Suusamyr Valley to Tashkomur
A further 30 minutes’ drive after the turnoff to Talas the road climbs again, up to the 3184m summit of the Ala-Bel Pass over the Suusamyr-Tau mountains. Lower, broader and longer than the Tor-Ashuu Pass, it is nevertheless colder, and said to be the bigger winter time spoiler. The beautiful valley down the south side of the pass is part of the Chychkan state zoological reserve (chychkan means mouse). The flash Ak Ilbirs Hotel, by the roadside, is recognisable by a line of flags and its suitably alpine architecture. The standard rooms have more reliable hot water than the lux.
The town of Toktogul (population 70,000) and the reservoir it sits next to are named after a well-known Kyrgyz akyn, Toktogul Satilganov (1884–1933), who was born here. The Ak-Jibek Hotel, next to the bus station, has decent rooms if you need to be put up for the night. It takes over an hour to detour around the vast Toktogul Reservoir. Several roadside stalls on the south side of the lake serve delicious fried farel (trout).
The town of Kara-Kol (population 22,000) is of note only for its dam, part of the Nizhnenarynskiy Kaskad, a series of five dams down the lower gorge of the Naryn River. This kaskad (dam), topmost in the series, was completed in 1976 after 14 years’ work and is a pretty awesome feat of Soviet engineering: 210m high, 150m wide at the top, and holding back a 19-billion-cubic-metre lake. Just about everybody in town works for the hydroelectric station Toktogulsky Gidroelektrostantsia (GES). Kara-Kol is not to be confused with the much pleasanter town of Karakol on Lake Issyk-Kol. The dam isn’t visible from the road and a visit needs special permission.
South of Kara-Kol the gorge of the lower Naryn River is an impressive passage, with sheer walls and towering pillars of red sandstone, and a little road clinging to the side. Looking down you will see that there is no longer any river at all, just a depressing series of narrow, utterly still lakes behind the dams of the Nizhnenarynskiy Kaskad.