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Kyrgyzstan - The Beauty of the South

The first time I visited Kyrgyzstan I explored a bit of everything. The second time I focused on the south shore of Issyk-kul lake where I found mostly impressive canyons and dry landscapes. This time I decided to visit the South of Kyrgyzstan. Starting at Osh and surroundings, I made my way back to Bishkek and explored locations that I didn’t know before. The main thing that surprised me here was how green the landscapes were. Especially in contrast with the last time I visited when I explored mainly canyons.

Once again I was impressed by the extreme variety of landscapes you can find in Kyrgyzstan. The first time I visited I already mentioned how in a short period of time, I saw landscapes that you can compare to Iceland, Utah canyons (US), high snowy peaks like the Himalaya and the European alps you could find even close to Bishkek, like Ala-Archa. On my visit to the south I was surprised by areas such as Arslanbob and Sary Chelek, that really reminded me of European parts. Everything was so green.

The highlight of my trip to the south was the peak Lenin area. A few hours drive south of Osh you can find the second highest mountain of the country (7100m+) with a yurt basecamp located an an altitude of around 3500 meters. The landscape and weather were surreal here. A huge valley with hills, lakes and massive peaks were great to explore for a few days. We experienced 4 seasons in 1 day here with snow, tropical temperatures and everything in between.

In Arslanbob I explored the beautiful walnut forests that are the biggest in the world. Walking around here was really magical. Not only this, as you can expect in Kyrgyzstan we found some lakes reflecting the mountain tops surrounding this surreal village. The atmosphere in this little village was great. It was something really different than what I experienced before in Kyrgyzstan. Houses were build on hills with narrow roads leading up to them. Everything was surrounded by greenery, streams, and beautiful (most walnut) trees. I spent only 2 days here but I would love to explore a bit more here in the future.

In Sary Chelek we found beautiful turquoise lakes with wild flowers everywhere, crystal clear little streams and so much green everywhere. It felt like yet another country right there in Kyrgyzstan. The road leading up to Sary Chelek was already very scenic, with hills full of green reminding me of Tuscany in Italy. No wonder Sary Chelek is a popular destination for a few days of holiday amongst locals. A canyon that takes your breath away leads up to a dirt road that looks like you’re going through a rainforest.

For this trip I also decided to photograph and tell a bit of story about the locals I met at guesthouses and homestays along with the atmosphere. Tourism is upcoming in Kyrgyzstan but is still in a starting phase, especially in the south. It’s great to see how locals are caring so much about the visitors. You will always have a warm welcome, often from a whole family. They’re taking great care of you and cooking great food! The start of tourism causes them to invest a bit in new ‘technology’. Jacob for example, proudly showed me his ‘luxurious’ shower while Husmidin in Arslanbob had wifi and a modern toilet, something he was also really proud of.

At the beginning of my trip I also received an official certificate or appreciation from the Minister of Tourism in Kyrgyzstan. I was honored to receive this and it motivates me to promote the country even more and explore new places. Thanks to everyone in Kyrgyzstan, the people I stayed with, the family of my girlfriend Bermet, and my great friends at Visit Karakol. I couldn’t have done it without them. And thanks to all the locals for their great support! I’ll be back soon!

This photo series is a combination of landscapes and storytelling shots. With each photo there is a brief explanation about the shot. They’re posted in chronological order (except the first few) from where my trip started.

An aerial shot of Peak Lenin (7100m+). Look closely on the left and you can see the yurt camp where we stayed a few nights. This was definitely the highlight of my trip to the south. We had a wide variety of weather conditions here as well with snow, sun, storms etc. Typical mountain weather.

During the night of our arrival at the Peak Lenin base camp it started to snow and within an hour everything was completely white. I quickly went outside and took a bunch of photos of the amazing atmosphere that happened.

A telephoto shot of our driver Atilet on a horse with the huge Peak Lenin as a backdrop. The small creature looking at the horse is a Kirghiz dog . This dog followed this horse everywhere as apparently they grew up together in the mountains.

A beautiful morning in Arslanbob. It took 2 days for these peaks to show themselves as we had a lot of rain during our stay here. Arslanbob is a beautiful village in the south of Kyrgyzstan with not only beautiful mountains but it also has the biggest walnut forest in the world.

In Kyrgyzstan you can find impressive mountains literally anywhere. This is a photo of a peak at the Kojo-Kelen valley valley. This is a popular place for trekkers and you can walk over the high mountains pass here to the other side. We only spent 1 day here and tried to make the most out of it although the weather was not great. But we still had a great time and explored some paths in the mountains.

The Peak Lenin area has many little lakes and pools which are amazing for reflections.

This morning quite some snow fell especially on the peaks around peak Lenin. The first sunlight casts a golden glow on the landscape. Later that day, a lot of snow already melted.

On that particular frosty morning I really loved how the little wildflowers looked. The color of these flowers popped in contrast with the icy grass and leaves. I love mornings like this.

Another atmospheric image of the snowy blue hour at peak Lenin.

You could easily walk to Tulpar Kol (Kol means lake) from the Peak Lenin basecamp. Tulpar Kol is the biggest lake in the area. Often storms pass by that look impressive.

It was really a surreal sight when the landscape suddenly turned completely white. At that time I was staying in my comfortable warm yurt. But looking outside triggered me to go out there!

That next morning we woke up for sunrise and photographed around the puddles. The snowy mountains reflected beautifully in the still waters.

The beautiful frosty morning also looked great from up close.

An abstract close up from a mountain next to peak Lenin.

Peak Lenin yurt camp on the early morning after the snow.

First light hitting the landscape while flying high above the peak Lenin area. This is the other side pointing away from the peaks. You can see the wall of 5000+ mountains in the background.

Another aerial shot of another sunrise at the peak Lenin area. From here you can see all of the little pools, lakes and hills mountains in the background and a sea of clouds below.

A photographer standing in front of the snowcapped mountains and hills to show the scale of the landscape.

There was a another huge red mountains right next to the yurt camp (see closely on the right). This one really reminded me of the Icelandic highlands.

Flying my drone in this area every time was really a joy. I almost lot it in a storm but luckily managed to get it back in the snow. Note that I couldn’t really charge batteries in the yurts because there was no power. But the car charger and the strong battery of our SUV helped me a lot here :)

I spent a day horse riding in the area. This horse and Kirghiz dog were always together. dog was following the horse everywhere. Apparently they grew up together. More on this in the next shot.

A portrait shot of this Kirghiz mountain dog. It’s a sighthound breed originated from Kyrgyzstan named Tairan. This amazing breed is perfectly adapted for the alpine regions in the Tian Shan mountain range. This particular dog walked with us for more than 6 hours and followed us everywhere. It had a very calm personality and seemed to really enjoy the mountains.

On the way to Lenin Peak we would see this massive wall of mountains from the Pamir range.

An aerial shot of Sary-Tash with the Pamir mountains in the background. We quickly visited this village before driving off into the mountains for peak Lenin. This village is located at 3170m and has a population of around 1500 people. It’s very interesting to see how the people live in this village. High altitude has a strong effect on health and living duration.

An old woman that I met in the local cafe of Sary-Tash. She didn’t speak English my local friends could translate. You would think this woman’s age is between 80 and 90 but her real age is only 60 years old! This comes from living all her live at an altitude of more than 3000 meters. It has a big effect on ageing and people generally don’t get much older than 70.

Exploring the Sary-Tash and Sary-Mogul villages brings you back in time. This is a photo of an old traditional kyrghiz man taking care of his cattle by riding on a donkey with the Pamir peaks in the background.

I really liked this scene near Sary-Mogul where a horseman was running with these 2 donkeys, looks like a parent with a baby donkey. I’m not sure why they were running around like this. Maybe they were training? Maybe locals could explain. The scene itself looked great

Life in Sary Mogul. Sary Mogul is located next to Sary Tash and is another village at a high altitude where we passed on our visit to peak Lenin (you can see the mountain range as a backdrop). I walked around a bit and photographed the local atmosphere along with some of the people. The lifestyle here is very simple and it’s like going back in time.

Locals doing their thing in Sary Mogul.

I asked some locals if I could photograph them with my extremely basic Kirghiz language skills. They always agreed and if you like portrait photography you’re in for a treat in these villages. Beautiful both men and woman with old wrinkly faces you can find a lot here. And they wear really traditional clothing. The south is like that, different compared to the rest of the country. The hat you see is the traditional Kirghiz hat. It has different versions for age.

After visiting the peak Lenin area we went to Kojo-Kelen valley y with is located on the other side of the huge mountain range of Sary-Tash and Sary Mogul. It takes a long way to get there driving on dirt mountain roads. From here you can trek to the other side of the mountains in a few days. A trek that is probably amazing but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to do so as we only visited this place for 1 day. The scenery in this place is amazing. Huge peaks, canyons, streams and flowers are a paradise for a landscape photographer.

I spend a good time photographing these little streams with all kinds of flowers around it.

During our stay in the Kojo-Kelen valley we quite some rain and moody weather which allowed me to focus on details. This was taken at 300mm+ of a huge rock surrounded by low clouds.

Another detailed shot of the low clouds hugging the rocks and trees in Kojo-Kelen valley.

Meet Jacob, the host of our homestay in Kojo-Kelen village. He is one of the few, if not the only one who owns a guesthouse here and is receiving tourists. Staying at a homestay in Kyrgyzstan is always amazing. People are very warm and welcoming and will take great care of you and cook you great food! We actually stayed in a yurt in Jacob’s garden, right next to a water stream. So relaxing to hear the fresh streaming water from the mountains during my sleep in the yurt.

You can see the start of Kirghiz tourism right here. According to Jacob, last year 400 tourists stayed at his place. Mainly trekkers that were staying there 1 night before they would cross the mountain pass. From his statistics he expects to get 1000 tourists this year. Other small guest houses will also be starting to offer services to tourists and its beautiful to see the tourism develop in the south. Jacob was very proud of his modern shower, but didn’t have a modern toilet (A modern toilet is not common in the Kirghiz country-side. The toilet is usually a little hut outside which has a hole in the ground).

Jacob has 7 kids, 5 girls and 2 boys. There’s always a lot of family around and we could meet some of his sons, daughters and grand kids. It is quite usual for Kirghiz people to have a lot of kids.

While we slept outside in the yurt, this was the inside of Jacobs house. Bright colours, no beds, but sleeping on pillows and mats is usual here.

One of Jacob’s sons who I portrayed inside the house.

A detailed shot of all of the blankets and mats that were used for sleeping inside the hourse. I really love the traditional color palette here.

Three generations in 1 picture here. Jacob’s wife (left, Turtakan), daughter (right, Rahia) and grandson Sidaytulla (and in the background one of his grand daughters). They were all happy to pose for pictures.

Another grandson of Jacob who was helping around around the house.

Jacobs wife Turtakan inside the house. Notice the complimentary color palette. The people in the south often dress up nice and the colours of the house matched here.

A detail from the housing outside after the rain.

After visiting Kojo-Kelen valley we drove to Arslanbob. I always love to fly my drone above the surreal landscapes of Kyrgyzstan. Turquoise lakes with interesting landscapes around allow me to go for some abstract top down-drone shots.

Arslanbob is known for its big walnut forest. Its the biggest walnut forest in the world and looks beautiful in early summer with flowers everywhere. This is an area we really have to protect, as I came to know that the walnut forest is not doing that great. Its being over harvested and cattle is ruining the new plants. This is something I would like to point out here and hope will be addressed in the near future.

This forest reminded me a bit of the beautiful forests we have in the Netherlands. I really didn’t know that Kyrgyzstan had forests like this and it’s in big contrast with the rest of the country. Everything in this area was very green, a lot like Europe. The village is built on a hill with narrow dirt roads leading you up to the top of the village. The village is surrounded by huge peaks where you can hike for days.

I found some lakes that reflected the peaks in the background of the village. These peaks took 2 days to show themselves as we had a lot of rainy weather during our visit. But on this beautiful morning, the day we left, we were rewarded for our efforts of keep trying.

The same place after sunrise.

A close up shot of the peaks taken the day before. They were constantly hugged by clouds and would only show themselves once in every while.

During our stay in Arslanbob we stayed at Husmidin’s (portrayed) guesthouse. Husmidin proudly showed us his modern toilet, shower and he even had wifi. Staying here was again a great experience. As Arslanbob is famous for its walnut forest, Husmidin makes all kinds of things from the walnuts. He made walnut cake every day (delicious) but also had walnut wine! According to him, he was the only one making walnut wine and honestly, the taste was not bad at all.

A close up shot of the entrance of the guesthouse. It’s common to remove your shoes in houses you enter.

Jacob’s sister helping around the house. Dressed up wearing beautiful Kirghiz clothing.

As usual there were a lot of family and kids in and around the house. Here’s one of Jacob’s sons.

Another son of Jacob. This guy had model potential! Always looked amazing in front of the camera.

After Arslanbob we drove further north to Sary-Chelek. Sary Chelek is popular amongst local tourists and it is no wonder why. It’s again different than the rest of the country with a lot of green with the combination of turquoise lakes. It reminded me a bit of Europe. On our first day (pictured here) we had a lot of moody weather but it cleared up after that.

A top down shot showing the amazing colours in Sary Chelek. Turquoise water combined with green scenery around.

An abstract telephoto sunlight hitting the trees and the lake.

Light peaking through the clouds hitting just that one tree. Taken at 400mm.

The road leading up to Sary Chelek went through green hills that reminded me of Tuscany (Italy).

A top down shot of the low sun hitting the trees.

We drove all the way from Osh to Bishkek with these stops in between. On the way back to Bishkek we drove through high valleys with flowers, horses and show capped peaks. Simply amazing scenery to see.

And occasionally you will find some amazing canyons in contract with the rest of the landscape. This is just one of them that looked great from the sky with all kinds of different colours and rock shapes.

Although not really considered the south, I went to visit Son-Kul for the second time just beause it’s so beautiful. Son-Kul is a huge mountain lake located at an altitude of 3000m+ . This is an extremely wide flat area surrounded by huge mountains. You really have to go there yourself to taste the atmosphere. On the day of arrival there was not a lot of wind allowing for some nice reflections.

As usual, we were staying in yurt camps in Son-Kul (the only option of staying there). I love photographing these photogenic tents.

Weather conditions go crazy in Son-Kul and you get all kinds of storms passing every day. This was just another rain shower during blue hour. I got soaked 5 minutes after taking this shot.

The weather above the yurt camps shown from the sky (taken by drone)

The lake after sunset with lots of cattle wandering around.

More storms passing at Son-Kul lake.

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