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Jeti-Oghuz is about 25km west of Karakol, at the mouth of the Jeti-Oghuz Canyon, is an extraordinary formation of red sandstone cliffs that has become a kind of tourism trademark for Lake Issyk-Kul. Jeti-Oghuz village is just off the main around-the-lake road.

The Jeti-Oguz canyon is one of the prettiest trekking and camping spots around Karakol, with pine-covered hills, lush pastures filled with wild flowers and icy-cold mountain streams. The canyon owes its name (which means 'Seven Bulls') to the wall of burning red sandstone cliffs jutting proudly at the canyon entrance.

The legend about how these Seven Bulls came to be here relates that, although Kyrgyzstan was always a scenic place, its rulers were not always content and often waged war against each other for more land and riches. One day a king stole the wife of another. The king whose wife had been stolen was furious and wanted to inflict as much pain as possible upon the other king, so he sought the advice of a local aksakal (wise old man). At first the aksakal was reluctant to give such ill advice but eventually he told the angry king: 'You must kill your wife and give him her dead body. Let him own a dead wife, not a living one.'

After a few days had passed, the angry king decided to carry out the evil scheme at a funeral feast to be held in the mountains. During the feast he positioned himself next to his stolen wife. As the last bulls were being slaughtered, he reached for his blade and plunged it deep into his young wife's heart. Blood and other hot mysterious liquids gushed from her heart and into the mountains and valley, taking seven bull carcasses and the murderous king with it. The seven bulls formed into seven mountains, and thus gave the name Jeti-Oguz to the area. The lesson from this legend, Kyrgyz people say, is: 'Do not dig a pit for someone, lest you yourself should fall into the pit.' Another legend tells of seven rampaging wild bulls that were turned to stone by the gods in order to protect the local population.

Broken heart, KyrgyzstanOne of the most striking features as you approach the canyon, just before the Seven Bulls, is a large hill, which resembles a heart that has splintered down the middle, called the Razbitoye Serdtse, or Broken Heart. According to legend, it is the heart of a beautiful woman, who died of sorrow after two suitors killed each other in a fight over her. Another legend tells of a rich but cruel khan who spotted a beautiful girl while out hunting. Although he already had many wives the khan insisted on marrying the girl, who came from a poor family. The girl was already engaged to be married and when she heard of the khan's intentions she fled from the area with her lover. The couple were caught by the khan's servants, and the girl was taken by force while her betrothed was killed immediately. The death of her lover made her so distraught that she died on the way to the khan's residence, leaving the mark of her broken heart on the landscape. This is the 'cruel khan' variant of the legend.

The other side of the hill forms the massive wall of Jeti-Oghuz. They are best viewed from a ridge to the east above the road.

From that same ridge you can look east into Ushchelie Drakonov, the Valley of Dragons. Below the wall of Seven Bulls is one of Issyk-Kul’s surviving spas, the ageing Jeti-Oghuz Sanatorium, built in 1932 with a complex of several plain hotels, a half-empty, semiheated pool, a restaurant and some woodland walks. Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and former Kyrgyzstan president Askar Akaev had their first meeting here in 1991 – and it has been downhill ever since.

From here you can walk up the parklike lower canyon of the Jeti-Oghuz River to popular summer picnic spots. Some 5km up, the valley opens out almost flat at Dolina Tsvetov, the Valley of Flowers (Kok Jayik in Kyrgyz); it’s a kaleidoscope of colours in May when the poppies bloom. The name is highly appropriate, and the best time to witness the bounty of its meadows is in early summer when edelweiss, crocuses, tulips and poppies all put on a colourful show. The valley is equally famous for its edible wild mushrooms, which are harvested in summer for the Chinese and Kazakhstan markets. From here it’s possible to hike to the Kok Jayik waterfall on the west side of the valley.

The Festival of National Cuisine & Folklore is held in the yurt camp in the Jeti-Oghuz gorge on the last Sunday in July. It is a good opportunity to sample Kyrgyz, Tartar, Russian and Dungan specialities. Several yurt camps appear in the Valley of Flowers in summer. Just after the fourth bridge you’ll spot the small Jenish Gol Yurt Camp with a nice location by the stream. This camp and the others in the area are normally accessible by car and offer a taste of the mountains if you are short of time, and a good base for day hikes if you have a couple of days. Jeti-Oghuz canyon is one of several alternatives for treks to/from Altyn Arashan and Ala-Kul.


Getting there & away - There are regular minivans going from Ak-Tilek Bazaar in Karakol to Jeti-Oghuz village but the village is actually 11km short of the sanatorium. It’s not too hard to hitch from the village to the sanatorium or further up the valley, otherwise, share taxis sometimes go there. One minibus per day (departing at noon) does go all the way to the sanatorium, but check first as schedules are bound to change. To return from the sanatorium, stand by the main road and wave down the first car heading back to town; most drivers happily act as impromptu shared taxis.