Traveling the Torugart Pass: 7 Incomparable Highlights in the Remote Tien Shan

Traveling the Torugart Pass: 7 Incomparable Highlights in the Remote Tien Shan

MIR’s Jake Smith, Director of Special Projects, has lived and worked in Central Asia for years, gathering first-hand knowledge of this part of the world. Here he shares insider information on some of his favorite places and experiences in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

I’ve previously written several posts on Tajikistan, including one on my personal favorite destination in Central Asia, the Pamir Mountains. However, Tajikistan’s neighbor to the north, Kyrgyzstan, has gotten less attention despite being an equally beautiful and culturally fascinating destination. I’ll always feel a special affinity for Tajikistan (having lived there and learned the language), but Kyrgyzstan really deserves some time in the spotlight as well.

So, let me walk you through seven of my favorite stops along the first half of the route we take up through the Tien Shan on MIR’s Pamir Highway tours.

 

Explore the sights and sounds of the Tien Shan on these MIR small group tours:

 

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek Photo: Jake Smith

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek
Photo: Jake Smith

Bishkek

A “Young” Capital City and a Great Place To StartBishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan, located in the north of the country on the plains below the Ala-Too Mountains. It is by Central Asian standards a relatively young city, having been developed first when it was part of the Russian Empire and then expanded further in Soviet times and post-independence.

The architecture and layout of the city reflect that history; it can have a strong Russian or Eastern European feel in parts. Bishkek has a few leafy parks, good museums, comfortable hotels, the expansive Ala-Too Square, and excellent shopping for traditional handicrafts and art.

A real highlight and special feature of many MIR trips here is listening to a traditional manaschy recite passages from the Kyrgyz national epic poem, the Epic of Manas.

Epic of Manas Photo credit: Michel Behar

The Epic Of Manas is said to be the longest epic poem in the world
Photo: Michel Behar

All in all it is a pleasant place to stay for a night or two, but primarily serves as a logistical hub. And as such, Bishkek is the starting point for several MIR tours, including The Pamir Highway & Across Fabled Frontiers, and From the Heavenly Tien Shan to the High Pamirs.

From Bishkek I’ll follow the route of The Pamir Highway & Across Fabled Frontiers. We venture across the northern plains of Kyrgyzstan to Tokmok, up into the mountains through Kochkor and Naryn, past the ancient caravanserai at Tash Rabat, and finally up and over the crest of the Tien Shan Mountains at the Torugart Pass.

Burana Tower Photo: Jered Gorman

Burana Tower
Photo: Jered Gorman

Tokmok

Burana Tower and a Buzkashi MatchOur first stop, Tokmok, is just an hour and half outside of Bishkek, on a good road. The main attraction here is the Burana Tower, the ruins of a 9th-century minaret built by the Karakhanids. It makes for a picturesque stop with the foothills of the Ala-Too Mountains to the south framing the tower.

MIR also arranges for a demonstration of traditional Kyrgyz horse games here. You get to see the Kyrgyz version of my favorite Tajik sport, buzkashi, horseback wrestling, and others. This is a rare opportunity, because in most cases in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the games follow somewhat unpredictable schedules and are generally played in the cooler months, when visits to the mountains are impracticable.

(click on photo to see larger version)


The mountains surrounding Naryn Photo: Martin Klimenta

The mountains surrounding Naryn
Photo: Martin Klimenta

Kochkor and Naryn

Remote Towns in the Northern Tien Shan MountainsWe proceed from Tokmok up into the mountainous knot that dominates central Kyrgyzstan, to the small town of Naryn. You stop in Kochkor along the way for lunch with a local family and to watch a demonstration of how traditional Kyrgyz felt carpets are made.


These carpets are called shyrdak in Kyrgyz, and when they’re made using traditional methods and dyes as they are here, they are gorgeous. My wife and I bought one years ago and it is now a prized possession on the wall in our home. You arrive in Naryn this evening, a bit road-weary perhaps, but having seen some amazing things today.


Caravanserai at Tash Rabat Photo: Jake Smith

Caravanserai at Tash Rabat
Photo: Jake Smith

Tash Rabat

My Favorite Spot in All of KyrgyzstanThe next morning the real ascent into the mountains begins. The landscape gets increasingly barren as you gain altitude, with low grass, pastureland, and rocks replacing the farmland and pine forests that surround Kochkor and Naryn. You get views of the snowcapped Tien Shan throughout the day. Towards the end of the drive, once up above the tree line, keep your eyes peeled for marmots and yaks.

Your destination is Tash Rabat, a 15th-century caravanserai located up a high mountain valley near the border with China. This is my favorite spot in all of Kyrgyzstan. The setting is incomparable, and photos (though pretty) really don’t do it justice. You can view the caravanserai and then go hiking up in the nearby hills. Just remember to take it easy, as you are at around 10,500 feet above sea level here. Herds of yaks roam about. Small streams babble and wend their way down the grassy slopes, and white yurts dot the landscape below.


A Night in a Traditional Kyrgyz YurtYou overnight in one of these traditional Kyrgyz yurts. They are, by necessity, shared accommodations with cots for bedding and a coal brazier for heating. The experience is pretty special. Especially if the moon is new and the sky is clear, I recommend setting an alarm, and poking your head out of the yurt late tonight. The stars are unbelievable.

Yurts in Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Jake Smith

Yurts at Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
Photo: Jake Smith

Torugart Pass

Breathtaking ViewsOn your last morning in Kyrgyzstan you wake up, warm in your yurt, but with a mountain chill outside, have breakfast, and then head up and over the Torugart Pass. This is another spectacular drive, even more so than yesterday’s. The views just keep getting better as you go up. You pass a quick checkpoint as you enter a protected wilderness area. As the desolate shores of saline lake Chatyr Kol come into sight, you know you are nearing the border checkpoint. The Kyrgyz border formalities are generally painless, but the Chinese side can be more of a hassle. This is a remote border crossing, so be prepared for delays and some frustration on both sides. But MIR is here to help you, and some hassle is part of the adventure!


Once over into China you descend slowly and steadily along a glacier-fed river down into the Taklamakan Basin. Photography is technically prohibited, and there are a few cumbersome checkpoints along the way, but it is nonetheless a pretty drive on a well-maintained road. The mountains on this side of the pass have a reddish hue that contrasts with the blue sky and green poplar groves along the way.

Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar Photo: Willis Hughes

Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Photo: Willis Hughes

Kashgar

Remnants of the Silk RoadYou arrive in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar this evening, at a lower altitude and in warmer temperatures than you’ve hitherto experienced on this trip. I can guarantee that you will feel a sense of accomplishment as you settle into a comfortable bed tonight!

Kashgar, of course, has a lot to offer travelers. It is a rapidly changing city, but the history and amazing markets are still there amidst the more modern elements.

My favorite places are the Sunday livestock market and the Abakh Khoja Mausoleum.

More photos and info about Kashgar:

 


 

Travel the Tien Shan with MIR

MIR has more than three decades of experience planning personalized tours through the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Western China. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Explore the sights and sounds of the Tien Shan on these MIR small group tours:

Or, try a custom, private itinerary hand-crafted to your travel interests and dates. Take a look at our Essential Kyrgyzstan itinerary, which is ready-made for your private trip. You can even use it as a starting point for your own custom itinerary.

 

(Top Photo: Another great view of Tash Rabat; Photo: Jake Smith)

PUBLISHED: April 5, 2019

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