After spending a few days in the Issyk-Kul region, we left Kaji-Say and drove westwards towards the end of the lake, then southwards to Naryn. There, we’d have dinner, relax and start early the next day. That was the plan.
Lake Song-Kuul (or: The Road to Song-Kuul)
Some 80 km before Naryn, there’s a turnoff to lake Song-Kuul, the country’s second biggest lake. It was already 5 pm when we arrived at the turnoff. According to a sign, the lake was 60 km away. On a normal road, it wouldn’t be a problem to go and come back before sunset sometime after 7. But this isn’t a country of normal roads. Even though we knew this, we thought that the road, although unpaved, looked alright and decided to drive to the lake.
In some countries, it’s better not to drive at night and Kyrgyzstan is one of those countries. The roads are badly lit, if at all, and the cars (and roads, many of them unpaved) are poorly maintained. Nowhere before had I seen so many broken down cars by the side of the road as here. Flat tyres, overheated engines, broken axles, you name it.
Soon after the small and only village along the route to the lake, the road got worse and worse. Simultaneously, the landscape got more and more beautiful and I was glad I didn’t have to drive and could enjoy the views. We drove through a valley nestled between bare brownish hills. The only vegetation in this otherwise arid and desertlike landscape were the trees and grass growing abundantly beside the river flowing through the valley. The evening light painted the grass and trees in a lush, rich green and the brown hills golden. We had no time to stop, so I have no pictures of this place but believe me – it was one of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen. (I know, I’ve said that before, and a lot, but it’s true. Each time.)
A View of the Lake
Then, slowly, the road began to wind its way up and we realized that the lake was not at the end of the valley, but on the other side of a pass. Along the way we passed a group of totally exhausted cyclists; they too seemed to have underestimated the road to the lake. Soon, we were again on over 3000 m and after passing a herd of yaks, we finally reached the pass. From there, we were able to see the lake in the distance – it was still a long way – and the sun just setting behind a hill. So much for our plan of going and coming back during daylight.
Driving back in the dark would have been challenging but manageable. But during a short photo stop on the pass, our friend announced that something was not right with the car. One of the shock absorbers was broken (later, it turned out that in fact both were broken). This meant that we couldn’t drive too fast because otherwise the car would start to shake a lot. Project Song-Kuul lake was aborted and we turned around and started the slow journey back.
First very, very slowly down the pass (we saw the cyclists again, they had also given up by now and were mounting their tents) and then back on the bad, unpaved road towards the main road. It was pitch black by the time we reached the valley and it took literally hours to get to the main road since we couldn’t drive faster than 20 km/h. But we passed a car with a broken axle and realized that things could be much worse. At one point, we made a stop to stretch our legs and took some photos of the night sky – there’s no light pollution at all in this place!
Way past midnight we finally arrived in Naryn at our guesthouse on Lenin street. Tired and hungry we went out to find something to eat. Fortunately, a corner shop sold tasty potato-stuffed bread which was just perfect after that long drive.
The next day, we brought the car to a garage and while they were fixing it, explored Naryn. There’s not much to see in this small town but the icy green, wild Naryn river is quite a sight and there are several bridges, some in better shape than others, that cross it.
About a hundred kilometres southwest from Naryn is Tash Rabat, an old caravanserai dating back to the 15th century. The stone building, which counts 31 rooms, is very well preserved. Before being used as a caravanserai, it was a monastery which was built in the 10th century. Today, it’s hard to imagine that it once used to lie on an important trade route. Apart from a few yurts nearby, which serve as tourist accommodation, there are no human settlements anywhere around. Even the dirt road that leads to the (historically important) site is in terrible shape.
This part of the country is very sparsely populated, and we were about to drive to an even more remote place: the border with China.
About 50 km before the border is a checkpoint and you can only pass if you have a permit. Our friend had organized that beforehand, so we had no trouble passing. The Torugart Pass at 3752 m above sea level is one of only two border crossings between Kyrgyzstan and China. After the checkpoint, the road leads through the flat expanse along lake Chatyr-Kul. The road is very scenic; the waters of the lake shine deep blue in contrast with the sand colored surroundings, the blue sky and soft clouds.
The road then ends at the Kyrgyz customs, which one can only pass with a Chinese visa and a special permit. Since we went on a weekend, the border was closed. A long line of trucks was already there, waiting for it to open again on Monday.
An unpaved road eastwards from the Kyrgyz customs building would eventually lead back to Naryn. Even though we would have loved to take that road, we didn’t for two reasons. It was already late (yes, we learned something the previous day) and, more importantly, because it was not clear if the road would really lead back to civilization or if it would just gradually disappear and then leave us stranded in the remotest corner of this gorgeous country.