The eastern gateway to the Issyk-Kol Basin is an immense, silent valley called Karkara, straddling the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. The wide verdant valley, surrounded by tame rolling hills, seems out of place in this landscape of extremes. The valley, smooth and fertile, sweeps through the eastern pincer grip of the Central Tien Shan and the Kungey Alatau ranges, to Kazakstan and China. The Kyrgyz-Kazakh border appears to slice the valley in half but nowhere is this arbitrary border more absent, disregarded by herders from both sides who, in summer, erect yurts in the valley while their animals disappear into the long lush grass. As a consequence, herders from both sides of the border move along the valley with impunity, unhindered by artificial barriers such as political divides, and the yurts of both Kyrgyz and Kazakhs pepper the lush valley floor like odd clusters of mushrooms in summer.
Every herder in the Karakol region (and in the Kegen region on the Kazakhstan side) brings animals up here in summer to fatten, and the warm-weather population is an easy-going mix of Kyrgyz and Kazakh chabana (cowboys), their families and their yurts. On the Kyrgyzstan side the valley begins about 60km northeast of Karakol and widens out to 40km or more, shoulder-deep in good pasture during summer.
On an unfixed date around mid-June, the valley is the site of some of the best festivities in the country; a gathering of the great horsemen and women of these two nations, with a series of horseraces, wrestling on horseback, and baiga (horseback fight over a headless goat), only interrupted for feasts of besh-bermak, exquisite haunting music or recitals of the epic poem of Manas. There is no fixed date and venue for the event and it tends to be arranged fairly spontaneously by local word of mouth, so it is important to keep your ear to the ground if you wish to attend.
Karkara means 'black crane', and is named after the birds that use the valley as a resting place on their long journey from Siberia to South Africa in June and September. At its eastern end, in Kazakhstan, the Almaty-based travel agency, Kan Tengri, operates a camp, which from a distance looks very much like an army base of Genghis Khan, with clusters of tents, fluttering flags and grazing horses. What the Mongols never had is a well-equipped kitchen and bar, a sauna and a heli-pad, from where flights can be made to mount Khan Tengri's basecamps or over the awesome peaks of the Central Tien Shan. Flights can be arranged directly through Kan Tengri or through Kyrgyz travel agency.
The village of Ken-Suu, halfway along the Kyrgyz section of the Karkara valley, has Saka burial mounds to the north and west of the village that date from between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD; other mounds may be found close to the village of Chon-Tash further west along the valley.
In his A Day Lasts Longer Than a Century the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov has the ancient Kyrgyz peoples arriving here from the Yenisey region of Siberia. Some It is widely believed that Tamerlane used the Karkara valley as an occasional summer base for his campaigns and at San-Tash ('counting stones') at the eastern end of the valley, just 20km short of the Kazakh frontier, there is a large, flat cairn of stones that is said to be composed of stones deposited by his troops. The stones were written about by the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov Tyan-Shansky during his 1857 expedition. The legend goes that in the late 15th century Tamerlane led a campaign into China's Ili Province from his base at Lake Issyk-Kul. The most convenient pass into Chinese territory was by way of an as yet unnamed pass to the northeast of the lake along the Karkara valley. Tamerlane ordered that each of his soldiers collect a stone from the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul and, close to the pass, they were required to deposit it on a pile before going off to battle in China. Returning to the lake later, after a long and successful campaign, the battle-weary soldiers were ordered to remove a stone from the heap, so that their leader was able to estimate overall troop losses. The fact that the pile contains such a large number of individual rocks would indicate that many of his troops must have perished in battle during the campaign. In their failure to return, the fallen had already contributed to building a monument to their own death.
The name of the site, San-Tash, means 'Counting Stones'. Sceptics and amateur historians point to an adjacent, stone-lined pit that appears to be the remnant of a burial chamber, and suggest that the football-size stones were just used to cover the chamber, and were removed by archaeologists or grave-robbers. Either way, the site has a dreamy, magical feel.
In Soviet times the valley was known as 'milk valley' due to the herds of dairy cattle grazing here as part of a large butter and cheese works situated near the San Tash pass.
To the south of San-Tash lies the Jergalansky canyon, with its dramatically layered rocks, and the Tyup State Zoological Reserve. Further east, just 3km short of the border at Basbarin, are more burial mounds from between the 7th and 1st centuries BC :, and the remains of a medieval castle that would have guarded this section of the Silk Road.
There is no public transport through the valley so you will need to hitch from Tyup (which is served by the Bishkek buses), hire a car and driver from a travel agency or, for a fraction of the price, negotiate a deal directly with a taxi driver. The round trip via Novovosnosenovka, prettier though rougher than the main road, is about 150 kilometres.
Getting There & Away - The Karkara Valley is about 50km east of Tup or 80 much prettier but rougher kilometres from Karakol via Novovoznesenovka. Ask for pamyatnik San-Tash (San-Tash Monument), located 1km from San Tash village, 19km from the Kazakhstan border. A derelict bus runs from Karakol’s Ak-Tilek Bazaar to San-Tash via Tup at 1.30pm. It returns the following morning. There are daily buses to Kyzyl Jar (former Sovietskoe) or on to the mining town of Jyrgalang (Russians call it Jergalan shakhta, which means ‘mine’); you might try hitching from Kyzyl Jar.
The Karkara (Karkyra) River forms the modern Kyrgyzstan–Kazakhstan border through part of the valley and this makes an interesting route to or from Kazakhstan. If you are headed to Kazakhstan make sure you get a border stamp, even if it means waiting some time. You will of course need valid visas for both republics. There’s no cross-border public transport. Coming from the Kazakhstan side, you can get a Kegen, Saryzhaz or Narynkol bus from Almaty and get off at Kegen, from where it’s a difficult 28km hitch south to the border itself. A taxi from Karakol to Almaty via Kegen takes about seven hours and costs around US$150, including car customs fees.