Off the Tourist Trail in Kyrgyzstan: 5 Reasons to go to Sary-Mogol

When you tell people you’re traveling to Kyrgyzstan, that’s already pretty far off the beaten global tourist track. The response you will probably get from most people is a big question mark: “Where’s Kyrgyzstan?” and “what language do they speak there?” might be common questions. So when considering where you plan to head in this small but beautiful country which is over 90% mountainous, you may be tempted to follow the blazed trail of most tourists and stay closer to the more popular northern regions. Given the sheer number of tourists from around the world who even make it to Kyrgyzstan, no matter where you go, it will be far from touristy. But if you can venture south, you will not regret it. The South is not only more traditional Kyrgyz (compared to what is often termed the more Russified north, by both locals and travel guide books), but you will find, it offers so much you didn’t even know existed in Kyrgyzstan, providing a good balance to help you better understand the country’s dynamic.

In our 2 month journey in Central Asia, the highlights of our adventure always seemed to be in the small places we almost decided to skip, off the tourist radar, and partly because of this, often turned out to be our favourite places. Sary-Mogol, the small village in the mountainous Alay Region of Southern Kyrgyzstan of 5,000 people, was no exception. It turned out to be one of the main highlights of our time in Kyrgyzstan. Located at 3,200 meters in elevation, over 3 hours car-ride from the southern city of Osh (over a stunning mountain pass, I must add), it’s not exactly en-route to getting anywhere else on your itinerary. Instead, it should BE the place on your itinerary. Below are 5 reasons why you should put Sary-Mogol on your must-go list when traveling Kyrgyzstan. And because in today’s digital world, photos and videos speak louder than words, I’ll illustrate with my favourite photos of our time there, and the videos we volunteered to make for Community-Based Tourism CBT Sary-Mogol as part of our experience volunteering in Kyrgyzstan and our responsible travel initiative in Central Asia.

  1. World-class hiking and the best view of the amazing Peak Lenin

Peak Lenin is hands-down the main reason most tourists make the journey to Sary-Mogol. Standing at 7,134 meters high, Sary-Mogol offers a day-hike ending at the best viewpoint of the highest mountain in the entire Alay Region. Mountaineers and extreme hikers have been going for years. But what most people don’t realize is that the most popular hike is not actually that hard. It’s a day hike with an option to stay overnight in the CBT-owned traditional nomadic yurt camp along the shores of the stunning Tulpar-Kol Lake (another reason to go!).

Video of our hike to the best view of Peak Lenin, in low season (and on a cloudy day), to the tune of a popular Kyrgyz song!

2. Beautiful pristine high-altitude lakes: Tulpar-Kol and Besh-Kol 

The two lakes we hiked to were the most famous and commonly visited: Tulpar-Kol (meaning flying horse lake), located at the base of the Peak Lenin Hike (and CBT Yurt Camp) and Besh-Kol (meaning 5 lakes), both of which are day hikes from Sary Mogol, and both requiring a driver from CBT Sary-Mogol to take you to the start of the hike (guide is optional but recommended for Besh-Kol unless you are a good navigator). All I can say is, absolutely stunning and totally worth the high-altitude climbs! Just remember, when hiking at high-altitude, you will get tired faster. Be like me, and blame your frequent stops to the altitude, and use those rest stops for photo-ops!

Check out the Besh-Kol (5 Lakes) day hike – the 1,100 meter climb to over 4,000 meters in elevation was worth it!

3. Local Kyrgyz culture at the Thursday Morning Animal Market

Before going to Sary-Mogol, we searched the internet but there wasn’t much that allowed us to really picture what kind of village we were headed to. As it turns out, it’s pretty much a one street village, and a really long street to be precise. To explore it is to walk down this street, and witness donkeys and cows grazing, cute kids yelling “hi” and “bye” every few minutes, local villagers washing their clothes AND their apples in the stream of water that is evidently their main water source, finally reaching the end of the road, where towering mountains await you. There are a few restaurants and stores in the village, with friendly locals. But the most exciting event was the Thursday morning market, when the village literally sprung into life, and young and old were out selling items from clothes to fruit to kitchen appliances and of course, animals. For a few hours every Thursday you can witness the Kyrgyz animal market where locals buy and sell cows, donkeys, horses, sheep, and goats, greet each other with handshakes, and all the men are wearing the famed Kyrgyz hat. If you want to see Kyrgyz culture, just go to an animal market. Before arriving, we actually had no idea about the market’s existence and were just lucky to arrive Wednesday night, wake up early for the Thursday market, and head out on our Peak Lenin Hike.

Check out the Thursday Market and see the village come to life!

4. Kyrgyz Shepherd Life at its most authentic

On our 3-day hike from Peak Lenin to a place called Bouke (we had no idea what it was), we spent the second night in a shepherd house in the countryside. This was a benefit of visiting in low season – not a tourist in sight, and only the sound of the sheep, yaks, and wind, with bright night stars above and towering mountains surrounding us. It truly was special. Turns out it was the only place in our entire time in Kyrgyzstan that we ate the traditional Kyrgyz way – cross legged on a mat with bread scattered across the cloth in the middle and sharing yak meat with potatoes cooked by our hosts. Not only that, we got to see the real shepherd life – the process of how they kill a yak and prepare the meat to bring to market the next day. The experience truly made us realize how valuable meat is and also understood this is the livelihood of our hosts and so many other people for hundreds of years.

5. Community-Based Tourism in rural Kyrgyzstan: putting your money where it’s needed most

Kyrgyzstan has a very impressive network of Community-Based Tourism (CBT). When we first started researching traveling and volunteering in Kyrgyzstan we didn’t fully understand how CBT worked. But after much research and critical thinking we concluded that it was the right organization for us to support. No matter where you go in Kyrgyzstan, when you spend a few dollars on a driver or a guide, at least you know that your travel dollars are going into the development of a community, while you get an excursion in return. And for us, we felt that by traveling and volunteering in Sary-Mogol, we were happy to be able to help a small village off the tourist track. For us, that was the ultimate “responsible travel” experience.

Our Sary-Mogol summary video we volunteered to do for CBT Sary-Mogol

Remember, you don’t have to be mountaineers or super-hikers to enjoy Sary-Mogol and the beautiful Alay Region of southern Kyrgyzstan (we definitely were not super-hikers; we’re sure our patient CBT guides wouldn’t argue with us on that one!)

Go before all the hoards of tourists get there. Kyrgyzstan is sometimes called the “next Nepal” of travel, an undiscovered hikers’ gem. And within this undiscovered gem of Kyrgyzstan is its own undiscovered gem, the stunning Alay Mountains and its mountain village of Sary-Mogol.

Note: this blog post, videos and photos were all done on a voluntary basis. We are just regular travellers who fell in love with Kyrgyzstan. We hope you will too! We are by no means professional videographers, photographers or even professional travellers.

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