Some 40 kilometres south-west of Bishkek the Kazakh steppe erupts into smooth rounded green hills. Treeless, and grazed by elegant horses, the distant scene resembles a Gainsborough painting. The dancing Sokolok river rushes down from snow-clad peaks, visible at the head of the valley. Between the two lies a jumble of alpine and meadow flowers, medicinal plants, wild birch trees, waterfalls, wolves, foxes, snow leopards and a variety of deer, all vigilantly watched over by eagles.
In the cool of the foothills lies the village of Tash Bulak ('stone spring' in Kyrgyz), which locals still sometimes call by its Soviet-era name, Belogorka. The village is a sprawling settlement of attractively decorated wooden houses that cling to either side of the valley road. The roofs of many houses are decorated with tin reindeer, sunflowers, cockerels and horses. The population has now stabilized at around 2,500. Formerly, when a large and successful collective farm operated from the village, the village had a mixed Kyrgyz, Ukrainian and Russian population, but these days Tash-Bulak is almost entirely Kyrgyz and far less prosperous than it used to be. In Soviet times there were vast numbers of sheep in the valley but now most of the villagers that remain squeeze a precarious living out of growing vegetables on private plots. Many Russians and Ukrainians left the village in 1990 and some have since returned. You can see why: with fertile land and plenty of clean water from the glacier-fed river, it is possible, with hard work, to scrape together a reasonable living here.
Many locals still receive a slightly raised pension in honour of past agricultural glories. The farm provided full employment and, as whimsically pointed out by villagers, all necessary amenities and shops. In stark contrast, today's one small kiosk store sells only noodles, vodka and Turkish biscuits. For anything beyond this, it's a 24-kilometre trip to the market town of Sokoluk. The collective farm also encompassed summer pastures in the Suusamyr valley to the south, to which large numbers of livestock were herded over the snowy pass each spring. On the break-up of the farm, many Tash Bulak residents were awarded land in the Suusamyr valley, which they have never seen and cannot use. With minimal farm machinery and disintegrating irrigation systems, farming the private plots of land is labour intensive. Nevertheless, relative to much of Kyrgyzstan, Tash Bulak is reasonably prosperous.
Whether you just want to escape Bishkek for a day or two, or plan a longer trek into the mountains, Tash Bulak makes an ideal starting point, offering some of the finest walking and trekking in western Kyrgyzstan for people of all fitness levels and abilities. In addition, the traveller can get a glimpse of 'real', rural Kyrgyzstan, just a stone's throw from the capital.
WALKING AND TREKKING
From the village, a multitude of easy day walks lead into the foothills of the Kyrgyz Alatau, either on foot or horseback, taking in rivers and lakes en route. There are beautiful camping spots but, as a matter of courtesy and security, it is best to check with locals before pitching a tent. If you plan to camp or trek, bring plenty of dried and canned food to supplement the eggs and kefir (yoghurt) you can buy at the farms.
If you want to get into the mountains, it is advisable to hire a guide. From the village, the road runs for 20 kilometres up the Sokoluk valley. For quick access to the mountains simply hire a car and driver from the village. An hour's walk along a clear path through woods from the end of the road takes you to a waterfall, its waters vaporising as it tumbles 20 metres from the cliff above. This can also be done as a half-day trip. Just before the outflow, a small clearing on the left provides an ideal campsite.
From here you can walk further up the Sokoluk valley into the snowy mountain peaks; the most straightforward route follows a faint path along the river (keep it to your left) through occasional wild birch groves. A higher path involves a scramble along the sleep hillside, where luscious plants and twisted trees cling optimistically to the loose earth and an abundance of flowers blossom throughout late May and June. In many places the path has been swept away by frequent springtime landslides.
After two or three hours, the valley narrows considerably and is joined from the right by a steep river valley topped by a waterfall. If you make your way to the grassy saddle at the top of the side-valley you will be rewarded with a view of snowy scree and peaks beyond. For those with less of a head for heights, keep to the right of the river and halfway up the valley turn to the right for the short steep climb to the ridge above. From here you get a glimpse of high pastures too inaccessible to be used as grazing and untouched by humans, except for the occasional hunting jaunts. Rumour has it that some pearly lakes appeared in these peaks following an earthquake in the mid-1980s but their location is vague and it is unclear whether anyone from the village has actually seen them. It is inadvisable to trek beyond the end of the road without a local guide.
In theory it is possible to trek over the 3,775-metre Sokoluk pass into the Suusamyr valley. The route heads up the side valley to the right just before the end of the road. The river disappears just short of the pass but reappears on the south side after about 800m of descent. Following the river downhill for about 18km or so brings you to a rough road that runs parallel to the Karakol River. From here, it is a further 16km west to reach the small village of Karakol. In Soviet times this route was used to drive sheep to land in the Suusamyr valley that was owned by the collective farm, but it has not been used as such for many years now. Because the snow now lies piled-up at the pass, undisturbed by livestock, any attempt at this route could only really be considered a viable option during high summer - July and August.
Avalanches, landslides and deep snow make the route prohibitive even in June. The crossing would take a minimum of three days from the end of the road. For the foreseeable future, at least, it will not be possible to take pack horses over the pass. It would be unwise to travel without a guide from the village, though it can be hard to find someone prepared to go.
Another possible trekking route leads from Tash-Bulak over the 3,900m Ozerniy Pass to the Ala-Archa valley to the east.
The Svetaya Dusha (Holy Spirit) Orthodox church in Sokoluk is worth a visit, especially on Sundays. It was built in 1993 with materials and funds donated by Sokuluk's still substantial Slav community. Its lavishly decorated interior wall paintings and icons are typical of rural Orthodox churches all over Eastern Europe and the CIS. Orthodox choirs perform during mass. It is normal for women to cover their heads when entering an Orthodox church. Look out for Lenin; his statue still stands in the town centre.
Transport To reach Tash-Bulak from Bishkek, there are buses that leave at least once, and possibly more times, a day from Osh Bazaar. It is best to go there in the morning. Buses and minibuses that pass through Sokuluk on the main road are far more frequent and it should be possible to find a local bus or a shared taxi to the village from here. Taxis from Osh Bazaar are another possibility and should cost around 350som one-way.