Jyrgalan, Kyrgyzstan: the ultimate travel guide
This post is about Jyrgalan in Kyrgyzstan. In 2014 when I first visited Karakol nobody knew about Jyrgalan. However, when I returned to Kyrgyzstan in 2019 it was one of the most popular destinations for those that love outdoor activities like hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking.
I went to Jyrgalan as well and it was a highlight of my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan. It was then that I learned that Jyrgalan was part of a development project trying to bring new life to this old mining town. They were right that Jyrgalan was a hidden gem and that the spectacular mountains were reason enough for people to come here.
The result is Destination Jyrgalan. A community based tourism organization that has set up a number of exciting hiking trails, horse back riding routes and mountain biking paths. In addition, there is also a network of excellent homestays that makes Jyrgalan a very welcoming outdoors paradise.
The history of Jyrgalan
The history of Jyrgalan is the history of many villages in the former Soviet Union. In 1932 Jyrgalan developed into a prosperous mining town with a tight knit community. When the Soviet Union collapsed the mines were no longer profitable and almost everybody in town lost their jobs.
Despite the natural beauty, people did not see a future in their village. But then Kyrgyzstan introduced its visa free regime and tourism increased. Luckily, the community realized its own potential and with the help of Destination Karakol tourists quickly found their way to Jyrgalan.
My experience in Jyrgalan
Before going to Jyrgalan I was a bit skeptical. Was Jyrgalan really worth a visit or was it something that was made more interesting by the USAID project. Most travelblogs about Jyrgalan that I read online were invited on a trip by USAID to promote this little village.
Pictures can do a lot in making a place look more beautiful than it really is. In the case of Jyrgalan it was the opposite though. Pictures can’t do justice to the natural beauty of the village and its surroundings.
I visited the Destination Jyrgalan office to see what I could do during my visit. Although they are happy to organize tours, they are also willing to provide you with lots of information in case you want to go out on your own. With a number of beautiful self guided day hikes, I realized I had to make some though choices in the three days I was there.
Things to do in Jyrgalan
Day hike to Turnaluu Kol Lake & Chaar Jon Panorama
The first day hike I made, was a loop on the Chaar Jon mountains above Jyrgalan to the Turnaluu Kol lake. From there you have beautiful panoramic views on the village below and the snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan mountains towering above it.
In my opinion this was the most spectacular day hike I made. I had a bit of a difficult time finding the lake and the trail to Turnaluu Kol lake is not always easy to spot, but it is certainly possible without a guide.
Kilometers: 14 kilometer (7 – 8 hours loop)
Day hike to Eki Chat Yurt camp & Robbers Canyon
The Robbers Canyon loop was another hike offering spectacular mountain sceneries. The first part is an easy trail alongside the river that leads to the scenic jailoo pastures of Eki Chat (8 kilometers, 2 hours). In summer there is a yurt camp here where you can stay the night.
Because of the weather that changed from a bright sunny morning to sudden hail storms I made it as far as Eki chat and then returned the same way. However, you can also make a loop returning through the Robbers Canyon.
To make the loop after Eki Chat cross the small river and then turn left for the rocky uphill climb along a stream. On the top of the pass just follow the ridge untill the village comes back into view.
Kilometers: 19 kilometers (6-7 hours)
Day hike to Tulpar Tash rock & Chunkur Tor lake
Tulpar Tash translates as horse rock and the iconic stone is quite important for the locals who believe it was mentioned in the ancient epic of Manas. The most important poem in Kyrgyz literature about the hero Manas who fought to protect the independence of Kyrgyzstan.
With more than half a million phrases the epic is longer than the Odysee and the Mahabaratha. In one story the horse of Manas jumps from a rock to scatter his enemies. The Tulpar Tash rock has several ancient drawings and some even see the horses footprint in them.
Tulpar Tash rock is surrounded by beautiful jailoo pastures dotted with wildflowers in spring. From Tulpar Tash rock you can either continue your hike towards the Eki Chat yurt camp or head up to Chunkur Tor lake.
Kilometers: 14 kilometer (5-6 hours)
Day hike to Kok Bel waterfall
The one hike I had to skip, because I had no time was to the Kok Bel waterfall. Apparently this is one of the easiest hikes to do on your own with a well marked path and a gentle uphill walk.
Kilometers: 12 kilometers (4-5 hours)
Multi day treks
So far I have only mentioned day hikes that are possible to do on your own without a guide and without your own camping gear. If you are interested in multi day treks there are also several options.
If you are an experienced and confident trekker that is happy to carry your own camping gear plus food you can even do the multi day treks on your own. However, for your safety it’s still best to register yourself at the Destination Jyrgalan office who will give you tips, information and the latest weather forecast.
Do keep in mind that the multi day treks bring you to isolated areas and weather can be unpredictable. Don’t go there without the proper gear or if you don’t have any high altitude experience. In that case you can rent equipment, a guide and a packing horse through Destination Jyrgalan.
For a solo traveller these prices might add up, but if you can manage to gather a group of people you can split the costs.
Horse back riding
All the day hikes and even some of the multiple day treks mentioned in this post are also possible to book as a horse back riding trip. I have to admit that I am a little bit scared of horses, but if you do like horse back riding Jyrgalan is one of the best places in Kyrgyzstan to do so.
As well as hiking and horse back riding it’s also possible to explore the Jyrgalan valley on a mountain bike. Destination Jyrgalan continues to explore new mountain biking trails as we speak.
You can rent mountain bikes from Salamat guesthouse and Rahat guesthouse independently or book a mountain biking tour through Destination Jyrgalan.
Not yet part of the Destination Jyrgalan activities is exploring the Jyrgalan valley on a squad buggy. I happened to see them in the garden of the neighbours at Salamat guesthouse.
The owner was just preparing them for the upcoming summer season and I was one of his first customers. Going off road through the jailoo pastures of the Jyrgalan valley was a very fun experience.
If you want a change from all the outdoor activities there is also the opportunity to learn more about Kyrgyz culture. Destination Jyrgalan can organize cooking classes, traditionel felt making workshops or horse game demonstrations.
Although most hikes would be off limits, Jyrgalan remains a great destination to visit in winter. From november till march there is a thick blanket of snow turning Jyrgalan into a magical winter wonderland.
Even in winter there is a range of outdoor activities waiting for you such as skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. If it gets too cold you can always warm up in a Russian banya.
Jyrgalan Travel Tips
Where to sleep in Jyrgalan
Jyrgalan has an excellent network of homestays. Because they all received hospitality training through USAID and the owners are all very friendly you can’t really go wrong in Jyrgalan.
I stayed at the friendly Salamat Guesthouse and can’t recommend it enough. Nazira really made the best food I had in Kyrgyzstan and she totally changed my mind about Kyrgyz cuisine. Every meal was a feast and absolutely delicious.
Salamat guesthouse was a very welcoming homestay and for me the homestay experience was one of the reasons Jyrgalan was such a highlight in my Kyrgyzstan trip. Other homestays with good reviews are Rahat Guesthouse and Baitor Guesthouse
I also visited Alakol Jyrgalan Guesthouse that is home to the Destination Jyrgalan office. This guesthouse probably has the best facilities and is a great place to meet other travellers, but lacks the hospitality and charm of a homestay.
Where to eat in Jyrgalan
Jyrgalan has no restaurants yet, but all guesthouses can provide three meals a day at a set price. Breakfast is always included and you can add dinner or lunch as you like. In my guesthouse they could also make a packed lunch box to take with me on my day hike.
I don’t know if I was lucky, but Nazira at Salamat Guesthouse was an excellent cook. Her delicious Kyrgyz meals alone are a reason for me to want to go back to Jyrgalan.
There are some shops with a limited choice of snacks. For water its best to bring a water filter with you so you can fill up your bottle in rivers and streams when you are hiking in the mountains. At Salamat guesthouse we could also fill up our bottles with filtered water.
When to visit Jyrgalan
Jyrgalan is a year round destination and every season has its own charms. Come in winter for winter sports and in summer for hiking. If your aim is to do multi day treks the season runs from June till September.
Spring and Autumn are transition months. I was there in May and most of the high altitude treks were still closed due to snow. I even had a little bit of snowfall when I was at the Eki Chat gorge. However, it was also the time when the wildflowers were in bloom. I can imagine autumn has its own beauty with the colours in the trees.
How to get to Jyrgalan
There are three minivans per day between Karakol and Jyrgalan. If you leave from Karakol I would advise to come at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure time if you want a seat. The bus fills up quickly and the journey takes between 1 and 2 hours.
Sustainable travel in Jyrgalan
Although Jyrgalan is still an off the beaten path destination, tourism is increasing. While Tourism is a welcome source of income it can also have negative consequences. Visiting Jyrgalan sustainably will help preserve the pristine beauty of this remote village in Kyrgyzstan and support the local community.
Leave no Trace principle: Jyrgalan is famous for its natural beauty, and it’s crucial to keep it that way. To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
When exploring the area around Jyrgalan, stick to designated trails when they are there, avoid disturbing wildlife or picking plants, and leave no trace of your presence. Ensure you take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. Even better, is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.
Respect the culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to be sensitive of the community’s way of life. Kyrgyzstan is an Islamic country with a nomadic culture that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly. Learning a few basic phrases in Kyrgyz or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
I highly recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
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