View of some horses and mountains when horseback riding at Issyk-Kul

A Weekend Excursion in Issyk-Kul

Published: July 28, 2018

Just a few hours after stepping off the plane, I was whisked away on an excursion to Issyk-Kul. I found myself on a van full of students I didn’t know, but with whom I quickly became friends. The ride out to the Issyk-Kul region was a long four hours over bumpy roads with a driver who swerved around potholes and had no patience for slower travelers.

Despite being jetlagged, the hike to Barksoon Waterfall was well worth it and an amazing introduction to Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty

We arrived Friday evening at a newly built house complete with two full bathrooms and a view of Lake Issyk-Kul . We had dinner, prepared by the cooks from the school, in a building in the corner of the yard. My first Kyrgyz meal was composed of delicious noodles and some concoction of meat and vegetables and delicious bread and jam. After dinner, we had a lecture from a teacher about the history of Kyrgyzstan. That night I fell asleep easily and had to drag myself out of bed the next morning to get ready for a day of hiking.

Our trusty driver took us down the painfully long dirt road, away from the lake house and to the Barksoon Waterfall. The day was overcast and chilly, but that didn’t stop me from marveling at the beauty of the mountains (or sweating through my sweatshirt). In about a 1-2 hour drive we went from a dry, dusty area covered in rocks to a lush, green mountainside. The hike up to the first waterfall was difficult for me. I was jetlagged and come from a very flat state, so slopes of any kind aren’t exactly my forte. Our guides led us up the mountainside, where trails were basically nonexistent, to the waterfall.

The waterfall was stunning. We spent a long time taking pictures and simply watching the beautiful waterfall and the river flowing into the valley below. Some of the boys crossed the river and climbed closer to the waterfall. After we corralled them back, we went back down the slope and hiked to another beautiful waterfall. As we made our way back to be picked up by the van, we stopped to admire two statues of Yuri Gagarin,  placed there because he stayed in Issyk-Kul and visited the falls after his flight to space.

Next, we made our way to the Fairy Тale Canyon (Сказка Каньон). We ate our boxed lunches, half of us squatting on the dirt, the other half perched on wet benches. Besides trading tomatoes, cookies, and pieces of cheese between the lunches, there wasn’t much chatter. But the group didn’t stay quiet for long. As soon as we hiked into the canyon, the group was climbing over everything they could get hold of and begging each other to take their pictures. One member of the group said they overheard a group of older Kyrgyz women laughing at us, saying, endearingly, that we were like monkeys.

Just one small part of the rolling red hills that make up Fairytale Canyon
A view of the shoreline of Issyk-Kul. Not pictured: students freezing in the icy water

We spent a couple of hours exploring the canyon and admiring its stunning view. You could see Issyk-Kul on one side, and green mountains on the other. It was crazy that just a couple of hours before we were somewhere lush and green, and now we were somewhere akin to the Grand Canyon. After scaling mountaintops and sliding down the canyon multiple times, we were driven out to a mysterious complex to do some swimming. The place was very eerie. Long concrete walls displayed faded murals. Concrete yurts sat abandoned along the walls, and the dirt courtyard held old junk. Dogs wandered around and people were dancing near where we entered, but other than that, it was abandoned. Admittedly, I only know the name of the complex because of the schedule that we were given. The water was freezing cold, but people braved it (if only for a few minutes). I didn’t have my swimsuit, or I would’ve dived into the freezing-cold, famous Kyrgyz lake. I had to be satisfied with wading around, finding refuge on large rocks (and occasionally dodging garbage).

Unlike Saturday, Sunday was a beautiful day. The sun shone, happy in the sky. I didn’t think any drive could be longer than the muddy one we had taken from the house to the waterfall, but I was wrong. The roads were no longer dirt, but mud, and they felt like rumble strips. It was worth it, though, once we were in the mountains. We stopped in a village in the valley, where we were split up between cars which toted us up the mountain. There, we mounted our horses. Many of us had trouble getting our horses to obey our commands, and we ended up circling around for a long time, trying to master our horsemanship (few did).

None of the horses had names, but I called mine Alejandro. He wasn’t the most amicable horse. Going up the mountain, he was extremely slow. Eventually, one of the guides gave me a whip, and that sped him up, temporarily. The mountainside was beautiful. Initially, I was trying to steer Alejandro away from rocks and dips in the ground, but then I remembered that horses aren’t cars. He knew where he wanted to go. I think our relationship slightly improved after that. We reached the top, where we ate lunch amidst a herd of cows and fog. There was a giant rock on a lip of the mountain, which quickly attracted many of the students. This was the perfect spot to see the valley below, the slopes of the neighboring mountains, and Issyk-Kul nestled in the distance. After climbing all over the rock and taking pictures, we made our way back to the horses.

Issyk-Kul can be seen on the horizon

The ride down was certainly more stressful than the ride up. Alejandro slipped at one point, causing my leg to fly out of the stirrup and causing me terror. Then, he decided to get off the path and climb up on the ridge next to it, heading back up the mountain instead of down (to be fair, he wasn’t the only horse who did that). There was a point that I think Alejandro just wanted to get home, because next thing I knew, we were at the front of the pack for the first time. He would begin trotting down, following an ill-behaved horse that kicked the others, switching back before the rest of the group and leaving me very confused on as to where I should be. We returned to the farm, and Alejandro wasted no time in finding his place along the fence.

After dismounting, we were split into two groups. One was invited to the family’s yurt. There, we learned about their decorations and everyday life. The other looked at and pet their foals, which were tied up not far from the yurt. After the groups switched and experienced what the other had, we built a yurt. Well, saying we built a yurt is a little generous. Mostly, we watched the experts (consisting of our guide from the London School, a horse guide, and the young couple to whom the yurt belonged) build a yurt, occasionally stepping in to tie something. First they stood a fence-like frame. Then we all held poles to make the roof and placed yarn decorations on the interior. They placed the swaths of felt on the roof and sides, and ta-da! The yurt was built. I can’t tell you any specifics about the process, because nothing was said about it. All I know is that it was a smaller yurt, for when members of the family travelled. As we stood around the yurt, we were taken over by sheep, which were quickly shooed away. I was amazed by the beauty of the landscape. The horses, sheep, and dwellings of the family who lived there were extremely picturesque with the mountains as their backdrops. Behind green mountains there loomed massive mountains coated in rock and snow, a haze from the distance wrapped around them.

After riding horses, we watched the construction of a smaller yurt, meant for travelling

I was certainly spoiled to spend a weekend in the stunning mountains of Kyrgyzstan, by Lake Issyk-Kul, during my first days in the country. I’m glad I was able to go on the excursion. Even though I was exhausted, it was beautiful, and it set the tone for my stay here in Kyrgyzstan. I learned about some culture and history, food and environment, before moving into a dorm room and starting to attend class. Now that I’m busy with classes, I certainly appreciate any trips into nature, even if it’s a park in the city. Issyk-Kul is a beautiful place that has yet to be developed. If it were a place in the States, surely there would be condos, lake houses, shopping centers, and tourist traps all around. Hiking around Issyk-Kul gave me exactly the experience I wanted when I signed up to study Russian in Bishkek and gave me a wonderful introduction to living in Kyrgyzstan.

About the author

Daphne Letherer

Daphne grew up in Indiana and is a double major in Russian Studies and Global and International Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. She is studying Russian and Central Asian culture in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, for five weeks this summer. She aims to improve her Russian in an immersive environment, to explore a lesser-known country that is bursting with beautiful scenery, and to understand better how our beautiful planet works and how people live their lives each day. She intends to explore as much of our world as possible!

Program attended: Challenge Grants: Funding for Study Abroad

View all posts by: Daphne Letherer

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