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The Keskenkija Loop – An independent trekker’s guide to hiking in Jyrgalan

· Travel Experience,Travel Guide,Outdoor,Hiking,Kyrgyzstan

For many travelers, Central Asia and particularly Kyrgyzstan are the paradigm off-the-beaten-track destinations. But even in Kyrgyzstan, there are these special adventures that are just a little bit more remote, a little more dangerous or a little bit more unusual. Jyrgalan, a mountain village to the East of Karakol, certainly fits this description. How do we know that? Well, for starters, there is no CBT office in that village. So if you are looking for an adventure in an already adventurous stay in Kyrgyzstan, this is the way to go.

Image showing the breathtaking scenery around Jyrgalan on the Keskenkija Loop.

As a former coal village, tourism is just being developed in Jyrgalan. With support from USAID, there are now at least two multi-day treks, some day-hikes as well as a number of homestays available in the region. In June this year, two blogging couples (Goats on the Road and Nomadsaurus) marked the Keskenkija loop, a four-day trek in the valleys and mountains around Jyrgalan. After hearing about this newly developed trek, we knew that we wanted to do it! Because we were there only in mid-October (guided tours had already stopped) we were not sure we could still do it weather-wise, but decided to take the risk anyway, setting out only with an outdated Soviet map and the guides provided by the above mentioned bloggers. As a spoiler, it was totally worth it!

So what motivates us to write yet another description of the trek? First, having done the entire loop without guides, some of the lessons we learned may be especially useful for those who want to attempt the trek independently. Second, the situation on the ground is actually a little bit different than when Goats on the Road and Nomadsaurus originally marked the trail. And finally, we did the hike at the end of summer/autumn/beginning of winter, which changed quite a lot about the trail (especially regarding the availability of water).

Orientation along the trek

As a 4-day trek with a total length of 64 kilometers, it’s obvious you do not want to get lost on the way of the Keskenkija loop! So orientation along the trek becomes a primary concern. Luckily, the awesome people from Goats on the Road and Nomadsaurus, in cooperation with local guides, have done some marking and so you will be able to find red arrows all along the trail. To be honest though, the markings aren’t exactly excessive and it is best not to solely rely on them. From the second day on, we sometimes spent hours walking without finding a single red arrow.

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Currently, the only trekking maps available of the Jyrgalan region are found in the old Soviet Military Map. The map is useful, although some of the roads and trails (black lines and dotted black lines) do not exist or have changed and the locations of forests and water are also not 100% accurate. The best about the Soviet Military Map is that it exists as an Android app which can track your real-time location via GPS, so that you can always find back to the right direction.

The original explorers of the trail have published a version of the map with the loop drawn into the map (file 1 and file 2), but we found that it was not necessary or particularly useful to stick exactly to the line drawn. Here are also the locations we set up camp during the trek:

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Two general rules may help you along the trail if you are unsure about which way to go:

  • First, unless specifically mentioned in the below guide, it is almost always better to stay up on the mountains instead of descending into the valley. This means that you will be walking narrow trails curving around mountains, but it’s better than going “up and down”.
  • Second, if there are multiple trails, always follow the most obvious one, which goes into your direction (if there is a 4WD road, take it, if not obvious horse trails are better than random paths).

What to bring

Image showing outdoor equipment we used along the Keskenkija loop.

Apart from the obvious (tent, sleeping bag, mattress, clothes, food etc.) here are a couple of items we found particularly useful (or wished we had them on us!):

  • Power Bank/Portable Solar Charger: If you choose to use the Android app of the Soviet Military Maps, bringing a power bank or solar charger can be handy when you run out of battery.
  • Gaiters: It goes without saying that you need proper hiking boots for this trek, preferably really, really waterproof. Even then though, you might consider bringing along gaiters as an extra layer of protection: There is one river crossing where you definitely will get wet feet and on our last day, we hit some 20 cm of fresh snow.
  • Water purification tablets: The water from small mountain streams were clear and fine when we drank it, but we didn’t trust the water from the bigger rivers, like the Tup River.

Checking-in in Jyrgalan

The tourism industry in the former coal-town is definitely still in its infancy, but thanks to USAID, there are still a couple of accommodation and information possibilities. If you want to carry all your food yourself, buy them in Karakol! There is very little shopping in Jyrgalan, if at all.

Alakol Eco-Center: This is the most established location in the village. Even if you are not planning to stay there, it’s worth paying the Eco-Center a visit as Emil and Gulmira also run the Destination Marketing Office (DMO) and can (and will) provide you with valuable information about the hike including going over the trail with you one more time. It also made us feel better that at least two people know where we would go. Kevin also rented trekking poles there and they should have other equipment as well. If you do decide to stay, it’s 1000 SOM per night and an extra 350 SOM for dinner and lunch each.

Guesthouse Baitor: This is where we stayed and we can only warmly recommend this homestay! Accommodation is 800 SOM per night and for 400 SOM, we got one of the best dinners we had in Kyrgyzstan. Breakfast was also gigantic, with porridge, eggs, sausage, bread, fresh fruits and homemade fries. The owner also called us on the last day of our hike to check if we were ok. She also runs a local shop and can provide you with water, bread and chocolate as well as charge your phone with money.

The detailed guide to hiking the Keskenkija Loop

Day 1 (around 25 Km and 8 hours)

The trailhead is right at the end of the village, at a small bridge crossing the river. In our opinion, the beginning of the trail was actually a little bit confusing. There are in fact two options to start the trek, both of which will eventually lead you upon a 4WD road that you will be following for almost the entire rest of the first day: The first option is turning left after crossing the bridge and following horse trails over the meadows until you meet up with the 4WD road. Or you can directly follow the road, which winds up into the mountains to your right. There are also red arrows pointing this way. We took the first option and walked across the meadows which probably took us longer than just straight following the 4WD road.

The recommendation at the DMO was that on the first day, we should hike all the way over the Jyrgalan pass and then camp after that. This makes the first day the longest day (kilometer-wise) of the entire loop, so start early.

Following the 4WD road, it takes between two and three hours to reach a second wooden bridge where you will find the Eki Chat Yurt Camp (in our case, the remains of it). From there, it is another three to four hours on the road to the Jyrgalan pass, which is clearly marked as such, so you cannot miss it!

Image showing the Jyrgalan Pass on the Keskenkija Loop.

Walking down the Jyrgalan pass, the way forks at some point. There is a red arrow on a small piece of rock, but unfortunately, the rock (and the marking) was broken when we found it. Here, you should keep to the right. We went left and only later climbed down onto the trail again. The road will eventually cross a stream and then wind up the hill to your right, follow it!

Eventually, you will find another red arrow and a rock marked with “camp”, this is obviously your place to stay for the first night! There is a small river about 20 meters ahead on the road (which we missed so we had to walk all the way back to the last stream!) a dry and flat spot to pitch your tent and we even found some spare firewood. Obviously, the place is also extremely scenic with three peaks reaching for the sky directly across your campsite.

Image showing first camp along the Keskenkija loop.

Day 2 (16 - 20 Km and 6 -8 hours)

Breaking camp on the second day, we followed the 4WD trail in the direction of the red arrow. Look out for small horse trails cutting down into the valley to your left. When you’ve found the trail, stick to the left of the trail and avoid getting too deep into the bushes. Your goal is to cross down over the meadows to the lovely (but still dangerous) Tup river.

When we did the hike in the middle of October, the water was comparably low because summer has just ended and it hasn’t snowed or rained too much before. If you attempt the hike in spring, there might be so much water in the river from the snowmelt that crossing it on foot becomes impossible. In that case, you will need to hire a horse (with the horseguide) to accompany you. Check in advance with the DMO so that you are not stuck at the river!

It took quite a while for us to look for a shallow spot and we threw some additional rocks into the river before walking across it on foot. Still, we caught quite some water in our shoes!

On the other side, head north (back the way you came) with the river to your left until you spot a horse trail indicated with a red arrow that leads you up into the forest. While the beginning of the forest trail is very well marked, it’s not very easy to find your way through the deep undergrowth, with a lot of horsetrails going into all kinds of directions!

Basically, we lost our way and just headed north and somehow out of the forest. Once out, a very obvious horsetrail emerged some twenty meters in front of us. We followed the trail, which led straight up in very steep switchbacks. Climbing up was quite exhausting! Go all the way up, until you are walking along the ridge towards a lush meadow. During summer, there should normally be a Kyrgyz family grazing their animals, but again, everyone has left. We found another red arrow pointing towards another (smaller) river flowing down from the mountains.

Across the river, turn to the left and follow the trails up. The river is to your left, but don’t stay too close to it. Rather, try to climb up and around the mountain. If you think you are climbing towards a mountain pass, you are probably on the right way! Some 50 meters below the mountain pass however, a red arrow and a horsetrail point away and to the left: Follow the trail and you will end up on a high plateau with incredible vistas towards the grayish red mountains.

Image of mountains on the Keskenkija Loop in Jyrgalan.

For us, this was a great place to take a break before heading to the last (and hard) ascent on the second day towards the Goatasarus pass. Walk towards the mountains and you will naturally find yourself on horsetrails that wind around the side of the mountains. You should be able to see the pass by now! Push some more and you will have reached the highest point of the entire trek! Needless to say, the views to both sides are dramatic!

Image showing the second pass on the Keskenkija trek in Jyrgalan.

After soaking in the truly amazing Kyrgyz nature all around you, head down into the valley over the saddle to your left. You will probably see small lakes (or big ponds) dotting the meadows. When we hiked the trail in October, those were the last water resources we passed until the next day, so it might be a good idea to fill up your bottles.

Image showing small lake on the Keskenkija loop.

After you have walked down for a while, you might see this sign:

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If this is the case, you’ve (like us) just walked a little bit too far and need to go back and climb over the ridge of the hill. The small ponds and the valley are now to your right. Stay on the ridge (there will be horsetrails) and start looking for a spot to make camp for the second night. While there is a quite established campsite nearby in a flat spot farther down the valley, it seemed to be too exposed to the wind for us and we opted to camp in a secured alcove inside the meadows. Even then, sleeping at 3200m, this was the coldest night we had so far! Because we didn’t take water from farther down, we were forced to melt snow to cook dinner which worked reasonably well. In any case, if you are planning to do the trek in late summer/autumn, make sure to bring along enough water to the second camp.

Day 3 (Around 14 Km, 6 hours)

Having completed much of the loop in the first two days, we enjoyed the possibility of sleeping in just a little bit, particularly because getting up before the sun is out was now really cold! In fact, even the water bottles we took inside our tent were now firmly frozen. After using up what water resources were left to us, we broke camp and headed up towards the trails further up the saddle.

Following the trails, it was an easy climb towards the highest point of today, the Anvar pass at 3210m. The pass was visible from afar thanks to a pile of stone marking it. Nicole obviously couldn’t resist putting her own stone down and immortalizing herself on the pass.

Image showing the last pass on the Keskenkija loop in Jyrgalan.

The pass is also marked by a red arrow pointing towards the valley (almost like a gorge) to the left. There are no further trail markers so we had to make a trail for the descend on our own. In our opinion, the easiest way to go down was again by curving along the side of the mountain, on horsetrails that gently led down into the creek. It doesn’t really matter, because as long as you are headed into the valley, there is no way to miss it!

Down there, we were greeted by another red arrow and, more importantly, water! We filled our bottles and crossed the stream (no problem again because of autumn/winter). Now with the river to our left, we hiked downstream until a horsetrail appeared leading up and into the forested hills on the right hand side. After following the trails for quite a while, it was already possible to see the mighty Chymynnsai Valley, which opened up in front of us. We made a (more or less) steep descend down, had a short lunch break along the now roaring Tup river, and headed north, towards the bridge, cutting through the remains of yurts and other housing.

Since it was still early afternoon and it was very, very windy in the valley, we decided not to make camp at the bridge, but rather, to walk a while further. We knew that this part of the trek was unmarked, so naturally we moved more carefully. Again, the devil is right after the bridge crossing! After the bridge, there is a very obvious 4WD trail. The trail may or may not lead back to Jyrgalan, but it is definitively a hell of a long way! We discovered our mistake just in time and headed back into the correct direction, which is straight into the valley straight ahead of the bridge.

Walking in the direction for a while, the trail turns into a (more) dirt (than) road that leads further into the meadows. The road is more or less visible, but generally, we were heading towards the West. After a while, the 4WD road (which looks like it is barely used) climbed up to the right and curved around a hill at a point where the valley splits.

After walking up for quite a while, disaster happened! Kevin suddenly realized that he has lost one of his gloves, which he had tucked at his trekking pole! It was already getting dark, the weather looked more than gloomy and we had to find a suitable camping spot. We decided to go back along the valley for maybe 20 minutes and then head back to set up camp for the night. Kevin had already given up on his gloves, but finally, way back in the meadows, we found the missing one.

We eventually found a sweet camping spot which was a little bit farther down from the 4WD road we were on, on the other side of a small creek behind a group of trees, which shielded us against the wind. This was a wise decision as we would see.

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Day 4 (6 - 8 Km, 3 hours)

We woke up to a dream of white. Over the night, it had snowed some 20 centimeters on average, even soaking inside our tent. Still, hungry for food (our cooking gas had run out the day before so we had no possibility to cook another dinner), we packed our stuff and trotted on. The last day would prove to be a short hike anyway.

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We climbed back to the 4WD track and followed it all the way, checking our position every now and then. Eventually, the way split, with the 4WD track turning right and around the mountains, while a more direct route would lead up to one last mountain pass before descending into the valley. Despite the ankle-deep snow, we decided to attempt the pass because this trail was much shorter than the 4WD road. Checking our location with the Soviet Military Map, we were also quite sure we would not get lost.

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There were no real trails leading up to the unmarked pass, but even with everything covered in snow, it was not too hard to find. And from there, the trail was all downhill. There were beginning signs of civilization, particularly in the form of electricity masts and later a 4WD trail which gradually turned into something like an almost proper road. We would also spot the first houses of the village from afar.

In the end, we arrived at the village at around 11 (having started at 8:30), and were for the first time in four days seeing other human beings (or moving beings for that matter). Exhausted, cold and hungry, but as happy as we have ever been, we made for the Alakol Eco-Center to warm ourselves up.

Concluding Thoughts

The Keskenkija loop has been a truly incredibly experience: The fact that this was a really yet unexplored (and for great parts unmarked) trek including surviving the bitter cold of the second and the snowstorm in the third night made this an unforgettable hike. To all fellow travelers we can only advise you to take the leap while it is still worth it! While you will probably not hike the trails without encountering absolutely anyone like we did, you may still have the chance to walk on the Goatasaurus pass before mass tourism sets in.