Visit Lake Song-Kul in Kyrgyzstan
The different routes to the lake (4×4, motorbike, van and bicycle) and our advice for organising a horseback ride
Lake Song-Kul is perched at 3,016 m above sea level in a green setting, surrounded by mountains. Popular with visitors for its turquoise-blue waters and its lush shores overrun with horses and yurts in the summer, Lake Song-Kul is one of the must-see places in Kyrgyzstan.
In this article you will find valuable information about the different ways to reach the lake: by road (by van, 4×4, motorbike or bicycle), by horse or by foot.
Lake Song-Kul, a must-see in Kyrgyzstan
Surrounded by green pastures and snow-capped summits, this sky-blue lake is breathtakingly beautiful. Lake Song-Kul offers a truly immersive experience into the Kyrgyz culture. You can discover pastoral life in the vast expanses of grasslands, surrounded by mountains. The slender silhouettes of horses and white yurts blend harmoniously into this mountain scenery. Lake Song-Kul is one of the most popular tourist destinations for hiking, horseback riding and encountering nomadic life.
29 km long and 18 km wide, Lake Song-Kul is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan. The swampy, peaty areas surrounding the freshwater lake are a haven for many species of birds. Some migratory birds, such as the bar-headed goose, come from the Himalayas and stay here for a short period. Although the development of tourism brings an important new source of income to the semi-nomadic herders, the lake and its green meadows still play an important role in their livelihood. For millennia, and still today, the lake has also been a place of spirituality. Many Kyrgyz people consider the lake to be sacred and come here to pray.
Song-Kul is located in a sedimentary basin surrounded by mountain ranges. The lake is fed by the rivers flowing down the mountains, and at its south-eastern tip it flows out into the Kokjerty River.
Access to Lake Song-Kul by road (van, 4×4, motorbike or bicycle)
Set at 3,016m above sea level, Song-Kul Lake is surrounded by mountains. If you wish to reach the lake by road, there are several routes through the mountains. These tracks are more or less well maintained and pass through mountain passes above 3000m. The lake is therefore rarely accessible before June because of the snow that blocks access to the passes!
There is a track that allows you to go around the lake. On the south-eastern shore of the lake, the track is in very good condition. However, on the western side of the lake, the condition of the track can vary depending on the weather. The track is dirt and can quickly become muddy and difficult in bad weather. Only all-terrain vehicles will be able to access it.
On the map below are indicated the different roads around the Song-Kul lake including the off-road routes of the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN. The complete A2 foldable map of Kyrgyzstan is available here.
Each of these routes is presented in detail in the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN, including the levels of difficulty.
Routes via the Moldo (Route 17) and Kalmak passes are very well-maintained tracks, accessible to all types of vehicles (level 1). Routes via the Kara Keche and Terskey-Torpok (Route 15) passes are more degraded with steep gradients. Although we saw many cars on these routes, it will be much easier and more comfortable in a vehicle with high ground clearance. Finally, routes via the Tjibel and Tuz (Route 16) passes are only possible in a 4×4, by ATV or a trail-type motorbike.
Moldo Ashuu Pass (3,346m)
The tight bends of the Moldo-Ashuu Pass (3,346 m) are impressive and fortunately the route is well maintained! 800 m of elevation loss over 11 km from the 1st turn await. Be careful if you are on two wheels, as the road can be slippery because of the gravel. Cyclists arriving from the opposite direction will have to dig deep! The view over the valley is splendid.
Kara-Keche Ashuu Pass (3,384m)
The track to the Kara-Keche pass is rocky but well maintained due to the presence of a coal mine.
Kalmak Ashuu Pass (3,446m)
The access to the Kalmak Ashuu pass is the easiest of all. It is a well-maintained gravel track. We saw cars driving on this track.
Terskey Torpok Pass (3,132m)
Terskey Torpork Pass (3,132 m) is also called Trizat Tri Popugai Pass which means “the 33 parrots” in Russian. This name allegedly refers to the 33 bends on the perilous ascent to the pass, some of which have the shape of a parrot’s beak. The slope is steep and the turns are quite tight, but the track is relatively well maintained (stony). We recommend you use a 4×4, even though we saw cars climbing the pass. Cyclists will have to summon up some courage as the climb is physically demanding (550 m of positive elevation gain over 5 km). The panorama from the pass is exceptional.
Tjibel Ashuu Pass (3,227m)
The route to Tjibel Pass (3,227m) is difficult and only suitable for off-road vehicles and experienced drivers. It is a stony track with quite a steep ascent during the last kilometre. If you don’t want to go on this difficult trail with your vehicle, it is possible to rent horses.
Tuz Ashuu Pass (3,228m)
The ascent to the Tuz Pass (3,228 m) is quite steep, but the track is in relatively good condition. However, the descent to Lake Song-Kul is more difficult as the track is not clearly defined and can be muddy and slippery if it has rained. It is therefore only suitable for off-road vehicles and experienced drivers. Make sure to stop and enjoy the incredible view of the lake from the Tuz Pass. There is a path that is often used by locals and tourists on horseback; you can venture there on foot.
Horseback riding at Lake Song-Kul
Surrounded by green pastures and mountains, Lake Song-Kul is one of Kyrgyzstan’s signature destinations for horse riding.
To go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan is to immerse yourself in the thousand-year-old lifestyle of Kyrgyz nomads. This authentic experience allows you to take advantage of the wide open spaces and breathtaking landscapes that the country abounds with! This activity is geared towards both beginners and experienced riders. Kyrgyz horses have a very calm temperament, and you will generally have someone there with you. Depending on what you want to do, it is possible to go out riding for half a day, or take on the mountains for several days at a time.
Many agencies offer equestrian excursions to Lake Song-Kul, which generally last three full days, with two nights spent staying in yurts. This is an unforgettable experience! Unfortunately, the lake is a victim of its own success. Camps of yurts for tourists have overrun the edges of the lake, which makes the experience less authentic, and there have been some reports of instances where horses have been overexploited.
How do I find horses?
If you are planning to go horse trekking, you can either go through a travel agency or rent horses privately. There are many local agencies that organise excursions to Song-Kul on horseback in Kochkor or Kyzart.
If you have organised a tour with an agency, you will usually be accompanied by an English-speaking guide and a “horseman”, which is someone who deals exclusively with the horses (this is generally the horses’ owner). The price you pay covers the horse rental, the two guides, and your overnight lodging and food for the duration of your trek.
The other option is to rent directly from individuals at the lake. The first advantage of doing it this way is that you are paying local people directly for their services, without an intermediary. In addition, they will very probably invite you to eat a meal with them or follow them around as they go about their daily lives. It’s a guaranteed authentic experience!
The cost of going on a trek on horseback varies quite a lot depending on where you are and who the service provider is (an international agency, a local agency, an individual, etc.). With a local agency, you can expect to pay between 800 and 1,000 soms per day for the horse rental, plus 2,200 soms per day for a guide who speaks English (or 1,500 soms per day for a guide who does not speak English).
For example, for a 3-day horse riding excursion around Song-Kul with an English-speaking guide and a “horseman”, which would include meals and two nights of lodging in yurts, you could expect to pay about 7,500 soms per person for a group of six people. The price per person is lower for larger groups.
“Find all our tips for organising a horseback ride in Kyrgyzstan (basic rules, equipment, animal welfare, etc.) in this article. We also have recommendations for some local guides we met while in Kyrgyzstan.”
Sleeping at Lake Song-Kul : yurt or wild camping?
When you arrive in Song-Kul you will probably be surprised by the number of yurts punctuating the landscape. The downside to Lake Song-Kul’s popularity is that its shores have lost some of their authenticity, since they are now invaded by yurt camps to accommodate tourists in July and August.
The small yurt camps generally belong to semi-nomadic families. In addition to working as breeders, some families have invested in one or two yurts to accommodate the increasing number of tourists visiting the lake.
If there are more than four or five yurts, it is most likely a camp built by an agency and fitted out especially to welcome tourists. Some of these camps can have up to 20 yurts. Occasionally, beds are put inside the yurts for more comfort. Be aware that Kyrgyz people traditionally sleep on the floor on carpets. We recommend that you go directly to the small camps where the welcome is generally warmer and the atmosphere is more family-oriented.
Even if there are more and more of these “tourist” yurt camps on the lake shores, the positive is that this type of accommodation is easily dismantled and blends perfectly into the landscape. If you are travelling with your own vehicle, do not leave your non-biodegradable waste with your hosts, as it will be burned or buried on site. It costs between 800 and 1,000 soms per person per night with breakfast. For a meal, the price varies between 300 and 400 soms. Do not hesitate to negotiate if you are in a group.
Lake Song-Kul in winter
In winter, the lake freezes with an ice thickness of up to 1.2 m thick. The ice begins to melt in April and disappears completely at the end of May. Fishermen come to fish in the lake in winter. It is also possible to organise a horseback trek to reach the lake in winter, if you are not afraid of the cold! The lake is rarely accessible by vehicle in winter because of snow on the passes.
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