Kochkor is a small city (read “village”) in northern Naryn Region of central Kyrgyzstan a little south (45kms) of Balykchy (Lake Issyk Kul’s westernmost city) at 1,800m above sea level. The small market town is the capital of Kochkor District of the Naryn Oblast, and while the population was measured at 9,863 in 2009, it has since grown to an estimated 14,000 people today.
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The pleasant, leafy town overlooked by snow-capped mountains is a base for excursions into the high country and the people are mostly friendly and welcoming. Compared to much of Kyrgyzstan the tourist infrastructure here is fairly well developed as its central location stands at the crossroads of many foreign visitors’ journeys around the country. The mountains seem to encircle the town looming off in the distance, while a reddish light plays off their snow-capped peaks at dusk.
While some travel bloggers have described Kochkor as a “sleepy little Kyrgyz village,” but it is hard to imagine the town as “sleepy” when you visit the bustle of people in the main square and bazaar almost every day. People and vehicles tend to congregate en masse around the roadside bazaar on Orozbakova Street where a row of yurt cafes beckon you to watch and even try making koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) out of their wooden barrels. One side of the main road that cuts through the town has colorful vegetable stalls, the other side a clothes market. Overall though, it is a fairly quiet place, with children playing on the dusty pavements or manning street stalls selling chewing gum, tea, cigarettes and pens. As far as tourists are concerned, Kochkor has all the essentials – decent accommodation and food, adequate shopping facilities and a well-run information center. The people are generally very friendly and willing to strike up a conversation with visitors even if they don’t smile much.
The history of Kochkor (Kochkorga in Russian) is also an amalgamation of Kyrgyz culture peppered with this Soviet past. It is supposedly the site of the first settlement in the whole valley. There are some ancient barrows to the South – between the villages of Kara Suu and Bolshevik (now Isakeyev). Situated strategically on the main road which follows an ancient Silk Road path at a point where the road to Suusamyr (and on to Osh forks off from the main road to China from Issyk-Kul and the Chuy valley), it marked a natural stopping point for a camp for nomads and travelers. An old mosque and an inn (Chaykhana) were established early in its history but are now just ruins. It has always attracted a wide variety of nationalities; in addition to the majority Kyrgyz – Uzbek, Uygur, Dungan and later Russian and German settlers were attracted to the plain. For years there was actually a big German community here, but most have left and, since independence, many of the other nationalities have also departed.
The region has a mild climate and the land between the mountain ridges is ideal for agriculture. In Soviet times there were several large collective farms dotted across the valley, and Kochkor was well known for its crops as well as animals. Some crops from the region, especially potatoes, are still highly sought after from all over the country. In addition to sheep, there are also many horses found grazing around Kochkor. The Kyrgyz pride themselves on their horsemanship; people only half joke that Kyrgyz boys learn to ride horses before they can walk. Horses here are valuable animals (sometimes preferred over cars) providing the Kyrgyz with meat and kumiss as well as a mode of transport. However, any animal that is going to be slaughtered for meat will never be ridden as Kyrgyz people believe that it affects the quality of the meat.
Legends of Kochkor
As is often the case, there are a number of legends associated with how the village of Kochkor got its name. Probably the most romantic of these tales is one of a poor, well educated young man who was a traveler. On one of his journeys he stopped at the camp of the local Khan. The Khan had a daughter who was very beautiful, so beautiful in fact, that many of the local princes had already tried to win her over but all of them failing unsuccessfully. Upon meeting her, the traveler fell in love at first sight and at once asked her father permission to marry her. Although the Khan laughed at the poor traveler, he was not amused and decided to teach him a lesson. He decided to set the would be son-in-law an impossible task. He offered the young man a chance to breed camels for 10 years and if in that time his stock increased by a hundredfold, then he could have the princess’s hand in marriage. The young man was so in love with the girl that he set dutifully about his task.
The first winter was unusually harsh. One day there was a total eclipse of the sun; a chill fell across the face of the earth and a storm blew in. The wind was so strong that the man could not even open his eyes. Exhausted, using the last of his strength, the young man cried out “Kach kar, Kach kar!” (which roughly translates from Kyrgyz as “Go away snow, Go away snow!”). Nature took pity upon his plea; the storm immediately abated, the wind died down and the snow stopped falling. From that day forward, it rarely ever snows in Kochkor, or so the legend goes (sheltered high up in the mountains, the Naryn oblast does see less precipitation/snow than Bishkek, Issyk Kul or the Chuy valley). To continue the story, the young man was eventually successful: he prospered, and his herd of camels increased a hundred fold and so he won his princess bride. They happily married and had a son who became a great warrior.
Sites of Interest in Kochkor
Every Saturday, Kochkor holds its own animal bazaar. While not as big or well known as the one in Karakol, you can still view plenty of Kyrgyz livestock and observe local farmers buying and selling their animals in a semi-chaotic but very Kyrgyz marketplace. The bazaar runs from 8am to 12:30pm every Saturday with animals often tied into the trunks of Soviet Lada cars or even in backseats of rusty old vehicles.
Even on non-bazaar days, you shouldn’t be surprised to see cattle lying down in the middle of the road or herds of sheep, horses, and goats herded down the streets or loaded down in trailers. Because of the fine wool produced by sheep on nearby jailoos, Kochkor has gained a reputation for high quality wool “shyrdak” rugs, and this is evident in the goods for sale in town.
WALKING AROUND TOWN
If purchasing sheep isn’t what you came for, Kochkor still can offer the shopping traveler a variety of experiences. Soaking up the atmosphere by walking along the main street and spending some time in the central square or perhaps visiting the market and stopping by the cemetery with it’s eclectic collection of memorials is just what you need before or after an arduous hike or horse ride.In the center, there are two bazaars, one for food and the other for clothes. If you are planning on going up into the mountains and haven’t got a warm sweater, jacket or boots, this is the place to invest in one. Try a stop in the “UNIMAG” (department store) and check out the bargains there, but the bazaar is usually the best place to stock up on any essentials that you might be running low on before leaving civilization.
Kochkor’s central park is a small haven of greenery just south of the taxi stand and main road. Within the park are various Soviet era structures made of mostly wrought iron in various stages of use. Kids like to play on the playground and boys up to middle age men enjoy playing soccer (European football) here. Alongside the park you can easily wander to the Kochkor museum, the Wedding Palace, the sports gymnasium, and the house of culture. When open, this Cultural Hall has a room for playing billiards, a library, a concert performance hall, and even antique Soviet video games. And no former Soviet city would be complete without the necessary Lenin statue!
Kochkor doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment (the one cinema closed years ago) or tourist sites, but there is a small regional museum (open weekdays 9am-noon & 1-5pm). A visit to the Kochkor Regional Museum could prove interesting as it features an enormous yurt capable of housing 50 people. They also have a collection of local Kyrgyz crafts, plus displays on all the usual Soviet-era local heroes such as the local scientist Bayaly Isakeev, and a ridiculously large stuffed sheep. There are said to be over 5,000 exhibits in its nine rooms. For history buffs, local Soviet heroes are celebrated in cement busts to the east of the museum and in the Sonkul sovhoz club there is a mosaic by the famous artist Theodore Hertzen hanging on the wall. There’s also a nice mosque with more modern religious heritage nearby.
What Kochkor is truly best known for are the beautiful shyrdaks (felt rugs) that are handmade by women from local sheep’s wool. Altyn Kol (Kyrgyz for ‘golden hand’) is the women’s handicraft cooperative that is well established in this operation, and Kyrgyz-Travel makes a point to take tourists to their beautiful shop. Founded in the mid-1990’s as a way to provide an alternate source of income for struggling rural families, Altyn Kol has become world renowned for their handmade felt carpets.
There are also cushions, slippers and cuddly little toys all made from high quality felt on sale here. If you are visiting Kyrgyzstan during late May or November, you can inquire about their bi-annual exhibition at the Kyrgyz Cultural Museum in Bishkek. There are actually several enterprises in Kochkor which manufacture and sell traditional Kyrgyz crafts which can be shipped abroad to Europe, America or other countries. If you have time and are interested (in Naryn or Kochkor), Kyrgyz-Travel can even set up a shyrdak-making, felting (of small animals), or wet felt-painting demonstration.
Ask us about scheduling these unique all natural wool activities for your group business trip, special occasion – party or in addition to your tour. Not only can you learn this fine work, but you are rewarded by taking home your own custom made wool handicraft!
A shyrdak will cost anything from US $20 on up to several hundred dollars if bought here, depending on size and the intricacy of the design. Kyrgyz usually prefer bright colors of pinks, reds, blues, purples, etc. to go along with the simple tones of white, cream, brown and grey, but as these stores market to foreigners you can also find more modest hues (or special order them if you don’t see what you like for about the same price). They are not only likely to be cheaper but the quality tends to be better than many of those found in souvenir shops in Bishkek or elsewhere. Plus it is good to know that money goes directly to the maker of the shyrdak rather than into the pocket of a middle man. Don’t be surprised if you see shyrdaks hanging out over people’s fences or lying in the road in Kochkor or anywhere else for that matter. While it is possible the shyrdaks are for sale (everything is for sale for the “right price”) it is more likely to be a family just doing their spring cleaning. Kyrgyz people are not traditionally used to vacuuming carpets/rugs, they will usually beat them on a fence and then lay them in snow, the road or any flat surface to scrub them outside with soap and water much like they wash a car roadside.
The real draw to Kochkor is actually what lies outside of it. Kochkor’s location just off the busy newly-paved Bishkek to Naryn road makes it a useful stopping-off point, best described as a gateway community for its surrounding nature. In particular because of the town’s convenience as a jumping-off spot for excursions to the surrounding countryside, almost all first-time visitors to Kyrgyzstan end up spending a day or two here.
CHONG TUZ SALT CAVES
About 25km from Kochkor is the Chong Tus salt cave complex. A naturally occurring mountain of rock salt is here, and in Soviet times a mine was established to extract the mineral. The mine still operates today and salt is produced for use in Kyrgyzstan and abroad, but locals only give the rock salt to farm animals as a food supplement. During Soviet times many people would come here for treatment for Asthma and allergies as many people believe that spending time inside the salt mine atmosphere has longterm health benefits. The complex which is now part of a hospital involves staying in the mine for 10 hours a day for 16 days as part of necessary Speleotherapy treatment. In recent years a development program has turned the mine into a complete health resort including full service accommodation and facilities. Travelers, assuming that it isn’t full of medical patients at the time, can also use the center for a relaxing few hours. Whether the health benefits can be verified or not, a few hours lying in a calm relaxing atmosphere like this can do wonders for tired weary travelers like yourself. Chong-Tuz also has its own jailoo, about a three hour climb away rising above the center.
SONG KUL HORSE RIDING
Kochkor is also the best place to organize forays into the eastern end of the Suusamyr valley and ‘yurt stays’ in the jailoo. Kochkor makes a good base for horse treks and yurtstays right in the region. One of the best ways to explore the area around Kochkor is in a mountain pasture aka ‘jailoo stay’ . This unique experience is likely to form one of the most memorable features of your trip. You’ll be staying in working shepherds yurts, sharing their meals and experiencing the slow rhythm of life on the jailoo. Kochkor is a great place for a jump off to an unforgettable trip to these Kyrgyz jailoos; the most well known of which is of course Song Kul. For those short on time, a very common trip for small groups involves a two day/one night horseback riding jaunt up to Lake Song Kul. Son-Kol is the crown jewel of the jailoo treks with fish jumping and water gleaming like burnished gold under the first rays of the morning sun. The “Shepherd’s Life” project is a local initiative inspired by the Swiss development program “Helvetas” that plans a nomadic family homestay in Kyzart village (20 km west of Kochkor) paired with local horses and guides to lead you up to the lake.
Homestays and farmstays are becoming more popular all over the world as adventuresome people shirk expensive luxury hotels for authentic natural experiences. For those who are willing to spend the time getting acquainted with the host families and their way of life, it can be a really rewarding experience. It also offers the shepherds and farmers a way to supplement their income and gain some national pride. Kochkor is home to the Kyrgyzstan’s first Community Based Tourist (CBT) office, but has been so successful that it has now been copied all over other parts of the country. In addition to homestays, Kyrgyz-Travel is happy to organize transportation and other services (horse riding, trekking, talks/demonstrations of local crafts, concerts of traditional Kyrgyz music like the Komuz) in the region.
KOL UKOK LAKE
For those wanting to experience trekking to a destination with limited time (2 day, 1 night) a hike to Kol Ukok jailoo is also a great option. The first part of the walk is ordinary but as you follow the 4wd track for a few hours, and come to the river where you have to take your shoes off, it gets interesting. It depends on weather conditions but the current can be strong in places, and you may get wet above the knee. The rest if the trek is not tricky, but gets more scenic as the top half and the lake are really beautiful. The Kol Ukok jailoo is just four hours on horseback (and a little more on foot) from a village only ten minutes drive from Kochkor. Kol Ukok Lake (meaning Treasure Chest) is a beautiful alpine lake above the Tes Tur jailoo, south of Kochkor (between Kupke and Isakeev) reached by a minimum overnight and a recommended three-day trip. This makes for a great couple of days, with fabulous food including grilled fish caught right from the lake and locally growing vegetables (e.g wild spring onion).
KOL TOR LAKE
From Kol Ukok you can climb the mountain up to Kol Tor glaciel lake at an altitude 2550 m with spectacular views of glaciers in two or three hours assuming you are in shape. It is nice to walk further up the main valley to see the grazing animals and cross various streams. It’s also possible to scale up a pass in the mountains and come down to another village, but you need to ask locals on horseback for carrying your luggage across the river once at the lake, as the current is often too strong to do on foot and some of the river crossings require you to take your shoes off. Around Kochkor there are actually a total of six jailoos with yurts. The highest of these is Tes Tor, 3,100 metres above sea level, which a few hours walk from a glacier. You even have the unique opportunity to watch cheese being made here.
For those with more time and cameras with tons of storage to take lots of majestic panoramic photos, you can trek for several days or a week on foot or horseback from jailoo to jailoo rewarded with fresh hot tea at every stop to speak with locals eager with news from the outside world. You’ll be treated to lots of kumys (fermented mare’s milk) not only in your own yurt, as it’s Central Asian courtesy to receive guests along the route. One of the other more popular trips is to Sarala-Saz (53km northwest of Kochkor), a wide open jailoo with fine views, from where you can take day trips on horseback to alpine petroglyphs (three hours by horse). An adventurous two- or three-day horse trek leads from Sarala-Saz over the 3570 meter Shamsy Pass and down the Shamsy River valley to Tokmok. Before June it’s better to stay at Tes Tur (four hours from Isakeev by horse); after June you can stay up by Kol Ukok Lake (six hours from Isakeev). You can use this jailoo as a launching point for day excursions into the mountains. Or, for a slightly longer alternative tour, Kyrgyz-Travel guides can lead you from Kara-Suu village and then first go to Kashang Bel Pass or Bel Tepshay Pass, for amazing views of Lake Issyk-Kul, and then ride or hike the next day to Kul Okuk in about seven hours.
These trips are generally only possible in the summer months between mid May to mid September depending on daily weather conditions and snow-pack. Also bear in mind that jailoos don’t come with toilets so be prepared to commune with nature behind a large rock or bush. Washing facilities will be the nearby stream-which comes straight down from the snow-laden peaks, losing little of its icy temperature along the way. You’ll probably be going quite high so bring warm clothing and rain gear, as well as protection from the sun.
TRAVEL TO / FROM KOCHKOR
Because of its position on the main road (A365) from Bishkek/Issyk Kul to Naryn (and hence onto the Torugart Pass border crossing into China) and from Issyk Kul to Osh and the South. About 7 km west of Kochkor, the A361 branches west toward Jalal-Abad Region and the Ferghana Valley. About 25 km northeast on the highway is the massive Orto-Tokoy reservoir. The water level fluctuates considerably throughout the year sometimes seeming like it will dry up completely, and then other times flowing over treetops. As you come down the curvy mountain pass, the turquoise color of the reservoir’s water can be quite striking, and, in winter, when it is frozen over it has a mystical, desolateness with cars and animals straying far out onto it. Incidentally, the Orto Torkoi reservoir is on the same River Chu that flows down to Bishkek via the Boom Gorge; although you might get the impression that it must flow via Issyk Kul – it doesn’t. Rather, the water swings around the end of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range.
From Kochkor it is possible to drive to Son Kul, either by driving up towards Naryn as far as Sary Bulak and then turning off or by taking the Osh Road and turning off to Kara Keche before Chaek. Most people take a seat in a shared taxi from opposite the bazaar to Bishkek, Balykchy (40 minutes) and Naryn (2 to 2.5 hours). There are two roads to Suusamyr from Kochkor. Infrequent afternoon buses and minibuses pass south through to Chayek (two hours) and a detour to Ming-Kush via Jumgal is possible, picking up passengers by the central bazaar on Orozbakova Street. The Northern route follows a river gorge where there used to be a road over the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range to the Kegety Gorge- but is virtually deserted as no one lives there and the road conditions are hardly suitable even for off-road 4×4 vehicles. This road is featured in one travel book as a spectacular route for mountain biking, but it is not possible to travel along it by car now, because of landslides and avalanches (and it is closed by snow until well into the summer anyway).