Nomadic life on the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan

Last modified 09.03.2022 | Published 20.06.20142010's, Kyrgyzstan, North, Central and East Asia, Travelogue

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Driving over the string of mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan from the fertile Fergana valley in the south we emerged on the plains in the north after a couple of days.

This is part of a series of articles from a journey to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in June 2014.


The country

Kyrgyzstan is landlocked and almost entirely mountainous. The Tien Shan range, an extension of the Himalayas, is the dominating geographical feature. In fact 94% of the country is 1,000 m or more above sea level. There are many tall peaks, glaciers and lakes set at a very high altitude.

This is a beautiful country and we were lucky to see at least some parts of it.


Kurpsai Dam

We had left the town of Osh in the huge, flat valley of Fergana heading north towards the first series of mountains. After a few hours, passing the town of Urgench and a couple of ancient sights on the way, we continued into a scenic valley.



The Naryn River


Here the Naryn river runs, but is kind of cut abruptly in two by a huge dam, the Kurpsai Dam.

Kyrgyzstan’s economy is dependent on agriculture and minerals extraction. Recent years has seen a steady increase in the construction of dams and hydroelectric power plants, in other words taking even more advantage of the country’s natural resources. This dam is part of that program.


The Toktogul reservoir

Further up the river, on the other side of the dam we passed by the large Toktogul reservoir. In addition to the monumental size of the lake, the surrounding mountains offer a splendid scenery with snow-capped peaks even in summer.


Chichkan River valley

Our first day ended in a valley up north from the reservoir. Another river, the Chichkan, was flowing down towards the reservoir. Our visit was in early June, at the peak of drainage, implying that the river was running quite fast. This valley is very narrow and the surrounding mountains are high.


Suusamyr Valley

The population of Kyrgyzstan is about 5.5 million, with almost two thirds being ethnically Kyrgyz. There is also a large number of Uzbeks and several other ethnic and language groups. The country was occupied by Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and finally became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union.

It is today a poor country having become even more impoverished after the independence.

The Kyrgyz has always been a nomadic people, and the last decades have actually seen an increase in the old traditions. This is sort of measured by the larger number of people moving into the mountains and not least the high plateau of the Suusamyr Valley for the summer season.

Why? Herding sheep and horses.

There were scattered single or groups of yurts near the rivers and farther across the plains. Even old, battered trucks and buses served as accommodation for the families here on the summer pastures.

For us visitors this was of course wildly interesting.


Töö Ashuu mountain pass

This is the highest pass after the Suusamyr Valley. On top there is a 3 km tunnel serving as a portal into, or out of the mountains. We had to wait there for half an hour while a large herd of sheep was being led through the tunnel on their way to the green grass of the valley.


Kyrgyzstan - Töö Ashuu mountain pass

Töö Ashuu mountain pass with the sheep finally eyeing a fertile land down below


After the pass the road descends slowly north onto a large plain and finally the capital of Bishkek. We are now very close to Kazakhstan. I will return to Bishkek in the next chapter.


The map

This article from the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan is part of a series of articles from a journey to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in June 2014.

On the map below Leg 1 goes from Tashkent (A) west to Khiva (E) in Uzbekistan. Then a flight back to Tashkent (A) before Leg 2 to Bishkek (F) in Kyrgyzstan. This article is the second from Leg 2.



Read more

The chapters:

(1) In search of the ancient Silk Road

(2) The monumentalism of Tashkent

(3) The road to Samarkand

(4) Shakhrisabz and the birth of a nation

(5) The Emir of Bukhara and the lost camels

(6) The magnificent oasis of Khiva

(7) The fertile Fergana Valley

(8) Nomadic life on the mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan

(9) Bishkek and the valley of Ala Archa


In addition we visited five sites on the World Heritage List all described in separate articles.


Images to browse

Here are some images from the described journey. Click to expand and browse.