As you drive around the corner and see the Tash Rabat Caravanserai it becomes clear why this is such a popular place to stop. The caravanserai, a medieval stone structure, is located in a beautiful green valley at around 3200m (10,500ft) altitude. A stopping place for travelers on the Silk Road, close to the border with China, you can almost picture the camel trains threading their way up the valley before climbing over one of the 4000m (13,100ft) passes across the At-Bashy mountains. Today it is home to herds of yak, while up on the slopes marmots watch your every move, diving back into their holes once you come too near. Many people stop here on their way from the border with China at the Torugart Pass, staying at one of several yurt camps in the valley for a night before traveling on.
If you can spend longer here, though, this is one of the most spectacular places in Kyrgyzstan for trekking. Most tourists only see the Tash Rabat valley, but the surrounding valleys are just as beautiful, if not more so, and rarely visited. The most popular route is a hike or horse trek up to a 4000m panorama that looks over the Ak Sai valley to Chatyr Kol lake and the border with China. It is a 6 hour round trip. Umerbek, one of the local community based tourism guides takes people up here very often and his horses are very used to tourists with little or no riding experience.
If you trek on down into the Ak Sai valley the scenery changes dramatically. Instead of steep-sided valleys you find yourself on a wide wind-swept plain at around 3500m. The vegetation is short. Yak are well suited to this high-altitude environment. Yurts are dotted around the valley. The occupants will invite you in for tea, kumis (fermented mares milk) and freshly made yogurt. Chatyr Kol lake looks close but it is a good one hour walk across the plain to the shore. This is the highest of the major lakes in Kyrgyzstan and for much of the year ice floats on the surface. There is a family who provides overnight accommodation for tourists in a yurt or trailer. Wake up in the morning and you may find a fresh layer of snow outside, even in the height of summer. This soon melts though as the sun rises. One or two days in the Ak Sai valley and you get a real feeling for what it is like for the herders and shepherds who make this rugged place their summer home.
Running eastwards from the Tash Rabat valley a steady climb takes you over the Bel Jol Pass. In July the slopes on the east side of the pass are covered in wild flowers. After the climb over the pass it is a very pleasant descent towards the Shirikty valley which runs parallel to Tash Rabat. The Shyrykty river runs along the valley floor – through most of summer a torrent of water races through the valley, snow melt from the mountains surrounding the valley. Grey/brown cliffs rise up to the side of the valley, contrasting with the verdant green of the valley floor. There are no yurt camps here so you need to bring a tent for overnight stops. If you are trekking on foot, crossing the river can be tricky – it is wise to bring a rope and a spare pair of training shoes with a good grip. Do the trek on horseback and you don’t need to get your feet wet! Along these paths and tracks you are unlikely to meet other tourists.
With three or four days you can do some great exploration of this section of the At Bashy mountains. If your route includes the higher passes and you are trekking on foot, there will be some strenuous climbs but they are always rewarded with fantastic views provided the weather is clear. Provided that you don’t mind “roughing it” a bit with wild camping, there are many options for rewarding treks. You will come away tired but relaxed, exhilarated after spending some time in such beautiful surroundings.
When I first joined a local friend on a visit to Tash Rabat, we piled both of our families into our big Mitsubishi Montero SUV (utilizing the extra rear seats that fold up into the trunk) to make the drive early in the morning. After exploring the fortress like structure and having a mixed Kyrgyz/American picnic lunch, we tried to drive closer to the trek where our guide said a road was supposed to be. Soon after fallen rocks covering the path meant we had to head off road. Going just a bit farther we almost got stuck in the marshy mud (thank goodness for 4 wheel drive!) until us guys just decided to hoof it from there. The hike along the valley was pleasant as we jumped across stream after stream; I was relieved we weren’t still trying to drive (there was no road to be seen having probably been washed out years before). The marmots were hilarious as they would surprise you with squeaks like this Marmot video before they’d duck into their holes; from a distance we’d even see whole families of them scampering around the hillsides outside their little hobbit holes.
At times we’d have a few tourists and guide quickly pass us by on horseback. Sometimes we’d catch a saddled Kyrgyz shepherd off guard to see people this far away on foot, otherwise we saw no other signs of civilization. Moving from the riverbeds to hilly fields of flowers, eventually the grassy hills gave way to rocky mountainous terrain as we climbed higher. The mountain ahead didn’t look so steep until we had to boulder up some rocks.
While our tall German friend with his long legs raced up the steep mountain, I felt relieved that my shorter Kyrgyz friend and guide also stopped more frequently now to catch his breath as the oxygen got thinner. Almost four hours in, we finally reached the panorama peak and the view was breathtaking. Even though it was a warm summer day in August, the air from the 13,000 feet vista was cold, and the wind chilled us from our sweaty hike, but we sat there a long time dreamily gazing on the Chatyr Kul Lake and distant view of China. On the much quicker jog back to make it back before dark, I looked forward to a return to this pristine part of Kyrgyzstan. . . although maybe next time on horseback!