Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve

Sary-Chelek natture reserve is located in the Tien-Shan mountains in the Chatkal Range in the Northwest part of Kyrgyzstan and is registered as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The reserve is named by the Sary-Chelek lake which is about 500 km drive away from Bishkek and 210 km from Jalalabad and at an altitude of 1878 m above sea level.

The word Sary Chelek translates from the Kyrgyz language as Yellow Bucket and the origin of the name becomes apparent only if you manage to have a look at the valley from the nearby high mountains, late in the summer. The Lake is relatively small (length 6,2 km and maximum width only 2,6 km and depth 234 m) but yet the largest in the biosphere and is located tightly between conifer, relic fruit and nut forested mountain slopes. The whole area is also unimaginably green during the early summer with the lush vegetation covering the hills.

Sary Chelek reflection
Flowers in the green forests of Sary Chelek

Sary-Chelek is one of the most known and also most magnificent lakes in Kyrgyzstan. The water in the lake often has a greenish shade of blue and creates unique opportunities for photographs according to the light from the atmosphere. There are only two possible entrances to Sary Chelek, one from north and one from south. The northern route is only for experienced trekkers through the mountains from Talas side, that meets high mountain passes and deep canyons on the way. 

For more comfort seeking people (the most of us) and less experienced hikers, there is the southern road from where you can reach the lakeside by car through the village of Arkit. Sary-Chelek lake is the major Lake in the nature reserve but there are also seven smaller lakes to be explored towards southeast like Kyla-Kol, Iyri-Kol, Aram-Kol, Cherek-Kol, and Bakay-Kol. You can reach most of the lakes by hiking for about 1 km southeast from the southern end of Sary chelek lake with some elevation difference but for the best sights from a higher point it is best to rent a horse. If you have the time, Sary Chelek is an excellent stopover between Bishkek and Osh. Even the road to Sary Chelek is is already a sight by itself.

Geololigal formations on the road to Sary Chelek
Other lakes near Sary Chelek

Thanks for this video © _akhardy_

Sary Chelek Tours

If you are willing to have a shorter guided tour to Sary Chelek, just contact us and we will be glad to organize it for you from Bishkek or Osh. 

Travel to Sary-Chelek

You can get to Sary-Chelek from Bishkek by first getting a taxi to Tashkömür town by taxi, which will cost about 1000 som per person from Bishkek. The road goes through the picturesque way passing through the Too-Ashuu pass and tunnel (largest in Kyrgyzstan), vast Suusamyr Valley, gorgeous Chychkan gorge, calm Toktogul reservoir and the deep gorge of the Naryn River, which is the river that will join with Kara-Darya and forms the famous Syr Darya further in Uzbekistan. 

Amazing panorama view of Sary Chelek lake

From Tash-Kömür you can catch another taxi to Arkit village about 80 km towards northwest. At the very beginning of the park, at the entrance gate, you can stop in Arkit village where you can rent a room in the hotel or guesthouse. There is still 15 km to go to Sary Chelek from Arkit. You may walk or hitch hike to the shore or take a taxi, however it might be a bit pricey, especially for foreign tourists. 

During the high season a lot of locals visit Sary-Chelek for the picnics and there is a good chance you could jump on one of their cars or at least ride with a lesser payment compared to taxis. Get some snacks or lunch with you if you are going to spend some time on the shoreline or hiking around the park. There are a couple of chaikhonas (tea room) and shops in Arkit.

Sary Chelek road and Naryn river
Views on the road to Sary Chelek

You have to pay to enter the Sary-Chelek area at a gate before reaching the lake through a bad road. The cost to enter is 400 som per person and there is an extra payment if you want to install a tent. Inside the area, you will find public toilet, some garbage bins and covered picnic areas. There are also few places to set up tents near the shoreline. If you want to go further you can rent a motorboat and see the far northern part of the lake. (at least this used to be the case but there have been some reports of this not being possible anymore.)

The best times to go to Sary-Chelek are in mid May for the lush green period and later in the warmer period in July and August, however at nights it’s always cold. You can visit a little museum and arboretum while your stay, where you can get more information about some of the plants growing in the biosphere area. The time to visit Sary Chelek is from mid May till September or early October, depending on the weather. Before mid May the road will be still covered by snow and the entry is not possible by car. 

Small lake near Sary Chelek
Cows at a small lake in Sary Chelek reserve

Kara Kamysh lake

In addition to the previously mentioned lakes, the nature reserve also has a lake called Kara-Kamysh which is also called Kara-Suu (black water in Kyrgyz) lake and is located about 10 km east from the Sary-Chelek lake, behind a mountain pass. The Kara Kymysh lake was formed as a result of the major mountain collapse that dammed the Kara-Suu river. The length of the Kara-Kamysh is about 1,5 km, the width is 500 m and the average depth about 90 m. In summer, the water warms up to 17-19 degrees. You can swim and row a boat in the lake and observe the rock walls and fish like Marinka under the water. 

The shores of Kara Kamysh are overgrown with Tien Shan spruce, juniper, mountain ash, barberry and other shrubs. Livestock from the entire region come to these mountains for their summer pastures. There are stunning views from the Kuturm pass and from the shore of the Kara-Kymysh towards southeast at the mountain of Min-Teke and west towards Sary Chelek lake and the smaller lakes next to Sary Chelek. Kara Kamysh also makes an excellent picnic location and there are less local or foreign tourists here as it still very much off the beaten path.

Kara-Kamysh lake
Kara Suu (Kara kamysh) river waterfall

On the way to Kara Kamysh lake there is a nice, very powerful waterfall that splashes its water all the way to the bridge crossing the river. During spring and autumn a traveler must share the road with cows, sheep and horses that are moving to or from the summer pastures in the Kara Kamysh lake area. 

While visiting the lake area, you will most likely see more animals than people. There are also no permanent buildings in the lake area but only yurts and some Soviet style mobile homes during the summer period. The road to Kara Kamysh lake was only opened recently by a Chinese mining exploration company. Before that the way there had to be made by foot or by horseback along the Kara Suu river.

Travel to Kara Kamysh

The route to Kara Kamysh is either from Sary Chelek, through a hike or horseback riding over the Kuturma mountain pass or by car through the Kyzyl Köl village. In order to reach the Kyzyl Köl village from the road leading to Sary Chelek, you should take a turn to follow the Kara Suu river towards north from the point where it joins with the river originating from Sary Chelek at the village of Aktuidu.

Sights & destinations near Sary-Chelek

Page updated 7.1.2023

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