We set off from the hot and busy city of Bishkek towards the south shore of the Issyk Kul Lake in central Kyrgyzstan – the second-largest mountain lake on the planet. We were here to trek the Tian Shan mountains, one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in Central Asia, camping along the way. The trip would take us from the 3,800m Jukku Pass, past glimmering mountain lakes, and to meet the legendary eagle hunters of the region.
Our journey began with a hike through Konorchek Canyon, where we were met with stunning red rocky hills and valleys. This was a chance to get to know our fellow travellers – and to test out our local guide's knowledge – whilst gawping at the huge sandstone monoliths spread across the landscape.
The next day, the real start to the expedition began. A long, meandering trail across beautiful blue-skied vistas and pretty green meadows was on the menu for the entirety of this section of the hike, as we crossed the pasturelands on the way to the valley of Jety Oguz.
It culminated in an idyllic yurt settlement on the banks of the river, accompanied by a home-made, wild sauna. Quite the surprise upon arrival even after our guide had promised such all day, and capped off with an unexpected round of beer. I've certainly stayed in worse places!
Upon waking the next morning to the delightful sound of the flowing river in the Kyzyl Suu valley (which we would follow for the next few days), we set off on another long and challenging day of hiking, taking in more breathtaking scenery on the Silk Road. We would be wild camping for the next four days, so that afternoon we met the horses and their masters who would be carrying our baggage for the duration of the adventure.
We were heading into the wilderness, away from civilisation; something that always makes me feel at peace.
Arriving at our first wild camping spot next to the same river we left in the morning, I felt for the first time that we were heading into the wilderness, away from civilisation; something that always makes me feel at peace.
As you can imagine, the Silk Road really is a sight to behold. Knowing the importance of this flattened strip of dirt which helped change the course of history, you can feel the legacy it has left when hiking the paths and valleys through Kyrgyzstan. The next couple of days hiking along the ancient road were full of breathtaking views of mountains, evergreen trees, valleys, rivers, streams and lots of horses.
Seeing our third wild camping spot next to a mountain lake took my breath away, but the excitement wasn't finished there. To get to our camp, we had to ride the horses across the narrow part of the lake – a part of the adventure I wasn't expecting but found thoroughly exhilarating. After setting up camp, a (very) quick dip in the glacial lake made an amazing end to an incredible couple of days.
Next came our toughest challenge yet: hiking to over 4,000m to reach the plateau above the Jukku Pass. As you would expect, the views from the top down into the valley (where we had been two hours previously) were epic, but the real reward was seeing the snow capped mountains to the south across the small lake we would be camping next to.
It was moments like these in which were dutifully accompanied by a warming hot chocolate brought to us by our wonderful guides, Stas and Ibek. The night would be cold: in fact, it was absolutely freezing sleeping in a tent above 4000m. However, tomorrow would be our last day of hiking, so the excitement for a return to a hot shower was palpable during that evening's game of Mafia (a card game that's a bit like a murder mystery, which we played every night and was a lot of fun).
An intense Kyrgyzstan sauna experience marked the evening after our long trek, then we took a bus ride back to Tamga – and back to civilisation. Our last day as a group was spent swimming in the epic Issy Kul Lake in the morning, then hiking around the beautiful Skazka Canyon with its red, orange and yellow sandstone carvings, then ended with an eagle display and dinner with a family of eagle hunters.
Kyrgyzstan was breathtakingly beautiful, full of wonderful people who were passionate about sharing their culture with us.
The art of berkutchy is an ancient tradition in which golden eagles are trained to hunt by Kyrgyz nomads. It was a truly memorable day of Kyrgyz culture and history, before we made the five-hour long trip back to Bishkek.
Simply put, Kyrgyzstan was breathtakingly beautiful, full of wonderful people who were passionate about sharing their culture with us. I've always enjoyed going to places not often travelled, but Kyrgyzstan was truly impressive.