Song Kul: Nomads, Yurts & Horses

Central Asia’s archetypal semi-nomadic culture is alive and well in Kyrgyzstan, and nowhere is this more evident than at Lake Song Kol.

At 3,016m (9,900ft) above sea level, the lake’s surroundings are blanketed in deep snow for most of the year. But when spring finally arrives, the mountain flanks around the lake burst into life. Nowhere is the grass greener than on the banks of quiet Song Kol, and dozens of shepherd families with their flocks set up camp for the summer.

Community-based tourism schemes make it easy to become part of their routine: sleep in a yurt, enjoy homemade cooking, and watch the clouds roll by in this inspiring bit of landscape theatre.

Highlights

A bulwark against modernity, Song Kol is a place where time can assume its natural, languid pace once more. The lake’s silence and transcendent calm is an immediate antidote to stress and tension. Soak up the vast blue skies, revel in the silence and marvel at Kyrgyzstan’s stark natural beauty.

Once acclimatised to the altitude, you can explore the area on horseback and with easy day hikes, visiting a different yurt settlement every day.

Kyrgyzstan has a rich culture but, unlike in neighbouring Uzbekistan, the nomadic shepherds have left few physical landmarks--you’ll find no shimmering Samarkand equivalents here. Instead, Kyrgyz history is woven into the tapestry of daily life.

To get under the skin of the Kyrgyz it is necessary to accept their hospitality: drink enormous amounts of milky tea, play with the kids, and round up the sheep for the evening. Before long, your adopted lifestyle will be hard to leave. Except for the fermented mare’s milk. That will be easy to give up.

The kumis challenge

Kumis, the national drink of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, is basically fermented milk and similar to kefir. The main difference is that kumis is made from horse milk. The health benefits are many (according to proponents) but the taste is an acquired one. This nuance is lost on proud locals offering huge bowls for you to try. Fresh kumis is the best for beginners. Washing down a cup of kumis with a shot of vodka is accepted practice.

Kumis is slightly alcoholic due to fermentation. Leo Tolstoy was a fan, and at one point wrote of running away from his troubles in kymis.

Need to know

Due to its location high in the mountains, Song Kol is a cold place, even at the height of summer. Kyrgyz don’t bat an eyelid sleeping in below-zero temperatures, but the rest of us do, so gear up before you head out.

At a glance

  • The 33 Parrots Road is named after the many switchbacks on this challenging 4WD track. Luckily, there are easier ways up to the lake as well.
  • Marmots are everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Song Kol is a favourite playground for these adorable fat creatures. Don’t eat them though! Marmots can carry nasty diseases.

  • Issyk-Kul is Song Kol’s big sister. Visit to find Russian gingerbread-style houses at Karakol, open-air hot springs at Altyn Arashan and rustic beach experiences at Soviet spas dotted around the lake.

Getting there/around

Located in the heart of mountainous Kyrgyzstan, there is no easy way to reach Song Kol, and you need a 4WD. Kochkor, east of the lake, is the gateway town to Song Kol. It can be reached in four hours from Bishkek or Karakol. From Kochkor, it is another two hours to the banks of Song Kol.

Song Kol can also be accessed from Suusamyr in the west and Kazarman in the south. Once again, a 4WD is necessary to make it from here. Alternatively, a horseback ride or hike are slower options to arrive at the lake.

On this page