Many Kyrgyzstanis describe Issyk-Kul, the world’s second largest alpine lake, as the Pearl of Kyrgyzstan. I totally get it – it’s hard not to be enchanted by the beaches and the beautiful views afforded on a clear day. But I found another pearl: Sary Chelek.
Sary Chelek, yellow bucket in Kyrgyz, is another alpine lake tucked high in the mountains of central Jalal-Abad oblast. I figured its name came from the color of trees in autumn or the reflection of clouds during a storm, but no, yellow bucket is a little more literal. People who live in the forests near Sary Chelek have been making pails from juniper tree wood forever, thanks to the wood’s remarkable resilience to water. They’ve been using these pails to carry ayran (read: Kyrgyz yogurt) for just as long. To control the temperature, and so keep the ayran from spoiling, people would set the buckets in the cool waters of the beautiful lake conveniently situated in their mountain forest. Something about the yogurt and the water turned the buckets yellow every time. When they’d descend to sell their ayran in the bazaars of the villages at the base of the mountain, they’d sell the yogurt straight from the yellow bucket – and so eventually, shoppers came to associate the yellow bucket with those coming from the alpine lake. Hence, Sary Chelek.
This place was not easy to reach, at least not from Bishkek. My trusty travel companion Hannah and I set out from Bishkek to Toktogul, where we crashed the night with our volunteer buddies. We woke up early to catch the 7:00am marshrutka heading to Jalal-Abad, which we rode until Tash-Komur (translates as Rock-Coal, probably because the area is heavily mined for coal). At Tash-Komur, we planned to wait an hour or so to catch the marshrutka coming from Jalal-Abad that would take us the rest of the way.
While waiting for the Jalal-Abad marshrutka, Hannah set out in search of water and something sugary – she came back with both, but she just happened to be waving from the passenger seat of a semi-truck. Arlan, the driver, was cheerful and chatty for the two hours we spent heading toward Chatkal. Arlan insisted that we talk to his friend in Bishkek who knows English well, something that usually means the guy on the other line studied in university and can volley a few basic questions; so wowzas when I picked up the phone and lo, it’s Ulan on the other line, and he speaks English perfectly and runs a tourism company that helps tourists going from Bishkek to Sary Chelek. He promises to call his buddy Sovietbek, whose dad runs a guesthouse in Arkyt and who can help us figure out our transportation to the lake. A miracle!
It takes longer than expected to get from Tash-Komur to Arkyt, probably because we’re going uphill in a massive semi-truck – it’s fine, though, because we’re chatting about Arlan’s family, our work in Kyrgyzstan. It was a little awkward when he pointed out some phallic rock formations (not so different from those in Cappadocia), but I maintained total innocence of the suggested shape of the rocks. Our time with Arlan came to an abrupt end, at the point where the road splits; fortunately, at just the moment we were hopping down from the semi-truck, Alman managed to flag down a passing marshrutka. This wasn’t just any marshrutka, but one that happened to have been chartered by a bunch of ejes from Bazar Korgon, one of whom had worked with a Peace Corps volunteer in the past. These ladies kindly let us on their bus for free, in exchange for sweet words and selfies with their kids and humoring them about me as a potential bride for someone’s son. They invited us to stay the night with them at a relative’s house at the base of the mountain; while we declined this offer, we did hang out and drink tea (an all-inclusive phrase that means consume a huge quantity of cookies, bread, watermelon, apricots, tomatoes, kymys, and did I say cookies?) for a while.
Sovietbek followed through on his promise to help us out and picked us up from the eje’s house. He took us just past the gates of the Sary Chelek Bio-Reserve, where we waited on the side of the road for our next ride. A tiny car that appears to have no room for anything pulls up, and somehow bags, water jugs, and blankets are rearranged for Hannah and I to share the backseat with a 13-year old boy from Bishkek. We stop many times while going up the mountain; once to pick wild apples (they’re tiny, I could fit 3 in my palm), twice for spring water (both to drink and to pour onto the radiator), and once to feed the apples to a pig living in the forest (? I think? I was tired, so my Kyrgyz comprehension was struggling by this point). Finally we make it to our supposed destination, a tiny one-room cabin overlooking a lake that is not Sary Chelek – the driver totally understands that we would be continuing on foot to get to Sary Chelek, but sweetly offered us to come back in case there weren’t beds at the other guesthouse. He pointed us toward a horse path going straight into the woods, and so we set out on the last leg of the journey to Yellow Bucket.
These men insisted it would be a 10 or 15-minute walk…. 30 minutes later, and we stumble onto a campground where people are picnicking, taking selfies with a statue of a tiger, and dancing to music coming from their car radio. Hannah and I are tired.hungry.thirsty.smelly (aka not in great shape) and at this point really have no idea if there’s even a place for us to stay here. A couple selling souvenirs in a yurt confirmed the existence of a gostinitsa, a hotel, but that it’s a short walk from the campsite. A pair of young guys, surprised at our insistence on speaking Kyrgyz, pointed us back where we came from. And so we went back through the horse path, kicking brush and swatting flies, until we saw it: The View.
No, not the TV show, but The View, the view of Sary Chelek in all the beautiful photos our friends had taken. Excited, we pushed on and eventually found Nurbu Eje, the woman who runs the hotel who laughed at how tired we were and how happy we were to find her. Granted, the hotel was a cabin with no running water or electricity, but everything about the hotel that night was perfect.
We slept for 12 hours, and in the morning emerged from our room to find Nurbu and her husband eating breakfast on a wooden table outside. We joined them, and were eventually joined by their daughters Albina and Seydana, sitting and chatting for a while before Hannah and I set out for the shortest leg of the journey to Sary Chelek: the stairs leading from the hotel to a short dock on the lake.
There we sat uninterrupted for hours, talking, reading, lying in the sun; a little before lunch, we were joined at first by a small group of people taking pictures and admiring the view, then by progressively bigger groups of people who were more interested in swimming and drinking. We took a break from this to go back and relax in the room; Albina and Seydana took this as a sign of our boredom, despite our protestation that we were just relaxing. What started as their quiet presence in the room grew to asking questions, grew to showing pictures and stories of home, grew to teaching 6-year old Albina to take a picture on my camera.
After a quick photoshoot, Hannah and I were summoned to play volleyball with Ulukbek, a young English-speaking guy we met on the dock. Volleyball was cut short when the owner of the ball we were borrowing snatched it up; so instead, we settled on watching Ulukbek’s friends drink vodka and feed a horse watermelon (turns out, horses don’t eat watermelon?). It looked like we were going to be stuck there for a while until Tangul, a wife of Ulukbek’s friend, called out from the backseat of the car, “Are we going yet?” And magically, we were on the road back to Arkyt. Things came full circle when Ulukbek called out “Stop the car!!!” and jumped out into the forest – he crawled into the backseat with a handful of tiny green apples in his hand, one for everyone in the car.
Getting around Kyrgyzstan can at times be frustrating — no regular schedule for public transport, crowded buses, inconsistent placement of the steering wheel — but somehow during this trip the planets aligned and everything fell perfectly into place. There are a lot of kind people who made this work, and I’ve got the contact information of those who work in Sary Chelek that might help you on a future visit, so hit me up if you’re interested in those phone numbers.