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Sary Chelek nature reserve in autumn, Kyrgyzstan
© Siarhei Daroshka / Shutterstock

Western Tien-Shan Kyrgyzstan

One of the largest mountain ranges in the world, the Western Tien Shan offers incredible biodiversity and cultural heritage. In the national parks and reserves within Kyrgyzstan, hiking trails lead to gorgeous lakes reflecting the jagged peaks surrounding them. With an altitude spanning from 700 to 4,500 metres, the region experiences snowy winters that give way to colourful wildflowers in spring and bright warm summers. Around the parks, ancient and medieval cities complement the natural beauty with history and tradition.

The Tien Shan is an extensive mountain system located in four countries: China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Many cities and small settlements are located around the mountain range, however, this region of the world surprises visitors with its gorgeous and incomparable natural landscape. The three main nature reserves and natural parks located in this part of the mountain range are Sary-Chelek State Biosphere Nature Reserve, Besh-Aral State Nature Reserve and, the smallest of the three, Padysha-Ata State Nature Reserve. Feel the spiritual power of one of the biggest mountain ranges in the world and enjoy a hike among an uniquely biodiverse atmosphere.

Photo by Cherry Kan
Photo by Cherry Kan

History & Today

Each of the natural parks located in the Western Tien Shan Mountain range has unique features to offer. For example, in Sary-Chelek State Biosphere reserve, the most visited of the three parks, tourists will be able to experience long hikes, crystal clear lakes, boat rides and wilderness camping. On the other hand, at Besh-Aral State Nature Reserve that extends for over 137.288 hectares of land, the main attractions are its uniquely shaped mountain landscape, high altitude rivers and, during spring, Kaufmann's tulips that are endemic to Central Asia. Padysha-Ata State Nature Reserve is the least explored of the three parks, which allow for a more off-the-beaten-track experience of spotting first hand some of the wild animals that inhabit the region.

Nowadays, tourism in the Kyrgyz Republic is related to ecological tourism and UNESCO World Heritage Sites attract special attention. These sites are very interesting in terms of study of world history and cultural shifting. They also have cultural significance to local culture as many times they are related to religion or spiritual rituals. The facilities in the Western Tien Shan have open-air museums that are incredibly interesting. When visiting these sites, the tourist plunges into the world of history, ancient rich culture and feels the aura of the ancient atmosphere. The parks are also largely used by locals who have a big connection with the land and go there to collect fruits and swim in the lakes.

Photo by Helen Turner
Photo by Helen Turner

How to get there

Sary Chelek Nature Reserve can be reached by public transport. From Osh bus station, buses depart daily. The bus Marszrutka to Sary Chelek will leave you in Arkit village. The first bus departs at 7:40 in the morning and arrives in Arkit around 4 p.m. From Bishkek, the capital, the easiest way is to take a taxi to Tashkomur and then take the same Marszrutka bus that will be heading to Arkit.

How to Visit

Arkit is the village closest to Sary Chelek Nature Reserve and it is well prepared to receive tourists. There are different types of accommodations that will suit different tourist needs. There you can find campsites, homestays, restaurants, and shops. For accessing the park, it is recommended to take a car or a preferred transportation method as there are a few kilometers preceding the hiking area. Taking the car there is an extra fee that will be charged at entrance. At the nearby villages, tour operators offer different tour options, but it is up to the visitor if they would like to go alone or pay for a tour. For the ones wishing to camp inside the natural reserve it is possible upon the payment of a fee.

When to visit

July through mid-September is the perfect season to go hiking in Kyrgyzstan. Although it is the recommended season it is also possible to visit during other times of the year. However, specially during the winter months, the temperature can drop quite low, increasing the difficulty of the hikes.

Stay in traditional lodging. Photo by Cherry Kan
Stay in traditional lodging. Photo by Cherry Kan

You'll encounter incredible biodiversity as you explore unmarked natural trails throughout the Western Tien Shan, which is home to different rare and endangered animal species, including the snow leopard and marbled polecat. Falcons and eagles soar in the sky above while, on the ground, there are hundreds of significant plant species, particularly wild fruits and remarkable nut forests. The vibrant colors of the vegetation complement the mountains and lakes, which can be discovered on hiking trails or horse-riding expeditions. Most of the mountainous region can't be accessed by vehicle, making the Western Tien Shan an exciting off-the-beaten-path destination for intrepid travellers.

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