Over the Kungei Ala Too

October 19th, 2014 Sections: ... On the Road, Issyk Kul

On one occasion about ten years ago I was traveling up from Bishkek up to Lake Issyk Kul.  As we drove along the Northern shore towards Chalpon Ata I was busy taking in the view to out right, of the sky blue waters of the lake when one of my companions told me took to the left, at the mountains.  He pointed out a line climbing up the side of the mountain and told me it was to be a road across the mountains to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan.

The Kungei Ala Too run East to West along the Northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul

The Kungei Ala Too run East to West along the Northern shore of Lake Issyk Kul

It was seen as an important project because the vast majority of tourists who visit Kyrgyzstan make their way up to the lake – and the vast majority of those are from Kazakhstan.  Almaty is not actually that far from the lake but because they are separated by a mountain range – the Kungei Ala Too.

The first Russian to visit the lake, Pyotr (Tienshansky) Semyenov, basically headed South out of Verney, (as Almaty was called at the time), and crossed the mountains.   After exploring the Eastern end of the lake, he and his party crossed the mountains once mare and returned to Verney.

There are (or were) several trekking routes that followed similar paths across the mountains, that were extremely popular in the Soviet period.  The break up of the USSR in 1991, however, meant that these routes crossed administrative between two different parts of a single country, but a full blown international border.  To complicate matters, it was fairly porous with rustlers and smugglers crossing from one country to another and so became quite sensitive.

Technically, it is illegal to cross the border except at an officially designated crossing point … and there isn’t one in the mountains.  So, in order to take these routes, special arrangements have to be made with the authorities … assuming, that is, that the tourist doesn’t want to be arrested for crossing the border illegally … Apparently, it does happen.

So, the modern day tourists heading for the lake couldn’t take advantage of the direct route.  Instead, they have to head around the mountains – either East to Kegen, or West to Bishkek – before circling back round and heading for the beach.

This not only increases the distance they had to travel, it also meant that a journey that should have taken just a few hours took a whole day’s journey – both ways; there and back – so that was two days out of their holiday.   Bearing in mind that most of those journeys take place during the height of the summer season when temperatures can soar into the forties (centigrade) it also made for a very tiring and trying start and end to it.

So, it was felt, the new road would be a boon to the tourist industry around the lake.  Unfortunately, it was never finished.

Ten years ago, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development financed a feasibility study but the project never came to anything because of the costs involved.

A couple of years later another project was initiated and work actually started on construction … () …  but work came to a halt because the route rose so high that it entered a zone of permafrost and there were environmental issues.

A third project was started a year later and looked as if it might actually come to fruition.  Work actually started on constructing a road, but it came to a halt as the financing failed; a casualty of the Global Financial Crisis


The three different projects followed three different routes.  The first more direct; another  a little to the west and third to further still to the West to Kemin before Boom Gorge, over a lower pass and thus avoiding the area of permafrost. (which is close to the route taken by Semenov on his second expedition to Issyk Kul).


A few ago, there was a jeep (4WD) rally organized by a car club in Almaty which drove across one of the proposed routes from Almaty to Cholpon Ata … and according to reports at the time it was quite a difficult journey.

I have tried to follow the road from the Cholpon Ata side, and we ascended into the hills – but didn’t get very far.  There were rocks that had fallen onto the road and although we cleared a path past the first few … eventually as we were clearing yet another blockage I decided to walk ahead a little way.  I had a funny feeling, call it a premonition, and and as I rounded the next turn in the “road” what I saw convinced me that we would would probably be stopping to clear rocks every 50 or so meters.  I went back to the vehicle and told them what I had seen.  We discussed it and eventually made a group decision that it was futile to continue, and so we turned back.

At least we were treated to a wonderful of the lake as crested the final ridge.


Tourists from Almaty can of course fly … the flight from Almaty to the airport at Tamchy takes about an hour.

There is also talk of a new project – a cable car constructed over the mountains.  If it ever comes off it would be a spectacular ride, but the required finance must be a potential stumbling block.


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