Setting out from Bishkek headed for Song Kol Lake with the kids… Were we crazy?!
Aside from perhaps the quick op-shop stop to prepare us for waking up in a yurt surrounded by a fresh snowfall on the mountains, nothing could have readied us for the experience of staying with the nomadic families at Song Kol Lake and getting a glimpse into remote Kyrgyz life.
The experience took us out of range, altitude, familiar climate AND comfort zones. Ultimately, the perfect reminder of how travel challenges us, and changes us.
About Song Kol Lake
Song Kol is an alpine lake in northern Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan. It lies at an altitude of 3016m above sea level meaning it literally freezes over in winter. The roads are closed and the herders vacate the area for the season. But in summer, Song Kol Lake has been the choice of nomadic families as their jailoo, or summer pastures, for centuries.
As soon as you drive up over the Kalmyk Ashuu Pass to reach the shore of Song Kol you can see yurts dotting the shore line in little clusters. Families have set up here this way for generations. Now, even though some of the camps are now set up purely for tourists, there are areas of herders living the same way for the summer as they always have.
We had two nights at Song Kol Lake and it was the most memorable part of Kyrgyzstan for us. The experience felt uninterrupted and so far removed from modern day life. We all found a new love for the smell of a yurt-fire burning, and left with a new-found awe for such an incredible lifestyle.
Things to do at Song Kol Lake
Experiencing nomadic herder life in Kyrgyzstan is one of our best travel experiences to date. There is plenty to do and lots to learn. If you get the opportunity to add Song Kol to your itinerary for Kyrgyzstan, do.
Go horse riding
Kyrgyzstan has such a strong horse culture. Although we didn’t know very much else about the country on arriving, we were looking forward to horse riding being a part of the Kyrgyz experience. Getting to Song Kol Lake with the kids and living out that dream felt incredible.
It feels great to be horse riding on a normal day, but riding a horse on the shoreline of a lake in Kyrgyzstan definitely takes the cake. Oscar had been looking forward to horse riding for weeks, and wanted a horse that could ‘go really fast!’. He hopped on happily by himself, and rode back from the lake. Harry wasn’t quite so keen for a speedy choice, but the young boys paired them each thoughtfully. They each had turns along and they both had a go in front of the young nomad boys as well.
Share meals in the family tent
Each yurt camp is set up similarly, in that a curved line of yurts surround a central tent that is the main communal area. Attached to the tent is the family kitchen, and its here that they prepare everything for each mealtime. Given that store-bought resources are scarce being hours from town, we were really impressed with what they made. We all especially loved the afternoon tea times with freshly made stove top bread, jams, and homemade butter.
Join in with daily routine
Experiencing the nomadic lifestyle at Song Kol with kids definitely heightened versions of ‘worldschooling’. We watched the kids learn and process all kinds of things that are just normal parts of nomad life. Harry followed the older boys with the task of collecting cow poo in a bucket that will be fuel for the yurt fire. There are no trees at this height above sea level – definitely a lot of learning going on there!
[And, you can trust me on this one. When its zero degrees outside… the smell of a yurt fire burning cow shit is the best smell in the world!].
Hike or wander the lake shore
If you aren’t exploring on horse back, then the best thing to do at Song Kol Lake is to explore by wandering around on foot. The shore line is vast and stretches back to the rise of the Tien Shen mountains around the lake. Literally everywhere you walk has a beautiful vista. Perhaps, because apart from the iconic yurts on the pasture, it really is so untouched. It feels extreme just being in such a remote space and at such altitude as well.
Note: Make the most of the sunshine during the daytime to explore. As soon as the sun dips down over the hills and the wind gets up it is pretty chilly to be out exploring. (It was early September when we were there).
Experience herder lifestyle
You can’t seriously arrive at Song Kol and not embrace the lifestyle. It couldn’t really be much further from life at home, in that no matter what the family were doing – even tending to daily jobs – its fascinating. We spent the best part of the morning learning how they make kumyz (fermented mares milk) and having a go churning the cows milk and making it into butter.
In the evenings you can see the herders arrive back for the day. Between them they bring the goats and cows back in for the night and round them up into the makeshift pen to do a headcount. Harry and Oscar even tried to join in on the head count and chase a few goats back in. Boy, you have to be seriously quick!
Downtime (in the yurt)
It is still technically summer in early September, but it is not always the weather for exploring outside. Downtime is just as important in our travels, and doing it in a yurt makes it that much cooler. We felt very grateful for the roaring yurt fire inside by the late afternoon. And also pleased with the lego we had packed and our small picking of warm clothes that we had carried the whole way, ‘just in case’ – for moments like these – with below-zero temperatures outside, and the last of the battery reserves…
Booking a trip to Song Kol
We booked our trip to the lake as part of a driver-tour through Kyrgyz Tourism and were blown away by the service and communication. Aisha handled all my emails and tailor made a package for us that really suited us to travel with the kids. (She has children as well and definitely understood!). We didn’t want a standard package tour, but instead wanted to book a local driver who would stay with us for the duration of trip around Kyrgyzstan. And, after Kyrgyzstan, to drive us over the border into Kazakhstan and all the way to Almaty…
Even this wasn’t too much to ask, and Aisha arranged the driver Vitali for us who we instantly connected with (despite the language barrier). Spending ten days with someone makes it definitely important to be on the same page, and we couldn’t have asked for a better match than Vitali. Because of the flexibility of our tour we had a few days stopover in his hometown which meant not only could he catch up with his family while we had some time to explore alone, but we ended up meeting his family and spent a day out with him and his son.
Getting from Bishkek to Song Kol Lake with kids required a bit more planning. It would take at least five to six hours straight driving. You can make the journey from Bishkek in stages but you need to depart for the lake via Kochor. From Bishkek to Kochkor there are regular minivans and shared taxis; the journey takes about 3 hours. From Kochor, the drive to Song Kol is about another three hours and you will need to arrange your own private transport for this part. It is possible to book a car through one of the CBT (Community Based Tourism) offices in either Naryn or Kochor, but I would recommend booking ahead by email.
From Kochor, driving up over the Kalmyk-Ashuu Pass before dipping back down to reach the shore of Song-Kul Lake takes you up over 3446m into mountainscape that makes you feel small!
What to bring
- Warm clothes: Sounds obvious, but if like us you have been on the road for a while and in theory its summer in the ‘Stans (we had just survived an overnight train in Uzbekistan at 43°C!); you might not have a lot of warm clothes packed. Temperatures drop to below zero overnight, and even in summer there is the chance of snow at Song Kol Lake. (We didn’t have snow at the camp, but there was a fresh and low covering of snow on the mountains each morning). The yurt fire is amazing, but stop at an op shop in Kochor or Naryn if you haven’t already prepared.
- Toilet paper: The toilet facilities are extremely basic at the lake. Literally a hole in the ground that is dug each season and then covered over again on leaving. (Just a heads up on that one).
- Water: If you come with an organised tour they will likely provide drinking water, but don’t forget to check on this prior to departing.
- Cash: The nearest ATM is over 3 hours drive away. Bring enough cash for your stay at Song Kol.
- Snacks: Meals are provided and catered amazingly by the families that run the yurt stay. However if you have any dietary requirements or are worried about eating local food (or, have kids!) then it would pay to stock up on a few snacks before you come.
Our experience of Song Kol Lake
Stepping in to any new country and culture requires stepping out of your comfort zone. As soon as you set foot you are thrown in to a whole new world of different languages, tastes, sights, sounds and people.
I love the idea of that being one of travels’ most loveable challenges, and part of the reason we set out; to experience that with the boys. Because, even at a young age they can understand that there are other ways of living, being, and behaving; and that our way in the world is not the only way.
It’s hard to describe the emotions we felt on leaving. I’m deeming the experience of Song Kol Lake with kids beyond measurable in terms of travel memories. Getting a glimpse into nomadic herder life in Kyrgyzstan was one of those unforgettable experiences in life for which we will always be grateful to have shared.
If you get the chance and can visit Kyrgyzstan; grab it with both hands.