Karakol to Bishkek: A Bike Touring Route
This route takes you from Karakol to Bishkek, the long way...
First ride past beachside villages on the quieter south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul and then up over a mountain pass at 3,600 meters to the magical Lake Song-Kol. Here you can stay in a yurt or pitch your tent and watch the nomads from a distance.
Going around Song-Kol, you descend to the north over another high pass and then make your way to Bishkek first through a valley and then over another high pass. This is a pleasant ride from late spring through to early autumn but especially in summer when the weather is at its best, flowers fill the high mountain fields, the fruit trees are loaded down with sweet treats and the lakes offer an instant source of refreshment.
Passes to Song Kol may not open until early June. There are many guesthouses, homestays and yurtstays to choose from but it’s wise to carry a tent and warm clothes as there are one or two desolate stretches and nights will always be cool at the lake. Mountain storms can also blow up without warning.
Duration: 12-14 days
Terrain: Everything from a broadly flat ride along Issyk-Kul to strenuous climbs over high mountain passes. Roads vary from well maintained asphalt to crumbling pistes. All is managable on a bike with wide tyres, even for the fully-loaded tourer.
Accomodation: Many guesthouses along the way and yurts in the high pastures. Despite the wide choice of places to stay, a tent is necessary for bad weather and to enjoy the best of the remote areas.
Highlights: A day on the beach on the shores of lake Issyk-Kul and a night among nomads and yurts in Svetov Dolina and on the shores of Lake Song-Kol.
Lowlights: The increasing impact of tourism is already showing in Kyrgyzstan. Children along Issyk-Kul lake and in Kochkor will likely ask you for money. We encountered the occasional stone-throwing teenager.
Tips: Treat yourself to a few homestays. Tamga and Kochkor are good choices for this. Bring strong sunscreen as your skin will burn faster at altitude.
Section 1 – Karakol to Svetov Dolina (38km)
Your journey starts off at an easy pace, with a flat ride out of Karakol through farming fields until you come to the turnoff for Jeti Oguz some 18km out. Turning left, you’ll go through the town with its reasonably large general store and several water taps if you need to refill your bottles. The road leads gently uphill, past two towering sandstone rock formations, one said to resemble a broken heart and the other seven calves.
The paved road ends just a short distance further on by a sanitorium and here there is a cluster of cafes and shops, your last chance to buy food before going the last 5km to Svetov Dolina – an alpine pasture filled with yurts from May onwards. The name, Kok Jayik in Kyrgyz, means “Valley of Flowers” and in the summer the grass is said to be covered in blooms.
The final stretch of road towards Svetov Dolina starts just behind one of the last stores on the left. It’s a dirt track but most of it is easily ridable, even on a loading touring bike, and as you enter the valley you’ll pass several yurts offering food or a bed for the night. Alternatively, you’re welcome to pitch your tent for free. We were surprised to find this valley very clean so please keep it that way by taking your litter back down with you.
You can also stay in the sanitorium or in a guesthouse just as you’re exiting Jeti Oguz (look for a large sign on the right).
Section 2 – Svetov Dolina to Tamga (95km)
It’s a quick descent down from the valley, turning left again onto the main road. The first major stop of the day should be the bazaar in Kyzyl-Suu where you can pick up fresh produce as well as the usual staples. Look for the ladies selling noodles in a spicy sauce, a great lunchtime treat at only 20 Som the serving. They can put the noodles in plastic bags so you can eat them by the lake later on.
Not long after Kyzyl-Suu the lake comes into view and the road stays fairly near to the shore for the rest of the day. It’s easy to follow a track down to the lake for an afternoon of lounging on the beach, about as far as you can get from any ocean.
A series of small villages follows, all with at least one store to buy a cool drink or ice cream from. Just as you come to the sign welcoming you to Tamga, keep an eye out on your left for a dirt road leading into the mountains. A sign describes this in English as the Kumtor technical road and we were told that some 20km up this road is a beautiful waterfall, popular with tourists and locals alike. If you have the energy…
If not, continue on to the village of Tamga, which is slightly elusive at first glance. You carry on the main road for a few kilometers after the sign welcoming you to Tamga and just when you’ve given up hope of finding it a beach appears on your right and a steep road on your left. Climb the short hill and carry on straight into the village, which has a few stores and two guesthouses. We recommend the guesthouse run by a lovely couple, Askar & Tamara. It’s right beside the sanatorium and bazaar.
Section 3 – Tamga to Balykchy (140km)
Leaving Tamga, keep your eyes out for a beach about 15km along. It’s a beautiful place to stop. As you make your way along the lake, you pass a series of tourist developments and many more under construction. In late May, most of these appeared closed but if you pass in June or July you’ll be spoiled for accomodation options, including some that advertise camping. Kaji-Say has a cluster of hotels on the main road and more in the town set some distance back towards the hills. There is also a tourist office here.
Bokonbaev offers your last shot at a fairly large food store until you reach Balykchy, although there are small magazins in the towns in between. It can be hard to find the centre of Bokonbaev at first but in the end we found the best selection in a store right on the edge of town on the main road.
The route turns inland for a few kilometers after Bokonbaev and crosses over a small col with yurt cafes at the top. We camped in one of the valleys just after the peak. It’s an easy ride back down to the lake, past a series of small villages, most of which have working water pumps. At the end of the road, turn right if you need to go into Balykchy, where there are two hotels right at the entrance to the town as well as shops and a gas station. Once your shopping is done, double back the few kilometers to the T-junction and continue straight through for Kochkor.
Section 4 – Balykchy to Song Kol (155km)
The Karakujur river soon appears on your right as you leave Balykchy, followed by a small climb and then a descent towards the Orto-Tokoy reservoir. You pass through a checkpoint where the police simply raised the barrier for us. There are few houses aside from one small village soon after you leave Balykchy.
From the end of the reservoir it’s about 15km to Kochkor, a bustling little town that’s doing its best to make the most of tourist boom. There are at least fifteen general food shops in town as well as a selection of cafes, over one dozen homestays (300-400 Som per person with breakfast) and two Soviet hotels (100-150 Som per person, bed only, no showers).
The first nameless Soviet hotel is just off Shamen street, rather hard to find and dismal but the second is just off the main street and far brighter and cleaner, not to mention the cheaper of the two! Turn right at the first intersection with traffic lights in town (if you reach the telecom office you’ve gone too far) and it’s just a few houses down on your left. It’s a two storey building and there’s a sign which reads Gastinitsa in cyrillic and Hotel in smaller lettering in english. The hotel is on the second floor, above two hairdressers on the ground floor (120 Som for a haircut).
For information on all of these options, a map of the town and the best internet access (by satellite, 50 Som an hour), go to the CBT office, which is well marked on your right just before the town centre. They can book a homestay for you, change money and they sell detailed maps of the area for 300 Som each, well worth it for navigating to and around Song Kol.
There’s no shortage of food shops in Kochkor and you should stock up because once you get to the lake your only other option is to eat in the tourist yurts. Early in the season, you may not even find that. Extra gas for your stove is also a good idea. With enough supplies, you can stay at Song Kol for several days, slowly making your way around the lake. It’s so big that even at the peak tourist season it should be possible to find a tranquil spot.
The road climbs a little bit from Kochkor to Sary Bulak but the real work begins once you branch right where a sign marks the turnoff for Song Kol. This is the last of the asphalt for a few days. A small peak soon appears, then there’s a descent to Keng Suu village (last chance to stop at a magazin and draw water from pumps) and a broadly flat stretch follows through a valley and along the river. There are a few farmhouses but it’s no problem to free camp in the cow fields beside the river.
Once you cross the river, a difficult climb of about 10 kilometers on a piste follows to the col at 3,600 meters. A small stream gurgles its way downhill, close to most of the piste. A view of the lake unfolds from the top and it’s an easy glide down to the water. Keep an eye out for the piste that branches to the right, with signs to the CBT yurts painted on rocks. You take this branch to go around to the north of the lake. Find your ideal camping spot and relax for a day or more.
Section 5 – Song Kol to Kyzyl Emgek (50km)
Song Kol is so beautiful it’s easy to relax on this stretch. Take your time and enjoy this natural beauty spot. We camped twice by the lake before leaving via the north piste, the least used of all the access roads and perhaps the one in the worst condition. It’s about 20km from where you branch onto the track running around the lake to the start of the piste going north. It’s an old Soviet road but it hasn’t been maintained in years, perhaps decades, and at the beginning it doesn’t look like much more than a grassy track. From the lakeside, it’s about five kilometers to the top where a sign marks the top at 3,300 meters (you may have to push up much of this) and then a very rough ride down the other side.
The maps sold by CBT in Kochkor come in particularly handy for locating the northbound route. A compass is a good idea too.
Once at the top, the view into the valley is stunning. It took us three hours to do our first ten kilometers from the lakeside to the peak and down part of the descent. We pushed down much of the track. Eventually you come to a piste in better condition, turning left to go towards the village. From here you can make quite good time, passing a few yurts and farmhouses before you arrive in the village.
There is a homestay here if you want to spend the night. It’s near the main road but not marked. CBT Kochkor can give you more information or just ask people where to find the home of Abdyrazakov Talgart (Taлгарм). He charged us 350 Som each for B&B, although we had to bargain to get him to include a banya in this price. Meals are 150 Som each.
Section 6 – Kyzyl Emgek to Suusamyr (135km)
You can praise the return of asphalt for the first time in days as you set out towards Chaek but it disappears in stretches, leaving a bumpy road in its place. Mostly you’re heading downhill, aside from a few small ridges, and there’s a steady string of villages with small shops. Chaek is the best place to do your shopping. It’s a long town with about 10,000 people and you travel a few kilometers from the town boundary to the centre, where there are dozens of shops to choose from and two hotels. A gas station on the far end of town sells 93 octane grade gasoline as opposed to the 80 octane grade benzin doled out at most other places.
After Chaek the road continues downhill until you cross the river in Aral village, where a gentle climb begins to Suusamyr. It’s also around Aral where you lose the last of your asphalt. A bone-rattling dirt road appears instead and finding a smooth spot to ride can be tricky, if not impossible. There’s no shortage of possible camping spots all along this stretch and fresh water is never far with the river thundering down beside the road.
About 20km along from Aral is the picturesque village of Kyzyl-Oi where you’ll find a store and a homestay. There’s another village with a couple shops roughly 20km further on from Kyzyl-Oi and then it’s just a short jaunt to Suusamyr, where you can also find locals offering accomodation. There’s very little between these villages aside from plenty of trees and the occasional shepherd leading his flocks. Even cars are few and far between.
Section 7 – Suusamyr to Kara Balta (105km)
This day starts with a hard slog but ends with what must be one of the most spectacular downhill runs around. From Suusamyr you climb slightly to the Osh-Bishkek road where you’ll find a series of yurts selling cheese balls, kimiz, cigarettes and maybe the odd chocolate bar. The road goes steeply uphill for 10km (at a grade of 12% if the signs are to be believed) until you reach a tunnel at just under 3,200 meters. It took us just over two hours to do this climb. Try to time this for the early morning if possible.
Lights are strongly recommended for the tunnel, although it does have its own dim lighting. Some parts are poorly lit, others are under construction. It’s narrow and cold but you’re through fairly quickly as the tunnel slants downhill. We wouldn’t want to travel this tunnel in the other direction and other cyclists going towards Osh have managed to hitch a lift with cars to the other side of the tunnel.
Once through the tunnel, you’ve got a 70km of pure descent. Even with the headwind that blows strongly up through the valley, you should still make good time. Only a small bump in the road around 50km down from the peak forces you to work and even then only briefly. There are no supplies on this road until you reach the village of Sosnovka.
When you reach the junction for Bishkek, turn left towards Kara Balta. About 2.5km from the junction you’ll pass the parking lot where the marshutka buses gather for passengers and just behind that is the old Soviet Intourist hotel (130 Som/person). Rooms come with a toilet but no showers. Just across the road is a public banya where you can scrub up and use the sauna (50 Som). They even have birch sticks to give yourself an old-fashioned thrashing.
Section 8 – Kara Balta to Bishkek (60km)
The route into Bishkek is straightforward and flat. It is mostly tree-lined so an early start means you can cycle in the shade. Traffic gets a little heavy as you approach the capital but nothing too serious. Around 35-40km from Kara Balta there are a couple guesthouses, signed from the main road, and you also pass two sizable bazaars as well as dozens of shops on your way into the city. The last few kilometers are on a twinned stretch of road and as you enter the city you can just keep going straight for the main Chuy Prospektisi Street. The most popular place to stay in Bishkek at the moment is Nomad’s Home, just off Jibek Jolu, behind the East Bus Station.