The size of rivers vary greatly in Kyrgyzstan, from steep low volume creeks to medium-big volume whitewater. These notes result from a trip between the 20th August to the 20th September. As a result most of the rivers were running at medium/low levels. Earlier in the summer (June/July) we believe the levels would be much higher. In addition to the notes below, you can download a set of maps (18Mb zip) to work out where all the rivers referred to actually are.
South of Bishkek
The rivers flowing towards Bishkek are low volume and seem to go at different times of year. The Ala-Archa would probably be great earlier in the season with more water, whereas the Ala-Medin was ideal mid-August. Driving up the Kara-Balta to the pass we would guess that much more water would be required to make this run. The East and West Karakol rivers which flow south from the same mountains appeared to be too low at this time of year, however the Kerkermeren was at an ideal level, and would go with both more (scary) and less water. The Chong-Kemin lies to the east of Biskek, running almost parallel with the border with Kazakhstan.
Ala Archa (above border post), Gd3/4
Glacier Fed. Too low in late August, need to catch it earlier in the season. The river runs through a National Park, which has a small entrance fee. A good quality dirt track runs alongside the river, and is only ~2hrs from Bishkek.
A ditch run that looks exciting due to its never ending speed but lacks river features to make the run interesting and unique. In higher levels though, the speed could make this a testing run.
Alamedin, 14km Gd3/4
The river is glacier fed, although there seems to be little level change
throughout the day. We encountered ideal levels in late august, by mid-September it was too low. Good quality road runs close to the river, and being close to Bishkek makes it an ideal warm-up run.
Put-in at the end of the road that runs up beside the river. It is also possible to walk up with the boats on the path on river right -- we walked about a km. The first 5km is Gd4, then the river gets slightly easier. You can paddle all the way back down to the town, or get out at any of the bridges that cross the river to shorten the run.
Chong Kemin, 20km Gd3-5
Access via tarmac road degrading to good dirt track above Kayndy village. There is a vehicle barrier low down the valley - foreigners are 'supposed' to pay 300 som per person, we negotiated down to 50. Higher up the valley the local yurt dweller had his own barrier and wanted to see the receipt.
Middle, 10km Gd3/4
A suggested put in is the highest bridge in the valley, just below an obvious braided section 76deg,41. Get out can be at the sickle shaped bend in river (76deg,22). After the river has rested on the upper plain, it gathers pace to Gd2/3, soon you come to a bridge at 76deg,35. It isn't soon after this that the river reaches Gd4, clean lines and fair paced water. Another section of Gd 3 follows with the best section soon after. About 4km of Gd4/4+ around 76deg,26 technical rapids around bends, pourovers and shoots all make this a delight. The river settles down until the suggested egress at 76deg,22.
Lower, 10km Gd4(5)
Get in at the sickle shaped bend in river (76deg,22) and out where road meets river at 76deg,15. Above and below the crux gorge can be seen from the road, and the entry rapid is probably the hardest on this section.
Kerkermeren, 30km Gd3-4
The river has a large catchment area and seems to be rain fed. Either way, it still had plenty of water in at the beginning of September, and I suspect is good throughout the entire season.
Upper, 15km Gd4
Driving southwards from the turn-off from the Bishkek to Osh main road, put in 2km above the road bridge as the river starts to look interesting. Take out at the small village downstream. The river starts with some nice grade 3, some bigger grade 4+ rapids requiring inspection after 4km or so, all happily with alternative chicken lines. The river flattens out as it approaches the village.
Middle, 15km Gd3/4
Put in at the village used as a takeout for the upper section. Take
out at the first bridge after the major confluence approx 15km downstream (ish). Flat for the first few km after the village, two gorge sections, the first
~500m long, the second slightly longer, with a large almost-river-wide hole hidden within it.
It may be possible to continue all the way down to the confluence with the Naryn, although we didn't paddle that far and would probably be a multi-day. From the maps it looks to have some more interesting looking gorge-like sections
South of lake Issyk-Kul
In general the best rivers in this region are towards the eastern end of the lake, though in higher water some of the western rivers may also provide some good boating. The levels we found towards the end of August were ideal for some rivers, but others could have done with perhaps a little more, meaning coming earlier in the season. However, more water in a number of the rivers we explored would have made things a bit too fast to stop before the log-jam portages typical of this region.
Arashan, 10km Gd4/4+
Drive up the road from Ak-Suu village until you eventually reach the Arashan 'Health-Spa'. A night here is recommended, allowing you to relax for an evening in the hot springs. This also leaves ample time to complete this long section, don't underestimate the drive time up the road. Take-out at the road bridge, 1km upstream of a barrage.
Barskoön, 5.5km Gd4/5
A good quality dirt road leads up the river from Barskoön. Apparantly the reason for the good quality of this track is that there is a goldmine further up the valley at Kumtor. The road weaves back and forth over the river, and the sections are outlined in relation to the bridge number (counted up from one as we drove up from the main Issyk-Kul lake road).
- Bridge 6 to 5, 2.5km Gd4/4+
- A few hundred metres of grade 3 leads to a forested section where the river drops away steeply into a mini gorgelike section. Inspection is possible by cimbing out of your boat in microeddies and scrambling along the riverbank. This section is very continuous and in higher water would probably be non stop grade 5, with trees.
- Bridge 5 to 4, 1.5km Gd2
- Straightforward shallow rapids, not much gradient, essentially linking the harder upper and lower sections.
- Bridge 4 to 3, 2km Gd3/4
- A short read-and-run blast through another forested section. Some rapids to keep you on your toes, but nothing henious requiring portages.Trees seem to be less of a problem here than the steep section above.
- Bridge 3 to 2, 1.5km Gd5/6
- After a nice drop immediately after the bridge, the gnarl starts 200m into the section and continues for another 200m or so. At the medium/low waterlevels we inspected it at there were numerous obvious siphons and drops landing on rock. Higher water may make this possible, but it would be a hell of a full on ride. It is recommended to have a look at this from the path down from the road on river left before even starting the section. The portage is not easy and may require ropes to abseil back into the gorge below. From here it appears to be grade 3/4, but we took out in the end so this isn't 100% sure.
Chong-Kyzyl-Suu, 4km Gd3-5
A reasonable quality dirt track leads up to the bottom of the interesting section of this river. A poorer quality and steep track leads to the put-in, a 4x4 is required to avoid walking in. Soon after the track becomes poor, it crosses a bridge and starts to climb steeply. The first bridge you come to at the top of this steep bit can be used as a takeout to avoid the harder section. Continue up the river a few km until you reach a small open plain, and put-in to the river to your left.
The river drops through a pine forest for the first few km, and at the levels we had was a bit of a gd 3/4 rock bash. This is followed by a steeper 1km of gd 4+/5 where trees are an issue. The river then mellows to Gd 3.
Jeti-Öghüz, 6km Gd3/4
Follow the track about 5km upstream from the town (where the tarmaced road ends), drive upstream until the road climbs to an open plain, Svetov Dolina (the Valley of the Flowers, or Kok Jayik in Kyrgyz). Once here, stop at the first bridge to cross the river from east to west. This should be the 5th bridge you cross whilst driving up-river from the town. Take out at the rather spectacular 'split' red cliff where the road nears the river just downstream of the town. This remarkable feature is known as Razbitoye Serdtse (broken heart) and legend tells of two men who died fighting over a beautiful woman, this rock representing her broken heart after the duel.
The river is at its steepest in the first few km as it drops off the plain, but all is boat-scoutable. Trees may be an issue especially in this upper reaches of this section. The rest of this section is less steep, but still doesn't lose its speed throughout the descent. Note that this river appears to hold its water better than others in the same area.
Juuka, 5km Gd4
Drive up the road to the east of the river from the town of Saruu. The take out is the bridge just upstream of the confluence with the Juuka-Chak. Continue driving upstream to find the next bridge. This is the put-in we used, although it is probably possible to keep going upstream and make the run longer.
A few hundred metres of continuous grade 3 leads to a considerably steeper section of rocky class 4. The river eases in gradient after a km or so of this, but does contain a few more surprises. Towards the end, beware of taking the right hand channel round an island as this leads to a sluice (visible from the road) which marks the start of an irrigation channel.
Access is easy along a good road, but note that a charge is levied at the valley entrance (250 som per tourist in 2005). Drive up the river until you reach a section that looks rather steep (and is somewhat tree-choked). we putin here, but higher up would be worth investigating. Takeout at the point where the road crosses a bridge from east to west.
Put on the lower half of the steep section and hold onto your hats until the river settles down into a not-so-steep, but very enjoyable class three ride. Keep on your toes and hop out to inspect the occasional steeper section as there are some powerful holes that would be happy to make you their guest for a while.
Turgen-Ak-Suu, 6km Gd3/4
This runs along the road to the Sary-Jaz area, which is in good condition. Drive up the river until you reach a plain and the river flattens out considerably. Put on here, or drive up a bit if you want a warm up. Take out just above the first road bridge you come to, there is a weir just after it which might require inspecting. The river starts relatively easy with some slower grade 2/3 sections, before steepening and narrowing to form powerful grade 4 rapids.
Catchment of Sary-Jaz
The entire Sary-Jaz area can currently be accessed by only one road. This road crosses the chong-Ashuu pass which is 3822m above sea level. The road over the top is a dirt track, but of reasonable quality, however when we crossed this at the end of August and it still had snow covering the top 100m or so of the pass. On the other side the road between the pass and the Enilchek confluence is tarmaced and in a good condition, except in a few places where landslides have fallen into the road. The rest of the roads in area are dirt tracks and considerably less well maintained. Some bridges shown on our maps were unsuitable for use, severely limiting exploration of the area by vehicle. The area appears to be very sparsely populated, with no shops or petrol stations to the south of the pass. Plan to be entirely self-sufficient and take lots of spare fuel! The rivers in this region were low at the end of August when we paddled them, but earlier in the season there may be too much snow to get over the pass to paddle them. In higher water some of these rivers would be excellent fun.
Sary-Jaz, 100km Gd3-6
Upper, 30km Gd2-3
Upon reaching the Sary-Jaz river after descending from the Chong-Ashuu pass (3822m), take a left and drive as far as you like (can) up the north bank of the river on a poor quality dirt track. Take out at the confluence with the Kerolu river.
We scouted but didn't paddle this section. The upper part of the run can easily be inspected from the road, it appears to be mostly medium volume class 2. Towards the end of the section the river leaves the road and flows through a few steep sided gorges which may house some more interesting rapids, but judging by the character of the rest of this section, nothing more challenging than class 3.
Middle Gorge, 10km Gd 3(4)
Put in at the confluence with the Kerolu and paddle to the rickety disused bridge just before the confluence with the Enilchek.
The river starts relatively easy grade 2, before being narrowing and being funnelled into an impressive feeling gorge, but containing mostly grade 3 water, if a little boily in places. The first tricky rapid (grade 4) is visible from the road just after a left hand bend and can be identified by a large black rock extending 3/4 of the way accross the river from right to left. There is a breakout on river right above it, but if you catch this to inspect you're comitted to running the rapid. The next difficult bit is right at the end of the section where the river narrows into a gorge on a bend. Getting out to inspect is difficult, and even when you do you can't see the exit from the gorge. It goes, we found to our relief, but you might want to walk upstream from the takeout just to look at the last few hundred metres.
Saryjaz down from the Tin Town (Enilchek), 5km Gd3
Put in at the bridge into the old tin mining town. Drive downstream until the road nears the river again. Take out just before a section of road where the scree slope seems to cross the road. A medium-big volume bouncy ride with the occasional pourover to avoid.
Killer Canyon, 50km Gd4-6
Put in as far down the Sary-Jaz as you can, as the river turns to the east after the last big confluence this is where the section starts for real. Takeout is a problem as the river crosses the chinese border, thus requiring a helicopter ride out, or a long hike over a mountain pass.
According to a mountain guide who had helped two Russian groups organise
trips there, there are sections where "rocks in river, whole river flows under the rocks". The guidebook "Rivers of an Unknown Land" by Vladimir Gavrilov mentions that various gorges of this section remain unrun. Both of the two Russian trips that the mountain guide mentinoed lost expedition members. This will be a serious undertaking. An American/Canadian group attempted this section at about the same time as we where out there, paddled too far into China and were detained by the chinese authorities for 7 days!
Kaiyngdy, 5km Gd3(4)
Take out where the track disappears into the river at a washed away bridge. Cross the river, walk upstream, and put in when you get tired of walking! The sections further up look promissing and could be accessed easily by a vehicle (via track used to walk in) if a river crossing at the take out was attempted.
After crossing river walk up the track on river left. We walked for approximately 3 hrs which was sufficient for some good paddling. There is the possibility of tea and bread/butter at the put in if the local farmers are out in the fields! The section we paddled started off at continuous grade 3, increasing to easy grade 4 boulder dodging further down. The boulders increase in size the further down you go, and lines can get very tight in places! After another km the grade eases again to grade 3 until the take out is reached. At higher water levels this would be a very comitting run due to the tight lines through large boulder gardens.
Kerolu, 10km Gd1-3
Middle (the braids), 6km Gd1/2
Drive up the track to the north of the river and put in at one of the points at which the road nears the river. Takeout at the point where the river narrows and funnels into the gorge section. An easy stretch of water situated in a classical glacial valley. No specific rapids to speak of, but the gradient is constant enough to keep the water flowing quickly.
Lower Gorge, 4km Gd2/3
Put in at the end of the braids after driving up the north side of the river, take out at the main road bridge over the river just bfore the confluence with the Sary-Jaz. A section of nice grade 2/3, flowing through open boulder gardens.
Terekty (the Kyrgyz Chateau Queyras), 2.5km Gd 3/3+
Paddle the "Tin Town down" section of the Sary-Jaz, and keep your eyes peeled for a small trib coming in from the right hand side. Your walk-in starts here! Put in as far upstream as you can be bothered to walk. We put in 500m above the start of the gorge section, but above does look like fun. The track to follow is on the upstream bank of the river (as it enters the Sary-Jaz). We climbed the hill and crossed the plateau before descending back down to the river, but skirting below the hill would, in hindsight, have been a more sensible option. Take-out as for the lower Sary-Jaz.
The gorge is very tight, less than a metre in places and it would be wise
to inspect it in its entirety for new log lams and boulder chokes before paddling. The first small gorge is 2/3 metres wide and quite straight forward, followed by a narrower gorge squeezing between high cliff faces, very similar to Chateau Queyras in the French Alps. It is necessary to stop about 75m from the bottom of the gorge as there are two henious siphons that look like they are there to stay guarding the exit. You are guaranteed to see these if you're walking up the river! Seal-launch in below these and continue down the rest of the section, dodging between some large boulders, before flattening out and rejoining the Sary-Jaz.
Naryn and its tributaries
The Naryn is one big long river, running for at least a few hundred kilometres. We explored the area above and around Naryn town itself. I particularly enjoyed this area, with the Kichi-Naryn and Song-Kol being the highlights of my trip.
Naryn, 100s km Gd2-6
An extremely long shuttle over a number of high passes is required (albeit on good roads) in order to make this multiday trip. If you want to miss out on the flat at the top a 4x4 may become necessary. The takeout is at a road bridge, but taking out before waterfall canyon requires a tough walk up a steep track, the top of which should be accessible by 4x4 (unless like us you hire horses to drag your boats down the valley to where you expect to meet your vehicle).
The Taragai and the braids, 70km Gd1/2(3)
A long paddle, predominantly on braided sections of river but with a couple of grade 3 rapids to break the monotony. Drive up the Barskoön valley and over the Syook pass. Stop at the first bridge over a major river on the road to Kara-Say. This is the river Taragai, and the start to your trip.
This section is not recommended by itself, but as an extra to the multiday trip down the upper Naryn (especially if your vehicle can't get down to the other putin or you want to shorten the shuttle). The whitewater is not spectacular, but being invited in for chai (or even to spend the night) in one of the little farmsteads along the way is an awesome exerience. Don't forget postcards of your home country to give as presents, along with sweets and other goodies for their kids! The river is flat and very braided for the first 6 or 7km, though constantly moving, before the banks steepen a little giving a few grade 2 rapids to speed you along. All too soon though the river opens out once more, becoming the Naryn, and joining the Kara-Say river before turning west for 25km of grade 1 braids. Pick your route carefully as it can be a long way to drag your boat back to the main channel! The village of Karakolka slips past on your right before passing under a road bridge. Here starts the next section.
Upper Naryn, 90km Gd 3/4(5)
A classic 2-3 day multiday section, including some nice continuous whitewater, and a gnarly section to end with. Drive downriver from the put-in to the previous section, stopping at the road bridge 6km downstream of the village of Karakolka. Put-in here, or if you are intent on starting where the good whitewater starts, continue driving downstream (for ~25km) until the river gorges up. You'll need a 4x4 for this though. Takeout at the bridge just above the confluence with the Kichi Naryn.
In the 5km to the confluence with the Karakolka river are a few bouncy class 2/3 rapids to get you in tune with your kit-laden boat. After the Karakolka joins are a couple more class 3 rapids before the rivers widens a little and meanders down towards the gorge in the distance. As the river is squeezed between the gorge walls a nice continuous section of grade 3/3+ forms. After 8km or so is a more difficult class 4 with a few holes that are worth inspecting. The pace quickens for the next 5km with some more continuous whitewater in which are hidden a few meaty holes. A long section of easier water is next up, mostly grade 2 with a few 3's. A narrow section under a small footbridge goes through the middle, and a while later a grade 3 rapid leads drops into a steep sided gorge. Anything in here would be unportageable, but Calm Canyon, as it is known, keeps to its name and winds its way through some spectacular scenery. Once it opens out you soon pass under a sheep trolley, followed by a farm on the left hand side. If you're planning to take out above waterfall canyon, this is the place to do it, and you need to lug your boat from the farm up the steep track on river left. It is difficult to inspect waterfall canyon without comitting yourself, but the largest fall (grade 5+ - probably a portage) is less than 1km into the section and it is possible (but rather tiring) to work your way back upstream to the farm from here. After this point you are comitted, and face some big rapids for the next 8km to the takeout.
The rest of the Naryn is mostly paddleable for a few hundred km of paddling, continually increasing in volume, with both easy and hard sections. From Naryn town there are a hundred or so kilometers of easy water. A large gorge is visible on the maps and we are led to believe there are some big gnarly rapids in there. More info on this trip is available in "Rivers of an Unknown Land" by Vladimir Gavrilov.
Kichi-Naryn, 15km Gd 3/4(4+)
Drive upstream from the confluence with the Naryn. The first bridge is the takeout. To get to the put-in carry on upriver until you see the river open out into a wide glaciated valley. Find a suitable put-in anywhere the road nears the river.
The first few km of paddling are easy, certainly not a reflection of things to come! After passing under the first road bridge the gradient increases, yielding some nice read and run grade 3/4. Another road bridge follows after which the action eases until a powerful class 4, just above the third road bridge and easily visible from the car on the drive upstream. The most difficult rapid of the section is the entrance to the gorge, under the third road bridge.
Song-Köl, 38km Gd2-6
Access is via good quality dirt tracks over a number of passes to get to the lake, straight forward shuttles on these tracks for the first gorge and the middle section, but a monster shuttle for the lower gorge.
Upper Gorge, 8km Gd 4/4+(5/6)
Drive west from the Bishkek-Naryn road over the pass and make your way south round the lake. Put-in at the bridge over the river as it leaves the lake. After the bridge turn left and follow the road over another small pass and down a never ending sequence of switchbacks. Take out at the bottom.
The section starts VERY boney and shallow as the river finds its way between
round (but not smooth) boulders. This goes on for a few km before you reach a portageround a ~10m drop onto rocks, and put on below (or onto?) the steep slide leading out of its mini gorge. The whitewater really picks up from here, with some excellent class 4(5) rapids with some portages. The final major gradient loss in the section comes in the form of a two tiered ~25m fall, get out in plenty of time to inspect horizon lines as there ain't many eddies on the lead-in. A long portage round a steep slope lies to your right. From the bottom of this fall its a short section of easy water to the takeout (It might be worth walking up from the bottom to view this fall). Higher water would make lots of this section much less boney, if you aren't scraping the first few km from the bridge you'll be in for quite a ride.
Middle, 10km, Gd2
Put in as per the takeout of the upper gorge, just at the end of the long series of
switchbacks. Takeout as far downstream as you can drive. A nice easy section, meandering through mountain pastures and allowing the locals to pop out of their yurts to quizzically watch you pass by. If you succeed in crossing the rickety bridge just downstream of the confluence, the valley sides tighten and you will be treated to some nice gd3 rapids. The gorge opens out after two km or so and enters the final open space before the road stops and the river enters the lower gorge.
Lower Gorge, 20km Gd2/3(4,portages)
Put in as far down the river you can drive from the lake (i.e. the takeout for the middle section). Takeout at the first barrage you come to. This is accessible by car by driving up river left of the Song-Köl from its confluence with the Naryn to a small village near the end of the road. Turn left just after the village and follow a small track down to a farm next to the river. This is the takeout.
Assuming you managed to drive this far, the river starts by flowing from a wide plain with a farm on the left bank, between two steep cliffs. After approx 2km the river steepens and begins to flow through a long boulder garden. Most is paddleable, save a short section at the levels we had. Very soon after this section the cliffs close in, forming shoulder canyon - so named as this is the way through: the easiest side to portage being on the left. A mixture of grade 2/3 water with sprinkled with harder drops leads eventually to "The Diggler" - a 50m long fissure in the rocks, 30m deep and less than 1m wide in places. Unless you want to risk the paddle, the portage route on river right will require lots of rope and even more hard work. It took us the best part of 1.5hours to get back down to the water on the downstream side. 100m further on is the "Mini Diggler", 20m long, wider and much easier to inspect - there should be no need to portage this one! More class 2/3 down a spectacularly carved gorge before reaching "Fanny Canyon", a weird ribbed canyon that you will certainly recognise as you see it! It contains only grade 1 water though so venture on in. There is one more similar but smaller canyon further on, before signs of man become evident and you come across the barrage indicating the takeout.
This run is certainly not a pain-free ride, and you wouldn't do it solely for the quality of it's whitewater. However, if you like to explore it will appeal: the run is very remote and you almost expect a dinosaur to poke it's head out of the bushes as you paddle down.
We didn't explore any further south than Naryn, but there are rumours of sweet granite slides around Osh. The southern area of Kyrgyzstan is less stable than the north, mostly because you're much closer to the borders with the other 'stans so it will worth checking up on the current FCO advice before planning to travel there. If anyone has any info on this area, I would be interested to hear it so please get in touch.