When moving to a foreign country, it is always difficult figuring out how to do the things you want to do. It can also be hard to figure out how to get out an meet locals, one of the most valuable experiences you can have on a study abroad experience.
Some things you learn through trial and error. How to get out into the mountains for hiking in winter was certainly not something I wanted to test through trial and error, but I was lucky. Last week, I heard a couple English-speaking students at the London School of Bishkek discussing a hike they went on the previous weekend. I asked them what organization took them outside the city, and that is how I found out about the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan.
In 2002, Bishkek hosted the Bishkek Global Mountain Summit as a tribute to the “International Year of the Mountain,” a declaration by the United Nations to celebrate mountain districts around the world. Not just an excuse to ski, world events focused on the dynamic ecosystems of mountains and their general importance to the world as sources of fresh water. In Kyrgyzstan, mountains make up ninety-percent of the landscape. Towards the end of the Summit, the General Secretary of Norway, Kim Traavik, proposed Norwegian support for developing ecotourism. Modeled after the Norwegian concept of small providers of tourist services, the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan began hosting small hikes with the familiar, “leave no trace,” motto:
Take only photos, leave only footsteps.
Year-round, the Union guides hikes through the mountains. In winter, they take groups to nearby ski resorts for the day. Weekend ski-trips are also available to Karakol, which is about six hours from Bishkek. In the summer, there are camping, hiking, rafting, and horse-trek opportunities. To find out what trips are available each month, go to their website and click on the calendar link. The website is available in Russian and English. If you decide that you want to go on a hike, you simply have to call the office. Employees speak English and Russian. There is also the possibility of joining the Union as a member.
This involves a number of steps. First, you need to fill out the application form. You can either email the completed application form or you can print out the application form and mail it in or take it in person. You also need a 3×4 cm photograph, which can be done at a number of locations around Bishkek for 80-120 som ($1.50-$3.00). Finding the Union office is a little tricky. They are located at 168 Kiev Street. When you are standing at this location, you see a strip mall of assorted businesses. The Union is located directly behind the flower shop. Walk down to the flower shop and turn left. Immediately turn left again down the alley. You will see the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan’s logo on a sign on the left. Though a little intimidating, go ahead and walk inside. The office is filled with maps, trekking books and brochures, and a very friendly staff!
When you join the Union, you receive a patch and a passport-like book. Your photo is placed into this book and stamped. The process feels very official. The rest of the book is simply for you to fill with the list of all of your future adventures! The cost for joining the union is 420 som ($9). Perks include 50 som or $1 off every trek. There are also discounts at assorted businesses around town for outdoor gear. The Union also rents out gear to members and non-members at their office location.
For our first hike, we drove through the Boom Gorge and hiked over 10 miles round-trip to the Konorchek Canyons. The costs of the hike for non-members was 400 som ($8) and 350 som ($7) for members. Our guide was professional, fun, and provided photos by email afterwards for no extra charge. I would say his English was intermediate, but he mostly spoke Russian. Interestingly, during the 2-hour drive to the Gorge, he played his very-well-produced, homemade films of previous hikes.
A typical hike begins at 8am and lasts all day. Keep in mind that you do need to provide your own food, water, and personal supplies. You meet at the Trekking Union office, and then everyone hops into a van for a drive out into the country. Upon arrival to the location, you hike until 1pm, stop for a picnic somewhere very picturesque, and then continue hiking until 5pm. The group you are hiking will include a variety of people. Our group was multicultural and multi-generational. There were hikers/travelers/teachers of English from assorted European countries as well as locals. One woman was in her sixties, while one man brought his nine-year-old son.
Other hikes we’ve planned for have been cancelled because of sudden snowstorms, which are typical during the Bishkek winter. The Trekking Union office is very quick to inform of any cancellations by phone. Refunds are available for pre-paid trips.
I highly recommend traveling with the Union! Trip destinations are stunning and the price is very inexpensive. For more information, please see their website!