Song kul lake in Kyrgyzstan: a travel guide
Before I went to Kyrgyzstan every tour agency I emailed told me it was not possible to get to Song kul lake in may. It would still be too cold and the season only starts in june. It was with much regret that I had to let go of my plan to visit Song kul lake.
Why visit Song kul lake?
Song kul lake is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes to visit in Kyrgyzstan. Almost every guide book describes Song kul lake as a tourist highlight and a must visit on any Kyrgyzstan itinerary. Its the perfect Kyrgyz picture of mountains, yurts and horses and the perfect place to experience the life and culture of the Kyrgyz nomads.
Song kul lake is rather difficult to access which protects it from being overrun by tourists. The alpine lake lies in a remote valley above 3000 meters and is surrounded by high mountain pastures. The fertile marshlands make it a favourite destination for the nomadic Kyrgyz herdsmen to let their livestock graze in the green meadows.
The yurts that stand on the shores of Song kul lake are not only for the Kyrgyz nomads though. Although it is still an off the beaten path destination when backpacking Kyrgyzstan, tourism is increasing every year. The Kyrgyz nomads are happy to welcome visitors and most of the yurt camps are now solely set up for this purpose.
Because of the high altitude the tourist season is a short one. Winters are harsh and long and it can snow any time of the year, even in summer. Therefore most yurt camps will not open their tents before June.
My experience in Song kul lake
It was not easy to let go of my plan to visit Song kul lake and I probably never really did. Once in Kyrgyzstan I couldn’t stop thinking about going there. Was it really impossible?
Kochkor did not respond, but Naryn did. The road had just opened and even though their yurt camp was still setting up camp they could arrange a trip for a reasonable price.
From kochkor to Song kul lake
I met my driver in Kochkor and we left for the incredibly scenic drive from Kochkor to Song kul lake. In Kyrgyzstan you keep thinking the scenery can’t get more beautiful, but even after a month, the country keeps amazing me. Beautiful mountain valleys, small villages and green meadows where horses are grazing passed me by as I looked out of the window.
There was still snow on the mountain pass where we stopped for a little break to enjoy the views. The road was clear, but the lonely toilet shed was completely snowed in. From the top of the pass I could already see Song kul lake in the distance. The journey had been just as spectacular as the lake.
Staying with the nomads
I arrived early afternoon when the people at the CBT yurt camp were still busy. Everywhere there were bundles of wood and felt. One of them was to become my yurt for the night. So far, only the restaurant yurt was finished and I was invited inside for a cup of tea.
The rest of the afternoon I spend hiking around the lake and watching my yurt camp in action. I was impressed to see the speed and efficiency with which the yurts were build. Once the sun was going down most of them were set up.
The sunset was incredible by the way. Everything I read about Song kul lake was true. It is indeed one of the most beautiful places to visit in Kyrgyzstan. The nomadic family that was running the yurt camp made a delicious late dinner and served me lots of tea to keep warm.
It was a cold night. When it was time to go to bed the son of the family first lighted up the stove in my yurt. It was quite cozy inside with the fire burning and the colourful felt carpets. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep.
When I woke up the next morning the fire had long stopped and it was difficult to leave the comfort of my warm blankets. The outdoor toilet was a simple wooden shed far removed from the actual yurts. The grass was still frozen and so was the water in the toilet.
Back at my yurt a warm cup of tea was already waiting for me. With the rising sun the lake looked different from yesterday evening. Different colours were reflected in the water. After breakfast I took another walk along the lakeshore before heading back to Naryn and Bishkek.
The legends of Song kul lake
Song kul lake is not only a tourist highlight, but also an extremely important place for the Kyrgyz people. For a long time the lake has been a meeting place for the different tribes in the area and around the shoreline you will find ancient burial mounds and stone monuments. Kyrgyz people believe the lake is sacred and many come to pray.
Many legends about the lake exist among the Kyrgyz nomads. One story tells about a powerful king. His harem consisted of the most beautiful girls in the Tien Shan mountains, but they suffered a lot under his cruelty. Their suffering crushed the mountains and flooded the valley where the kings palace stood. This became song kul lake whose stunning scenery still reflects the beauty of the king’s wives.
Things to do in Song kul lake
Song kul lake is surrounded by the Tien Shan mountains and high altitude summer pastures. It’s a spectacular location, but there is not a lot to do except for enjoying the scenery and getting to know the Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle and culture in the so called jailoo’s.
Horse back riding
Every yurt camp at Song kul lake can organise horse back riding trips around the lake and up into the mountains. It’s a great way to explore the area. If I wasn’t afraid of horses I would have done it for sure, because this is definitely one of the best places in Kyrgyzstan for horse back riding.
Hiking up the mountains
Without horses the best thing to do at Song kul lake is wandering around. Basically anywhere you go its beautiful. Just go a bit higher in the mountains for spectacular panorama views over the lake.
Watching the sunset
The sunsets at Song kul lake are incredible and definetly worth the somewhat cold experience. Once the sun is gone, temperatures go down quickly. Dress warmly and bring a torch and then enjoy the colours in the sky change.
Watching the stars
At night it is also worth getting out of your yurt to see the stars. There is almost zero light pollution at Song kul lake and being at a high altitude makes the stars even more bright. On a clear night it is almost as if you can touch them and you can easily see the milky way.
Truth must be told that you must be very lucky to spot any wildlife at Song kul lake as most species are highly endangered. Deer, bears, wolves, lynx and snow leopards have become extremely rare, because of illegal hunting. Therefore parts of the area are now protected and the Karatal Japyryk Nature Reserve was established.
The animals you are most likely to see are horses, sheep, goats, cows, yak and the occasional wild marmot. Song kul lake is also still a great destination for birdwatching. It is an official ramsar site, because of its importance as a stop over point for a variety of migrating birds such as black stocks and mountain geese. There are over 70 species of birds.
Where to sleep in Song kul lake
If you have your own tent there is nobody stopping you from camping at the shores of Song kul lake. It will probably be one of the most beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan to do so. However, bring enough warm clothes, food and water with you. Even in summer it gets very cold at night.
In summer there are a number of yurt camps welcoming tourists. Sleeping in a yurt is one of the best ways to experience Kyrgyz nomadic life. It is the only option if you don’t have your own tent.
Each travel agency has their own yurt camps that they work with. Most of them will accomodate independent travellers as well. The yurts charge around 10 USD per night including breakfast and dinner.
Facilities at the yurt camps are basic. The yurts will either have beds or matresses on the floor with blankets. The toilet is outdoors and probably nothing more than a hole in the ground.
Where to eat in Song kul lake
There are no restaurants and you will eat at your yurt camp. There is plenty of tea. For dinner and breakfast you can expect basic Kyrgyz cuisine like plov, laghman or dimlama. It’s possible to request a packed lunch if you like to go on a day long horse back riding or hiking trip. However, it is a good idea to bring some snacks and enough water with you.
If you are vegetarian I would make sure to tell your hosts or travel agency beforehand so they can take this into account when preparing food for you.
When to visit Song kul lake
Above 3000 meters winters are harsh and long and the road from Kochkor or Naryn to Son kol lake is closed, most of the year, because of snow.
Therefore the tourist season is short and runs from June till September. Yurt camps open up their doors in the last week of may and close in mid october.
That said, Song kul lake can be visited on the back of a horse throughout the year, even in winter when the lake is frozen and covered in snow. You can read this excellent post about going on a horse trek in winter.
Going off season does mean you need to prepare well and go through a travel agency. Only a handful of yurts are open and it will be very cold so it will be dangerous if you don’t have good horses and the proper equipment.
Hiking or cycling independently to Song kul lake is only possible in summer.
How to get to Song kul lake
There is no public transport to Song kol lake and the difficulty in getting there is part of the fun. Basically there are three options. The most popular way to travel to Song kol lake is on the back of a horse and this is possible all year long. The other option is by road and requires your own mode of transport. In summer you can also hike or cycle independently to the lake.
Horse back riding trips
Horse treks are one of the most popular ways to reach Song kol lake. They can take between 1 to 3 days and even longer if you like.
The advantage of horse treks is that they are available any time. The disadvantage is that you need to go through a travel agency and that this is certainly not the cheapest option. Reliable agencies are CBT kochkor, CBT Naryn and Kyrgyz Nomad.
For more information I can recommend this post from Journal of Nomads about horse treks to song kol lake.
In summer you can also hike independently to Song kol lake. It takes about 3 days and you can start in Kochkor or Kyzart. From June till September you can stay in yurt camps along the way and if you are an experienced hiker you don’t necessarily need a guide.
In the off season, there will be no yurt camps so be prepared to bring everything you need (tent, sleeping bags, food, water). It can get really cold as well and there might be snow. Regarding safety it is better to go with a guide if you travel outside of the summer tourist season.
From Bishkek to Song kul lake by car
When travelling from Bishkek to Song kul lake you can take a combination of public transport and your own transport. The first part is to get to Kochkor. From Bishkek to Kochkor there are frequent minivans or shared taxi’s. The journey takes about 3 hours.
From Kochkor to Song kul lake by car
In Kochkor you need to arrange your own transport to the lake. I arranged a car with driver through CBT Naryn. There is a CBT in Kochkor as well, but they were slow in responding and when they did they turned out more expensive as well.
You pay per car and it is therefore best if you can find a group of people and share the costs. The journey takes about 3 hours.
You can also rent a car. Whether you need a 4 by 4 depends on the weather. If there is no rain there is no need for it, but if there is heavy rain the last part of the road becomes pretty bad.
From Naryn to Song kul lake by car
Most people start their journey in Kochkor, because Kochkor is closest to Bishkek. However, it is also possible to get to Song kol lake from Naryn. CBT Naryn can arrange transportation. The journey is very scenic and takes around 3 hours.
What to pack for Song kul lake
Warm clothes: it can get very cold in song kul lake, even in summer
Snacks and water: there are no shops in song kul lake and although you are fed well at the yurt camps it is a good idea to bring some snacks and enough water with you. Consider bringing a water filter so you can refill your own bottle.
Toilet paper: toilet facilities are very basic. Bring some toilet paper and wet wipes.
Sunscreen: remember that at higher altitudes the sun is more strong and you get sunburn more easily.
Money: There is no ATM at the lake, so bring enough money in Kyrgyz som to pay for your yurt stay.
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