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Lake Song-Kol

About 35 kilometres from Kochkor and a couple of kilometres south of the tiny village of Sary Bulak, an unmarked dirt road to the right takes you 50 kilometres (one and a half hours) or so to Lake Song Kul, a remote mountain lake set in a vast, treeless plain. The journey involves a steep descent into the huge Kalmakashu valley (which got its name from the Kalmaks, frequent adversaries of the Kyrgyz), fed by the broad Tolok river, a flat run past Keng Suu village and then another corkscrew climb into the neighbouring valley to get the first superb view of Song Kul. The journey is best done with a four-wheel drive.

There are three other main routes into Song Kul, each of which is unpaved and has spectacular views. There is a second route from the main Bishkek to Naryn road, about 19 kilometres south of the Dolon pass; one from the Osh-Kazarman road, which takes you past the mausoleum of Taylacy Baatyk; and the third from Chaek, past the Kari-Kechi coal mines. For at least half the year (late October to late May), and also at times of heavy rain, all of these routes will be difficult and are likely to be impassable.

Kyrgyzstan's second-largest lake stands at 3,016m, at almost the dead centre of the country. One meaning of its name may be translated as 'The Last Lake' and this seems wholly appropriate for such a large, pristine isolated lake that can seem like it is at the end of the world. The lake is 18km wide and 29km long but only 13m deep. Altitude keeps its temperatures low, with a year-round average of around -3.5°C, a summer temperature average of about 11C and winter freezes down to -20°C. The lake freezes over in the winter and, with over 200 days of annual snow cover, access is very difficult at this time of year. The lake comes into its own during the short summer (June-September) when the extensive jailoos that surround the lake are utilised for grazing by herdsmen from across Naryn Oblast. At this time of year there are a considerable number of yurts clustered in small family groups around its shores.

It is easy to see why locals rave about Song Kul: this alpine lake is one of the loveliest spots in central Kyrgyzstan. All around it are lush pastures, silvery streams and huge expanse of water (13.5 metres deep) filled with fish, favoured by herders from the Kochkor Valley and beyond, who spend June to August here with their animals. It's worth spending a couple of days here to experience sunrise and sunset over Song Kul's vast waters, but walking into the hills involves a long trawl across the plateau before you even start to gain some height. Freezing temperatures deter all but the hardiest of swimmers and locals do not approve: 'It's not allowed, it's too dangerous'.

In many ways, Lake Song-Kol (sometimes written Son-Kul) is Kyrgyzstan's poster girl. The lake is an almost archetypal destination of the wilderness variety, having all of the necessary ingredients to create a picture-perfect vignette of the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life: a wide alpine lake, nomads on horseback, yurts, lush green pasture, bare snow-capped mountains and contented herds of livestock. With the right conditions - a golden sun setting over still waters; the ring of surrounding mountains transformed into a purple velvet backdrop; unseen cattle lowing as dusk falls - it is almost too perfect to be true. Even in less than optimal circumstances - sloping rain, wind-driven sleet, an electrical storm crackling around the shore - it is still wholly exhilarating. Lake Song-Kol certainly lives up to its reputation: a heart-wrenchingly beautiful place where only the most begrudging of critics would make much of a fuss about the way that low-level tourism has crept in to mildly affect its character in recent years.

There are no trees at the lake, or in the surrounding hills, but in season there is an abundance of alpine flowers, most notably gentians, wild tulips and edelweiss, and herbs such as sage and chamomile. The lake is rich in waterfowl and waders, with a total of 66 species recorded that include several species of gull and duck, bald coots and the rare Indian mountain goose. Raptors are also well represented with golden eagles and various falcons present in summer. Migratory birds such as storks and cranes stop here on passage. Animals recorded in the vicinity of the lake include foxes, deer, lynx, wolves and, of course, marmots, which are plentiful in the surrounding hills. The lake was devoid of fish until 1959 when it was stocked for the first time. A two-year moratorium on fishing for some species was announced in 2004 because of depleted stocks. The lake and its immediate shoreline is part of the Karatal-Japyryk State Reserve.

Visitors are welcome, and this is a sublime place to camp and watch the sun come up. The cold, crystal-clear air, far away from light pollution and smog, guarantees a starry night sky so grand it is able to dwarf even this open landscape. The lake is jumping with fish, and you might be able to trade tea, salt, sugar, cigarettes or vodka with the herders for milk, kurut or full-bodied kymys. In any case bring plenty of food and water.

The best time to visit Lake Song-Kol is between June and September, although the beginning and end of the season can be very cold at night - even in August it is cold at night, barely above freezing. The weather is unpredictable and snow can fall at any time so dress and plan accordingly. Outside this period, there will be nowhere to stay at the lake as all of the yurts will be dismantled and the herders returned to the valleys. A visit outside the summer months is ill-advised not simply because of a lack of accommodation or cold temperatures: part of the Song-Kol experience is an appreciation of how Kyrgyz nomads live in tune with their environment and to experience the lake without people would be not to do it full justice. The lake is frozen from November to May.

The lake and shore are part of the Song-Kul Zoological Reserve. Among animals under its protection are a diminishing number of wolves and lots of waterfowl, including the Indian mountain goose.

There are four routes that approach the lake, more or less from the cardinal points of the compass. These vary in terms of difficulty, time taken and convenience. There is no public transport to the lake. The only way is to arrange a car. Yurt stays can be arranged, including meals. There is no real need to arrange horses prior to arrival, unless you are planning an extensive excursion, as horses are easily rented directly from the locals.

Probably the commonest approach is from the east via the village of Sary-Bulak, which lies 45km south on the main Kochkor to Naryn road. Sary-Bulak is little more than a truck-stop, with yurts and cafes selling food, with usually a line of Chinese lorries parked up for a meal en route to China via the Torugart Pass. The road climbs up from the main road through Kong-Suu village (sometimes called Tolok) and twists along the Tolok River past pasture full of sheep, cattle and horses, and higher up, yaks. This route is 85km long and takes about 1,5 hours to drive. The road is quite reasonable most of the way, although the last section can be a little rough, and this route is perfectly possible in a solid Russian car like a Zhiguli. For the other routes listed below, or for driving any distance around the lake's muddy perimeter, a 4x4 such as a Niva is necessary.

Another approach that is often used if the lake is to be reached from the direction of Naryn is the route from the southeast, a dirt track that leads off the Kochkor-Naryn road, near the village of Kara-Unkur south of Sary-Bulak, and follows a dramatic series of hairpin bends to reach the lake at its southeast corner. This route to the lake is 90km long from Naryn and takes about 2lA hours.

The western side of Lake Song-Kol may be reached from Chaek, turning off the road south at Bajzak to lead past the coal mines of Kara-Kichi, from where a track climbs up through hairpin bends to a 3,300m pass, from where it gently descends to the lake. The fourth route is from the south, over the Moldo Pass from the village of Kurtka (also known as Jangy-Talap), across the Naryn River from Ak-Tal on the Naryn to Kazarman road.

Getting There & Away - It’s 60km from the Bishkek–Naryn road to the lake: 6km to Keng-Suu (Toluk) village, 21km to the end of the narrow valley of the Toluk River, and then a slow 23km (1,5 hours) up and over the Kalmak-Ashuu Pass into the basin. This upper road is normally open only from late May to late October. The valley has little traffic and no regular buses. A car hired from Kochkor is the easiest option to get here.