Distantly ringed by a saw toothed horizon of peaks, the wide open landscapes of Song-Köl create a giant stage for constant performances of symphonic cloudscapes. Almost 20km across, and fronted by lush summer pastures, the lake’s water colour changes magically from tropical turquoise to brooding indigo in seconds as the sun flashes or the storms scud by in a vast meteorological theatre. It’s a sublime place to watch the sun come up or to gaze into a cold, crystal-clear night sky heavy with countless stars. At 3016m it’s too cold for permanent habitation but between June and September, herders’ yurts dot the shoreside meadows every kilometre or so. Since many are part of the community tourism schemes, the area offers an unparalleled opportunity for yurtstay visits or multi-yurt hikes and horse treks which can generally be organised at very short notice (though things can get busy mid-August).
Unpaved tracks, often little more than tyre-tracks in the turf, loop around the lake linking the main concentrations of summer yurts. Each grouping is typically known by the name of the valley/stream that runs through it.
Beware that weather is highly unpredictable. Snow can fall at any time so plan accordingly and be aware that July to mid-September is essentially the only season. While diminishing, the area does have a population of wolves so if camping independently you’d be wise to do so relatively near to established yurt camps.
Platoons of vast, ever-snowy mountains march along the southern flank of the Alay Valley whose considerable width (up to 30km) makes the scene especially memorable – at least when the haze and cloud clear.
Visitors en route to China via Irkeshtam or to Tajikistan via Bordöbo can get a taste of the scenery from Sary Tash. Both routes cross high-altitude passes but while the Irkeshtam route is fairly easy to do in DIY hops, hitching the road to Murgab (via Bordöbo) can be frustratingly slow with no regular transport: bring a tent in case you’re stranded in the (potentially frigid) wilderness.
An excellent new road follows the Alay Valley southwest from Sary Tash to Garm (Tajikistan), but for now the Tajik–Kyrgyz border at Karamyk is inexplicably closed to foreigners. Even so, it might still be worth continuing part way (30km) to dusty Sary-Mogol for the best view of 7134m Peak Lenin.
The Babash-Ata Mountains form an impressive wall of snow-sprinkled crags behind the elevated ‘oasis’ of Arslanbob. Ethnically Uzbek and religiously conservative, the very large village sprawls almost invisibly along a network of tree-shaded lanes, and is surrounded by a vast tract of blossoming woodland that constitutes the world’s largest walnut grove. According to local legend, the grove’s seed-nuts were a miraculous gift from the Prophet Mohammad to a modest gardener who he had charged with finding paradise on earth.
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