Kyrgyzstan: Lake Son-Kul in Photos and Prose

The lonely beauty of Lake Son-Kul has long caught the imagination of foreign visitors to the landlocked Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan. Situated on an elevated, treeless mountain plateau (3,016 metres about sea level), its verdant meadows are used by shepherds of the country's Kochkor, Naryn and At Bashi regions as feeding grounds for livestock in the summer months.

When plying their trade up at the ‘Last Lake’, these pastoralists live in yurt camps, renting a portion of the traditional felt dwellings out to stray tourists, and brewing up gallon upon gallon of Kumyz (fermented mare's milk) to pass the time. But at the beginning of October when the grazing season ends, when yurts are packed up and the herders head for their permanent homes, Son-Kul fades back into myth, its existence recalled only by the surreal photography and inspired prose of the travelers who visited its shores.

Father, daughter and son row in Lake Son-Kul. Image by Kirsten Styers, used with permission.

Father, daughter and son row in Lake Son-Kul. Image by Kirsten Styers, used with permission.

In honor of the tradition of Son-Kul-inspired creativity, Global Voices Online requested permission to use the photos of Kirsten Styers, a Bishkek-based American ex-pat and the author of the blog Ivory Pomegranate and the writing of Palmer Keen, a freelance writer and contributor to the Kyrgyz tourist magazine the Spektator.

Depending on the weather, the surface of the lake changes its color from blue to green and even orange tint. Locals of Naryn province say it is not unusual for the lake to see four seasons in a day, and unprepared tourists setting out lightly-clothed on horse trails organized by the Kochkor Community Based Tourism (CBT) group are frequently shocked when their lakeside trot is disturbed by storms of biblical proportions.

Nevertheless, as Kirsten notes in her blog, Son-Kul is still a Kyrgyzstan ‘must do’, even if it isn't as comfortable as the more famous and tourist-friendly Issyk-Kul:

I had never been to Son-Kul, which is one of those necessary Kyrgyzstan experiences. It’s the kind of thing where if you don’t go to Son-Kul after living in Kyrgyzstan for more than two years, people judge you. “Oh, so did you ever leave Bishkek in those two years? What were you doing the whole time?”

Although the journey is arduous, it is worth it. As Palmer Keen recalls in the Spektator:

As we all silently considered the logistics of milking a wild yak, Yusuf coerced our steed upwards, ascending through the thinning air to Son-Kul’s lofty heights over 3000 meters up. After passing stubborn shelves of ice and herds of sheep traipsing through wildfowers, we found ourselves in a new kind of paradise: beyond the expanses of alpine meadows, Son-Kul lay like some kind of mountain mirage, snow-capped peaks reflected in its calm waters. We made our way to the cluster of yurts by the shore, the only sign of life for miles around.

There is little in the way of malls and clubs up at Lake Son-Kul. Image by Kirsten Styers, used with permission.

Once up there, an evening by Son-Kul's shores epitomizes… coldness. Keen writes:

After a dinner of brined lamb, the sun sank below the mountains, leaving behind a pink sky and a chill that threatened to become chillier still. Coming to terms with the fact that isolated mountain beauty arrives at a frosty price, we bundled up with jackets and stood by the lake-side, all shivers and smiles, watching the light fade in the refection of Son-Kul.

When it gets truly chilly, it is time to hit the yurt. In season, the yurt owners rustle up a good breakfast. Just don't expect any vegetables. Keen remembers:

When I awoke next, it was to the sound of a woman gathering silverware from a cupboard in our yurt, a healthy reminder that I was sleeping in someone’s home, not some private suite. Noting the rooster’s sonic absence, I  realized that the locals had long since been up. Outside, the sun’s rays had already warmed the pastures, and our host family was busy preparing breakfast for the sleepy folk. Joining Yusuf and our host babushka in the yurt beside our own, we hungrily devoured our oily eggs and the fresh bread and jam that had been spread about the table.

Apricot and raspberry jams glow in the yurt-light. Image by Kirsten Styers, used with permission.

Despite the fact that Son-Kul is treeless, its high altitude and variable climes give rise to a number of rare flora and fauna. And, in addition to the sight of edelweiss sprouting in alpine gullies, visitors may also see several different species of ducks, cranes, storks, mergansers, bald-coots, plovers, falcons, golden eagles, and even shags, while deer, foxes and marmots also frequent the plateau. In season however, it is the cattle, sheep and horses of the herders that dominate the plain.

A procession of cattle on Son-Kul's shores. Image by Kirsten Styers, used with permission.

Finally, the lofty lake also opens up a veritable treasure trove to the amateur astrologist at night. Palmer Keen concludes:

That night, our stomachs full of lagman [Central Asian noodle dish] and our souls full of the romantic optimism of travel, we stood by the shore, yurts in the distance, and looked up at the milky way, all cloudy and brilliant. As satellites circled across the sky, they seemed somehow lost. Surely they must have taken a wrong turn to end up here, in a place that felt like some hidden frontier, like the last place on earth. Arcing off into the distance, they left us alone by the lapping shore, thinking that oddly selfish thought; together, with the people who sometimes call the place home, we had Lake Son-Kul all to ourselves.

Night sky over Son-Kul. Image by Kirsten Styers, used with permission.

N.B The rest of Kirsten Styers’ Son-Kul photos can be found here. In addition to snaps and blogs on a range of Kyrgyzstan-related subjects, Styers writes a very entertaining weekly piece called Kyrgyz Music Friday, showcasing the country's popular music via YouTube videos.

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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