi access and without a shower – thank goodness for ‘wet-wipe baths’ and deodorant! So, there is five days worth of stuff in this post. It’s a long one but hang in to the end (even if you just look at the photos)!

I felt like staying in Bishkek for another day on Sunday morning (15th June). I had an upset stomach, thanks to some Chinese food I ate the night before. And it was raining. Not the best combination for setting off towards Son-Kol Lake! However, I got my stuff together, said my farewells and left Nomads Home.

The primary route to get to Son-Kol from Bishkek is via the Bishkek-Naryn road and turn off to the lake after the village of Sary Bulak. I opted to take an alternate route over the Too Asuu Pass and through the Suusamyr Valley, as it seemed as though it would be more interesting and scenic.

Route from Bishkek to Son-Kol Lake
Route from Bishkek to Son-Kol Lake

I left Bishkek and headed towards Kara Balta before taking the road over Too Asuu Pass. It was certainly an interesting road, with multiple switchbacks on the ascent, and a few tunnels cut into the side of the mountain. Looking down from my right-side window, there were some very steep drop-offs. Making the road a little more ‘interesting’ was the risk of falling rocks due to all of the rain. Fortunately, the rocks that had fallen were quite small and were easy to avoid. I’m sure that the views would have been more spectacular on a clear fine day.

The road to Too Asuu Pass
The road to Too Asuu Pass

Eventually I reached the long (2.6km) tunnel that marks the highest point of the road. My Garmin gave the elevation as over 9,900 feet, which is about 1,000 feet higher than the other passes we have crossed on the trip. However, the map shows the elevation of the tunnel as being 2,564 metres (8,412 feet) so my Garmin clearly needed to be calibrated.

Traffic was being held up at the tunnel because a herd of horses had run inside and a man on horseback was riding around frantically, trying to round them up and get them out. After a short delay, we were allowed to proceed into the tunnel. The air quality in the tunnel was very bad with the smog being visible from all of the truck and car exhausts.

 

Horses block access to the tunnel
Horses block access to the tunnel

At one point, inside the tunnel, my oil pressure warning light began to flicker when the engine was idling. I knew that there was plenty of oil when I left Bishkek so I began to have concerns that I was experiencing major oil loss and that I might have to turn back to Bishkek to get the Defender repaired. It turned out that the engine oil level was fine, so I have to assume that the sensor was reacting to the altitude.

Once out of the tunnel, the descent on the southern side of the pass was quite swift and within 10km I had turned off onto the gravel road to Suusumyr. Whilst the road would have accommodated faster speeds, I enjoyed bumbling along around 20kmph, taking in the sights and waving to the locals in the villages as I passed. I was still feeling ill and hadn’t eaten anything all day, but this was lifting my spirits.

Susuumyr Valley
Suusumyr Valley
Village scene - Suusumyr Valley
Village scene – Suusumyr Valley

The road follows the route of the river, which was in full flow and churning fiercely due to the rain. Then I came across this decrepit old wooden bridge.

Decrepit bridge in Suusumyr Valley
Decrepit bridge in Suusumyr Valley

Those following the blog will know that I like to take photos of the Defender on old wooden bridges but this was definitely a ‘bridge gone too far’. Fortunately, the bridge is no longer in use and a nice sturdy concrete bridge has replaced it.

A bridge gone too far!
A bridge gone too far!

The intended waypoint for the day was the village of Kyzl-Oi, described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as ‘one of the most picturesque settings in Kyrgyzstan’. I wasn’t very impressed as I passed through the village but gave it the benefit of the doubt due to the low cloud and constant rain.

I drove a short distance past the village and found a grassy area next to the river where I could stop for the night. The area was high enough above the river to avoid any danger from flash floods and was away from any rocky slopes and any danger of falling rocks. It was still raining so I decided to sleep inside the Defender. By 7.00pm, with a couple of hours of daylight left, I climbed into the back and went to sleep, hoping I’d feel better the next morning.

Close quarters - but space for a good night's sleep
Close quarters – but space for a good night’s sleep

I awoke at 6.00am on Monday morning and was pleased to see that the rain had stopped and it was a clear day. I was still feeling the effects of that Chinese meal. By 7.00am, the sun was managing to break over the top of the surrounding mountains, so I drove back to Kyzl-Oi to see whether it could live up to the superlatives in the guidebook. The village itself is very plain but is surrounded by pretty mountains. I would personally struggle to call it one of the most picturesque settings in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyzl-Oi
Kyzl-Oi

I turned back and continued my route towards Son-Kol, passing through Aral and Bazjak before taking a sign-posted gravel track on the right to Son-Kol. There was still about 90km to drive on gravel track, some of which was in decent condition but some of it was heavily pot-holed. As I was driving along, I came up behind about five local women trying to push a saloon car uphill on the gravel road. I stopped to offer assistance and the male driver gratefully accepted the offer of a tow. He said that he had bad benzene (petrol) and his car was cutting out. I must have towed him and his passengers for at least 1km before he got the car started. Handshakes all around and off he went with a smile on his face!

A happy local drives away after being given a tow
A happy local drives away after being given a tow

Once the track reached the mountains, it took the form of several switchbacks in order to make the ascent to what my Garmin claimed was almost 11,000 feet. I was now up in the snow line, with several patches of old packed snow scattered alongside the road. I had to cross a short section of snow/ice that covered the road and then I came to a larger pack of snow that was blocking the road completely. Locals had created a dirt road detour to get around the blockage.

Road closed due to snow/ice
Road closed due to snow/ice

As I drove closer to Son-Kol lake, it reminded me somewhat of Tsagaan Nuur in Mongolia. Apparently the lake is frozen until mid-May. There are several local families living along the lake in groups of yurts but little evidence of many tourists.

Son-Kol Lake
Son-Kol Lake

Finding a camping spot wasn’t difficult as there is flat grassland all along the lake’s southern shore. I picked a spot, set up camp and finally had something to eat – my stomach was beginning to feel better. Whilst I was relaxing, three local women walked by and waved, asking me “In from?” meaning where have I travelled from. A little while later, three Italian tourists from Milan walked by with a tour guide and stopped for a chat.

I whipped up some kebabs for dinner on the Bush Pig and then put some wood on and sat by the camp-fire until sunset. I was in bed by 9.00pm (back to wearing a hat and two fleeces in bed due to the cold at this altitude) and was up at 5.30am to see the lake in the morning light.

Son-Kol in the morning light - as viewed from my camping spot
Son-Kol in the morning light – as viewed from my camping spot

By 7.30am Tuesday, I was driving away from the lake, continuing south on the same road that I’d driven up on. There were a lot of switchbacks on the descent and the gravel road was in good shape. I was down at the village of Ak-Tal in 90 minutes.

The road off the mountain
The road off the mountain
Some of the switchbacks on the descent
Some of the switchbacks on the descent

Based on a recommendation on the HUBB forum, I’d decided to detour to Tash Rabat before heading to Kazarman and Jalal-Abad. So, from Ak-Tal, I drove through Baetov and then up and over the Kulak-Asuu Pass (3,390 metres). The road heading up to the pass was mainly gravel with some rocky sections but once on the other side, the descent was over dry mud. The deep ruts were evidence that the south side could be problematic in wet weather.

Gravel road near the top of the pass
Gravel road near the top of the pass
At the top of the pass
At the top of the pass

The dirt road finally met sealed tarmac (GPS coordinates N 40.92985 E 075.25819) where I turned left (east) and drove a short distance to the sign-posted turn-off to Tash Rabat (coordinates N. 40.94219 E 075.27315). A gravel road then ran for about 15km to the site of Tash Rabat (coordinates N 40.82315 E 075.28905).

Tash Rabat
Tash Rabat
Tash Rabat
Tash Rabat

Scholars have suggested that the stone fortress construction appears to have been a major point on the Silk Road in the 15th century, when it is believed to have served as a caravanserai. Some believe that it dates as far back as the 10th century when it was a Christian monastery. It was first mentioned in the manuscripts of Mohammed Haydar in the latter half of the 16th century. It is an interesting historical structure to walk around but I’m not sure that it was worth a full day’s detour to see it!

Having seen it and taken some photos, I decided to overnight in a ‘yurt-stay’ opposite the structure. It was already cold and raining by 1.30pm and there didn’t seem to be much point in pushing on towards Kazarman, considering the time and the weather.

My yurt for the night
My yurt for the night

I moved some stuff into the yurt and realized just how cold it was getting. There was a stove/heater in the yurt but it wasn’t filled with dried cow-dung until 3.00pm and it wasn’t lit until after dinner. I had to keep the entrance door rolled open for light which also let all of the cold air inside. The owner of the establishment came to my aid and invited me into the house dining room where the fire was already burning. I sat in the room for a few hours, reading.

At 7.00pm, dinner was served and it was quite a spread for only three guests – myself and two brothers from Texas. After dinner and a chat with the brothers, I retired to the yurt at which time the fire was lit and the electricity turned on. I have to say that cow dung really puts out a lot of heat! In no time flat, the yurt was toasty warm.

The heater inside my yurt
The heater inside my yurt

We’d opted to have an early breakfast (7.30am) on Wednesday, so that we could get on with our schedules. The Texans were riding horses into the hills and I was setting off for the next destination. By 9.00am, I was on the road again. Rather than re-trace my route back over the pass to Ak-Tal, I decided to take the longer route via Naryn as it had paved roads for part of the way and would likely be quicker than taking the shorter route over the pass.

Route from Son-Kol - Tash Rabat - Naryn - Kazarman.
Route from Son-Kol – Tash Rabat – Naryn – Kazarman.

The road to Naryn turned out to be very nice sealed road for almost the entire distance. Oddly, just before Naryn, it turned into this red muddy track. I stopped in Naryn for lunch and even found an internet café but they didn’t have wifi.

From Naryn, I followed the Naryn River valley towards Ak-Tal and then continued to Kazarman. The drive included lots of switchbacks as I climbed and descended mountains and the views were simply stunning! The photographs don’t do the spectacular views any justice.

Naryn River valley
Naryn River valley
Great views around every bend!
Great views around every bend!
More switchbacks
More switchbacks
Mountains for as far as the eye can see!
Mountains for as far as the eye can see!

I got to Kazarman about 5.00pm and had a scout around. I asked a young girl at a grocery store if there was internet or wifi available in the town and got a firm shake of the head. I kept moving and drove a couple of km out of town and began looking for a suitable place to pitch camp for the night.

After a while, I found a spot on the top of a grassy cliff overlooking the river with a distant view of the mountains. It was accessed down a dirt track, so it was far enough from the main road to be away from traffic noise.

Camping on top of a ledge, overlooking the river
Camping on top of a ledge, overlooking the river
Not a bad spot to sit and prepare dinner
Not a bad spot to sit and prepare dinner

I cooked up a nice omelette and a whole head of broccoli and then had a couple of beers, as dark clouds began to move overhead. Being perched on top of a ledge, in the open, I was hoping that the clouds wouldn’t bring a thunder storm. Within a half-hour, there was indeed thunder and lightning, but they were 30-seconds apart and so the storm was still some distance away. I got some rain showers but the storm moved away.

Gotta get my veggies in
Gotta get my veggies in
Rain clouds roll in from the mountains
Rain clouds roll in from the mountains

Awake at 5.45am Wednesday 18th and on the road by 7.00am, heading towards Jalal-Abad. As I took photos of some amazing snow-covered mountains, I didn’t realize that I was about to ascend to the top of one of them on the most notable mountain pass of the trip – Kaldama Pass.

Dirty Defender at the camping spot on Thursday morning
Dirty Defender at the camping spot on Thursday morning
Gorgeous mountains - and I'm about to drive up one of them
Gorgeous mountains – and I’m about to drive up one of them

Near the bottom of the mountain, I first had to cross a short bridge of dubious strength to cross the river and begin the climb. Half of it was held together by a piece of steel that I had to drive over.

Dodgy bridge
Dodgy bridge
A piece of metal replaces a missing piece of the bridge
A piece of metal replaces a missing piece of the bridge

As with most mountain passes, there were lots of switchbacks to negotiate and some narrow sections of road. On the Kaldama Pass though, there are many stretches of road that are wet mud, caused by the run-off from melting snow. Slick mud can cause challenges on flat ground but an added ‘pucker-factor’ comes into play when the mud is on a narrow ledge with a sheer drop off the side. The water run-off also occasionally erodes part of the road at the edge, bringing the sheer drop a bit closer, just to add a bit more spice to the drive! I continue to be extremely impressed with the Defender. She handled the terrain perfectly, without putting a foot wrong. She got through all of the wet, muddy sections with ease. I only engaged diff-lock once, as a precaution for a stretch of mud that looked particularly deep and nasty.

More stunning vistas throughout the drive
More stunning vistas throughout the drive
Melting snow creates muddy roads
Melting snow creates muddy roads

 

Not the place to be slip-sliding around!
Not the place to be slip-sliding around!
Almost at the top - Kaldama Pass
Almost at the top – Kaldama Pass

Having crested the pass, I began the descent on the other side. There was still water run-off on that side but much less mud. The road surface was gravel and rock. There were a couple of tight squeezes o the descent, where there only just seemed to be enough width to squeeze the Defender through, avoiding the big drop on one side!

The road down is cut into the top of the ridge
The road down is cut into the top of the ridge
The road winds its way down the mountain to the valley below
The road winds its way down the mountain to the valley below
Watch out for the erosion damage - and the steep drop off the side!
Watch out for the erosion damage – and the steep drop off the side!
Water cascades onto the road
Water cascades onto the road
Tight! But just enough room to squeeze around this bend
Tight! But just enough room to squeeze around this bend
Cloud capped peaks - beautiful
Cloud capped peaks – beautiful

After a while, the road emerged from the mountains to reveal the lush agricultural fields of the Fergana Valley. But, within a short time after that, I was in the suburbs of Jalal-Abad and drove through the heat to the city centre. I managed to find a $20 a night hotel and the first thing I did after checking in was to get a shave and a shower.

The Fergana Valley - Kyrgyzstan
The Fergana Valley – Kyrgyzstan
The route from Kazarman to Jalal-Abad
The route from Kazarman to Jalal-Abad

The past five days have been outstanding. Today’s drive over the Kaldama Pass was particularly impressive and I’m sure that I’ll remember it for many years to come. What a great way to end my stay in Kyrgyzstan.

I’ll likely stay in Jalal-Abad for an additional night as I want to get the UJs on the prop-shafts inspected to see if one of them is responsible for an annoying ringing noise. Hopefully, I’ll be crossing into Uzbekistan on Saturday.

5 Comments

  1. Fantastic stuff Craig, very enjoyable. I am in Iceland at mo with motorhome so quite luxurious and having good time.

  2. Sorry you didn’t liked Tash Rabat as much as I did (that’s why I suggested you to take the detour): probably bad weather played his role…enjoy the rest of your trip!

    1. If there had been good weather, I could have taken a horse ride into the mountains or gone for a short hike, which would have added to the attraction of the location. As it was, after the 10-15 minute visit to Tash Rabat, I was at a dead end, sitting in a very cold yurt, having driven for half a day to get there.

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