When I tell folks that my wife Lena is from Kyrgyzstan, the response is usually, "She's from Kurdistan?!?" or alternatively, "What? Where is that?" This little-known Silk Road country is, however, home to an immensely hospitable culture and some of the most awe-inspiring mountain landscapes on the planet. This overland adventure, following a route we scouted in July 2015 from the idyllic alpine lake of Song Kul to the glacier-borne basecamp beneath mighty Khan Tengri – one of the world's most beautiful peaks rising to 23,000ft. – represents what Lena and I consider the finest of the Kyrgyz mountain landscape. We have fallen in love with Kyrgyzstan, and look forward to sharing this wonderful corner of the planet with you! –Justin Black
For lovers of wild mountain landscapes, Kyrgyzstan is among the most underrated travel destinations on Earth. The Tien Shan mountains rise higher and wilder than the Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Alps, or Andes, and peaks below 16,000-feet in elevation are barely considered worthy of a name. Along the Chinese border, the Kakshaal-Too range soars to truly Himalayan heights, on the world's most northerly summits over 7,000 meters: Khan Tengri and Jengish Chokusu (known in the Soviet era as Pik Pobeda). The landscape beneath the peaks is sublime: glacier-carved gorges, slopes covered in alpine wildflowers, raging rivers, spruce and fir forests, and high pastures, or "jailoo," where semi-nomadic Kyrgyz graze small herds of horses, yaks, sheep, and cattle during the short summer.
The sheer scale and beauty of this landscape is phenomenal, but what is almost unimaginable is the fact that it is largely off the tourist radar. Kyrgyzstan is an emerging democracy, commonly referred to as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," but even that compliment isn't fair, as it neglects to recognize the nation's unique qualities. A former Soviet republic with a struggling economy, Kyrgyzstan has been spared excessive development, so what it lacks in infrastructure is made up for with glorious wild nature. The Kyrgyz people are a Turkic nomad culture that boast the longest history of all currently extant groups in Central Asia. Over the last fifteen centuries, their language and culture have survived the Uyghurs, the Chinese, the Mongols, various Khanates, the Russians, the Soviet era, and the challenges of building a viable independent nation.
Our adventure begins in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, where participants will be met at the airport and driven to the Golden Tulip Hotel, offering thoroughly modern and excellent accommodations in the city center. There, we will welcome you to our introductory orientation and first dinner as a group. Early the next morning, we load up into our four-wheel drive Toyota caravan, comprising three highly capable and comfortable Landcruisers to carry our six guests, Visionary Wild photo leaders Justin Black and Jerry Dodrill, as well as our team's Kyrgyzstan native and Russian-language interpreter, Lena Black, Visionary Wild Director of Operations. Two additional 4WD support vehicles will carry gear, provisions, and camp staff. From there, we set off on our spectacular route through the Tien Shan mountains.
Our itinerary is designed to take advantage of prime light on the landscape morning and evening each day. After dark, clean air and virtual absence of light pollution provide a superb opportunity for nighttime landscapes including the Milky Way. We will also enjoy excellent opportunities for photography of the Kyrgyz people themselves, along the way, at our yurt camps, and at the sprawling and colorful Osh Market in Bishkek. This will be a highly productive and immensely fun photographic adventure that you'll never forget.
Click "read more" at below right for the full itinerary, inclusions, exclusions, and more photos...
July 6: Arrival Day. We expect that most participants will arrive in the morning on a Turkish Airways flight from Istanbul. Meet your driver at the airport, for transfer to Golden Tulip Hotel in central Bishkek. There, we have arranged early morning check-in so you can go straight to your room several hours ahead of normal check-in time. Meet your fellow photographers, relax in the hotel, or perhaps take a walk to explore downtown. That evening, our itinerary officially starts with a group meeting in the salon bar, followed by dinner at the restaurant. Overnight at Golden Tulip Hotel. (Meals included: Dinner)
July 7: Into the Mountains. After an early breakfast, we drive via Kochkor valley up into the mountains and a landscape almost too perfect to be real: lake Song-Kul. Enjoy a home-cooked lunch in our yurt camp, photograph around the lake and up into the mountains, have dinner, and have a restful night in our comfortable and traditional Kyrgyz yurts. (Meals: B/L/D)
July 8: Day at Song-Kul. Excursion in the vehicles to Tuz Ashuu pass, with panoramic views of the south Sonkulskaya Valley and the Jumgal edge. In the evening, back to Song-Kul and yurt camp. (B/L/D)
July 9: Karatal - Zhapyryk Nature Reserve. After breakfast, we drive south into the Karatal - Zhapyryk nature reserve, photographing Overnight in tents in the reserve. (B/L/D)
July 10: Silk Road Route. After a morning photo session and breakfast, we head toward the town of Naryn, located on a main Silk Road route. Depending on your preference, you'll have the option of visiting the 15th-Century caravanserai Tash Rabat or relax at the hotel. Overnight at Khan Tengri Hotel. (B/L/D)
July 11: Köl Suu. After an early breakfast, drive to the alpine lake Köl Suu, located in a narrow gorge winding between high peaks. We've arranged a unique excursion by boat on the lakes turquoise water, and we will enjoy superb photography of the mountains and Köl Suu river. Assuming the weather is clear, this is a great location for night sky photography of the Milky Way over the mountains. Dinner and overnight at yurt camp. (B/L/D)
July 12: Köl Suu. Up early to photograph pre-dawn light, and after breakfast we've organized a horseback excursion into an area nearby inaccessible to vehicles. We'll be back in time for dinner, more sunset and twilight photography near camp, and overnight in our yurts. (B/L/D)
July 13: Eki-Naryn Gorge. After sunrise photography and breakfast, we drive into the dramatic white-water river gorge of Eki - Naryn, cut deep into the mountains south of Lake Issyk-Kul. We will make our tented camp in the valley of Kara-Bodur, as the guests of local yak breeders. (B/L/D)
July 14: Trip to Zhylu-Suu. Up to photograph at first light. After breakfast, our caravan traverses a beautiful overland route through the mountains south of Issy-Kul, following wild rivers through high pastures, or "jailoo," with alpine wildflowers in bloom. We may make an excursion on horseback to explore and photograph a mountain canyon, but in any case the photography along the way and near camp is incredible. We will make a tented camp in the mountains at about 10,500ft. (B/L/D)
July 15: Onward to Karakol. After morning photography and breakfast, we will continue over the high pass of Tosor, dropping down to our first views of the vast sapphire waters lake Issyk-Kul, and on to the town of Karakol. Overnight at Green Yard Hotel. (B/L/D)
July 16: Sary-Jaz. We'll be up early for breakfast this morning before heading east toward the high Tien Shan mountains, and the beautiful Sary-Jaz river valley. Overnight in yurts or tents at around 10,000ft. (B/L/D)
July 17: Karkyra. After making the most of morning light in Sary-Jaz valley, we will drive north into the Karkira Valley, stopping to photograph on our way back to to Karakol. Overnight at Green Yard Hotel. (B/L/D)
July 18: Khan Tengri Base Camp. In the morning, we transfer to the helipad for our flight to Khan Tengri Base Camp on Engilcheck Glacier at 13,000ft, aboard a reliable and spacious Russian Mi-8 transport helicopter, piloted by a highly experienced flight crew who fly this route regularly. Beneath the 23,000ft. peak of Khan Tengri and even higher Pik Pobeda (AKA Jengish Chokusu), we will be positioned in a virtually Himalayan setting, with outrageous photographic potential. Nighttime photography with star trails over the mountains is one of our goals. Overnight in tents at base camp. (B/L/D)
July 19: Khan Tengri, and on to Issyk-Kul. This day begins with staring in awe at morning alpenglow on the highest peaks in the Tien Shan range, and ends with a swim in the second largest saline lake in the world, Issyk-Kul. We will make the most of early morning light on Khan Tengri and the surrounding mountains. In early afternoon, we fly back to Karkira and then move on to the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul at Hotel Kapriz in Cholpon-Ata, with accommodation in cottages. (B/L/D)
July 20: Issyk Kul, and back to Bishkek. Early morning photography on the shore of Issyl-Kul, followed by breakfast and time to swim or relax, before returning to Bishkek after lunch. Overnight at Golden Tulip Hotel. (B/L/D)
July 21: Day in Bishkek. After breakfast, we will make an excursion to the sprawling Osh market. This large city center market features a little (or rather a lot) of everything from spices, to produce, to dried fruit, traditional breads and pastries, and special halls for the butchers, cheesemakers, and on and on. The photographic potential her is phenomenal. Nearby, we will make a short visit to the Tumar Group, makers of high quality Kyrgyz-designed handicrafts, including felt carpets, hats, slippers, handbags, toys, and more. Both Tumar and Osh Market offer great souvenir shopping options. After lunch, we will continue our tour through the city center, followed by a celebratory final dinner at one of Bishkek's best restaurants. Overnight at Golden Tulip Hotel. (B/L/D)
July 22: Day of departure. We all say "Jakshy bargyla" (goodbye) and go our separate ways until our next adventure. Airport transfer provided. (B)
- Accommodation for all sixteen nights. Single occupancy available at hotels (prorated double-occupancy available as well). Note: Yurt camps and tent camps are shared accommodation only.
- All meals and beverages (including wine and beer at dinner).
- All in-tour photographic instruction, land transportation, and guide services by leader team of two professional photographers, Visionary Wild's Kyrgyzstan-native Director of Operations, and professional Kyrgyz guide.
- Helicopter flights to South Engilchek Glacier Base Camp beneath Mount Khan Tengri
- Excursion by boat on Lake Köl-Suu
- Horseback rides (optional) at Song Kul, Köl Suu, Kara-Bodur, and Zhylu-Suu
- Support provided by professional local overland drivers/camp staff, and camp cook
- Permits for special access to border zone areas, taxes, and basic gratuities for Kyrgyz staff
EXCLUDED: All international air travel and domestic transportation within your home country, any other travel services required to arrive at the tour commencement location, along with all associated taxes, levies and insurances. Immigration, duty, passport and visa fees where applicable. Personal items including gifts or other purchases, any paid communications, hotel room service or minibar charges, travel insurance (required), etc. Optional activities not explicitly listed as included in the itinerary.
Note: We advise anyone considering this adventure to read "The Realities of Travel in Kyrgyzstan," farther down on this page.