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Barskoon & Tamga

Barskoon and Tamga are twin Kyrgyz and Russian villages (respectively), standing across the river, both grew up around a military post. Barskoon village was an army staging point in the days of Soviet. Chinese border skirmishes, and the small adjacent settlement of Tamga is built around a former military sanatorium, now open year-round to all. Today Barskoon is all Kyrgyz, with more horses than cars; Tamga is mainly Russian. Barskoon stands at the head of the Barskoon valley - an interesting diversion that is a fragment of one of the strands of the old Silk Road. There is an impressive waterfall, popular with domestic tourists, 20km along the valley road, but this same well-maintained road is also the approach to the controversial Kumtor gold mine, a Kyrgyz-Canadian venture with a less than pristine environmental record.

The area's most illustrious resident was the 11th-century Mahmud al-Kashgari, the author of the first-ever comparative dictionary of Turkic languages, Divan Lughat at-Turk (A Glossary of Turkish Dialects), written in Baghdad during 1072-74. The scholar, who was also known as Barskhani, travelled a great deal during his lifetime and ended his days in Kashgar in Xinjiang where his tomb still stands.

The excellent horse trekking and hiking routes in the mountains behind Barskoon are the main reason to visit the area today. While the nearby villages of Tamga and Tosor are worthwhile for their serene beachfront property.

The road that leads up the Barskoon valley to the waterfall and Kumtor mine is reached 1km west of Barskoon village, turning left off the main road. The route up the Barskoon valley from the village was formerly one of the strands of the Silk Road that lead the way to the 4,284m Bedel Pass into China, a route that is no longer open. There are said to be human and animal bones still lining the route to the pass in places, which rather than being the ancient remains of Silk Road travellers are the bones of Kyrgyz herders and their livestock that perished from exposure during the mass exodus that followed the Urkun incident in 1916. A minimum estimate of 100,000 Kyrgyz are said to have died in their attempt to flee persecution from the Russian Tsarist forces.

There are several impressive waterfalls up the Barskoon Valley, a rewarding and easy detour if travelling by car. Three quarters of a mile after Barskoon, turn left off the lakeside highway at a sign in English announcing 'Attention! Kumtor Technical Road'. The road is well maintained and leads ultimately to the Kumtor gold mine-hence a trickle of wheezing trucks, hauling their way up and down the pretty gorge. It climbs and twists steadily before passing a rusting Soviet lorry, mounted on a plinth to the left, and rounding a bend 20 kilometres from the sign. The falls are visible ahead, frozen in winter or gushing down the mountainside in summer. It’s possible to climb 1,5 hours up to closer views of the falls. In summer a couple of yurt cafes below sell shashlik and tea. On the way down, look for the crumbling sculpture of Yuri Gagarin, who holidayed on southern Issyk-Kul.

Shared taxis run from Barskoun sanatorium to the falls along the well-maintained road that leads to the Kumtor gold mine. The Canadian gold-mining company Centarra Gold operates the Kumtor Gold Mine, the eighth-largest gold field in the world, located in the mountains behind Barskoun. There are no tours of the operations, presumably as result of environmental concerns and you’ll need a special invitation to get past the various checkpoints. The gold mine is at 4200m and even in summer it snows regularly.

There are a number of trekking routes that lead off the Barskoon valley, both east and west. One recommended route follows the Burkan valley west to eventually reach the Balgart valley and Kichi-Naryn River to Naryn beyond, a spectacularly wild tract of true wilderness with the narrow valley hemmed in by snow-capped peaks on both north and south sides of the valley. Although this route is just about possible on both mountain bikes and horseback, it passes through large tracts of difficult, unpopulated terrain and to attempt it unsupported requires adequate preparation. It also requires the occasional crossing of shallow but freezing cold rivers. The Burkan valley is reached by following faint and unclear tracks that lead to the west after the big lake at about 3,600m along the main road. This track climbs gradually past some smaller lakes before passing through a ravine to reach the Burkan valley.

Tamga villageNorth of, and parallel to, the Burkan valley, leading west off the Barskoon valley before the Barskoon Pass is reached, is the valley of Kerege-Tash, which offers further possibilities leading west towards the Jyluu-Suu, Balgart and Kichi-Naryn valleys. Sometimes this route is impassable because of swollen rivers so seek local advice. Alternatively, a more circular trek could be made by turning north from the valleys of Kerege-Tash or Jyluu-Suu to return to Lake Issyk-Kul over high passes by way of the Ton, Tosor or Tamga valleys. With the right documentation, long treks cast beyond Ak-Shyrak are also a possibility, even as far as the Sary-Jaz River in the Central Tien Shan massif.

Lying just west of Barskoon across the Barskoon River, Tamga is a smallish village that has a predominantly Russian character and population, in contrast with its larger, more Kyrgyz, neighbour, Barskoon. Tamga means 'seal' or 'letter' in Kyrgyz and the village takes its name from a Tibetan Buddhist-inscribed rock Tamga Tash that lies along the Tamga River gorge at some distance from the village.

The village is a quiet, pretty place, with a sanatorium, lush orchards dripping with apricots in summer, and a few streets lined with traditional Russian wooden houses. Tamga also has the benefit of a beach and an area for camping near the lakeshore. Because it has a number of accommodation options it is a good choice for a relaxing stay- over on the southern shore.

Monument to GagarinYuri Gagarin famously holidayed here after taking part in the world's first manned space flight in 1961. The sanatorium where he stayed is still open for business, although it has certainly fallen on harder times since Kyrgyz independence. It was purportedly built at the end of World War II by Japanese prisoners of war and the grounds of the complex, which incorporate pavilions, parkland walkways and gardens, as well as accommodation, cover a considerable area, stretching from its entrance near the town bazaar down to the lakeshore.

The village's beach beside the main road is a 15-minute walk from the centre of the village. The coarse sandy beach lies in front of a marshy tree-covered area that is home to a considerable mosquito population, so insect repellent is a good idea for those choosing to bathe in the lake here. Although this a popular place for swimming, picnicking and camping, the beach at Tosor, 6km to the west, is said to be better.

The village itself has just two principal streets: the one that leads to the coast road and the beach, past orchards and a silver statue ofa grim-faced soldier with a machine gun, and the main street, Issyk-Kulskaya, that has the village's shops (mostly in recycled railway wagons), and the sanatorium and bazaar at its western end.

Whilst here it is well worth seeking out is Tamga Tash (letter stone in Kyrgyz), an ancient rock carved with Tibetan Buddhist inscriptions, located high above the Tamga River, about 6km from the centre of the village, and is quite difficult to find without local assistance. The stone is partially split into two, which local legend relates as being the result of a strike from the sword of Manas . The trees close to the stone are festooned with votive rags in the same way they would be at any Muslim shrine in the region. There are said to be more Buddhist stones nearby in the gorge.

The road that reaches Tamga Tash is in poor condition and requires a 4x4. The Tamga River gorge lies just west of the village and is reached by heading west from the sanatorium along a dirt road that passes an impressive Kyrgyz graveyard standing on a ridge opposite an electricity transmission station.

Perched high above the water almost out of sight, nobody knows exactly when the carvings were made. The inscription on the rock's northern face is still legible and reads 'Om Mani Padme Hum'. Difficult to translate, this 1500-year-old mantra expresses the desire for all to reach enlightenment. The essence of its meaning is sometimes expressed as 'Behold! The jewel in the lotus!' It is still chanted by Tibetan Buddhists and can be seen in carvings and on flags all over Tibet. The inscription on the southern face has partly been worn away, but appears to bear the same legend. Look for the lotus flower on the rock's top westerly perimeter. Trees around the stone are festooned with Buddhist and Islamic knotted rags, each symbolising a prayer. Locals talk vaguely of several more Tibetan rock carvings further into the mountains, but details are sketchy. It is possible to walk or ride to the rock by following the river valley, or to drive a circuitous route by four-wheel drive. Either way, it is best to take a guide as the stone is not easy to spot.

The graveyard southwest of the village is well worth a look, and has two parts to it - one Orthodox Russian and the other Muslim Kyrgyz. As elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, there are many graves that are surrounded by the wrought iron framework of a skeletal yurt, while others have low adobe walls and arched entrances. Most sport an engraved image of the deceased that has been etched from a photograph.

SanatoriumThe sanatorium is a strange sort of place - a piece of old Soviet culture preserved in aspic. Perhaps it was livelier in Soviet times, but now it seems rather glum and joyless, and it is hard to imagine the anticlimax Yuri Gagarin must have felt being confined here for R&R after the unique and very solitary experience of being the first man in space.

Just off the pretty, but seemingly unremarkable stretch of road between Tamga and Kaji Say is a hidden valley of startlingly vivid rock formations. Known as Skazka ('fairytale' in Russian), these sandstone cliffs have been shaped by centuries of wind and melting snow into an ensemble of columns, canyons and crags, ranging in colour from deep red to bright orange. Travelling west, take the second turning left after the village of Tossor, and fork right immediately. Skazka is two kilometres from the main road.

Sights & Activities - Shepherds Way Trekking ( is a very professional local company that runs horse treks into the mountains behind Barskoun. It’s run by local brothers Ishen and Raiymbek Obelbekov and Ishen’s wife, Gulmira. Shepherds Way Trekking also helps to organise the annual At Chabysh (Horse Racing) Festival (Kyrgyz Ate Foundation; held in early November. By hosting a series of horse games and races the festival aims to promote the breeding of the Kyrgyz horse, which along with its associated nomadic traditions is now faced with extinction. The feature event is raced over a gruelling 47km course between Barskoun and Tosor villages.

In Barskoun you can see yurts in production at the Ak Orgo yurt workshop, including machines that make felt and devices that bend the wood and reeds for the curved yurts. It takes the 27 employees two months to make a yurt, which retail here at around US$4500. The workshop is on the right as you drive into Barskoun from the east. There is no sign so you’ll need to ask some of the locals to point the way. Locals pack picnics and head 20km up the huge Barskoun Valley to the Barskoun

Trekking is also possible in the valleys behind Tamga. About 6km from the village is a Tibetan inscription known as Tamga Tash but you’ll need local help to find it. The Tamga Guesthouse arranges one-to three-day treks or horse trips up to the Tamga Gorges or Ochincheck Lake, or a four-day trip to Chakury Kul at a lofty 3800m.

Getting There & Away - Barskoun is about 90km west of Karakol, with daily buses to/from Karakol and Balykchy. Minibuses from Karakol to Barskoun leave at 9.20am, noon, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm and 5pm from the southern bus stand. Barskoun is a couple of kilometres off the main road. Buses to Tamga, a few kilometres further west, leave less frequently. There is little public transport between Barskoun and Tamga but taxis are easily available. Tosor is another 6km west of Tamga and it’s fairly easy to hitch here as it’s right on the main road.