Abandoned Soviet town, surrounded by the high mountain peaks of the Tien Shan. Located in the remote valley, just a few kilometres from the Chinese border, inhabited only by a few local families. One of the places located deep off the beaten path in Kyrgyzstan. I present you the mesmerizing Sary Jaz valley and Engilchek ghost town that has been left forgotten from the world on the east-north of Kyrgyzstan.
The 4×4 car was splashing snow when we were driving by the man-tall snowdrifts in the Chon-Ashu pass at 3822 meters above the sea level, far into the wilderness of Central Asia, deep into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. I could almost hear the avalanches tumbling down in the surrounding mountains.
After entering the Sary Jaz Valley, the half-empty Engilchek ghost town appeared before my eyes spreading on one side of the river. We passed by the crumbling buildings and abandoned structures eaten by time, listening to the birds screaming inside the dead holes, that used to be windows. And then, we reached the homestay of the local family.
We heard the laugh of the kids and the sound of the local animals. The ghost city surrounded by the 7000+ meters high white peaks of Tian Shan was still alive.
Sary Jaz Valley and Engilchek town – Kyrgyzstan off the beaten path
During my travel in Central Asia, after backpacking Uzbekistan solo, I had a chance to travel to the northeast of Kyrgyzstan. This rugged and vibrant country always fascinated me with its wilderness, the raw beauty, and the high almost irresistible mountains. There so many unique and interesting things to do in Kyrgyzstan, most of them outdoors. If this isn’t a paradise for a mountain-lover, I don’t know what is.
That’s where, I found a place hidden from the world – Sary Jaz Valley.
USRR in Kyrgyzstan
During the times of the Soviet Union, the Sary-Jaz valley played a big role for the Soviet government. The area is very mineral-rich, and at the beginning of 1980, the Soviet Union built several mines to extract the metals like tungsten, tin, molybdenum, and others.
After the collapse of the Union, the region near the Engilchek Glacier has been abandoned and many people moved out. The previously busy mines have been closed and the buildings left to ruin. The city bustle faded away.
Read more: Unique things to do in Kyrgyzstan
The Sary-Jaz valley now
Nowadays, the Sary-Jaz valley is a part of the national park Khan-Tengri mountain, which has been set up to protect this unique area. The almost untouched landscape with rare flora and fauna, different from the other places in the country, creates a nature enclave on the map of Kyrgyzstan.
Several powerful rivers cut the valley, bringing fresh water from the mountain glaciers. The snow on the high peaks of the Tien Shan range sparkles in the sun. The mountains like Peak Khan-Tegri at 7,000m or Peak Pobeda at 7,439 m tower above the ruins.
Engilchek ghost town
The Engilchek village located in Sary-Jaz valley looks like a place from the past. Only when you dive a bit deeper into the alleys between the crumbling houses, you can see that the town also has its presence and a future. You can hear the laughter of the kids, the voices of the animals and see some of the restored buildings, where the local families live.
Located at 2500 meters above sea level, this previously industrial town inhabited by 5000 people, now is home to 30 families. Many of them work with livestock in the mountains, selling the animals later at the Karakol Sunday market.
Read more: Central Asia travel itinerary
The trip from Karakol
We drove down into the valley, hidden deep in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. To get here you need to have a special permit, as you are only tens of kilometres away from the Chinese border.
But this is not all.
The valley, located 150 km away from Karakol, requires long and skilful manoeuvring through the mountains. Some of the windy roads were made in the Soviet times, the rest is gravel or, well, just an off-road.
The only road connecting the village with the world is also often closed, because of avalanche danger. We tried several times and needed to change our plans, waiting for the time when we can pass.
The village of Karakol in east Kyrgyzstan is quite well known amongst adventure seekers, outdoor lovers, and trekkers. Surrounding mountains offer wonderful hiking opportunities, the free-roaming horses add the magical feeling to the landscape and the cultural mix sparks interest. However, there is so much more the region has to offer.
Thanks to the local company Visit Karakol, I had a chance to travel to the place that you won’t find in any typical things to do in Kyrgyzstan list or a guidebook. The place was forgotten by time, that used to be a bustling settlement full of young people dreaming about the future in the mining industry, and now is called a ghost town.
With my interest in unusual, unique, off the beaten path places, the moment I’ve heard about Engilchek (also known as Inylchek) town and the Sary-Jaz valley – I was sold. There couldn’t be anything more interesting for an adventurer than this post-Soviet abandoned town, populated with a handful of local families, surrounded by the dramatic mountain peaks, glaciers, hot springs, and old mines.
Staying with a local family in Engilchek
A highlight of my trip to Sary-Jaz valley in Kyrgyzstan was a stay with a local family in the Engilchek town. Any place I travel to, I find it very interesting and important to engage with local people. This enhances the experience of the place and helps to better understand the country, opens the mind and enriches you as a person.
The opportunity for the local people to host visitors at their houses helps the families financially, as well as allows them to practice their English skills. The community-based tourism is a big part of being a responsible traveller and giving back to the local communities should always be present in the travel activities we take.
I stayed one night with a family of the local English primary school teacher. The simplicity of the traditional Kyrgyz house, delicious food, and the kindness of the hosts made my stay unforgettable.
The simple life in the town surrounded by the mountains, where time is regulated by the river, with no cellphone signal or internet, and no running water, let you appreciate what you take for granted. Through the community tours, the local Kyrgyz people can show you their way of life.
Things to do in Sary-Jaz valley and around
The Sary-Jaz valley offers unique opportunities to explore the stunning Kyrgyz nature. I wrote about these unique things to do in Kyrgyzstan in the linked post, so head there for more details! They include swimming in natural hot springs, visiting abandoned mines and finding the ancient petroglyphs, or climbing the Engilchek Glacier, which is located around 50 km east from the town.
How to visit Sary-Jaz valley and Engilchek town?
The best way to visit those unique places is with a local guide. I can highly recommend Visit Karakol tour company, who organizes small off-road tours to the area.
You can be sure of the professional services and unforgettable experience. Visit Karakol also makes sure to empower and help local communities through their trips, so you can contribute to the local economy.
Disclaimer: I was invited for the trip to Sary-Jaz valley by Visit Karakol. However, all you can read here is my opinion only.
Would you like to visit Sary-Jaz valley and Engilchek town in Kyrgyzstan? Do you know any other Kyrgyzstan off the beaten path destinations worth a visit? Let me know in the comments!
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