Song Kol Lake: Yurts, Horses, and Snow

Song Kol Lake is staple tourist destination in Kyrgyzstan, but in this country that isn’t incompatible with a quiet and peaceful getaway. We recently rang in the summer tourist season by spending three nights with a Kyrgyz family on the southeast corner of the giant alpine lake. For reasons I’ll explain in a bit, I’ve probably never taken so many photos of a single landscape. But I found that if you manage to holster your camera, Song Kol makes for an amazingly peaceful stay even if it’s a major stopover on the Kyrgyz travel circuit.

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The pass to Song Kol hadn’t yet opened when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan in mid-May, and there were no yurts at the lake. A couple I met had driven up from the south and slept in their car, while another pair had come in by horse and returned the same day. But summer was on the doorstep, and ten days later our car clambered up a valley to the pass where a tunnel had been dug through ten feet of snow. On the other side were a few small specs–yurts like tiny button mushrooms–popping up near the shore. Down at the lake a family welcomed us into a small camp of three yurts. It was the only one hosting tourists and we were the first of the season.

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Our yurt was like those I’ve stayed in elsewhere, but happily we had a cookstove this time. Around dusk each day the small rusted thing was stuffed with dried sheep poop, which is burned to provide a little heat (not a lot). Sometimes a little incense put in the stove to mask the odor, but by morning it’s gone and you became accustomed to smell of smoldering dung.

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It’s the surroundings that make yurt-stays at Song Kol so memorable. The lake is immense craggy hills on the southeast near the pass. When you walk out of your yurt they feel close enough to bite you, and I heard more than a few travelers prospecting them for a day hike. But close they are not. It took me the better part of an hour just to walk from this yurt to the first bevy of low green hills. Distances are immense and flat up here, so you can walk for an hour without the view ever changing. The joy is in settling in and enjoying the space and the silence.

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My friend and I would walk 200m out onto a small isthmus between the lake and its offshoot and lay in the grass drinking Kyrgyz vodka. There were hints of wildlife around the lake, including a few ducks and the curious chirp of nightjars (a nocturnal bird) after dark. A small group of Ukrainian tourists arrived the same day for one night’s stay, and in the evening they brought home a bucket of small fish which were fried and served as a treat at dinner.

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Besides us, the lake was being resettled by a few small Kyrgyz families (shepherds who spend summers at the lake) and countless of horses. Hundreds of horses roamed freely about the camps, and one shepherd told me the lake hosts thousands. This is the most spectacular part of Song Kol. They gallop, play, roll around, graze, then saunter off in single file. One of my best most vivid memories from Kyrgyzstan will be my first night at the lake, when I heard a deep rumbling and emerged from my yurt to see thirty or more horses sprinting in a tight pack toward the lake at dusk. They weaved and bent like a flock of birds but they sounded like thunder.

IMG_7343The next morning, our host the family slaughtered a sheep for dinner. The skin was laid out on the grass to create a workspace and then the family goes about working the animal into small pieces. In this photo, Bazarkul helps mom and dad (our hosts, Aichuruk and Tolok) cutting the goat into parts used for different purposes. Dad and sun cut apart the muscle while Aichuruk cleaned and organized the organs in a bowl.

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Barazarkul is a pretty rad by the way. He’ll probably be remembered as the kid who schooled me and four others at Uno two nights in a row. Our third day we woke up to find him trotting around on a donkey. No big deal. But four hours later he was still on the donkey–riding it 20 meters this way, 10 meters that way–his feet hadn’t touched the ground all afternoon. Apparently they family had acquired the donkey that morning, and Bazarkul was quoted as saying, “I’m never walking again.”

IMG_7422Because it was early in the season the weather bent and changed at Song Kol, and our second night brought heavy rain, sleet, and eventually snow. Yet before nightfall the sun returned to light the wet grass in bright yellow and burn off much of the rain. It stormed consistently for the remainder of our stay, which would have put a damper on things if it didn’t create the most dynamic scenes of light and fog we’d see during the entire visit.IMG_7356

On our second evening, this happened. A tour company (unnamed) arrived with a bright orange, 6200cc diesel-engine bus and 17 camera-wielding tourists. The silence was shattered, and I was livid. I didn’t resent others for wanting to enjoy the same place as I did. But what I found offensive was the group size (loud enough to dominate the lakeside atmosphere) and mode of transportation (a bus large enough to dwarf three yurts). People should visit Song Kol Lake, I thought, but not like this. I didn’t judge the tourists, but I judged the company. I later photoed the bus next to some local graffiti that read “Save Song Kol Lake.”

IMG_7403My fury was cooled by a severe cold front that swept in the next day. On our third night a good snow fell and dusted the hills in a white sugary coating. But even the cold only made the surroundings prettier. The late orange sun, low light, and textures flattened by distance created the feel of stepping into a pastel painting. This was Song Kol at its most beautiful–a bit harsh but completely breathtaking.

IMG_7404One last shot of the snow-covered hills before the sun dipped down below the horizon giving way to puffs of smoldering sheep poop, the cluck of nightjars, and hints of stars visible through low cloud cover.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Merlo

    Fantastic pictures, Jon. Loved your story lines accompanying each picture — they are informative, insightful, humorous and quite descriptive.

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