6 September 2017
Our trip to Jyrgalan did not get off to a good start.
Armed with what turned out to be all the wrong information – the wrong bus schedule, the wrong bus stop and even the wrong village of ‘Jergalan’ marked on our maps – we wandered around hopelessly at Karakol’s sprawling Ak-Tilek Bazaar for, in all seriousness, close to four hours, popping in sporadically at cafes to use their wifi and trying to figure out how the bloody hell we could have gotten it all so very wrong.
As we ambled between watermelon stands and bakeries asking regularly for directions and enthusiastically being ushered on in the direction we were going, it at some point dawned on us that Kyrgyz people are absolutely lovely, friendly and willing to help out a weary and defeated foreigner – but they have absolutely no idea where Jyrgalan is or how you should go about getting there.
Hell bent on being helpful though, they will smile and point and assure you that yes, you are in fact heading to the correct place even though you’ve spent the better part of a morning walking around in circles.
After such an ordeal, we nearly threw in the towel altogether.
Perhaps the tiny village of Jyrgalan we knew so very little about and yet were so eager to reach just wasn’t meant to be a part of our Kyrgyzstan adventure.
A few hours later though we found ourselves very gratefully squeezed into the final marshrutka of the day, close to 7 hours after leaving our hostel that morning, finally (finally!!) on our way to Jyrgalan.
Peering through the cracked windscreen 2 hours later revealed mint-coloured cottages beside the muddy street and snow-capped peaks that morphed into silhouette as the final streaks of orange were consumed by the night sky.
Clambering out into the dusk between the small congregation of farm houses, we knew we had arrived somewhere quite special.
Cradled in the foothills of the Tian Shan, the quaint rural village of Jyrgalan is a place frequented by few international tourists.
Originally established as a mining town to support the nearby coal mine, the closing of operations essentially put a halt to the local economy and forced many to retreat to larger cities to find work.
Today though, its location in the lush Jyrgalan Valley that feeds into the mountains makes it a prime destination for outdoor adventures, both in summer and winter. With the help of USAID, infrastructure in Jyrgalan is slowly growing in the hopes of boosting tourism in the area and realising its potential as a key player in Kyrgyzstan’s thriving trekking scene.
At this stage though, Jyrgalan still flies wonderfully under the radar and retains every ounce of that authentic, rural village charm we’ve come to love. Really, anyone looking for a back country adventure where few foreigners have set foot will quickly discover that this high-alpine sanctuary provides the perfect opportunity.
Setting off by mid-morning, accompanied by two playful canines from our guesthouse, we didn’t have a particularly clear idea of where we were heading.
Content simply with fresh mountain air and pristine valley views, we wandered onward for a day’s exploration in the wilderness.
Soon enough though, we were rock-hopping across rivers and winding through alpine forests and lush summer pastures towards the craggy peaks that pierced the horizon.
Yurts and cattle dotted the lush summer pastures – the jailoo where animals roam freely. A chance to fatten up before winter.
Men on horseback expertly wielded their steeds steeply uphill, shepherding their sheep and cattle toward fresher blades of grass.
Before long we reached a fork in the road, two paths marked ‘A’ and ‘T.T.’, initials that did not correspond, even vaguely, to any place names on our map. On a whim we followed the ‘A’, continuing along the rubble track we could see meandering further up the valley.
A rise in the road led to views over blushing yellow plains and peaks streaked in snow – a perfect spot for a picnic.
As we turned back toward Jyrgalan, thunder rumbled in the distance. A storm brewing over mountains still hidden from view.
Our pace quickened down the valley, spurred on by the wind and impending threat of the daily downpour that seemed to arrive like clockwork by mid-afternoon.
Kicking off our muddy boots, our countryside ramble over for the day, we slid inside, grateful for the cup of tea awaiting our arrival as heavy raindrops began to tinker on the tin roof.
With Karakol leading the way as the Kyrgyzstan’s main hiking destination, its trails are starting to become exceedingly popular during the summer months. Jyrgalan, on the other hand, offers up a taste of authentic Kyrgyz village life surrounded by stunning mountains and lush countryside where you’re unlikely to cross paths with another tourist, whether you’re venturing out for several days or just one.
From how to get there, the best hikes to do and where to stay, here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip to Jyrgalan.
As we mentioned, we had a number of woes in actually getting to Jyrgalan, and we weren’t the only ones.
We met travellers who had ended up at a Sanitorium ‘Jergalan’, many who had tried to jump off the marshrutka half an hour too early at the annoyingly similarly named ‘Jergalan’ where Google maps tries to send you, and more still who had done as we almost had and given up after missing the ‘first’ bus which, as it turns out, doesn’t even exist.
Really though, when given the correct bus times and location, getting to Jyrgalan is actually exceedingly simple.
Marshrutka 331 leaves from the Ak-Tilek market (the big bazaar) at the Aldeshev/Derbishev intersection (see map here) at 8:30, 13:30 and 17:30 (16:30 in winter). Arrive around half an hour early to ensure you get a seat as it will fill up. The marshrutka to Jyrgalan takes close to 2 hours and costs 80 som ($1.20).
Confusingly, the marshrutka is not labelled with Jyrgalan, but rather Shakta (ШАХТА), the village’s official name. There is also another marshrutka 331 that leaves from the same spot in between these times but only goes as far as Boz Uchuk – don’t catch this bus.
To return, marshrutkas leave from Jyrgalan at 7:30, 11:30 and 16:30.
In the past few years, Jyrgalan has been getting a gentle spruce up, with the main aim of turning it into one of Kyrgyzstan’s key trekking destinations.
Though a big focus has been on establishing a handful of multi-day treks (see these guides, here and here), those looking for shorter outdoor explorations will find plenty of one-day hikes in Jyrgalan to keep you occupied.
After crossing the river from the village we headed up the steep hillside onto the escarpment and followed the dirt road left for around 10 km – a beautiful introduction to the Jyrgalan Valley. The major intersection, marked by ‘A’ pointing to the left and ‘T.T.’ pointing right we now know refers to Ailampa Lake and Terim Tor Valley – places that are still not shown on the map. Following the ‘A’ to the rise and small clearing beside the river provides a beautiful end point for a day’s hike before returning to Jyrgalan.
If you have more time, the slightly harder version heads left from this point and runs straight up a steep valley to Kyle’s Pass, leading back to Jyrgalan via Robbers’ Valley.
Another day hike takes you to Kok Bell waterfall. On our online map the falls were incorrectly marked, though your guesthouse should be able to give you correct instructions on getting there. The waterfall also only flows after heavy rain or snow melt so be sure to check before setting out.
In the mountains, the weather can change quickly and afternoon storms are not uncommon. Bring warm clothes and plenty of food and water for your hike.
Also, while the main trails have the odd painted arrow to help you along, not all trails are that well marked so be sure to bring some sort of map, or if you’re not confident, consider taking a guide.
A decent scale hiking map of the area is in the works and planned to be available by summer 2018. We used Maps.me during our visit which, admittedly, does not have many of the trails listed, but there’s enough there to keep you from getting lost on a day’s hike. At the very least it has the village marked in the correct location, unlike Google maps.
If you’re leaning towards taking a guide, a half/full day’s hike will cost around 1,300/2,500 som ($19/$36), while a half/full day excursion on horseback will be around 700/1,300 som ($10/$19). It’s best to arrange these services a few days before arrival to ensure guides and horses are available.
From what was previously just one guest house in the village, four more home stays have sprung up in the past year offering comfortable private rooms, hot showers and traditional meals.
Though the town gets few visitors, it’s best to book in advance so your host can prepare for your stay.
Alakol-Jyrgalan Guesthouse is the main place of accommodation, though the others are arguably just as comfortable.
Officially, prices range from 1,000 to 1,500 som ($14.50 to $22) per person, including breakfast, though we met solo travellers who paid slightly less. Dinner costs an extra 350 som ($5) and lunch packs can be provided if you’re heading into the mountains.
If you’re hoping to spend a night in the Jyrgalan Valley but don’t have a tent, there are also a handful of yurts dotted along the trails that can sometimes provide a bed and meals for hikers in the summer months. Eki Chat, near the main ‘A’ and ‘T.T’ intersection is the most established.
Or you can rent a set of camping equipment in Karakol for your trip.
Contact Tynch of Destination Jyrgalan on WhatsApp (+996 5565 21138) to organise accommodation, plan your hikes and check the marshrutka schedule. He is a wealth of information and speaks excellent English.