Explore the Tian shan in Kyrgyzstan : Tosor pass, Arabel & Engilchek
All the information you need to explore the Tian Shan by 4×4, van, motorbike or bicycle
At first glance, Kyrgyzstan is a confusing collection of mountains that are all tangled up and sprawl out in every direction. But in reality, a mountain range called the Tian Shan, or “Heavenly Mountains”, traverses the country from east to west, with summits rising above the basins and valleys between mountains, in which most human activity is concentrated.
In this article we focus on the central part of the Tian Shan which can be explored by motorbike, 4×4 or bicycle, including the Tosor Pass, Arabel Pass and the ghost town of Engilchek.
Explore the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan
Elevation in the country varies from 401 m to 7,439 m, at the summit of Pobedy Peak, which is the highest point in the country. More than 90 % of its territory is at an elevation of at least 1,500 m and 41 % is above 3,000 m, which makes Kyrgyzstan a very mountainous country. It also serves as a sort of water tower for the region, with nearly 7,500 km² of glaciers.
The country is crossed from east to west by the Tian Shan range, which stretches for more than 2,000 km across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Xinjiang province in western China. In this article we will focus on the central Tian Shan, which lies southwest of Lake Issyk-Kul.
The Heavenly Mountains are mainly the domain of mountaineers and hikers, but it is also possible to explore these incredible landscapes on small mountain tracks, provided you are well informed! The majority of the routes to and through these mountains are old USSR roads that require an off-road vehicle ( trail motorbike, 4×4, mountain bike). If you have a 2×4 vehicle, you will be able to access the Arabel valley and the Kumtor gold mine (Route 07 of the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN) or to reach the town of Engilchek (Route 10 of the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN).
On the map below the main roads of the Issyk-Kul region are indicated including the routes featured in the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN. You can get this map in foldable A2 format here.
Tosor Pass (3 893 m)
The Tosor Pass, which culminates at 3,893 m, is part of the Terksey Ala-Too mountain range. The route that leads to the Tosor Pass offers a magnificent view of the Issyk-Kul Basin before descending into the green, picturesque Uchemchek Valley. In this fascinating mountain scenery, you will discover the sparkling blue Lake Teshik-Kul on foot, before enjoying some soothing hot springs. It is a demanding route, perfect for well-equipped adventurers ready for a challenge!
Do not underestimate the difficulty of this route, whose condition varies greatly from year to year. You will encounter many difficulties: ford crossings, deformations, mud, stones, etc.
- If you are travelling in a vehicle, a four-wheel drive is mandatory and good all-terrain tyres will be of great help. Make sure your tyres are in good condition and do not drive off if you do not have a spare. If you get stuck in the mud, remember to unload the vehicle or deflate your tyres slightly.
- If you are on a bike, it is best to have good tyres and suspension. The scenery will be worth the effort.
- On a motorcycle, your main difficulty will be the ford crossings, which are more challenging at the beginning of the summer. Moreover, travelling light will be of great help on this difficult track.
Streams of varying sizes cross the route along the Uchemchek River at the bottom of the valley. The water level and the strength of the current fluctuate daily and in accordance with the snowmelt. In June or July, there will be more water than in August or September.
Depending on the year, snow covering the pass can last until June or even July. You should therefore inquire before starting the ascent to the pass. The tourist agencies in Bokonbaevo can give you more information.
“Generally speaking, if you aren’t sure about crossing a stream then one of the solutions is to sleep there and then cross early the next morning when the water level will be lower and the current will be less strong. Find all our tips on ford crossing and off-road driving in the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN.”
Arabel Pass and Kumtor gold mine
A long and winding, dusty, windswept route will take you to the high Arabel Valley in the heart of the Celestial Mountains. Once you reach 3,800 m you will discover a mineral universe, occasionally covered by tundra and sometimes dotted with inviting lakes. Only the high electric pylons and trucks that supply the immense Kumtor gold mine reveal a human presence.
Although access to the gold mine is forbidden, it is nevertheless possible to go along the western slope of the Ak-Shyrak massif where you will see incredible glaciers. Be careful beyond the gold mine, only 4wd vehicles will be able to pass. See Route 07 in the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN.
“A thousand years ago, merchants and their cargoes of silk crossed the region on their way to China. Explorers of more recent times such as Ella Maillart and Sylvain Tesson also rode through here on horseback.”
After experiencing this unique universe of ice and rocks, seemingly at the end of the world, the most experienced and best equipped will be able to reach the green Burkhan Valley via the Arabel Pass (3837 m). Littered with wild horses and punctuated by white yurts, the Burkhan Valley offers an authentical experience of the nomadic life.
However, you have to earn the right to enjoy these landscapes! Beyond the Arabel Pass, the route becomes difficult because of the very tight bends, the numerous fords, the fact that it is very isolated and the poor condition of the track. The road leads to Naryn.
One of the most complicated parts of this route is the very steep descent to the Burkhan Valley (or climb if you come in the other direction). The bends are very tight and the route is covered with gravel. Watch your speed! If your steering angle is insufficient, you will have to make the turn in two stages which can be quite technical depending on the length of your vehicle. With an adapted motorcycle (fairly powerful and light) the climb is easy, but be careful on the descent and limit your use of the front brake which could cause you to skid in the gravel. For cyclists, this track was part of the Silk Road Mountain Race 2019, a real challenge!
Engilchek or Inylchek
This isolated region, on the border with China, is known to climbers from all over the world. It is home to the highest peaks in the country: Pobedy Peak (7,439 m) and Khan Tengri (7,010 m). There is also one of the largest glaciers in the world : the Engilchek Glacier which is 60 km long and covers an area of 583 km2. Some surpises await you, such as the ghost town of Engilchek, a remnant of the USSR and the Kara Tash hot springs. The road to the town of Engilchek is easily accessible by car but a permit is required to access this border region with China. Get your border permit online here. To learn more about the areas that require a permit, read this article.
The formerly prosperous, industrial town of Engilchek (Inylchek) is merely a shadow of its former self. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union called on many young people from Soviet countries to work in the mining industries it was developing in Central Asia. The town of Engilchek was therefore built to house the employees of the nearby tin mine. Houses, buildings, a school, a hospital and even an airfield were built to accommodate the town’s 5,000 or so inhabitants. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, mining was stopped and the town was deserted. Today, a few families still live in this ghost town where most of the buildings are abandoned.
A few kilometres from the ghost town of Engilchek is the Kara Tash hot spring which is fantastic. There are two open-air pools along the Sary-Jaz River. More information in the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN.
An isolated and demanding route will take you to the base camp of At-Jailoo. The trail follows the huge Engilchek valley in a wild, mineral setting. See Route 10 of the book EXPLORE KYRGYZSTAN. From the camp, it is possible to continue on foot to the Engilchek glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the world (60 km long and covering an area of 583 km2 of ice). Please note that this multi-day trek should only be undertaken in the presence of an experienced guide.
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