Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve
Nature reserves of Kyrgyzstan
Some 500km from Bishkek and 300km from Osh sits The Sary Chelek biosphere reserve, which lies in the Arkit Gorge, a relatively small mountain hollow in the Chaktal Mountains. It was founded in 1959 to protect and research the pristine natural environment - lowland steppes and ridges with snow capped peaks; rapid rivers and mountain lakes; blossoming valleys and alpine meadows (lying between 1,200m and 4,274m) - with their varied flora and fauna. More than 1,000 species of plants, 160 species of birds and 34 species of mammals (such as deer, bear, lynx, wolf, fox, badger, porcupine … even snow leopards) can be found in this relatively small, unspoiled national park.
The Park and surrounding area is comprised of the river valleys and settlements of the Kara Suu, Hodzha Ata, Avletim, It Agar and Pacha Ata rivers. The Kara Suu flows along a winding course through most of the territory of the reserve, in places between steep banks, strewn with boulders, forming rapid cascades and waterfalls up to 3 meters high. Glaciers and permanent ice fields and high mountain lakes lie on the north facing slopes. Steep sided, wooded valleys are cut deep into the ridges by fast flowing streams and where they open onto the plains of the Ferghana Valley, the villages of Kyzyl Tuu, Avletim and Kashka Suu were founded.
The lake itself is situated some 1,873 meters above sea level, stretches for some 7.5 kilometers, varying in width from 350m to 1,500m, and at its deepest point reaches a depth of 234m. There is some dispute about how it was formed - some scholars think it resulted from the collapse of two ridges of mountains, blocking the river and holding back the waters as a result of a shift along a fault line some 2,000 years ago. The water often appears a greenish shade of blue - and make for stunning photographs.
There are also a few other small lakes to the southeast (such as Kyla Kol, Iyri Kol, Aram Kol, Cherek Kol, and Bakaly Kol), but Sary Chelek is regarded as the "gem" - the "Jewel in the Crown". The Avletim valley is blessed with attractive gorges and forested mountains.
Cliff paintings of wild animals (dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries) are located in the Kara-Tokoi gorge at height of 3,000m. Detailed archaeological research, however, has not been carried out in the area. There are a few well known sites, such as the Toskol-Ata Graveyard (Mazar) located on the southern shore of the Lake, and a place of worship by local Muslims.
On the way to Sary Chelek is Uyum Tash Canyon - renowned as an ancient place of judgment. If person who had committed many sins would try to pass through he would get stuck, squeezed or crushed; a pure person would pass through unharmed. If someone was suspected of lying or stealing, they were asked to visit this place - and the fear this potential experience could inspire was sufficient to lead to a full confession.
The Lake's picturesque shores are thought by many to be the most beautiful in Kyrgyzstan. The steep slopes, (in places sheer), are covered with pine, silver fir and archa (myrtle) trees. A dendrological park (tree garden or Arboretum) has been established in the reserve, and although not highlighted as a visitor attraction, offers the opportunity to learn about the trees and shrubs of the region, with living examples to complement the dried specimens found in museums.
Generally, the climate here is damper and milder than the rest of Kyrgyzstan. High mountain ridges protect the reserve from cold north winds in winter and the temperature here is much higher than elsewhere in the valleys (though it can fall to -27C) Snow cover in winter, which lasts for more than 100 days each year, is fairly uneven; often there is no permanent snow on southern slopes, but elsewhere it can be over a meter deep. In early summer (May and June) there is a combination of wamth and humidity, which gives way in late summer to warm, dry, windless days.
Some fishing is permitted in the rivers feeding the lake, but not on the lake itself. Swimming was prohibited after some fatal accidents in 1983. Hunting is absolutely prohibited within the reserve, although illegal hunting is a problem. Unfortunately, many visitors do not appreciate why the area is designated as a Zapovednik (reserve) and ignore the rules for visiting the reserve, even disobeying instructions from staff. They enter restricted areas, kindle fires, pick flowers and fruits, fish the lakes and rivers, and leave their garbage, all of which has a potential impact on the integrity of the biodiversity of the protected areas.
There is an extensive network of paths and horse routes through the Zapovednik. Several trails lead to the lake and have been used by rangers and local people for many years. Some routes begin in the buffer zone around the reserve, for example from the tour base at Arkyt. One or more day hikes are a popular activity of guests at the in Jylgyn. Local guides can be hired through the Zapovednik management, in Arkit village or in the villages of Kara-Suu and Avletim. There are 3-5 day routes which cross the Chatkal Mountain range to Talas in northern Kyrgyzstan, and several firms in Bishkek sell maps from Soviet times which indicate some of these routes.
There is a museum situated in a building next to the Zapovednik administration office which contains a topographical model of the Zapovednik, stuffed animals, insects and birds, and examples of various trees and their products. Labelling and descriptions are in Russian.
Access to the park is strictly controlled and camping is not allowed. There are plans to create a hostel in the park - but it is not yet clear when. In local communities, however, it is possible to find accommodation in yurts, guesthouses, and hotels in the larger towns; there are a couple of "tour bases" as well.
The local communities offer a variety of services, and there are a number of workshops producing local handicrafts - felt, leather, wood, and silver - as well as national costumes, musical instruments, horse tack and household objects. There are local museums in the villages of Kyzyl-Tu and Arkyte, and a "geo-biological" museum in Urkit Canyon.