May 7, 2021: Trek to Song Kul Lake
After a well-deserved rest after our two-day horse trek, Sonia and I prepared to head out for our final big adventure of the guided portion of our Kyrgyzstan trip. Aman approached us and asked if two additional people could join us. The two people were Charlotte, a French photojournalist who came to Kyrgyzstan to study Russian, and her French-speaking Kyrgyz guide. Based on their outfits, they appeared to be hardcore travelers.
The group of four got into Aman´s car and drove for two hours southwest. The first hour was on pavement, but then the road quality decreased significantly into an improved dirt road. Eventually, we reached a village.
We stopped quickly at a house, where we left our unneeded bags. We then got back into the car where a local driver took us onward. Since there was no more space, Aman sat in the trunk.
We drove 20 more minutes along a tough dirt road deep into a canyon. He dropped us off at a bridge crossing that the car may or may not have been able to make.
There were shepherds around herding sheep. One was carrying both a baby lamb and dead snake!
It was now time to start the 15-kilometer trek to Song Kul Lake, the country´s most famous high-altitude lake. Neither Sonia nor I knew what was in store for us but we assumed that the terrain would be similar to the horse trek.
Shortly after starting the trek, we turned up a side canyon and got our first view of some snowy mountains barely visible in the clouds. It was then that Aman told us we were going to cross the mountains. Sonia was not excited to hear this news, but we pressed on.
The green mountainous grassland was certainly beautiful, but it was far from pristine. Due to the large number of nomads in the area, the grass was littered in cow dung. When we stopped for lunch an hour in, it was difficult to find a place to sit.
The next few hours of hiking consisted of steep uphill. Sonia half-jokingly told me she wanted to kill me.
The upper reaches of the mountain pass had snow.
We crossed snow twice to reach the 3,400-meter pass. We gained 900 meters of elevation! Visibility not great.
The backside of the mountains was less steep and shorter. After an hour of downhill walking, we reached the shores of Song Kul Lake. The lake, too big to see across, was completely frozen over. The sight of a seemingly endless ice was surreal. Even more surreal were the horses eating grass right next to this endless ice.
From June to August, the surface of the lake is ice-free and thousands of tourists will drive up here from Bishkek to glamp. But, alas, we were here a month too soon.
The yurt was locked with a humongous padlock but there was a hut next door that was open. Aman and the other guide started a fire inside the hut and we snacked on some of the supplies we found.
According to Aman, there was supposed to be an attendant here to assist us, but he appeared to not be around.
A local herder noticed us and rode over. He helped us break the lock to get into the yurt. It was absolutely freezing but at least we had somewhere to lie down.
At this point, Sonia was not feeling good. Due to the physical stress of the hike, she was dealing with the worst headache of her life. This hike was both the longest and highest she had ever done. Aman was worried, but I knew exactly what was wrong- having had this exact ailment many times after intense hikes. I gave her an Advil from my medicine pouch, covered her in blankets, got her to drink a half-liter of water and gave her a back rub. This eventually did the trick and in 40 minutes, she was feeling okay. Not great, but okay.
I asked Aman about tomorrow´s plan. We decided to leave earlier than originally planned to dodge a potential storm and to make it back to Bishkek at a reasonable hour.
I then got under the warmest and heaviest of blankets.
Two hours after arriving, the attendant showed up! It turns out that he never got the memo that we were coming because of a lack of cell coverage. During the day, he was ice fishing on the frozen lake.
Now with three guides working in tandem, we were in really good hands. The guides made a fire, tea and dinner of chicken noodle soup. As they were ready to serve the soup, the solar-powered lights in the yurt went out. Luckily, we had a backup source and under the light of a headlamp, we ate the most delicious chicken noodle soup ever cooked. We toasted our tea glasses to this grand adventure. Despite (and honestly because of) the hardships we faced today, I couldn´t help myself but fall asleep with a huge smile on my face. For me, adventures like this are what travel is all about.
May 8, 2021: From Song Kul to Bishkek
Two minutes after midnight, I woke up to use the bathroom and drink water. Despite the sub-freezing weather, I walked outside to pee. While doing the deed, I saw a bright light in the distance. It oscillated like a lighthouse.
What was this? A sign from God? A Patronus? The light got closer and closer until it reached the yurt. It was a neighbor who helped light the fire to keep us warm while we slept. Without this, we would certainly freeze overnight.
True to his word, Aman served us breakfast at 7:30 and we left at 8:00.
Aman insisted we take a slightly different path back. We walked along the lakeshore for about 3 kilometers to reach a panoramic viewpoint of the grand ice. The view was magnificent and eerie and seemed like a perfect spot to belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen.
We then ascended a canyon that took us to the same mountain pass. At the summit, we actually had cell coverage and Aman was able to contact with our driver. The driver said to call again when we were close.
What took us four hours to ascend took us just two to descend. When we were close Aman tried to call the driver, but we had no cell coverage (how did they both not know this?!). He climbed a hill for a signal but no luck. He then climbed a second hill and was successful.
Just 15 minutes after we arrived at the trailhead, the car arrived.
Back in the village, we ate a hearty meat and noodle stew for lunch.
Then we drove towards Kochkor. Along the way, we stopped at Aman´s childhood home which is in a small village. There, we met his wife and son while his brother inspected the car for his next trip.
In Kochkor, we showered in the hotel and then drove the 3 hours back to reach Bishkek. Just like that our epic 6-day journey had come to an end.