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View of Irikel lake from the mountain pass at Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve.

Off the beaten track hike to Sary Chelek

Kyrgyzstan is a trekker’s mecca, but most people only visit Alakul lake in Karakol. There are many beautiful trails in Kyrgyzstan, but the lack of infrastructure makes it difficult to access these areas. One such place is the Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve. The reserve consists of a series of lakes and boasts a large variety of flora and fauna. Tourists may be put off by the lack of a proper access road, but this also helps protect and preserve the reserve. So what can you expect when you hike to Sary Chelek?

The Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve can be accessed from the western or eastern entrances, both of which are at least a 25-kilometre trudge along horrible gravel roads. Be prepared to camp for a night at one of the lakes, if you wish to visit all of them in the area. Due to the remoteness of the reserve, there are no yurts along the way where you can sleep and have a hot meal. As such, bring your camping equipment and sufficient warm clothes (even in summer)!

Where should you start?

The road to the western part of the reserve terminates right at the Sary Chelek lake (Ozero Sary Chelek). There are infrequent buses to the last village of Arkit and you have to take a shared taxi or minivan to the Sary Chelek lake. A more efficient way is to hitchhike to the lake. In most months, there are some domestic tourists who drive there.

The road to the eastern part of the reserve terminates about 10km before Karasu lake (Ozero Karasu). Only a 4WD can complete the remaining 10km. As such, if you are taking a taxi or a local bus, your hike starts 10km before the lake. Note that the local buses are infrequent and most villagers just hitchhike to get deeper into the valley. As such, hitchhiking or a taxi is your best bet!

Starting from the east

I strongly recommend starting from the east as it is easier to cross the mountain pass from there. If you arrive in the afternoon, you have two choices: stay in the villages along the valley leading to Karasu lake, or camp at the lake. I recommend the former! There are some guesthouses in the villages along the way, or you can ask any family if you could spend the night with them. Kyrgyz people are extremely warm and hospitable, and they will gladly invite you home!

The 10km trudge along a badly dug out gravel road to Karasu lake is a boring one. Once you make the final ascent, Karasu lake comes into full view. It is extremely peaceful and quiet, as most people do not come here. Find a shady spot under a tree and have your lunch here.

Traversing the mountain pass

The trail after Karasu lake is uphill all the way until a mountain pass. Note that while the trail is obvious, there is a section that is overrun by animal trails. As such, you will see dozens of trails zigzagging through the hills. Stay calm and aim for the general direction. You will soon pass the animal trails and get back onto the main trail.

After the steep rocky ascent to the mountain pass, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the other lakes and the surrounding mountain ranges. The views are superb and worth at least 10 minutes of your time! Do not forget to look back as well. You will be amazed at how much you have climbed in the past hour or two!

Going down is challenging, as the trail is exposed, steep and slippery at times. The trail is part scree, part loose soil and part rock. As such, take care while descending. This is also the reason why it is easier to approach the mountain pass from the eastern entrance. It is harder to climb up loose soil than “slide” down it.

Irikel Lake (Ozero Irikel)

The second lake that you will see for the day is Irikel lake. This is a great place to camp as the surrounding landscape glows during sunset. The lake is especially beautiful at sunset, when the surface of the lake reflects the mountain vistas with a reddish hue. Also, it is extremely peaceful and the only company you will have are horses and cows.

Day 2: More lakes!

The hike on the second day is easier than the first. On your way to Sary Chelek lake, you will pass by three other lakes of various sizes. The lakes along the way are gorgeous, especially the small ones hidden within lush pine tree forests. When I was there, for the whole day I saw only one other couple walking in the opposite direction. It definitely was a lot more enjoyable to have the lakes and vistas all to yourself.

View of the main Sary Chelek lake in the Sary Chelek Nature Reserve.

Eventually, your hike ends at Sary Chelek lake, a turquoise and emerald green lake surrounded by towering cliffs and mountains. This is a great spot for lunch or even to swim. In summer, the water is lukewarm and perfect for a dip. Most tourists only visit Sary Chelek lake, as it is the only lake accessible by cars. As such, you will find families having picnics by the lake or taking a boat tour around the lake.

After you are done admiring Sary Chelek lake, you can easily return with the shared minibuses that drop tourists at the lake. This is also another reason to start your trek from the eastern entrance! You do not have to worry about getting out after two tiring days of hiking. Alternatively, you can easily hitch a ride back to civilisation.

If you prefer to relax and spend another day in the valley, there are many guesthouses in picturesque Arkit village. It is definitely therapeutic to just sit by the river in one of the pavilions and admire the beauty of nature or read a book. Alternatively, you can leave the valley and return to the nearest city of Taskomur for your onward connection.

Final thoughts

Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve is definitely a hidden gem that most people skip. Granted that it is fairly inaccessible, a trip to the reserve is still very possible with a taxi or by hitchhiking. Taxis are cheap in Kyrgyzstan and the lakes are well worth the money spent getting there and back.

If you are looking for a trek that is peaceful, beautiful and off the tourist trail, do consider the lakes in Sary Chelek. The natural beauty of the area is something that is difficult to match. On top of that, Sary Chelek is a great place to experience the Kyrgyz hospitality and culture. You will surely enjoy the guesthouse experience while you are there! So what are you waiting for? It is time to mark Sary Chelek on your map and visit the area the next time you go to Kyrgyzstan.

Apart from Sary Chelek, you can also hike to Alakul lake, which is the most popular trek in Kyrgyzstan. Drop me a comment if you have any questions or recommendations. If you like this article, do also share it with you friends through the social media icons below!

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