Kel Suu Lake – A hidden gem at the Kyrgyz-Chinese border (Kyrgyzstan)
Away from the horde of tourists, and detectable on the map only with a second glance, there is one of the most beautiful lakes of Kyrgyzstan: The Kel Suu Lake. At an altitude of 3,500 meters, it extends about twelve kilometers, while the narrowest part is less than 100 meters wide. Situated in the midst of steep mountains and deep caves, it offers surprises and adventures. The departure place is the town of Naryn: Start with a visit to the CBT (community based tourism) to apply for the permit ($17), to buy a map (500 Som) and to organize the drive (12,000 Som per car). There is no public transportation to the lake, but those who trust their luck can try to get there and back by hitchhiking. The next day you can pick up the permit and off you go!
Labyrinth off the beaten path
An eventful journey: With two loaded jeeps and a group of Kazakhs, I am heading towards the Kel Suu Lake. A detour leads us to Tasch Rabat, a caravansary from the 15th century. A seemingly endless gravel road and an overturned jeep later, we arrive at the Yurt-Camp in front of the lake. Here, I say goodbye to my new friends and begin the hiking tour in the late afternoon. I won’t get too far today.
My goal is the offshoot of the first pass. Full of energy and motivation I climb the first hill. I reach the top – only to realize that there is no ridge and I have to give up most of the elevation. Two hours up and down, and I pitch my tent at a river and hope for more luck tomorrow.
After an ice-cold night, I place my frozen boots in the sun, so they can thaw before I can put them on. According to the map, the path follows a gravel road. I don‘t, I am taking a shortcut. A dried-up river bed leads me… into a maze of brownish hills… Up and down, up and down…
Suddenly, a scene out of a Western Movie: A lonesome rider on a hill appears in the background of the overcast sky. Only the sound of a harmonica is missing. The horses gallop away from me, and the horse-herder chases them back. His dark face with Mongolian features is serious: “Be aware of the wolves!” he warns me.
In the reddish glance of the setting sun, I choose the upper end of a valley for my tent. I keep my knife next to my sleeping bag, for safety reasons.
An unpleasant surprise
On the way to the southern inlet of the Kel Suu Lake, I am following a gently rising creek. Suddenly I stop, startled: there is a hut in the middle of nowhere. The two inhabitants are looking at me just as puzzled – hikers are not common in this area. A weathered face nods towards me. The old one checks my map and shows me the way. I shake his hand and stride in the pointed direction.
Another pass: From above I realize the incredible dimensions of the river bed in front of me – at this time of the year there are more stones than water. Here during snowmelt – where would the torrents take one?
The valley turns to the left, then straight on, then bends to the right, then straight on again… never ending… I check the map. I check the GPS. Again, the map… and realize: The scale is twice as large as I thought… which means I have to cover twice as many kilometers.
After four hours of gravel, I finally reach the turnoff to the last pass before the lake. As usual, the day started sunny. As usual, it gets cloudy in the afternoon. What’s new is the small white flakes. What’s new is the low rumble in the dark clouds in the south. I hurry to cover the final elevation. Then downhill, accompanied by the steady growling of the thunder.
One hour later I pitch camp on the more unknown side of the lake. The main body hides itself behind the high mountains in the North, while in the South ramified streams supply it with water. Peaceful it lays in front of me: lightly rippled where the wind tracks it; blue sparkling, where the last sun rays are striking it gently.
The way to the northern shore
A deep breath of the magical morning mood, and I shoulder my backpack to cross the delta. Some horses are watching me. The horned skull of a Capricorn lies on the ground. An eagle is gliding solitarily and silently through the air. The Wild West Atmosphere will not ebb off.
When I arrive at the pass, I turn around to look back: The delta and the Kel Suu Lake seem to be unreal and untouched, a view into another world.
Afterwards, the path leads me down into the greener one of the two valleys. I am walking alongside a hill; a dust cloud appears in the distance. On a leisurely pace it draws closer, until the Yak herd gathers right beneath me. And suddenly, the herdsman appears on his horse right in front of me. Dressed in camouflage pants and a padded hunter’s jacket, his Mongolian face is decorated with an implausible look. With my broken Russian, I explain that I hike around the lake. His reaction is similar to the other ones: “You don’t have a car?” In exchange for the chat, I receive a gulp of unpasteurized and unhomogenized cow milk and we say goodbye.
Again, I take a shortcut – successfully this time. A Yak herd grazes at the bottom of the mountain; the shaggy animals dedicate me a bored look.
Done, the lake lies in front of me. At least the final ascent towards it. Dripping wet I reach the shore – Tiredness made me incautious, when I crossed the knee-deep river. On an elevation I pitch my tent. Alone, in front of this wonder of nature. Smooth as glass, framed by steep mountain giants, a monolith in the middle, caves on the sides. An indescribable sensation of inner peace spreads inside me. Happily I fell asleep.
A jump into the icy water
The sun awakens me, soon the tent warms up to 10 degrees Celsius. Ahead a jump in the lake: Ice cold glacier water surrounds my body, clears my head. Two powerful strokes and back to land, and getting dried by the sun.
Unhurried I pack up my pack and set off towards the Yurt-Camp. I pass the first nomad’s hut, ask for a ride back to Naryn and get invited for lunch by the patriarch of the family. As a present from the guest, I give them a packet of tea. In the circle of two children and four workers, the wife distributes the contents of a colossal pot with borscht onto plates. My “thanks, no” to the second portion is skillfully being ignored. With a full stomach and a happy grin, I drag myself the final 100 meters to the camp – and catch the last seat on the car from the sole tourist group there, back to Naryn.
A night in a tent at the Kel Suu Lake – at an altitude of 3,500 meters, surrounded by jagged rocks and caves: there is nothing comparable. The peaceful spot, away from the touristic routed, offers authentic impressions of the Kyrgyz outback and the nomad culture – at least for those who manage to speak at least a little Russian.