Sary Mogul Kyrgyzstan: a guide to the Alay mountains
Even though it was my second visit to Kyrgyzstan I had never heard of Sary Mogul and the Alay mountains. Only because it was included in my Pamir highway tour I ended up in this small town in the Alay valley in Southern Kyrgyzstan.
My arrival in Sary Mogul was in the middle of the night after a scary journey over the icy Kyzylart pass. Not something I recommend to do in the dark, but as I fell ill with altitude sickness at Karakul I was required to go down. Crossing the border from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan and then heading to Sary Mogul was the best option.
Sary Mogul at night looks grubby at best. Our driver carefully avoided some sleepwalking donkeys and chickens. Luckily the local CBT responded to our calls and arranged a place for us to stay with a friendly family. It was only in the morning that I saw the beauty of Sary mogul and the Alay mountains.
Why visit Sary Mogul and the Alay mountains
Sary Mogul is just a tiny small town with not much to do besides getting a feel for rural Kyrgyz life. However, Sary Mogul is also the gateway to the Alay mountains and Lenin Peak.
Most people include Sary Mogul in their Kyrgyzstan itinerary to do the easy hike to Lenin Peak basecamp or to make a serious attempt to climb Lenin Peak. Some say it is one of the easiest 7000 meter mountains to climb, although it definetly still needs careful preparation.
I didn’t even make it all the way to the Lenin Peak Basecamp, because there was still too much snow. Regardless, Sary Mogul was a highlight of my trip to Kyrgyzstan. The mountain sceneries and views are just so beautiful even if you do not leave the small town of Sary Mogul.
Despite the snow, we attempted to hike towards Lenin Peak Basecamp to see how far we would come. It was extremely scenic with a number of frozen lakes. Somewhere beyond Tulpar lake we were having a picknick lunch on top of a hill with a magnificent view on Lenin Peak. It was there that I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place in Kyrgyzstan.
Lenin Peak is definitely not the only reason to come to sary Mogul though. There are several other multi day hikes in the Alay mountains that are maybe even more spectacular.
The Alay mountains are still receiving few tourists as not many make it this far south in Kyrgyzstan. Even those that do the Pamir highway often head straight from Osh to Karakul or Murgab in Tajikistan. A pity, because Sary Mogul is among the top places to visit in Kyrgyzstan and definetly one of the highlights in any Pamir highway itinerary.
Things to do in Sary Mogul
1. Sary Mogul bazaar
To get a sense of every day village life you can visit the photogenic Sary Mogul bazaar. It’s a typical Kyrgyz bazaar where old men with traditional kalpak hats bargain with the old women selling local produce. It’s quite lively for a village of only 3000 people and a great place to try some local delicacies like kurut (dried yoghurt balls) and kymyz (fermented mare’s milk).
Insider tips: the bigger regional market is on Thursdays. Come early morning when it is busiest.
2. Tulpar Lake
Tulpar Kol is a beautiful mountain lake in the Alay mountains. It is certainly not the only lake, but one of the lakes that is easiest to visit from Sary Mogul. In summer there are several yurt camps making it an excellent place to stay a few days.
You can either relax and get a sense of the Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle or take several day hikes in the area. Example day hikes from Tulpar lake are the hike to Lenin Peak Basecamp and the Travellers pass or to the Tuiuk Gorge
How to get there: Tulpar kol lake is 25 kilometers from Sary Mogul. It’s a 8 hour hike through the green rolling hills or a 45 minute drive by private car. It’s 1500 som per car through CBT (one way).
I recommend to come by car and save your time and energy for hiking around Tulpar lake. The scenery here is much more beautiful than the rather long walk from Sary Mogul.
Where to stay: yurt camps are available in the summer for 1000 som per night with breakfast and dinner.
3. Lenin Peak
Lenin Peak is the main reason most people come to Sary Mogul in the first place. On a clear day Lenin Peak is visible from the village. It stands tall at the edge of the Pamir mountains and at the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
If you are planning to climb Lenin Peak, come well prepared. Although it is considered one of the easiest mountains of over 7000 meters to climb, it is still a real challenge that is not for the faint of heart. It is a 3 week expedition and doing it alone without a guide would be foolish in my opinion.
If you are more into gentle day hikes the trek from Tulpar Kol lake to the Lenin Peak basecamp and the Travellers Pass will give you a good taste of the majestic Lenin Peak.
The Travellers Pass is a viewpoint at 4150 meters with views on Lenin peak and several glaciers. It’s a 7 kilometer hike (3-4 hours) from Lenin peak Basecamp so perfect for a day hike from either basecamp or Tulpar lake. Here is an excellent description of the Travellers Pass hike.
4. Trekking in the Alay mountains
Lenin Peak and Tulpar lake are not the only attractions near Sary Mogul. There are various options if it comes to trekking in the Alay mountains and none of them will dissapoint you. Some of the easier day hikes from Sary Mogul include the Beshkol lake and the Koshkol lakes.
To get a real taste of Kyrgyz nomadic life in the jailoo’s (summer pastures) of the Alay mountains you can go on longer treks as well. A good starting point for planning multi day treks in the Alay mountains is Visit Alay with whom we planned our Pamir highway tour. They organize treks up to 6 days.
5. Learn about Kyrgyz culture
To promote community based tourism CBT and Visit Alay can organize several interesting excursions where you can learn more about traditional Kyrgyz culture. Examples are bread making workshops and local handicraft demonstrations. They also organize a mountain yak festival at Tulpar kol lake every summer.
Where to stay in Sary Mogul
A good starting point for finding accomodation in Sary Mogul is the local CBT that has a good network of homestays. We had a good experience with them and even though their own guesthouse was full we stayed with a friendly family.
Most Guesthouses cost between $15 and $20 dollar a night including breakfast.
Where to eat in Sary Mogul
There are several basic restaurants at the Sary Mogul bazaar serving the standard central asian dishes like laghman, plov or pelmeni.
I recommend to eat at your guesthouse. All guesthouses are serving homemade food that is better than what you will get at the restaurants. Although the dishes will be similar it will be of much better quality.
How to reach Sary Mogul
From Kyrgyzstan: The best way to travel to sary Mogul is from Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan. There is a daily marshrutka at 2 pm from Osh to Daroot Korgon stopping in most settlements in the Alay valley. Make sure you are at the Osh bus station around 1 pm to get a seat (300 som) and expect to be in Sary Mogul around 6 pm.
Alternatively there are shared taxi’s for 400 som per seat that leave when full from the New bus station in Osh. There should be several shared taxi’s that leave throughout the day.
Private cars from Osh to Sary Mogul are available for 3000 soms per car.
If you come from Bishkek you can read here how to get from Bishkek to Osh. It would be a very long day to travel from Bishkek to Sary Mogul and it is recommended to stay the night in Osh. There are plenty of things to do in Osh to enjoy yourself for a day or two.
From China: If you enter Kyrgyzstan from China through the Irkeshtam pass your first stop will be the town of Sary Tash. Shared taxi’s from Sary Tash to Sary Mogul (30 kilometers, less than one hour) leave from the intersection where there is the local mosque and the Taichy store.
From Tajikistan: From Murgab you can take a shared taxi to Osh crossing the Kyzyl art Pass. Ask to be dropped off in Sary Tash. Preferably at the intersection where the shared taxi’s to Sary Mogul leave. They depart from the intersection where there is the local mosque and the Taichy store. The journey is less than an hour.
When to visit Sary Mogul and the Alay mountains
If you want to go trekking in the Alay mountains the travel season in Sary Mogul is quite short from June till September. This time of the year most snow will have melt and there is great weather with clear blue skies.
In October it will get too cold already and the chance of snowfall in Sary Mogul increases. Although May also has good weather there is still a lot of snow from the winter season. This makes trekking in the Alay mountains quite difficult at that time.
I visited in early May and it was impossible to reach Tulpar lake by car and even on foot we could not make it to Lenin peak Basecamp.
What to bring on a trip to Sary Mogul and the Alay mountains
Warm clothes and rain gear: the weather can change pretty quickly in the Alay mountains. Bring warm clothes with you any time of the year, even in summer.
A Russian phrasebook or Google translate: most people in Sary Mogul don’t speak english so a phrasebook or the Google translate app will greatly improve communication. Although Kyrgyz is their first language, almost everybody understands Russian as well.
Local Sim card: the wifi in most guesthouses isn’t very reliable so if you want to make sure you have internet, buy yourself a local sim card in Kyrgyzstan.
Camping gear: if you plan to do hikes on your own outside of Tulpar Kol lake you need to bring your own camping gear. You can rent this in either Bishkek or Osh, but not on Sary Mogul.
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