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Central Kyrgyzstan

The mountainous heart of Kyrgyzstan offers travellers unrivalled opportunities to explore jailoos on foot, horseback or by 4WD. At every turn you will find a family offering to put you up for the night or a group of herdsmen who will eagerly invite you into their yurt for a cup of tea and a bowl of fresh yoghurt. Add this to some of the world's most glorious alpine lakes and it is easy to see why central Kyrgyzstan now rivals Lake Issyk-Kul in the hearts and minds of travellers.

The broad Suusamyr valley lies in the heart of Central Kyrgyzstan, this is one of the highest inhabited but least travelled regions in Kyrgyzstan. Plunging from the dramatic 3,586 metre Tor Ashuu pass in the west to the friendly and relaxed town of Kochkor, more than 200 kilometres to the east, this is the area definitely worth a visit.

It is a land built on a scale for giants; a high steppe plateau averaging 2,200 metres above sea level, bordered to the north and south by the magical ice and snow kingdoms of the Kyrgyz Alatau and Suusamyr Tau mountain ranges respectively, and with mighty rivers cutting a deep slash through its heart.

Always dramatic, the valleys ever changing landscape varies from vast open plains laid out on broad, descending shelves to narrow, jagged limestone gorges piled with massive rock falls and scree slopes. Its lush mountain pastures, jailoos in Kyrgyz, are filled with herbs and wild flowers in summer. Marmots build networks of burrows deep below the grass while the majestic eagle and the even rarer lammergeier, with its three-metre wing span, soar high among the peaks. There are also foxes, mountain goats, curly-horned Marco Polo sheep and wolves, but you'd be extraordinarily lucky to see any of them.

The main routes into the valley are from the Bishkek to Osh road in the west, but takes you through the spectacular Tor Ashuu Pass, and from the Balikchy to Naryn road at Kochkor. There are several other smaller roads into the area around Lake Song Kul but they are impassable in winter, when deep snow blankets the high regions, and after heavy rain, which turns dirt tracks into dangerous mudslides. The best places to trek from are Kyzil Oi or, for Song Kul, Kyzart.

This difficult combination-the mountains' inflexible embrace and the long harsh winters-makes the Suusamyr valley one of Kyrgyzstan's most isolated and poorest regions. The backbone of its economy is farming, mainly animal husbandry. For centuries the valley has been used to fatten sheep for the winter months; its lush grass was so coveted that clan wars used to break out over particular pastures. In Soviet times the area was almost exclusively given over to herds from the collective farms and up to four million sheep were herded here each summer from the foothill villages of the Kyrgyz Alatau to the north. But the collapse of the collective farm system and Soviet export channels has had a dramatic impact on local agriculture and the herds are now only about a fifth of their original size.

Nevertheless, the Suusamyr valley remains a magical place for the Kyrgyz in summer. The Russian traveller Victor Vitkovich's account of a trip he made there about 70 years ago could just as easily apply to life on the jailoo today:

It is night. Pressing closely around a yurt, sheep are deep in slumber, breathing evenly, their heads buried in the wool of their fellows. The lightest of sounds is heard in the stillness of the mountains ... The moon glides across the sky stumbling over clouds, and the peaks of the mountains, resembling enormous blocks of blue marble, are illumined by a mysterious inner light. Slowly the darkness is pushed back as, growing brighter, dazzling beams of morning light rise from behind the rim of the mountains ... The sun peeps out from between two boulders on a mountain top. A sudden gust of wind causes the grass to sway and gives the tulips a brighter hue. A shaggy sheepdog licks its master's hand with its hot tongue. This is the morning of the shepherds, morning in the jailoo, in Suusamyr, in the preserves of the Kyrgyz people.

Due to the valley's isolation tourism is fairly new here. The initial reserve of the people soon thaws to offer a typically warm and generous Kyrgyz welcome. There is an excellent network of homestay accommodation at the valley's eastern end, around Kochkor. Homestay offers a great way for visitors to meet local Kyrgyz families and learn about their lives. There are compromises to be made, however: in Suusamyr beds are usually a pile of traditional mattresses, thickly padded with cotton or wool, laid on shyrdaks on the floor (bring a sleeping bag), and privacy may be difficult to achieve.