Where: Tientsin Mountains, borders of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Central Asia
Best sights: Rugged mountains and meeting the nomads who live here
Remember to bring: All your own food and equipment – there is no where to stop off for supplies
Translated from the Chinese, these mountains are called ‘celestial,’ and little wonder when your catch sight of the breathtaking alpine scenery here. Tien Shan is one of the highest mountain kingdoms in the world and one of the most inaccessible. If you decide to make Tien Shan part of your trip, you can expect to beat your own track as it’s not part of the tourist trail.
It is still possible to trek or climb, and equipment and guides can be hired locally, or you can book through travel agencies before you go. Boundaries lie in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and the range itself straddles the old Silk Road. The caravan routes would have found the most accessible way across for the weather and conditions. If you seek a challenge, Tien Shan has endless opportunities. With hundreds of species of wildlife and breathtaking scenery, you can find something to suit you here.
Due to adverse conditions in winter, with deep snow making the mountains impassable, visiting before June is not recommended. Mid-summer until September is the best season for trekking and climbing. You will need to arrange guides from a travel agency before travelling, as this is not possible locally.
A highlight of any trip is to visit the rural shepherds whose nomadic lifestyles have changed little in centuries. You will find locals unfailingly hospitable and friendly, though do remember you may be eating their provisions for a week, so be generous with gifts of money and food.
Kol-Sai Lakes, Kazakhstan
These three lakes are located in the mountains between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. Coloured a beautiful sky-blue, they are located in the Kazakh part of the Kungey Alatau Rangeof the Central Tien Shan in the south-east of the country, 160 miles from Almaty. You will find excellent trekking and hiking along the routes around the lakes, with captivating scenery and breathtaking views of the surrounding alpine mountains and lakes.
The highest point in Kazakhstan is Khan-Tengri at 23,000 feet, located in the mountains surrounding the Kol-Sai Lakes. The first lake is located three to four hours drive from Almaty and is accessible by road, but you will need to pay a small fee to the local Zakaznik staff.
Accommodation is available in a pricey but very nice guesthouse run by the friendly Zhibek Zholy on the Eastern slope, although simple, cheap huts are also available, but are busy at weekends. Guides and horses are available for hire from local staff as the hike to the second lake is a tough one and you will need professional equipment. In good weather you should be able to complete the hike in around three hours, with the best season being mid-May through to October.
Organised horseback riding through Lake Kolsay is a treat as guides take you across the passes to Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Issyk-Kul is the second largest alpine lake in the world, and definitely worth scheduling in a trip. Surrounded by the majestic Tien Shan Mountains, you can stay in one of the few hotels here. Its name derives from a word meaning hot lake, due to the fact that it doesn’t freeze over in winter. It is located three to four hours from Bishkek, and lies at an altitude of 5,278 feet.
Karakol is a good base for expeditions into the nearby Tien Shan Mountains. Here you can hire horses for trekking, and equipment to climb and ski. Altyn-Arashan is a picturesque gorge located about 25 miles east of Karakol, yet the mountain road leading you there is spectacular in itself, provided you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the difficult terrain. The gorge itself, set at 10,000 feet above sea level, contains healing hot springs. A four- to five-hour walk will bring you to the foothills of Palatka Peak; experience beautiful scenery and a natural waterfall on the way.
Ala-Kol Lake is also situated nearby in the mountains. Its crystal clear waters lie 12,772 feet above sea level with glaciers and high peaks that will captivate your senses surround the lake. You can reach this alpine paradise on the popular route from Altyn-Arashan and Karakol gorges. The interesting marvel about this special lake is that its colour changes, from violet to dark blue to pink, depending on the weather and time of day.
Information on travel, culture and climate in the country at the roof of Asia.
Guide by Jenna Colbourne