Central Asia trekking utopia

The Alay region of southern Kyrgyzstan is the kind of place mountain lovers dream about. Turquoise lakes fringed with yurts sit at the base of towering 7000m peaks, offering some of the world’s most glorious mountain views at every turn. It is simply a stunning corner of Central Asia that is almost completely unknown, cheap to visit and ripe for exploration. What’s the catch? There isn’t one.

Not many trekkers head to Central Asia, fewer still visit Kyrgyzstan and, of those, only a handful continue as far south as the Alay Valley, a claw of land squeezed between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The region consists of two parallel mountain ranges, the Alay and Trans-Alay (spurs of the Tian Shan and Pamir ranges respectively), separated by the high-altitude Alay Valley.

This is the crossroads of high Asia, where roads lead south onto the Pamir plateau of Tajikistan, east over the Irkestham Pass to Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province, and north to the fertile silk-growing Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. These routes funnelled a major branch of the Silk Road; even Marco Polo passed nearby.

 

Trekking the Alay

The Alay today is primarily home to Kyrgyz herders who bring their cows, sheep, yaks and horses to fatten in the summer pastures, setting up yurt camps in the lush alpine valleys from June to September. Framing the pastures to the south, an unbroken chain of peaks rises sheer from the valley’s wide plain. There are no foothills and no pesky approach treks, just massive, stunning views of some of the highest peaks outside the Himalaya.

Mountains, yurts, horses – so far so good, but what makes the Alay region really special is the network of Community Based Tourism (CBT) providers that offer no-hassle vehicle and horse hire, guides, homestays and even a network of herders’ yurts. Set up to provide a source of income for communities bypassed by mainstream tourism, rates for these services offer excellent value because there are no middle men.

For visitors, yurts are the key that opens up the high valleys and their stunning scenery. With CBT’s help, you can hike several routes in the Alay with little more than a daypack, offering all the convenience of Nepali-style teahouse trekking without the crowds. It’s that rarest of travel alignments: world-class mountain scenery, easy accessibility and low cost.

We spent several weeks scouting the best trips in the Alay and the following are our favourites, ranging from a four-day trek to a series of day hikes done from a comfy yurt base at the foot of Peak Lenin. All offer epic scenery and adventure without the need for expedition-style planning. To arrange them, contact CBT in Osh or Sary Moghul a day or two in advance.