Suusamyr valley

The Suusamyr valley is a high steppe plateau - 2200 meters a. s. l. - that although only some 160 kilometers from Bishkek is also one of the more remote and rarely visited regions of Kyrgyzstan. Although it is on the other side of the massive Kyrgyz Range from Bishkek and the Chui valley, it is part of the Chui administrative region.

There are signs of early settlement dating back to between the 9th and 11th centuries. In 1992, the region was hit by a massive earthquake - reaching 9 on the Richter scale - and most of the villages suffered considerable damage, but fortunately there no casualities - a feature of the low population density.

The population, of about 6000, is mainly Kyrgyzand they are nearly all involved in agriculture. In Soviet times this was one of the major sheep breeding areas in the country. Upto four million sheep would be driven over the mountain passes in Spring to graze on the luscious grasses of the steppe. One route which was taken was from Tash Bulak (about 50km from Bishkek - stillreferred to by some locals by it's former Soviet name, Belogorka - just South of Sokoluk - popular for day trips to visit the Peigeons Waterfall - there is a CBT projec here as well). Although the path is still featured as a possible trekking route - it is not easy and is still often blocked by snow, even in summer.

Since 1991, the flocks of sheep grazing here have dwindled substantially and the people have diversified into other forms of agriculture - growing potatoes, garlic, cabbages and fodder crops. Today, most foreign visitors simply pass through as they travel the main Bishkek-Osh road. Leaving Bishkek, you travel to Kara Balta and then turn South towards the mountains. (Actually, if you turn off at Belovodsk - where the 1919 counter revolution started - you can see one of the earliest Russian Orthodox wooden churches to be built in Central Asia). The road climbs through the spectacular Too Ashu gorge - the original road climbed right to the top of the pass, but nowadays there is tunnel burrowed under it. In 2001 there was a disaster which claimed several lives in the tunnel - You should also be aware that it is closed at some times for maintenance work. You emerge from the tunneland the plain lies below you. It is worth stopping and climbing a little to get a spectacular panorama of the plain.

Descending the road comes to a junction and a sign points to the village of Suusamyr, some 15 km west of the road, and the right fork takes you on towards Osh in the South, the Toktogul reservior, Lake Sary Chelek, or the road over the Otmekpass to Talas. Suusamyr village lies at the Eastern edge of the plain and has a yurt camp in summer, it is possible to find homestays, and there is a dacha somekilometers from the village which takes in guests.

From the village, there are two roads to Kochkor. The Northern route follows the valley of the Karakol river- at the foot of the Kyrgyz Range and is practically deserted - there are virtually no settlements here. The Southern road takes youthrough the villages of Kojomkul and Kyzyl Oi before you reach the turning to Min Kush or continue onto Chaek and Kochkor. The roads are not good. Karakol is a small village on the banks of the river of the same name where it emerges at the extreme Eastern edge of the plain.

Kojomkul is named after a giant of a man, (he was 2.3 meters tall), who died in 1955. The village has a small museum where you can see photographs of him, some of his clothes and you can see huge stones which he is reputed to have lifted onto his shoulders. A little out of town you can another weighing almost 700 kg which he is supposed to have lifted and placed on the grave of a local official.

The road to Kyzyl Oi ("Red Bowl/Earth") passses through a narrow valley of the Kekemeren with the mountains rising steeply on each side.

On the road to Kochkor a series of villages meld into one another - the largest of which is Chaek - and the land opens out to reveal rich pastures. Shorly after Chaek are the turnings to Kyzart and Kara Keche - which provide a Northern approach to Lake Son Kul.

For trekkers, as well as the route from Tash Bulak mentioned above, there are also routes across the Kyrgyz Range to Ala Archa and Alemadin - but you will need good maps and should work with a company which specialises in trekking.

On the maps there is also a road across the range from Kegeti to the Kochkor-Suusamyr road … in Soviet times iy was regularly cleared by snow ploughs in the spring - but this hasn"thappened for several years and with snow lying until mid-August combined with the effects of rockfalls, it is now impassable by vehicle and even horses can have difficulty.

There are also plenty of opportunites for hill walks from using any of the villages mentioned above as a base - but you will need good maps and should work with a company which specialises in trekking.

For those with time to spare - who want to explore a region "off- the beaten track" and experience traditional Kyrgyz hospitality - then the Suusamyr region is well worth consideration. There is a Community Based Tourism projectin Suusamyr which can arrange accommodation, transport and other services. They have members in three of the local jailoos - Joo Jurok, Boirok and Sandyk.