Besh Kol trek in the Alay Valley, South Kyrgyzstan
July 19-21, 2015
Our third hike in Kyrgyzstan was the three-day Besh Kol trek (Five Lakes) heading north from the village of Sary Mogul. Sary Mogul is a 3-4 hour drive south of Osh. The main feature of the area is the massive 7000m Pik Lenin and its attendant peaks. We had hoped to do a couple of hikes in the area but unfortunately we were hit by the first rainy and cloudy weather of our trip. We managed to complete the Beshkol trek but bailed on a second hike around Tulpar Kol, which is a lake right beneath the giant peaks of the Alay Valley.
Information about the Besh Kol trek was hard to come by. The CBT office in Sary Mogul sent us a lengthy document with short outlines of many treks in the region, but it didn’t include a map, photos or information about distances, altitude, or relative difficulty, so it was hard to know which hike to pick. We decided to confirm our itinerary once we got to the village. The Alay area regional CBT coordinator based in Osh, a fine gentleman named Talant, gave us a few ideas for treks in the region too, and showed us a map of the region that helped us understand the relative locations of the various treks. He explained to us that the area is absolutely fantastic for hiking but very few travelers make it down there. He has tried to persuade Lonely Planet and Bradt guides to cover the area more comprehensively but they have yet to do so.
After completing the Besh Kol trek, we think it has the potential to become a real off the beaten track gem but the CBTs have not done a great job yet of fulfilling the area’s potential. More detailed information in advance of the treks and itineraries that maximize the time at the spectacular spots would go a long way to getting the hikes more attention.
The local CBT coordinator also ran the only guest house in Sary Mogul. The guest house was fairly basic and the meals a tad expensive (200 som per person for “lunch” of bread, jam and tea was a joke) but it was a great place to meet up with other hikers and travelers and swap stories and travel information. In fact, we got some fantastic advice from Swiss guy named Michael on travel in the Tajik Pamirs and Fann Mountains. His photos of both areas got us very excited for the next country on our trip.
One of the real problems we had when we were arranging the trek was trying to get the correct altitude for our camp on day two. The CBT office gave us 3 different altitudes for the high point of the trek (3600, 3700, or 4005 meters) and no real idea on how high the second camp would be or where it was located. Since we were not acclimatized this was a big deal for us. The CBT had some great photos of the trek, which really whetted our appetite but maps of the area were poor and yet again we had to rely on a hand drawn map to get an idea of the route.
The CBT arranged transfers to and from the trailhead, a guide, horse and horseman (a horse boy to be more exact as he didn’t look older than 14) to carry gear and food, tents, and sleeping bags. The guide cooked for us so unlike Arslanbob we were not forced to take a cook with us. The guide knew the trail well but his English was very limited so it was difficult to get information about the trail, altitude, and approximate walking times en route. The tents and sleeping bags were fine for the conditions we faced but would not do well in snow! To avoid the horrors of mutton overkill we requested no meat for the trip but said that fish was OK. For the most part we got pretty good food on the trek but the canned mackerel for breakfast on day three was a tough one!
We were very glad we took a horse and horseman with us. We were still not in great trail shape so we opted to play safe and load some of the gear onto the horse. However, the horse proved to be invaluable when we had to ford rivers on the trail. We’re not sure if the rivers were swollen by recent rains or if they were flowing at normal levels, but it would have been difficult and dangerous to ford them on foot. The CBT coordinator told us that we would find horses at yurt camps along the way but this was absolutely not the case when we headed over the pass into the Besh Kol area. Without the horse, we would have probably abandoned the trek on day two.
The trek cost about $100 per day for the two of us.
Day one (Sary Mogul – Trailhead-Coal mine – Sary Mogul Jailoo)
Start time 9.30am. End time 3.00pm. Lunch 1 hour
Altitude gain was approximately 400m. Starting altitude was 3100m. Finishing altitude was 3500m.
We drove up to the coal mine 5K north of Sary Mogul to meet up with our trusty steed and his handler. The drive also cut out 5K of fairly boring terrain too. We loaded up the horse and headed left through the first coal mine. It was not the most beautiful start to a trek but this Chinese run mine provides essential jobs and money for one of the poorest regions of Kyrgyzstan. To be honest, the mine was fairly well contained and after 30 minutes or so we were in rolling green jailoos and heading past our first yurt camp.
We passed through a number of yurt camps as we gradually gained altitude and stopped to take lunch with one family after 2.5 hours of fairly undemanding hiking. Lunch was delicious homemade jams, yoghurt, fresh cream, and watermelon all washed down with hot tea. We were kept entertained as ever by a rabble of kids who were keen to show off their football skills and mastery of the art of keeping yourself occupied with the most minimal of ‘toys’ and goofy games. Kids on the Jailoo learn self-sufficiency pretty quickly and as soon as they are able they learn the art of horsemanship (or, donkeymanship if you are little!).
After lunch, we crossed a pass into another river valley, which was strewn with yurt camps and livestock. We crossed the river a couple of times on horseback and arrived at camp around 3pm. In hindsight, we should have pushed on up the valley for another hour or two to make the more demanding second day a little easier.
The camp was at about 3500m but we decided to head up the hill above the camp to get a little more altitude in preparation for day two. The clouds lifted and we had fantastic views of Pik Lenin and its comrades in the distance, which was sadly the best view we had of the mighty peak in our time in Alay Valley.
We headed back to camp and were later joined by a family from Bishkek who were in the valley visiting relatives. We joined the family in a couple of Kyrgyz games. One of the games involved running round a circle whipping someone and the other involved being blindfolded and guessing which person was thumping or pinching you. Not the sort of games I played with my granddad and cousins but it seemed to keep the family amused for hours.
The weather turned around 6pm and we were pounded by heavy rains until morning. The guide kept up a steady supply of food and drink to our tent until it was time to sleep. Sleep was a little fitful on account of the rain and altitude but the tent and sleeping bags kept us warm and dry.
Day two (Sary Mogul Jailoo-Beshkol Lakes-Camp below the Besh Kol Lakes)
Start time 9am. Finish 6.30 Lunch 1 hour.
Altitude gain was approximately 500m. Starting altitude was 3500m. We camped at approximately 3800m. Highest point was perhaps 4000m or more at a lookout over the lower two Lakes.
We awoke early on day two and thankfully the rain had stopped. We were able to eat breakfast outside and once more the guide had whipped up a tasty and warming meal (porridge, bread, fake nutella, coffee and raisins). It took far too long to pack up and move out, which was a mistake. The day’s hike was much more demanding than day one and we would have benefited from more walking time.
We followed the river up valley, jumping on the horse a couple of times to ford the river. After the second ford, we headed across the obvious trail on the scree slope on the left of the valley. The path was fairly stable and gradually ascends on a steep slope overlooking the river. This section will probably freak out those with a fear of heights but given that our guide covered this section on horseback you can be fairly assured of the stability of the path! There is a small section at the top of the scree slope that is loose and exposed but it is only a few steps and should not create an obstacle to passage.
After the scree, we headed towards the pass on a clear path through a grassy slope. I estimate that the pass is at 3800m but I have no way of confirming this–indeed, uncertainty about altitude would be a concern all day. We descended from the pass into a river gorge with loose shale on the right and steep grassy slopes on the left. We were tempted to climb up to the grassy slopes and walk above river level, but some scouting of that route showed that we would get cliffed out on the other side. It would seem that the usual trail follows the river on the left. However, because of the high rainfall overnight the trail was covered over in parts. So, we resorted to walking the sections we could and hopped on the horse when the trail was flooded over. Mysteriously the river disappears into the ground at the beginning of the river gorge. There is no obvious cave or sinkhole but one minute there is a ‘raging stream’ and then totally dry.
We ascended up to another low pass and immediately dropped into another small valley. This was a pretty little river valley with a couple of dramatic mountains rising on the left. We eventually camped the night here but we made that decision after hitting the high point of the trail and the fabulous views of the Chong Alay peaks, which were an hour’s walk up valley. We had expected to see the lake at the top of this pass and were disappointed to see that it would be quite some distance yet. It was already 2:00 and given the typical weather patterns, we expected rain to roll in by late afternoon. We also didn’t understand where we were meant to camp that night and worried that we would have to retrace our steps for a long way after seeing the lakes, potentially having to walk through rain in the dark. Communication with the guide was difficult so we didn’t have much information to go on except that the lake was on top of the slope at the opposite end of the valley. We decided to push ahead but set a turnaround time of 3:00.
We continued to walk up valley, slowly ascending the green slopes at the valley end. The altitude started to take effect and every step uphill required a deep breath. We got to the top of the valley just before 3:00 and there was no sign of the lake! We decided to push on for a few more minutes and continued to walk over rolling pasture land bearing left until we finally came to a viewpoint overlooking the two lower Beshkol Lakes. The views here were really fantastic. To our left, there were a myriad snow-clad and glaciated peaks. Even though we were only a day and a half walk from Sary Mogul, Beshkol felt remote and wild. Although we didn’t see any, our guide told us that Marco Polo sheep live in the area. To our right was the precipitous walk up to Sary Mogul Pass. Although plenty of people cross over Sary Mogul Pass, it looked mountain goats only to me!
We spent an hour or so taking photos while the weather held out. The weather was threatening, with dark clouds alternating with sunny patches over the peaks.
The typical weather pattern during our time in the area was partially sunny until late afternoon, then the clouds started to roll in, and finally a downpour through early evening until the early hours. Our guide whipped up a quick lunch at the high point before it started to rain and we headed down to the river valley to camp.
One of the major frustrations on day two was the lack of information about altitude, distances, times, and our eventual camping spot. Neither our limited Russian nor the guide’s limited English led to any clarity on these points. Our guide’s standard answer to all our questions was to point up valley and say ‘Beshkol’ and ‘one o’clock’, which we eventually figured meant one more hour. Sadly, one more hour typically meant 2-3 more hours. Amusingly, we eventually figured out the whole area was known as Beshkol Jailoo, which made more sense when the guide told us we were in Beshkol but we could not see the damn lakes!
We almost turned around right before reaching the lakes because we thought we had to head all the way back to Sary Mogul valley to camp. This would have taken some time and we were worried we would not hit camp before sunset or before the rains hit. We weren’t majorly concerned about the altitude since we showed zero symptoms of AMS at the high point but still it is nice to know where you aare so you can make the right call. In the end, we think that the high point above the lake was around 4000m, and the lakes and our camping spot were around 3800m.
The campsite made up for our minor frustrations. The scenery all around was very dramatic and it was nice to know we were the only group hiking in the area that day. The weather, however, did not want to play nice! It started to rain heavily around 7pm and did not relent until 7am. We spent the evening cosily snuggled up in our sleeping bags as the wind howled and the rain pounded down. ‘High fives’ to our guide and horseman though. They kept up a constant supply of good food and hot drinks throughout the evening, which raised the spirits somewhat. We spent the evening huddled over the shoestring guide to Southeast Asia, planning our route through steamy jungles, temples, and beaches, all of which sounded pretty nice at that point.
Day three (Unknown campsite below the Lakes to Sary Mogul valley)
Start time 9am. Finish time 12.30pm. Altitude loss 300m.
We groggily awoke after a fitful sleep around 7am. The guide must have figured we needed an early morning jolt to get us going. The mug of thick instant coffee certainly did the trick but the greasy mackerel and potato stew was a shock to the system so early in the day. Note to self: when arranging food for hike make it clear that breakfast porridge is good and that breakfast greasy fish stew is bad!
The mountains were shrouded in mist as we headed out, which made for a wonderfully atmospheric walk. I was a little concerned about the steep scree after the heavy rains but the path remained in great shape and was easily navigated. The river had swollen some more overnight, which meant more practice on horseback for Laura and I. We got up and over the pass fairly swiftly and after a couple more river crossings we hit the easy trail along the valley floor. Descending the valley was much easier and faster than ascending without the altitude gain and concerns over distances and times. The walk down valley is fairly unspectacular so we weren’t too bummed when our 4WD car picked us up some 4K before the trailhead.
To wrap up, I would say that the Besh Kol trek is definitely worth the effort. Not everything worked out for us and we were a bit annoyed that we only got an hour or so at the main viewpoint. However, if you decide to do the trip make sure your day one camp is just short of the scree that leads up to the Pass. On day two, start early so that you can maximize your time at the lakes and the viewpoint. I think it is absolutely fine to camp in the valley below the lakes if you have spent a day in Sary Mogul and camp where we suggest on day one. Of course, if you are not acclimatized and/or you have previously been susceptible to the effects of altitude it might be best to do the hike after a few days at Tulpar Kol in the Pik Lenin area. You could also start the hike in Little Sary Mogul, cross Sary Mogul Pass (4300m), walk past all the lakes, and then follow our day three out to the trailhead. In this way, you have a through hike instead of an in and out hike and can maximize your time around the lakes and mountains, which are the scenic highlight of the area.
I also feel that the trail is misnamed as the Besh Kol trek. The lakes are pleasant enough but the real highlights are the rugged peaks and creaking glaciers of the Chong Alay mountains.
Scenery: 5/10. The panorama of the Besh Kol lakes and attendant peaks and glaciers from the high point rates 10/10, but we spent little time there compared to the less remarkable areas lower in the valley. It would be worth spending an extra day camped near Besh Kol to explore the string of lakes and get views of the peaks from different angles.
Culture: 5/10. Lunch in the yurt and Kyrgyz games with the family on day 1 were fun. Other than that, the terrain is pretty wild and desolate so there’s not much of cultural interest.
Difficulty: 4/10. Day 1 was a piece of cake. Day 2 felt harder than it should have because of the lack of communication around the distance and time to the lake and back. The hike out on day 3 was also easy. There are a few areas of boulder hopping, and the scree slope would be challenging to anyone with a strong fear of heights, but no technical moves were required. Crossing the rivers without the horse would have been difficult.