Son Kul

Son Kul Lake

Son Kul (sometimes Song Kul, Song Köl or Son-Kul) is the largest freshwater lake in Kyrgyzstan with only Issyk-Kul being larger of all the Kyrgyz lakes. Son Kul lake is about 29 km long, only 13 meters deep and is elevated 3016 meters above the sea level. The winters are harsh and no-one except for some brave tourists go to the area for horseback riding in the winter time. The lake gets snow and ice free at the end of May and the best time to visit is in August as it can get very cold still in June and sometimes July as well, especially in the night times. 

The water in Song Kul is very clear and you can see the bottom even in the deepest points of the lake. As said some tourists go with tour organizers also in the winter time to spend nights in yurt and to try some horseback riding in winter conditions. Local nomads lead their herds of cow, sheep, yaks (black very hairy things) and goats to Son-Kul for the summer time and lead them back to lower pastries in the autumn. Watch out for smelly slippery surprises when walking around! The lake area is a great place to observe the local still existing and well living nomad lifestyle.

There are very few buildings in the whole valley and the roads are in bad condition. It is told that there was a soviet military base nearby and the roads were originally built for that purpose. There is no electricity or cellular network so one could consider visiting being a kind of retreat. Son Kul has some traces of ancient civilizations as well and it is a nice place to admire at the starts completely free of light pollution. Son Kul is part of the international Ramsar wetland network and there are lots of birds there especially during the migration periods. 

Son Kul is fed by tens of small rivers and brooks coming from the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The river leading out of the lake has a high waterfall. The lake did not have fish until they were brought there by men in the 1960s in order to get a local food supply. 

Horse mirrored from the surface of the Son Kul lake

Fishing in the lake is currently forbidden but early in the mornings you can quite often spot some locals driving with boats to their nets. Son Kul is one of the few places in the world where you can see millions of the endangered Edelweiss growing all around the lake but there is not a single tree in the whole valley. There are some spots with some shrubs and bushes in the small mountain valleys surrounding the lake.

Son Kul horseback nomad jailoo in Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia
Son Kul lake with yurts and mountains in the background

Son Kul tours

Son Kul Accommodation and activities

There are no hotels or even hostels in Son Kul. Only yurt accommodation is available. Traditionally people sleep in the yurts made from the thick felts called Shyrdaks at the ground but for tourists there are also beds available inside yurts. As the night times can be very cold, easily below zero, we would suggest to stick with the beds or to constantly wake up during the night to add more coal to the stove usually standing next to the yurt’s door. You can also swim in the lake but the shoreline is stony (small round stones mostly) and the water can be quite cool but on the other hand very refreshing. August is the best time to try swimming. 

If you want to continue using your smartphone better bring some battery packs with you as electricity is not easily available. Though you most likely won’t be needing your phone since a smart phone really is no good without network, except for photos. For emergency purposes the yurt villages usually have satellite phones.

There are several yurt villages around the lake, but most of them are located at the south side of Son Kul. Usually the yurt villages are offering full board meaning that there are 3 meals a day: Breakfast, lunch and dinner offering traditional Kyrgyz foods like shorpo (a meat soup), lagman (noodle soup), boorsok (fried bread pieces), kuurdak (mix of fried potatoes, onion and mutton), plov, besh barmak (be sure to try this in Kyrgyzstan if you have the chance) and lots of tea. Breakfast might include porridge, eggs and some local pastries depending on the level of the yurt village.

Son Kul yurt camp
Yurt camp in Son Kul

Horseback riding in Son Kul

Many of the yurt villages and tours offer horseback riding tours around the Son Kul valley and the surrounding mountains. We also offer you a more extreme tour during winter times where you can ride over a snowy pass to the lake and to accommodate in a yurt surrounded by snow. 

If you are lucky you might see the locals gathering up for a game of kok boru where they fight over the dead carcass of a goat on horseback trying to throw it to one of the two goals on the playing field. There are at least two fields in Son Kul for this activity, one on both sides of the lake. Games only take place in the snowless time.

Son Kul winter horseback riding tour
Son Kul winter tour

Son Kul sights

33 Parrots serpentine road

The alternative route (a pass) to/from Son Kul on the East side could be considered a sight as itself. The pass located next to the Son Kul river and is not far from the waterfall in the river. The pass is called 33 parrots according to some old soviet tv-show as it includes 33 turns.  It is a tight turning and steep serpentine road not suited for small cars as the condition of the road is bad. With SUV it can offer some increase in blood pressure but breathtaking views to the valley below at the same time. The waterfall can be reached from the lower end of the serpentine by hiking upwards along the river Son Kul.

Serpentine road called 33 parrots leading to Son Kul
33 parrots waterfall near Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Son Kul Ancient Stone Rings & Petroglyphs

Ancient stone rings can be found not far from the shoreline in the South coast of Son Kul. There are 9 circles each consisting of 8 stones and they are carefully aligned from North to South. The stone rings date to 1 century BC and it is believed that they are somehow related to religious beliefs of the nomads that inhabited the area those times. 

Similar kinds of stone settings can be found in the Altai mountains and in Mongolia. There are also burial mounds nearby the lake which can be clearly recognized from the otherwise flat Son Kul area. Some of the mounds have been dug out, most likely by grave robbers in fairly recent times. Like in many places in Kyrgyzstan, there are also petroglyphs near Son Kul. The largest amounts can be found at the hills east from the lake.

Petroglyphs near Son Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan
Ancient stone circles, Son Kul lake, Kyrgyzstan

No Light Pollution & Son Kul sunsets

If you bring a system camera with a fairly good lens you have a great chance to take pictures of the milky way during the night time. If you are lucky and have clear nights without much moonlight, the galaxy is visible easily. Sunsets are also very often magnificent in Son Kul with the animals returning to their nightly sleeping locations as the sun goes down.

Son Kul lake yurt sunset
Son Kul milky way stars night

There is wildlife present in the Son Kul area, but it is still very rare to see wolves, lynx, marco polo sheep and not even mentioning the snow leopard. Marmots can still be seen now and then. You will have more chances with the birds in the area including for example mountain geese, storks vultures and eagles.

Visit Son Kul

Son Kul is located pretty much at the center of Kyrgyzstan. In theory there are 3 or 4 roads leading to Son Kul but only one of them is actively in use by tourists. From Bishkek the lake and valley can be reached best by driving first east towards Issyk Kul but turning south towards Orto Tokoi reservoir, Kochkor and Naryn until turning west from the main road to a gravel road leading to the lake. From the Southwest part of the Son Kul valley there is a SUV or Jeep accessible road towards the Kekemeren valley and all the way until to the Toktogul area and the Suusamyr plateau.

Son Kul can be reached adequately with SUV although we have seen some brave ones driving there with normal cars as well and sadly quite often they are the ones you can see on the side of road suffering from overheating or flat tires. We would suggest that you only go there together with a driver as the road nearby the lake gets quite demanding and steep now and then or to buy a ready tour for the lake together with accommodation and activities. In winter time the lake is only accessible by horseback. In summertime hiking even in solo is possible. In the map there is a ring road around the lake but in reality the road disappears almost completely in the west part of the valley. The terrain is nevertheless quite flat not taking into account the numerous amount of small brooks or rivers that need to be crossed there from suitable spots.

Destinations and sights near Son Kul

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