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The Epic Journal #2: Kyrgyzstan 2021 Trip Report

trekking in kyrgyzstan

“Our worst fears lie in anticipation.” – Balzac

It took two years of planning to get this tour of the ground. 

Not necessarily by choice either but out of necessity. 

After conducting a thorough reconnaissance mission of Kyrgyzstan together back in 2019, EBT co-founder Chris Lininger and I decided to start organizing tours there. 

Kyrgyzstan, to us, was the perfect candidate: wild, remote, gorgeous, and, most importantly, a thrillingly good time. Being tour operators who specialize in Northern Pakistan – one of the most beautiful places on Earth, not to mention difficult – we aren’t easy to please either. We thought that Kyrgyzstan could easily compete with other naturally-endowed countries, like New Zealand or Nepal, and were eager to get the word out. 

So we got to work: making arrangements, crafting the perfect itinerary, and communicating with our good friend and partner, Andrei, back in Bishkek. To say we were excited about this trip is an understatement – we were possessed by it. 

By the end of 2019, we had already filled an entire trip. A second was on its way to being full. Our momentum carried into the new year. 

Everything was going well and then…COVID. 

I’ll spare you the gruesome details but long story short, all Epic tours were suspended in 2020 at the decision of Epic founders Chris Lininger and Will Hatton, a decision that I was fully behind. It seemed that Kyrgyzstan would have to wait. 

sunset in ak sai valley kyrgyzstan horse trek
Wait for me, my beloved Kyrgyzstan…

Fast forward one year and I’m sitting in one of my favorite restaurants in Bishkek, Navat, having a shot of kumis and eating mantu with Andrei whom I hadn’t seen since a raucous birthday party back in 2019. How we managed to limit our lunch to a few hours and a few vodka shots is still a mystery to me today – there was so much to catch up about.

But this lunch was about the tour. We were finalizing preparations – crossing our Is and dotting our Ts – as the trip we had been planning for the last two years was about to commence. In three short days, our epic tour was about to begin.

The tour starts

We wasted no time hitting the road. After meeting in a more-hushed-than-usual Ala-Too Square we all piled into the van that would be our loyal steed for the next two weeks. There was myself, Piri, a local Kyrgyz-Kazahk guide who would be my right-hand woman, Ivan, a highly experienced driver, and seven guests who all hailed from the United States.

After making introductions on the bus it became immediately clear that this group was already special. The group chemistry was spectacular – Mendeleev himself couldn’t have concocted a better mixture of hearts and minds. Within a few days, the group was already sharing their most intimate life stories and cracking more than a few ridiculous jokes (grind train never stops). 

Our first stop was one of my favorite places in all of Kyrgyzstan, Song Kul: an alpine lake situated at 3000 meters high and less than a day’s drive from the capital Bishkek.

sunset at song kul kyrgyzstan golden light
There’s a light show seemingly every night at Song Kul.

We had gone from the warm, semi-arid steppes to an amphitheater of snow-capped peaks gazing down at a glassy lake in the same time that it takes to drive from LA to San Francisco. Nomads, with their yurt camps and herds of Kyrgyz horses, surrounded the entire shore. 

Some of the guests had literally clocked out the day before from work. Now, they were in the mountains. 

And after all of the trials and tribulations of 2020 due to COVID, the mountains are exactly what they needed.

Getting into the “meat” of the trip

After spending a day relaxing at Song Kul, we departed for another superlative location, the legendary Issyk Kul. This is where the trip really kicked into high gear.

Aside from being one of the largest alpine lakes in the world, Issyk Kul also features some of the most surreal scenery. Imagine a crystal clear body of work – akin to the Mediterranean – with fine, red sand beaches, backed by Utah-esque desert formations, topped with snowy mountains in the distance. 

This is not the invention of a science fiction writer – this is an actual place in Kyrgyzstan.

The day ends with a demonstration from a local eagle hunter and his avian partner, Nur Sultan, followed by a sunset session at the beach. A couple of guests who hail from frigid Chicago decide to brave the sub-10-degree (Celsius) water. They came prepared with booties and intertubes; this clearly wasn’t their first rodeo. 

eagle hunter and golden eagle in kyrgyztan
These guys were connected on a different level.

After Issyk Kul, we move onto the Karakol area, a Dungan enclave that has become the trekking capital of Kyrgyzstan. From here, we will launch into one of the most rewarding and demanding portions of the trip: a 3-day hike up to Ala Kul and over Ala Kul Pass. 

This trek is not for the uninitiated. At 3300 meters, Ala Kul is not accessible to everyone. The walk up from the valley floor entails 1100+ meters in altitude gain (a leg that we will be breaking up on future trips) and features some steep, exposed terrain. 

Having spent several days with the group already, I knew they would crush this hike though.

In faster than expected time (5.5 hours), the group made it to Ala Kul. Many were gassed; most were full of excitement. Ala Kul – which in Kyrgyz means Lake of Many Colors – is a special place and is rumored to have a personality of its own. When it’s happy, the water turns a brilliant turquoise; when upset, the water is an unsettling ebony. 

Luckily, Ala Kul seemed to be content for most of our stay. 

We spent one breathless night at the lake before crossing Ala Kul Pass at 3800 meters. Being early in the season, the descent was tricky and required some technical rope work with the assistance of our porter team but we made it down to the other side in no time. At the next valley, Altyn Arashan, guests were treated to hot springs and some hard-earned beer.

guests riding horses to karakol peak during storm kyrgyzstan
We made a quick stop at Karakol Peak before climbing up to Ala Kul.

All-in-all, the hike to Ala Kul was a great success and everyone did a marvelous job physically and mentally. An unfortunate downside was, to be frank, some repetitive lunches. Every day, the cook team gave us the same packed meal: summer sausage sandwiches with snacks and enough Choco Pies to last a nuclear winter. Needless to say, many people felt like a summer sausage upon completing the hike and, in fact, wished they had opted for the vegetarian option: a refreshing cucumber and tomato sandwich. 

On the topic of food in Kyrgyzstan, despite it being a predominantly carnivorous culture, I’d say that the vegetarians fared very well on this trip. Despite the overabundance of beef and bread, there is still plenty of fresh fruit, salads, and whole grains to be had. All four of our vegetarians – one of which was vegan – were surprised to see such options available to them and seemed very satisfied. One guest, in particular, seemed to develop an unhealthy addiction to the local jam.

The Final Leg

The most physically demanding portion of the trip being over, we were now in the home stretch. The only thing that remained was a mini-expedition to the fringes of Kyrgyzstan: to the remote jailoo of Sary Jaz and the Soviet ghost town of Inylchek. 

Sary Jaz and Inylchek are very unique places. Both are located very close to the Chinese and Kazakh borders, meaning they a) require special permits to visit and b) are really out there. This is an opportunity to see a different side of Kyrgyzstan that few have the chance to experience. 

First stop was the ghost town of Inylchek. Gone were the lush pastures and the icy blue rivers that typically define Kyrgyzstan, replaced instead by an arid, desolate landscape and a brown, angry river fed by glacial melt. The town itself (population a few hundred) was composed of the ramshackle remains of an old Soviet mining community that slowly faded away after the fall of the Union. 

guest drying clothes in storm inlychek
One guest took advantage of the wind and dried his wet swimsuit.

Inylchek is a hard place to be in – god knows how the 20,000+ former residents were able to do it. We usually spend a night there camping but our usual spot was made uninhabitable by a growing sandstorm. We opted to stay closer to the river where it was more protected and comfortable.  

The next day we headed to Sary Jaz bright and early. Sary Jaz couldn’t be more different than Inylchek: green, grandiose, and much, much colder. Aside from the handful of military personnel who man the checkpoint, this area is mostly inhabited by nomads. They don’t get many visitors either – few if any can even speak Russian. 

Following the dust bowl that is Inylchek, everyone was happy to be back in the alpine again. The plan was to just chill. Half the group went on a horse ride around the jailoo while the other half decided to just hang out at camp. The following morning, we departed back to Karakol and were afforded clear and rare glimpses of Khan Tengri – a remarkable and regal 7000m peak – in the distance. 

Looking back

Joining, and leading for that matter, an adventure tour is never a straightforward experience. Plans change, conditions become erratic, and the unexpected is always around the corner. During COVID times, this is especially so as mandates and outbreaks cause sudden closures and cancellations.

I could say that these hiccups are the bane of my existence and that they haunt my waking life… 

But the truth is, these are some of the best parts of the journey. These are the moments that make us appreciate the places we are actually in: we overcome the obstacles and earn our passage. In the process, the group becomes stronger and the country more vivid. As much as I try to mitigate the unforeseen as a group leader, I accept it for what it is as well. 

It is, after all, an adventure, right?

storm rolling over jailoo sary jaz kyrgyzstan
Who knows what may come next.

The rest of the trip was smooth sailing. We returned via the north shore of Issyk Kul and dropped by one of my favorite accommodations, a ranch-style lodge in Chong Kemin that appeared straight out of Montana, before eventually making it back to the capital, Bishkek. We had one last dinner together followed by cocktails at one of my favorite speakeasies in the city before saying our final goodbyes.  

I want to thank everyone who came on this trip and helped make it happen. Andrei, Piri, Ivan, the various local guides and porters, and my wonderful guests: Lauren, Tim, Dana, Paulia, Katja, Emily, and Yossi. It was, and always is, a team effort and everyone did their part. I couldn’t have done without all of you and I look forward to seeing everyone again on the next one! 

We’re going back to Kyrgyzstan in 2022! Want to come with us? Stay tuned for new tour dates to be published soon!

More from the blog

Welcome to our Journal!

snow lake trek pakistan

Here at Epic Expeditions, adventure is constantly on our minds. 

Our blog – or Journal as we like to call it – contains epic trip stories, photo diaries, and news about new tours. 

Thanks for checking it out! 

What's new in the journal?

The trip we're most stoked about

Horse Trekking in Mongolia Expedition

Next trip: September 3rd - 17th, 2024

Adventure Guide

Hailing from the Toronto region of Eastern Canada, with a background as a former standout athlete (hockey of course) and a  love of mountain adventure, Clark is a welcomed addition to the Epic team.

In addition to being a keen photographer and adventurer, Clark brings his brilliant sense of humor, leadership skills, and positive attitude to everything he puts his mind to. 

When he is not leading trips, he is working on taking over the hard apple cider game in Canada as a skilled craft brewer. 

Adventure Guide

Noemi grew up in the mountains of German-Speaking Switzerland where she naturally developed a deep love and respect for mountain environments.

She is a talented photographer, aspiring climber, and speaks at least 5 languages fluently including Arabic (and probably a few more that we don’t know about), which she taught herself in a matter of months by watching YouTube videos. 

Noemi has spent the last several years traveling, hiking, and photographing her way around many different countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Europe, and we could not be more stoked to welcome her to the Epic team! 

Adventure Guide

As our man on the ground in Mongolia, there is not much this legend can’t do. As a native the Bayan-Ölgii province of the Western Mongolia Altai, Syerik has been working as a guide and tourism entrepreneur…

for the past several years and is one of the rising stars in Mongolia adventure travel industry. 

He is currently building a beautiful Ger (Yurt) camp near his hometown where he will host Epic Mongolia team members on our trip as well as other travelers from around the world! 

He is the perfect guide for your trip to Mongolia. Serik did an amazing job giving us a well rounded experience in the Altai NP region and down in the Gobi…
The food was fantastic and Serik gave us many opportunities to learn about the Kazakh culture in that region including traditional meals. (I can’t recommend enjoying the milk tea enough!)

– Coastal

Head of canine operations

Choriza started off life as a care-free vagabond on the streets of Madeira Island without any place to call home. From the moment we met her, we knew this dog was just different, and it was pretty much love at first sight. 

She gave up the dog street life in favor of joining her new dad Chris to become a full-time member of the Epic family towards the end of 2022.

These days she can be found listening in on the fringes of important Epic business meetings while half-asleep on the couch. She is a keen hiker, lover of mud, rare steak, and might just be the sweetest little dog we have ever seen. 

Adventure Guide

An experienced trek leader and
IFMGA aspirant ski guide, avid alpine climber, devoted adventure photographer.

Organized and guided trekking expeditions, climbs and ski tours in Tajikistan’s Pamirs, Patagonia, Peru, Morocco, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Georgian and Russian Caucasus and Kamchatka.

A full member and meets the organiser of the British Alpine Club. Visited over 40 countries, lived in the UK for four years. Certified first-aider.

We joined Andrew on a fantastic trip to the Fann Mountains in Tajikistan, pure nature and magnificent scenery! Andrey was super prepared and led us safely up and down numerous passes and through some rough and icy cold rivers. Thank you for a very memorable trip, your planning and prep was excellent!

– Monika Steinlechner

epic expeditions team

Adventure Guide

Our man in Nepal, Sandip is what we like to call a “Swiss Army Knife”. There is not much Sandip can’t do when it comes to helping Epic to run our expeditions smoothly in Nepal.

His tireless work ethic, passion for all things trekking in the Himalayas, and smart decision-making mean that Sandip is a truly invaluable member of our team.

Sandip is passionate about showing visitors to his country an amazing time, and he goes above and beyond to make sure that happens. 

His company Himalayan Masters is Epic’s trusted partner in Nepal and one of the country’s top new tour agencies.

We really enjoyed the entire journey, and I would like to say that Sandip is truly professional. He guided us and he is a hardworking person, providing us with the best service and taking care of each one of us. Plus, he is super funny! The kind of professionnal you always want to find on your path for your explorations! 

– Alexandra Ruth

Fairy Meadows

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Our Favorite Experiences

#1 Sunrise from Reflection Lake

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#2 Hiking to Nanga Parbat Base Camp

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#3 Playing cricket with the locals

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Trips Where We Visit Fairy Meadows

Our flagship Pakistani adventure tour.  Road trip with some  hiking and cultural immersion.

A trekking-style tour that features some very remote locations, inlcuding a K2 viewpoint.

Adventure Guide

João has born in the mountains of Madeira Islands in Portugal. Nature lover, writer, musician, guide, for him, a day without contact with outdoor vibes is a nightmare. 

With a degree in Cultural Studies in Portugal and a Master of Arts in Global Cultures and Creativity in the U.K.

João found out what really matters in life can be found on the trails, and in the contact with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Guiding, crazy trekking missions, and sharing observations about the natural world, – these are some of João’s passions. 

After trekking to K2 Base Camp and exploring all over Northern Pakistan, he fell in love with the country and the local people. His experiences resulted in his desire to share these feelings with the world.

João is one of the most experienced guides at Epic and his skillset and positive mindset in the mountains is second to none

When not in Pakistan, João is  guiding and exploring in the Madeira Islands trails –  discovering some of the hidden treasures on his Portuguese Island.

João I can not thank you enough for the off the beaten paths and views you keep giving. Definitely one of the most challenging and amazing hikes we did 1200m meters all the way up to Fanal forest and circling back to the hidden village. Wow!

– Jeffery 

travel hunza valley

Adventure Guide

Sohail is the newest addition to the Epic team and we are beyond stoked to have him on board. As a veteran of the Karakoram and a native of Karimabad in Hunza, there is not much Sohail can’t do in the mountains. 

Besides having the ability to speak more languages than we can count, Sohail has explored every corner of Gilgit Baltistan and logs more trekking miles 

in a year than most people will do in a lifetime. As of the summer of 2022, Sohail has summited Gasherbrum 1, Gasherbrum 2, and K2 – three of Pakistan’s five 8000-meter peaks. Sohail guides several trips including our annual bespoke expeditions but specializes in Hunza Valley tours.

Chris and Sohail, and the team at Epic are FANTASTIC! Highly recommend anyone to do a tour with ‘Epic’. They have the perfect balance of fun, excitement and wild adventures, tied in with being super professional and ensuring your safety/health in a foreign environment. Don’t waste a moment and book a tour with these guys as the value for money is UNREAL!

– Borgan

iran travel tour

Adventure Guide

Pedro’s been traveling all around the globe since 2009. His keen interests in documentary photography, rural life, and local people from different ethnic groups have been the focus of many of his professional projects.

Since 2012, he has developed his passion for travel and awesome shared experiences into a full-time adventure photography tour leader position.

Pedro has found himself continuously going back to the Middle East, with his likely favorite destination being Iran. Pedro lead his 11th tour in Iran with Epic in spring 2020

When Pedro’s not traveling the world with Epic Expeditions, you’ll find him based in the western south of Portugal planning he’s next adventure missions, logistics and working out his photos in local exhibitions.

 I loved the combination of hiking, camping around breathtaking scenery mixed with the cultural aspects. The guide (Pedro) is knowledgeable and work very hard to make the trip as memorable as possible. All in all an epic adventure with some extremely epic individuals! Go for it, you won’t regret it!

– Coastal

Diane Bouvet

Adventure Admin / Marketing

After fleeing from the corporate fashion world in Paris towards the start of 2020, Diane has been working as a web developer and graphic designer remotely from various bases across the globe

She brings all of her incredible design and organizational power to Epic Expeditions and is responsible for many of the beautiful behind-the-scenes design elements. 

Diane has been to Iran and to Pakistan twice including all over Gilgit Baltistan and KPK.

k2 gondogoro la trek

Head of Operations | Guide

A veteran of Pakistan travel, Ralph is an experienced guide, photographer and writer who specializes in documenting remote locations. 

Not one to simply go where everyone else does, he insists on exploring new and lesser-known areas.

Together with Epic Expeditions, he shows people parts of Pakistan that most other operators don’t even know about. He is particularly fond of the village of Barah, which he believes will become just as famous as Hunza one day.

Just got back from EBT’s Trekking Amongst Giants 15 day tour. The experience was first class. Ralph, our head guide, ensured that the entire trip ran smoothly and relatively on time (a bonus for anyone travelling in Pakistan). We had so many unforgettable days on the tour and the trekking was well-planned, safe but also a rewarding challenge. 

– Calvin

Traveling to a non-tourist destination can be a little intimidating but EBT takes all of the worry and trepidation away. From the pre-trip call to meeting the wonderful staff in person you can tell that you are dealing with a company that has a passion for what they do each and every day. Ralph, Zahid, and Khan were supportive, kind, and always willing to go the extra mile to make sure that everyone on the trip was getting what they wanted out of the experience.

– Katrina 

adventure tours pakistan

Founder | Adventure Guide | Director

Since he started exploring the world, Chris has been seeking out every shade of adventure in various parts of the globe and had visited more than 70 countries along the way. 

Over the last 10 years, Chris has logged more than 7000 trail miles across five continents and climbed multiple 6000 + 7000 meter peaks in Pakistan and Nepal.

A few years back, a distant dream and a deep passion for the mountains and the people of Pakistan led Chris to co-found Epic Expeditions at a time when foreign adventure tourism in Pakistan was almost nonexistent. Since then, Chris has guided more than 20 expeditions to various parts of Northern Pakistan.

Chris believes in using photography and powerful adventure experiences to dismantle negative stereotypes regarding what mainstream media considers “dangerous” countries while facilitating unique and meaningful memories in the mountains for countless people from around the globe. 

For him, an ideal start to the day begins with a steaming cup of good coffee, the beam of a headlamp, alpine boots, and a camera in hand.

He lives in Madeira Island when not leading expeditions in far-flung lands. 

Chris also works as a writer and photographer on his blog Off the Atlas – an adventure travel blog all about Pakistan.  

Read this interview our staff did with Chris to learn more about him!

Chris believes in Pakistan and its people, and he believes in the value of journeys shared with others and family cultivated on the road. Honesty and integrity are at the heart of what he does, and this really shines through in his work as a guide. He also makes great coffee – whether at 5am in an empty guesthouse or half way up a Himalayan peak.”

– Will De Villers

Pakistan is a magical country! Had 3 of the best weeks of my life thanks to Epic Backpacking Tours with owner, and one of our awesome guides, Chris. From detailed itinerary, preparation with an equipment list, and visa assistance. To amazing food, great porters, helpful guides, and great accommodations. Epic really hit home run after home run. […]

Their desire for adventure and amazing trip is just as high as yours. Bring a good pound of coffee for the trip. French press coffee every morning and no average tin coffee, plus you’ll be in your guides good books.

– Clark Tyler

epic backpacker tours

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