The Chong ('Big') Kemin valley runs east-west for 80 kilometres between the Kungey and Zaliiskiy mountain ranges. Parallelling the border with Kazakstan, the valley landscape of green pastures, ochre mountains and steep pine-covered slopes, used in summer by herders, offers a fine backdrop for hikes ranging from a long day-walk to cross-border treks lasting up to a week.
Famously, the valley is the birthplace of erstwhile Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev, whose family hail from the village of Kyzyl Bairak. The village of Kyzyl Bairak, still said to be the home of Askar Akaev's brother, has a mausoleum to Shabdan Batyr, who was a powerful chieftain of the Sary Bagysh tribe that ruled the valley in the 19th century and who remain the most populous clan here. The town of Kemin, formerly known as Bestrovka, at the head of the valley, also has an equestrian statue of the chieftain. Back in 1911, the town experienced one of the strongest earthquakes ever to be recorded in the region, measuring a massive 11 on the Richter scale.
The Chong-Kemin valley is a spectacular combination of both wild and pastoral landscapes, with a pleasing mix of lofty mountains, verdant pastureland, coniferous woodland and alpine lakes. At its highest point, the valley reaches 2,800m in altitude and its upper reaches are shadowed by a number of peaks in excess of 4,000m - Kichi-Kemin (4,220m), Teke-Tor (4,190m), Alisher Novoi (4,170m) and Chok-Tal (4,770m), on the boundary with Issyk-Kul Oblast. Most of the people living in the valley are of Kyrgyz stock, as few Slavs, who commonly populate Lake Issyk-Kul's shores just to the south, have settled here.
The population of the valley (about 4,000) is overwhelmingly Kyrgyz, of the Sary Bagysh tribe. Most people live in eight villages, scattered along the deep blue Chong Kemin river, the most remote of which are Kaindi and Tegirmenti. In the Soviet era, a collective farm and mining concern in the nearby Kichi ('Lesser') Kemin valley guaranteed full employment but these collapsed with the USSR.
Today, potato growing and cattle breeding are the main sources of income for the locals. The defunct mine at Ak-Tyuz that used to mine lead and other heavy metals, and which suffered a serious spillage in 1964, has apparently been bought by an Israeli businessman, although what he intends to do with it is yet to be seen.
There is further uncertainty concerning the valley, as there is little doubt that Chong-Kemin's peaceful sanctity will be despoiled to some extent when (or perhaps if) the direct road between Almaty and Lake Issyk-Kul is completed in the future. Currently, many holidaying Kazakhs visit the lake in summer by way of the long, circuitous route via Bishkek. A direct route constructed through the Chong-Kemin valley would shorten the journey time considerably and encourage even more visitors to the lake; it would also shatter the valley's current isolation.
For the time being at least, the Chong-Kemin valley has abundant wildlife and a rich, varied flora. Its forests of Tien Shan Fir in particular are held in high regard throughout Kyrgyzstan for the bounty of their medicinal herbs, mushrooms and edible berries. There are a number of burial mounds in the valley, most notably near the villages of Shabdan and Tegirmenty, which date from the 3rd and 4th centuries, and a 6-11th-century settlement has been discovered in the mouth of the valley. The Chong-Kemin valley became a national park in 1997.
As mentioned, the valley is famous locally as the birthplace of deposed president Akaev, but more importantly for travellers, it provides another great opportunity to roll up your sleeping bag and trek into the hills.
A six-day trekking route leads up the valley to Jasy-Kul (Green Lake) and the Ak-Suu Pass (4062m) and then onto Grigorievka on the northern shores of Issyk-Kul. There is also a route over the Ozyorny Pass (3609m) to Kazakhstan’s Bolshoe Almatinskoe region but contact a tour operator first to inquire about whether or not you can cross the border on foot.
There are two buses a day to Kaindy (2,5 hours) from Bishkek’s east bus station. Otherwise take a more frequent 352 bus to Kemin (one hour) and then hitch or take a shared taxi to Kaindy.
Note that this area suffers from a cross-border cattle theft problem. Foreigners are most unlikely to become involved, but, where possible, it is wise to camp close to a village, farm or shepherd's camp with the elders' permission. If you plan to trek and camp by yourself, bring enough canned and dried food to supplement the bread, eggs and milk products that you can buy in farms or shepherd camps, it is advisable to hire a local guide for all the treks in this section as maps are not sufficiently detailed and paths often faint or confusing.
An attractive option is simply to head up the Chong Kemin valley for a few days. High up at the eastern end of the valley, Lake Jassyk Kul is one of the loveliest spots in these mountains.
There are a number of possible routes over the mountains to Kazakstan or to Issyk Kul. Kaindi is the obvious starting point but the early section of the valley makes for less interesting walking; it's better to hire a vehicle in Kaindi to the koshara (stables) at the junction of the Chong Kemin and Kashka Suu rivers (40 kilometres from Kaindi) and start walking from there, following the Chong-Kemin River upstream before climbing up and over the Kungey range to the 4,061m Ak-Suu Pass, from where a descent is made along the Grigorievka valley to the village of the same name on Lake Jassyk-Kul. Some knowledge of glacier walking is required here and this six-day route is only for the experienced, fit and determined. The main trek is about 120 kilometres long (about six days). Follow the Chong Kemin river nearly up to the head of the valley. Turn right (south) and climb steeply up the Zapadniy (western) Ak Suu stream and follow it to the Ak Suu glacier and pass (4,052 metres). Here you join the tough, though once popular, route from Bolshoe Almatynskoe Lake in Kazakstan, to Grigorievka. From the pass, follow the Chong Ak Suu river down to Grigorievka.
A shorter and easier trek to Issyk Kul leads from Kaindi to Toru Aigyr on Issyk Kul. This trail is about 45 kilometres long and can be done in three days. From Kaindi, follow the Chong Kemin river eastwards until you cross a stream called the Toru Aigyr. Hike up alongside this to the Kyzyl Bulak pass at 3,800 metres. The descent takes you through Nevada-like rock desert that rolls all the way to the lake and Toru Aigyr village, so stock up with plenty of water. Not far from Toru Aigyr is a hamlet called Ulan, next to which is a turbaza where you can spend the night after your trek.
A local legend tells how the village of Toru Aigyr got its name. The story concerns a horse named Toru Aigyr who was very brave and intelligent. His master was a great warrior and fought all the enemies of the Kyrgyz people. After one such battle the vil-lagers were surprised when their hero didn't return. Gazing at placid Issyk Kul one afternoon, a villager saw a horse swimming through the water. Eventually the horse reached the shore and shook itself. It was Toru Aigyr. The horse galloped off towards his master's house where he hung his head and neighed before racing off into the mountains. In gratitude for telling them that their beloved hero was dead, they named the village after his horse.
A slightly longer route (three to four days) would take you to Chong Sary Oy, further east along Issyk Kul. Starting at the stables, walk east up the Chong Kemin valley to the Orto Koy Suu river, which you follow to the Kok Ayryk pass (3,889 metres) on the Kungey Alatau ridge, then descend along the Orto Koy Suu river to Chong Sary Oy, about 20 kilometres west of Cholpan Ata.
If you are heading for Kazakstan, two alternative routes (each about four days) branch north from the Chong Kemin river. The first turns north at the Almaty river to take you over the Almaty pass (3,599 metres) on the Zaliiskiy ridge and down to Kokshoki. The second turns north a little further east, up the Kol Almaty river to the Ozerny pass (3,503 metres), also on the Zaliiskiy ridge, and descends down a good path following the Ozerny river to Bolshoe Almatynskoe Lake and Kokshoki, from where you should find transport to Almaty.