Song Kul (also Song Köl – Son Kul – Songköl – Song-Köl – or Kyrgyz: Соңкөл, IPA: [sóɴkœl]) is an alpine lake in northern Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan, standing at almost the dead center of the country. It lies at an altitude of 3016 meters (9,900 ft) and has an area of about 270 km2 (168miles2). As the largest fresh water lake in Kyrgyzstan, it stretches 18km (11 miles) wide and 29km (18 miles) long but is only 13m (43ft) deep at its lowest point. Its name, meaning “Following Lake”, is popularly considered to refer to this relation. One other meaning of its name may be translated as ‘The Last Lake’ and this seems wholly appropriate for such a large, pristine isolated lake that can seem like it is at the end of the world. It is surrounded by a broad summer pasture and then mountains. Its beauty is greatly praised, but it is rather inaccessible. There are no facilities on the lake, but local herders will provide supplies and rent yurts. The area is inhabited and safely accessible only from June until September.
The lake comes into its own during the short summer when the extensive “jailos” (summer pastures) that surround the lake are utilized for grazing by herdsmen from across Naryn Oblast. At this time of year there are a considerable number of yurts clustered in small family groups around its shores. Yurt stays can be arranged, including meals. There is no real need to arrange horses prior to arrival, unless you are planning an extensive excursion, as horses are easily rented directly from the locals. Many Kyrgyz bring their animals here in the summer and set up temporary homes in yurts. You will get a real feel for the life of the nomadic shepherds and be amazed by the scenery and tranquility of this special place. Lake Song-Kol certainly lives up to its reputation: a heart-wrenchingly beautiful place where only the most begrudging of critics would make much of a fuss about the way that low-level tourism has crept in to mildly affect its character in recent years.
Visitors are welcome, and this is a sublime place to camp and watch the sun come up. The cold, crystal-clear air, far away from light pollution and smog, guarantees a starry night sky so grand it is able to dwarf even this open landscape. The lake is jumping with fish, and you might be able to trade tea, salt, sugar, cigarettes or vodka with the herders for milk, kurut or full-bodied kumis. In any case bring plenty of food and water or prepare to be served fresh meat! The weather is unpredictable and snow can fall at any time so dress and plan accordingly. A visit outside the summer months is ill-advised not simply because of a lack of accommodation or cold temperatures: part of the Song-Kol experience is an appreciation of how Kyrgyz nomads live in tune with their environment and to experience the lake without people would be not to do it full justice. The lake is frozen from November to May.
It is easy to see why locals rave about Song Kul: this alpine lake is one of the loveliest spots in central Kyrgyzstan. All around it are lush pastures, silvery streams and huge expanse of water filled with fish. It’s worth spending a couple of days here to experience sunrise and sunset over Song Kul’s vast waters, but walking into the hills involves a long trawl across the plateau before you even start to gain some height. Although overshadowed by better known Issyk Kul and Tash Rabat, in many ways, Song Kul Lake is Kyrgyzstan’s premier destination. The lake is an almost archetypal destination of the wilderness variety, having all of the necessary ingredients to create a picture-perfect vignette of the Kyrgyz nomadic way of life: a wide alpine lake, nomads on horseback, yurts, lush green pasture, bare snow-capped mountains and contented herds of livestock. With the right conditions – a golden sun setting over still waters; the ring of surrounding mountains transformed into a purple velvet backdrop; unseen cattle lowing as dusk falls – it is almost too perfect to be true.
Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest lake lies high in the mountains providing a beautiful serene setting. Altitude keeps its temperatures low, with a year-round average of around -3.5°C, a summer temperature average of about 11C and winter freezes down to -20°C. The lake freezes over in the winter and, with over 200 days of annual snow cover, access is very difficult most of the year. Snow can fall even in August and nights often dip below freezing at the beginning and end of the tourist season. Even in less than optimal circumstances – sloping rain, wind-driven sleet, an electrical storm crackling around the shore – it is still wholly exhilarating. Freezing temperatures deter all but the hardiest of swimmers and locals do not think it is wise.
Flora and Fauna
There are no trees at the lake, or in the surrounding hills, but in season there is an abundance of alpine flowers, most notably gentians, wild tulips and edelweiss, and herbs such as sage and chamomile. The lake is rich in waterfowl and waders, with a total of 66 species recorded that include several species of gull and duck, bald coots and the rare Indian mountain goose. Raptors are also well represented with golden eagles and various falcons present in summer. Migratory birds such as storks and cranes stop here on passage. Animals recorded in the vicinity of the lake include foxes, deer, lynx, wolves and, of course, marmots, which are plentiful in the surrounding hills. The lake was devoid of fish until 1959 when it was stocked for the first time. The lake and its immediate shoreline is part of the Karatal-Japyryk State Reserve while the the lake and shore are part of the Song-Kul Zoological Reserve. Among animals under its protection are a diminishing number of wolves and lots of waterfowl, including the Indian mountain goose.
Getting There & Away
There are four routes that approach the lake, more or less from the cardinal points of the compass. These vary in terms of difficulty, time taken and convenience. There is no public transport or regular buses to the lake as there is very little traffic. The only way is to arrange a car or preferably SUV with good tires.
Probably the commonest approach is 60km from the Bishkek–Naryn road (45km from Kochkor) via the village of Sary-Bulak arriving at the east end of Song-Kol Lake. Sary-Bulak is little more than a truck-stop, with train wagons and cafes selling food (mostly fried fish), with usually a line of Chinese semi-truck parked up for a meal en route to China via the Torugart Pass. The road climbs 6km up from the main road through Kong-Suu village (sometimes called Tolok) and twists 21km along the Toluk River past pasture full of sheep, cattle and horses, and higher up, yaks and then finally a slow 23km up and over the Kalmak-Ashuu Pass into the basin. This route is 85km long and takes about 2 hours to drive. The road is quite reasonable most of the way, although the last section can be a little rough, and this route is possible in a solid Russian car like a Jiguli. The journey involves a steep descent into the huge Kalmakashu valley (which got its name from the Kalmaks, frequent adversaries of the Kyrgyz), fed by the broad Tolok river, a flat run past Keng Suu village and then another corkscrew climb into the neighboring valley to get the first superb view of Song Kul.
There are three other main routes into Song Kul, each of which is unpaved and has spectacular views. For the other routes listed below, or for driving any distance around the lake’s muddy perimeter, a 4×4 such as a Russian Niva or our Mitsubishi Montero (Pajero) is necessary. Another approach that is sometimes used if the lake is to be reached from the direction of Naryn is the route from the southeast, a dirt track that leads off the Kochkor-Naryn road, near the village of Kara-Unkur south of Sary-Bulak, and follows a dramatic series of hairpin bends to reach the lake at its southeast corner. This route which takes you past the mausoleum of Taylacy Baatykto is 90km from Naryn and takes about 2.5 hours.
The western side of Lake Song-Kol may be reached from Chaek, turning off the road south at Bajzak to lead past the coal mines of Kara-Kichi, from where a track climbs up through hairpin bends to a 3,300m pass, from where it gently descends to the lake. The fourth route is from the south, over the Moldo Pass from the village of Kurtka (also known as Jangy-Talap), across the Naryn River from Ak-Tal on the Naryn to Kazarman road. For at least half the year (late October to late May), and also at times of heavy rain, all of these routes will be difficult and are likely to be impassable.