Climbers uncover towering Kyrgyzstan’s striking secrets

From experienced mountaineers to casual hikers, foreign tourists are discovering the spectacular mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a small Central Asian republic as yet untouched by mass tourism.

Top of the list for visiting climbers is the town of Karakol, in the east of this former Soviet republic, half of which is more than 3 000m above sea level.

Small local tour operators offer hiking expeditions lasting from a few hours to several days in the region’s immaculate landscape. Some even venture into unexplored swathes of Central Asia’s Tian Shan mountain range.

“There are many mountains here the size of Mont Blanc [France] that do not even have a proper name,” said 19-year-old guide Vadim Karauluikh.

“Semi-professional mountaineers like to come here because there are still so many routes and peaks which have never been reached by man,” he said.

But Kyrgyzstan, a country of 5,3-million west of China, is not only the preserve of experienced climbers.

The country is also becoming a refuge for ordinary travellers set on avoiding the crowds and pitching their tents at the foot of pristine mountain waterfalls.

The numbers are still limited, but the stream of United States, Russian, European and Japanese tourists is gathering speed as visitors go home generally awed by the striking vistas on this “roof of the world”.

But its setting far from mainstream destinations for Western holidaymakers can be a mixed blessing, offering both the opportunities and the irritations of a poor country only now feeling its way in the tourist business.

Poverty and unemployment are widespread and the country’s economy is still largely based on agriculture.

Visitors should not be surprised if maps are hard to come by and then are only written in Cyrillic characters, or that prices have to be constantly bargained and few people speak English.

Those who have made the effort say it was rewarded, however, with views of 5 000m peaks and the surreal colours of the lakes below set in untouched landscapes and traditional village communities.

While the number of visitors remains small, every year the June to September season attracts more foreigners and some agencies are starting to target Western tastes.

“Not having the gas and petrol of our neighbours, we need ideas to make money,” said Stanbek Toishubayev, owner of a guesthouse near Issyk-Kul, the second-largest mountain lake in the world after lake Titicaca in South America.

Toishubayev launched his business in 1998, transforming his family farm in the small northern village of Kalmak-Ashu into an attractive hotel with comfortable rooms.

Others in the village quickly followed his lead, with locals offering hikes and horse-rides in the surrounding mountains with local shepherds as guides.

Everything is still small scale — and Toishubayev hopes it stays that way.

Tourism “should remain the realm of a small number of enthusiasts”, he said, so that each traveller leaves with the feeling of having discovered a beautiful secret. — AFP

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