Some 500 km from Bishkek and 300 km from Osh is The Sary Chelek biosphere reserve, which lies in the Arkit Gorge, a relatively small mountain hollow in the Chaktal Mountains. It was founded in 1959 to protect and research the pristine natural landscapes – lowland steppes and ridges with snow-capped peaks; rapid rivers and mountain lakes; blossoming valleys and alpine meadows (lying between 1200 m and 4274m) – with their varied flora and fauna. More than 1000 species of plants, 160 species of birds and 34 species of mammals (such as deer, bear, lynx, wolves, foxes, badgers, porcupine … even snow leopards) can be found in this relatively small, unspoilt national park.
The Park and area comprises of the river valleys and settlements of the Kara Suu, Hodzha Ata (which flows along a winding course through almost all the territory of the reserve, in places between steep banks, strewn with boulders forming rapid cascades and waterfalls upto 3 meters high), Avletim, It Agar and Pacha Ata rivers. Glaciers and permanent ice fields and high mountain lakes lie on the north facing slopes. Steep sided, wooded, valleys are cut deep into the ridges by fast flowing streams and where they open onto the plains of the Farghana Valley, the villages of Kyzyl Tuu, Avletim and Kashka Suu grew up.
The lake itself is situated some 1873 meters above sea level, it stretches for some 7.5 kilometers, varying in width from 350 m. to 1500 m. and it at its deepest point reaches a depth of 234 m. There is some dispute about how it was formed – some scholars think It resulted from the collapse of two ridges of mountains which blocked the river and held back the waters and others as a result of a shift along a fault line some 2000 years ago. The waters often appear a greenish shade of blue – and make attractive photographs.
There are also some other small lakes to the south-east (such as Kyla Kol, Iyri Kol, Aram Kol, Cherek Kol, and Bakaly Kol), but Sary Chelek is regarded as the gem – the Jewel in the Crown. The Avletim valley has attractive gorges and forested mountains.
Cliff paintings of wild animals (dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries) are located in the Kara-Tokoi gorge at height 3000 m. Detailed archaeological investigations, however, have not been carried out in the area. There are a few well known sites such as the Toskol-Ata Graveyard (Mazar) located on the southern shore of the Lake and a place of worship by local Muslims.
On the way to Sary Chelek is Uyum Tash – renowned as an ancient place of judgment. A person who had committed lots of sins would try to pass through he would get stuck, squeezed or crushed but a pure person would pass through unharmed. If someone was suspected of lying or stealing, they were asked to visit this place – and the fear this potential experience could inspire was sufficient to lead to full confessions.
The Lakes picturesque shores are thought by many of the local population to be the most beautiful in Kyrgyzstan. The steep slopes, (in places sheer), are covered with pine, silver fir and archa (myrtle) trees. A dendrological park (tree garden or Arboretum) has been established in the reserve, and although this is not highlighted as a visitor attraction, offers the opportunity to encounter the trees and bushes of the region, with living examples to complement the dried specimens found in museums.
Generaly the climate is damper and milder than in the rest of Kyrgyzstan. The high mountain ridges protect the reserve from the cold northly winds in winter and the temperature here is much higher than elsewhere in the valleys (although it can fall to -27.) Snow cover in winter, which lasts for over 100 day each year, is fairly uneven – on the southern slopes, often there is no settledsnow, but elsewhere it can be over a meter deep. In early summer (May and June) there is a combination of wamth and humidity, which gives way in late summer to warm, dry, windless days.
Some fishing is permitted in the rivers feeding the lake, but not on the lake itself. Swimming was prohibited after some fatal casualties in 1983. Hunting is absolutely prohibited within the reserve, although illegal hunting is a problem. Unfortunately, many visitors do not appreciate why the area is designated as a Zapovednik (reserve) and ignore the rules for visiting the reserve, even disobeying instructions from staff. They enter restricted areas, kindle fires, pick flowers and fruits, fish the lakes and rivers, and leave their garbage, all of which has a potential impact on the integrity of the biodiversity of the protected areas.
There is an extensive network of paths and horse routes through the Zapovednik. Several of the trails lead to the lake and have been used by rangers and local people for many years. Some routes start in the buffer zone around the reserve, for example from the tourbaza at Arkyt. One or more day hikes are a popular activity of guests at the tourbaza in Jylgyn. Local guides can be hired through the Zapovednik management, in Arkit village or in the villages of Kara-Suu and Avletim. There are 3-5 day routes, which cross the Chatkal Mountain range to Tallas in northern Kyrgyzstan and Goscartographia in Bishkek sell a map from Soviet times indicates some of these routes.
There is a museum is situated in a building next to the Zapovednik administration office which contains a topographical model of the Zapovednik, stuffed animals, insects and birds, and examples of different kind of trees and their timber. Labelling and descriptions are in Russian.
Access to the park is strictly controlled and camping is not allowed. There are plans to create a hostel in the park – but it is not clear when it will be ready. In the local communities, however, it is possible to find accommodation in yurts, guesthouses, hotels in the larger towns and there are a couple of tour-baza.
The local communities offer a variety of services, and there are a number of workshops producing artifacts of local handicrafts – felt, leather, wood, silver – as well as national costume, musical instruments, horse tackle and objects of everyday use. There are local museums in the villages of Kyzyl-Tu and Arkyte. In the Urkit canyon there is a geo-biological museum.