Exploring the Alay Valley: Central Asia’s trekking utopia

The Alay region of southern Kyrgyzstan is the kind of place mountain lovers dream about. Turquoise lakes fringed with yurts sit at the base of towering 7000m peaks, offering some of the world's most glorious mountain views at every turn.  It is simply a stunning corner of Central Asia that is almost completely unknown, cheap to visit and ripe for exploration. What's the catch? There isn't one.

Not many trekkers head to Central Asia, fewer still visit Kyrgyzstan and, of those, only a handful continue as far south as the Alay Valley, a claw of land squeezed between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The region consists of two parallel mountain ranges, the Alay and Trans-Alay (spurs of the Tian Shan and Pamir ranges respectively), separated by the high-altitude Alay Valley.

Hiking the Alay Mountains near Kum Bel Pass © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

Hiking the Alay Mountains near Kum Bel Pass © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

This is the crossroads of high Asia, where roads lead south onto the Pamir plateau of Tajikistan, east over the Irkestham Pass to Kashgar in China's Xinjiang province, and north to the fertile silk-growing Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. These routes funnelled a major branch of the Silk Road; even Marco Polo passed nearby.

Trekking the Alay

The Alay today is primarily home to Kyrgyz herders who bring their cows, sheep, yaks and horses to fatten in the summer pastures, setting up yurt camps in the lush alpine valleys from June to September. Framing the pastures to the south, an unbroken chain of peaks rises sheer from the valley's wide plain. There are no foothills and no pesky approach treks, just massive, stunning views of some of the highest peaks outside the Himalaya.

Mountains, yurts, horses – so far so good, but what makes the Alay region really special is the network of Community Based Tourism (CBT) providers that offer no-hassle vehicle and horse hire, guides, homestays and even a network of herders' yurts. Set up to provide a source of income for communities bypassed by mainstream tourism, rates for these services offer excellent value because there are no middle men.

Yurt camps, like the Tuiuk Yurt Camp at Pamir-Alay pictured, are a huge draw for trekkers © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

Yurt camps, like the Tuiuk Yurt Camp at the foot of the Pamir-Alay range pictured, are a huge draw for trekkers © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

For visitors, yurts are the key that opens up the high valleys and their stunning scenery. With CBT's help, you can hike several routes in the Alay with little more than a daypack, offering all the convenience of Nepali-style teahouse trekking without the crowds. It's that rarest of travel alignments: world-class mountain scenery, easy accessibility and low cost.

We spent several weeks scouting the best trips in the Alay and the following are our favourites, ranging from a four-day trek to a series of day hikes done from a comfy yurt base at the foot of Peak Lenin. All offer epic scenery and adventure without the need for expedition-style planning. To arrange them, contact CBT in Osh or Sary Moghul a day or two in advance.

Jiptik Pass

The most interesting way to access the Alay Valley is on foot, crossing the Alay range over the 4180m Jiptik Pass. It's a relatively easy three-day trek and, in July and August, CBT runs yurt stays on either side of the pass, which means you don't need to drag a tent or stove over the pass (a definite advantage!).

A trailside snack: non bread, green tea, kaimak (cream) and kurort (dried yoghurt balls) © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

A trailside snack: non bread, green tea, kaimak (cream) and kurort (dried yoghurt balls) © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

The trek starts in Kojokelen (where there are homestays) and follows an old Soviet-era road, now little more than a faded track, up into the high valleys. From the pass, there are epic views south to a 100km-wide swath of muscular 7000m Pamir peaks. As you descend through lush valleys, you will invariably be invited by local herders for a cup of green tea and a dastarkhan (table cloth) filled with bowls of deliciously fresh yoghurt and thick kaimak (cream).

Tulpar Köl and Peak Lenin

There are few mountains in the world that combine Peak Lenin's jaw-dropping scale (7136m) with such ease of access. An hour-long jeep ride (US$20) from the town of Sary Moghul drops you at a CBT yurt camp at Tulpar Köl, a 3500m-high lake at the base of the mountain, whose sheer 3km wall frames the horizon to the south. A 90-minute walk takes you to the foot of glaciers tumbling off the massive peak.

Hiker soaking in the majesty of Peak Lenin on a day hike from Tulpar Köl © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

Hiker soaking in the majesty of Peak Lenin on a day hike from Tulpar Köl © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

At the beginning and end of the season you can cross the stream near Tulpar Köl and hike past the climbers' base camp at Achik Tash up to astonishing views at Wild Onion Meadow (Lukovaya Polyana), though you need to double check with CBT whether permits are needed.

Though it's regarded as one of the world's easiest 7000m summits, Peak Lenin is also infamous for one of climbing's worst disasters, when an avalanche killed 43 climbers in July 1990 (only one of the bodies was ever found).

Horse trekking is a popular choice for day trips in the Alay Valley © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

Horse trekking is a popular choice for day trips in the Alay Valley © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

Here's a tip: for an even quieter experience, make the 90-minute horse ride east to the Tuiuk yurtstay in the neighbouring valley, where equally fabulous day hikes await. Both sets of yurts provide dinner, breakfast, tea and a cosy bed of duvets for US$15 per person.

Kosh Köl Lakes

The ramshackle village of Sary Moghul is the largest settlement in the Alay Valley and is home to several homestays and a CBT office. There are some fabulous day trips that can take you up to the high mountain lakes of the Alay range. The Besh Köl lakes just north of town are a beautiful chain of five tarns (mountain pools) and can also be accessed as part of a four-day trek back to Osh over the Sary Moghul Pass, but both the pass and lakes are often snowed in until mid-June. An alternative is the Dam Jailoo valley hike, which winds up through lush pastures (or jailoo) for three hours to a pair of high-altitude lakes known as the Kosh Köl (Double Lakes), at 4130m. The treeless, rolling valley feels like it could be lifted from Iceland or Greenland and offers great camping spots. CBT can arrange a day's jeep hire to the start of the trek for US$45.

Sary Oi & the Ak Tor Pass

For a taste of nomadic life, CBT in Osh can arrange a fantastic three- or four-day walk through the alpine valleys an hour south of the city. The route takes you past herding camps selling fresh mare's milk, up a gentle ridge to the 3086m Kum Bel Pass and then down to a CBT yurtstay in Sary Oi. From here, it's up the increasingly wild valley to a campsite nestled at the base of granite peaks.

Wild camping on the three-day Sary Oi and Ak Tor Pass trek © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

Wild camping on the three-day Sary Oi and Ak Tor Pass trek © Bradley Mayhew / Lonely Planet

The next day takes you up into the stunning mountain amphitheatre around the 3540m Ak Tor Pass, before descending to a final night's yurt camp just above the Murdash Valley. The scenery ranges from lush corduroy-green valleys dotted with white yurts and Kyrgyz herders to high alpine vistas of rock and ice. CBT can arrange yurtstays in Chyrchik, Sary Oi and Murdash and offers horse treks that stay only in yurts, though you'll need a tent and food for a night if you want to cross the Ak Tor Pass.

Make it happen

The Alay Valley is just a couple of hours' drive from Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, which has cheap daily flights from the capital Bishkek. The region can also be accessed from nearby Uzbekistan (a comfortable new train link connects Tashkent with Andijon just across the border); from China via the Irkeshtam Pass; and from Tajikistan's Pamir Highway. CBT has offices in Osh and Sary Moghul and can arrange homestays (US$15 per night half  board), horse hire (US$15 per day) and trekking guides (US$15 per day). Kyrgyzstan does not require a visa for most nationalities.

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