From the small town of Barskoon on the southern shore of lake Issyk-Kul, a road leads away from the lake and into the mountains, following the river through the beautiful valley.
Barskoon was once an important trading post on the Silk Road. Crossing several mountain passes, the route connected the region with China. Barskoon was so important, that the 11th century scholar Mahmud Al-Kashgari put it at the center of his hand-drawn world map. Those days are long gone and today, only the ruins of an ancient caravanserai are evidence of the former importance of the town.
The road through Barskoon valley, however, is once again of great importance to the country’s economy: It’s the main access road of the Kumtor gold mine, the largest gold mine in Kyrgyzstan. This mine alone accounts for around 10% of the country’s GDP. It’s an open-pit mine at about 4000 m above sea level which makes it the second-highest operating gold mine in the world. The mine is visible from far away: half of a mountain has been blown and scratched away in search of the precious metal, the damage to the landscape and the environment is beyond repair.
Ala-Bel High Plateau
Thanks to the mine though, the road through the valley is well maintained year-round. It leads over the Barskoon pass to Ala-Bel plateau, a high plateau, a so-called syrt (alpine cold desert), at 3600 m above sea level.
Like everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, the landscape changes constantly. The drive leads from Issyk-Kul lake bordered by red sandstone hills through the valley with its green pine forests, lush meadows and the river, up the pass through grey, rocky mountains. The plateau is completely different again: It’s a huge flat expanse, totally unexpected for the first-time visitor. The waters of the lakes and swamps reflects the snow-capped mountains in the distance and once again I was overwhelmed by the unbelievable beauty of this country.
Somewhere on the plateau, the road forks. One of the roads continues to the mine, the other one is the road over the Seok Pass to Kara-Say. We took the road to the pass (it’s not allowed to continue to the mine) but before we got there, we distinguished another road, or rather a trail, that might lead somewhere more interesting. Finally, we reached a yurt and a family of shepherds with their animals. Their skin dark and leathery, burnt by sun and wind, they spend the summers high in the mountains with their huge flock of sheep. Behind the yurt, the mountains rise high and water from a glacier forms a stream. Our friend asked them if it was possible to go to the glacier. Along the side of the valley, we could make out a track wide enough for a car. They said yes, it should be possible. The road had been built by prospectors a long time ago.
Slowly and carefully we drove up the track or what remained of it and finally reached the area where the glacier snout. The mountains in Central Asia used to be covered in glaciers but they’re melting fast, too fast. Here too, the glacier seemed too tiny compared to the mold it had carved into the mountain, leaving behind only grey stones and rubble.
The views from the glacier were stunning and the feeling of being there, in the wild, with only so few people around, was amazing. It was a very cloudy day, sometimes it rained a bit but occasionally the sun rays broke through the clouds and painted the mountains and the meadows below in the most beautiful colors.
The Seouk Pass is rather unremarkable but when you think about where it leads and how much adventure lies on the other side of the pass, it becomes a very interesting place. Hopefully, one day we have the chance to explore the other side of the mountains.