Lake Sary-Chelek is one of Kyrgyzstan's true gems - a major draw that is a little difficult to reach but, as all visitors seem to attest, well worth the effort. This beautiful 7km - long alpine lake, nature reserve and biosphere lies hidden in the northern flanks of the Fergana Valley amid groves of wild pistachios, walnuts and fruit trees. The lake is thought to have been created by an earthquake that caused a giant landslide about 800 years ago.
'Yellow Bucket' is the literal meaning of Sary Chelek, though it is usually more eloquently translated as 'Golden Hollow'. Lake Sary Chelek is intensely blue, surrounded by towering yellow boulders clung to by spruce and firs. Overhanging the lake, birches support cormorants' and mergansers' nests. A closer look will reveal orchids and ferns. At 2,500 metres the lake is officially 300 metres deep though locals swear that it is 700 metres.
Sary-Chelek is relatively small: just 7.5km long and 1,500m wide at its broadest point, with a maximum depth of 234m. The lake is fed by the Sary-Chelek River, in addition to numerous other streams and underground sources, and its outflow flows into the Kara-Suu. The hollow that the lake sits in was probably created by earthquake activity hundreds of years ago, although the precise geomorphology of its formation is unclear. The name 'yellow bucket', although hardly romantic, is perfectly apt, as in early autumn the turning leaves of the forest that surrounds the lake positively glow with golden-yellow light that contrasts sharply with the deep blue-green of the water.
Lake Sary-Chelek does not stand alone, as there are other, smaller lakes within the reserve to the southeast, but without doubt it is Sary-Chelek that is the jewel in the crown. Its glorious alpine location among forest and rocky crags is as impressive as the lake itself, and the steep slopes that surround the lake support dense forests of pine, fir and juniper. At slightly lower elevations there are tangled stands of nut and wild fruit trees that include walnut, pistachio, apple and pear. Although they are not strictly supposed to, many locals come to gather the fruits of the forest in this part of the reserve.
Sary Chelek is of such ecological importance that it was made a Biosphere Reserve in the 1960s. Since 1978, it has been under the auspices of UNESCO. The area has a rugged beauty. The steep sides of the lakes are heavily forested with nut and fruit trees topped by jagged mountain ridges. It is the dream of many Kyrgyz people to visit the area.
Sary Chelek Reserve is special because it provides habitats for more than a third of Kyrgyzstan's flora and fauna types and many of the world's rare and endangered animal and plant species, including brown bears, martins, snow leopards, wild cats, deer, and the endangered greater horseshoe bat.
There is a park entry fee, plus additional surcharge per car. The base for visits to the lake is the small village of Arkit, actually inside the park, where you’ll find the park office, a nearby nature museum (8am-noon & 1-5pm) and a couple of homestays. The lake is 15km from here, accessible by car.
It is possible to walk to Lake Sary-Chelek from Kyzyl-Kul (via the Kemerty Pass) but there is no vehicle access so it’s only worth coming here if you feel like trekking to the lake. Our company can organise treks and tents and sleeping bags for hire.
Trekking - Once you get to the lake there’s not much else to do except go for a walk. Unfortunately, the hiking trails are not well maintained and quite overgrown. If you don’t mind bush-whacking a bit, follow the faint path east uphill behind the lakeshore caretaker’s house for fine views of the lake. To go west along the shore you first need to follow the road back downhill (towards Arkit) then take the first right uphill to a lodge that overlooks the lake. A short path downhill leads to a dock that makes a great springboard into the lake. Tempting as it may look to hike around the lake, there simply is no trail. It’s possible to make a six-day trek in to Sary-Chelek from Leninopol (catch a daily bus from Talas). An easier trek starts from Kyzyl-Kul in the next-door valley. From here it’s a long day’s walk up the valley to Kara-Suu Lake, where you can stay in a yurt. The next day is a hard slog over the 2446m Kemerty Pass and then down to Sary-Chelek, either directly or via Iyri Kol lake. Both routes are marked on the 1:120,000 Cherez Talasskii Khrebet k Ozeru Sary-Chelek, available at Geoid in Bishkek.
Getting There & Away - The lake’s remote location makes it a real pain to reach by public transport; consider hiring a taxi here if nowhere else in the country. Unless you're planning on hiking over the mountains from the north (which is possible), the only routes leading to Sary-Chelek come from the south, either by way of the village of Arkyt, which is on the edge of the reserve and serves as its administrative headquarters, or from the Kara-Suu valley in the buffer zone. The only driveable road to the lake leads from Arkyt, 16km from the lake.
By public transport you need to catch the 12.30pm bus from Tashkomur to Kara-Jigach (90 minutes) and then hitch or wait for the afternoon buses from Kerben (Karavan) to pass through en route to Arkit around 5pm. A bus from Osh sometimes comes this way, passing through around 2.30pm. The route to Kara-Jigach passes neglected coal mines and weird eroded hoodoos (rock columns). The decrepit local snub-nosed buses are packed, hot, uncomfortable and mind-numbingly slow. From Arkit you’ll need to hire a car (800som to 1000som return) or hike (four hours, but little traffic) to the lake.
Heading back, there is a bus from Arkit to Kara-Jigach at 6am and 7.30am (the 6am bus continues to Osh while the 7.30am bus continues to Kerben), from where you can get a shared taxi to Tashkomur from the junction.
If you are headed for Kyzyl-Kul, the 4.20pm bus from Kerben to Kyzyl-Suu also passes through Kara-Jigach between 6pm and 7pm, returning the next day at 7am. A taxi from Tashkomur will cost around 2000som to Arkit or 500som per seat if you are lucky enough to find a shared one.
Coming from either Bishkek or Jalal-Abad, the most direct route is by way of Tash-Komur and Kara-Jygach, where it is possible to pick up the daily bus coming from Kerben as it passes through to Arkyt or Kyzyl-Kol in the late afternoon. This is quite a long, uncomfortable journey to do in a single day, and a better bet from Jalal-Abad might be to spend a night in Kerben en route, making it an even longer route but at least a more leisurely one. A faster but more expensive alternative to all of this is to hire a taxi from Tash-Komur to Arkyt.
Once in Arkyt, a vehicle may be hired to reach the lake the following day. From Arkyt it should be possible to go to Sary-Chelek and back and have a few hours' walking there. Walking to the lake from Arkyt will take at least 3 hours, mainly uphill, along the road, although the views are splendid and ever-changing along the way. Even driving, it is worthwhile stopping a couple of times to enjoy the view down over Arkyt and the valley.