This is a route for the landscape lover. Desert, valley, mountain, forest, lake and steppe are all packed together in the small Zhetisu area. Learn more about the history and culture of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, while being hosted in small villages in the most beautiful part of their country.

This itinerary starts in Almaty and finishes in Bishkek, although you could do it in reverse just as easily. If pressed for time, a shorter version of this loop would leave out Kazakhstan, and start and finish in Bishkek.

From Almaty, there are two ways to start exploring what tour operators often call “the Golden Ring of Zhetisu”. One route goes east directly, past the wild apple forests of Talgar and the kurgans of Esik, straight to Charyn Canyon and the Kolsai lakes. The other option is to detour north, to the Altyn Emel national park, for a 2- or 3-day wildlife safari in search of ibex and kulan.

Cross the boarder at the Karkara valley, stopping over at San Tash before reaching Karakol, on the eastern side of Lake Issyk-Kul.

There's lots to explore here from the Seven Bulls at Zheti-Oguz and the sandstone Fairytale Valley to Barskoon where you can learn how to build a yurt or ride a horse to one of the nearby waterfalls.

Stop off at Song Kol lake before heading to Suusamyr valley as your journey winds down, following the M41 through the outskirts of Bishkek to finally arrive in the centre of the nation’s capital.

Key information

Destinations Central Asia
Activity Active, Horseback Riding, Nature & Wildlife, National Parks, Culture, Cities, Museums & Galleries, History
Physical Level Mild

Suggested itinerary

Start in Almaty

Start in Almaty

Day 1 in Almaty

The most populated city in Kazakhstan and former capital, Almaty is surrounded by mountains, with streets lined by trees and parks scattered across the city.

The large, circular, Arasan baths are a great place to relax and popular tourist sites are the colourful Zenkov cathedral, located in Panfilov Park, Gorky Central Park and museums including Arts of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Folk Musical Instruments.

The nearby snow-capped Ili-Alatau mountains make it easy to escape the crowds for hiking during warmer months, with roaming bears, shimmering lakes and a sea of firs. In winter, you can go skiing at Shymbulak resort, with a cable car to take you up the mountain.

Charyn Canyon is worth the trip out of the city, although smaller than the Grand Canyon, the red sandstone has been carved out by weather and offers spectacular views, with a river running through that attracts adventure sport enthusiasts for whitewater rafting and canoeing.

Optional detour to Altyn Emel National Park

Optional detour to Altyn Emel National Park

Day 2 in Altyn Emel National Park

Detour north, to the Altyn Emel National Park for a 2- or 3-day wildlife safari in search of ibex and kulan. Other attractions in the park are the Aktau and Katutau mountains and the singing sand dune.

Depending on your schedule, you can also visit the Buddhist rock drawings of Tamgaly beforehand, before rejoining the regular circuit at Charyn.

Explore Charyn Canyon

Explore Charyn Canyon

Day 3 in Charyn Canyon
Cross the border into Kyrgyzstan

Cross the border into Kyrgyzstan

Day 4 in The Karkara Valley

The Karkara valley holds the seasonal border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, only open between April and October. The local shepherds disregard any political agreement, though, camping on either side of the border as they see fit.

En route, ask your guide to stop over at San Tash, an unsightly mound of stones just inside Kyrgyzstan. It is said that Timur asked each of his soldier to deposit a stone here before leaving on a campaign, and taking one back on their return. The dead thus built a monument to themselves, and Timur could count his losses.

Explore Karakol and its surroundings

Explore Karakol and its surroundings

Day 5–6 in Karakol

Karakol, on the eastern side of Lake Issyk-Kul, is a traveller's favourite. Just developed enough to provide the infrastructure and comfort tourists need, it still retains its village atmosphere. The Sunday market is the place to be if you need a horse or want to buy a sheep to throw a party. You’re likely to not need any animal, in which case you can just enjoy the ruckus of the animal market with your camera close to hand.

Karakol is also a hiker’s hub. Mountaineers wait here to be helicoptered in to the Khan Tengri base camp for their ascent, while everyone else heads to the Altyn Arashan valley. This broad, lush valley holds weeks of hiking in its hinterland. You can spend time watching the horses roam free from one of the open-air hot springs that line the valley.

Travel towards Song Kol Lake

Travel towards Song Kol Lake

Day 7 in Lake Issyk Kul

From Karakol, the two shores of Issyk-Kul each present a different face of the lake. The northern shore is where the country’s beach tourism industry has taken hold, but there are also lovely incursions possible into the Tien Shan mountains, and an open-air petroglyph museum along with more kurgans. However, most tour operators will choose the southern shore to get you to Song Kol, and deservedly so.

The most beautiful landscapes are here, like the attractive canyon of the Seven Bulls at Zheti-Oguz and the sandstone Fairytale Valley. Tamga is a cute beach town of Slavs and Tatars that holds a Buddhist rock, as well as the massive military resort that nursed Yuri Gagarin back to health after he came back from space.

Twin village Barskoon, on the other hand, is as Kyrgyz as can be: this is the best place to learn how to build a yurt or ride a horse to one of the nearby waterfalls. In the mountains behind lies a controversial Canadian mine, digging gold from glaciers. Look closely at the rivers and you’ll notice flecks of gold washing to the sea.

Explore Song Kol Lake

Explore Song Kol Lake

Day 8 in Song Kul Lake

Located in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Song Kul is a high-altitude, alpine lake perfect for hiking and horseback riding, although the area is covered in snow for the majority of the year.

The winters are harsh, but in spring the landscape bursts into life. Nowhere is greener than the slopes around this beautiful lake and dozens of nomadic shepherd families come here to set up camp with their flocks. Homestays offer accommodation and the opportunity to have a more authentic experience as you stay with local families, staying in traditional yurts.

Reaching Song Kul Lake isn’t the easiest task, but it is worth the effort, with access from Suusamyr and Kazarman by 4WD, horse or hike.

Suusamyr valley

Suusamyr valley

Day 9 in The Suusamyr Valley

"An emerald in a silver setting!" is what the Russian explorer Ivan Mushketov exclaimed when he first saw the Suusamyr valley. Well-put, we’d say: this high (average 2200 m above sea level) steppe plateau is tremendously lush in summer, grazed by at least a million sheep (6 million in Soviet times), but the harsh winters and the mountains’ inflexible embrace make it a tough place to live. High and remote, this is one of the poorest areas of Kyrgyzstan, and one of the least travelled bits. The glamour here is rural.

Depart from Bishkek

Depart from Bishkek

Day 10 in Bishkek

Your journey winds down now, first along the twists and turns of the M41, then through the messy outskirts of Bishkek to finally arrive in the centre of the nation’s capital. Bishkek has American flair ever since the US army built its base here, so take the opportunity to indulge at one of the many American style bars and eateries.

Where to stay

City Palace Hotel Tashkent

City Palace Hotel Tashkent features an outdoor pool, indoor pool, and free WiFi.

A minibar, seating area, and refrigerator are provided in each room as well as a satellite TV. City Palace Hotel Tashkent extras include an electric kettle, towels, and linen.

A restaurant is on site, and luggage storage is offered at reception for added convenience. Free parking is provided.

Atlas Hotel Dushanbe

Nestled in the heart of Dushanbe, the hotel is connected to all the city’s business and top tourist destinations. The atmosphere in the hotel is warm and welcoming with an air of elegance and charm. Supermarkets are accessible to the hotel. Banks and foreign exchange facilities are within reach. The 24-hour staff will get you anything and everything you need, be it chocolates with your coffee or ticket for Opera ballet.

Hotel Kazzhol Almaty

A modern hotel, 25-minutes from Almaty International Airport, offering free Wi-Fi, indoor swimming pool, spa and traditional Kazakhstani cuisine.

All air-conditioned rooms at the Hotel Kazzhol Almaty feature satellite TV, minibar, safe and balcony, offering views of the city. Some rooms offer a flat-screen TV and bathrobes. Room service is also available.

A buffet breakfast is served in the Kazzhol’s elegant breakfast room every morning. The hotel restaurant also serves a variety of traditional food from the Almaty region. All meals are cooked with the eco produce.

Guests at the Hotel Kazzhol Almaty can enjoy use of the hotel’s massage and beauty salon. The Kazzhol also offers concierge, laundry and airport shuttle services.

The Plaza Hotel Bishkek

The Plaza Hotel Bishkek is the embodiment of aristocratic elegance and modern multi-functionality. Nine floors of luxury and impeccable style will make you feel part of the High Society.

Features a spa area with an indoor swimming pool, a well-equipped gym and Finnish sauna.

Superior

Wyndham Tashkent

A modern, 4* hotel with comfortable rooms, excellent service and convenient location.

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