Beside Song-Köl Lake

IMG_1182There are places that stay in the mind long after visiting. Places that haunt the mind’s memory cache to prevail even years after having set foot there. Such places might be mountains, or rivers, or stretches of coastline; or even villages that charm and bejewel the bedrock of a singular landscape. Usually though, it is a combination of factors that constitutes the essence of such places – earth, sky, water, topography, the patina of a human occupation that beautifies rather than despoils. One such place is Lake Song-Köl in central Kyrgyzstan, the poster girl of a country that has occasionally, and not unreasonably, been described as the most beautiful in the world.


It had been a long time – twelve years in fact – since I had last visited. My assumption was that it hadn’t changed much in the interim. I was right – the landscape was as I remembered it, almost exactly. If anything, it was I who had changed: a dozen winters of freeze and thaw had affected me more profoundly than it had the pasture of the lake’s hinterland, the ever-renewing grazing pasture that justified its seasonal occupation.


There are several ways to approach the lake, set high at over 3,000 metres in Naryn province in what is more or less the dead centre of Kyrgyzstan. We drove up from the east, through stark, tightly folded valleys and arid badlands, until the lake finally revealed itself as a blue sliver beyond meadows grazed by yak herds.

The yurt camp where we stayed seemed familiar, although they all tend to look much the same – a cluster of yurts, an isolated toilet cubicle, a hitching place for horses. For all I knew this may well have been where I had stayed before. Its location was certainly very similar: up along the lake’s north-eastern shore away from the main concentration of yurts close to the approach road. The camp was overseen by a cheerful baboushka*, who exercised gentle rule over her son, daughter and daughter-in-law, and fussed over her laughing grandchildren who looked so at home here on the jailoo* that you might imagined that this was the only world they ever knew, although outside the summer months they would probably be town-dwellers like the rest of us. As ever in Kyrgyzstan, we were welcomed with tea and bread… and jam, and honey, boiled sweets and biscuits – just a token snack before lunch – plov*, salad, more chai – which would be ready in an hour. There was just time for a quick walk up the broad, green valley where a drift of chestnut horses were grazing the thin grass of its slopes.


After lunch, we went horse-riding with the baboushka’s son for the best part of three hours, two hours longer than my habitually non-equestrian body was comfortable with. Later, stiff and sore, and thankful to return to bipedal ways, we hiked up above the valley before descending down to the lake water where horses were lined up drinking. A small marshy area close to the shore revealed a solitary redshank and a grey wagtail. We had hoped for birds of prey but, other than a single circling buzzard, raptors were shy in revealing themselves. Wheatears, on the other hand, seemed to be almost everywhere, flashing white as they cocked their tails flitting from rock to rock. And skylarks too, an improbable density of them jangling the sky – the birds had flown up in such abundance from unseen nests whilst on horseback earlier I had been concerned that we might trample eggs beneath our inexpertly guided hooves.


After dinner – fish from the lake fried in batter, more bread, more chai – another brief walk to watch the full moon rise. A band of pink cloud humbugged the darkening sky like a vein of quartz in rock as definition blurred and colour drained from the land. Above us, hovering low in the sky, as if serenading – or perhaps, scolding – the rising orb, a single skylark clattered its song in the ebbing light.

*baboushka – grandmother

*jailoo – alpine meadow providing seasonal grazing

*plov – Central Asian dish made with mutton and rice



16 Replies to “Beside Song-Köl Lake”

  1. Wow, Laurence! Your precious images are breathtakingly beautiful. Easy to see why the memories of lake Song-Köl stays with you. What a glorious day you had, from the beginning to the end.
    You and Jackie have to come Cley one day. Have you been to the edge of the Stiffkey freshes? If not, we’ll take you- see our last blog entry. It has to be well timed with a low tide.
    Have a wonderful weekend!
    Hanne and Klausbernd

    1. Thank you so much, Hanne. Indeed, it is a very beautiful place. You are right – we really must come to Cley soon. Your invitation to Stiffkey sounds intriguing, especially the ‘low tide’ bit. We’ll be in touch soon. All the best. L

    1. Thanks, Murdo. I do actually have a photograph of a distant skylark against the sunset sky – trouble is, the bird is so tiny it just looks like a speck that should be Photoshopped out. Imagined image is better – perhaps, instead, this needs a soundtrack of jangling skylark on high?

  2. Perfect description of a perfect day. Thanks for rekindling such a warm, embracing memory so vividly. From narcotic jam, funny honey, John Wayne kumis and candy coloured sunsets a great time in a beautiful country!

  3. Beautiful narrative – makes me really look forward for my trip in Sep. Been looking at your tweets and posts. Decided to try go to Jyrgalan bcoz of your tweets ha! 🙂

    1. Thank you very much. I thoroughly recommend Jyrgalan – gorgeous walking around there, and a charming village too. Enjoy your trip – you are going to have a wonderful time.

  4. Marvellous, Laurence, both word and image. I shall listen out for the clattered song of a skylark (wonderful description!) when I finally escape to the Pyrenees next week.

  5. You’re very fortunate being able to visit places like this. To hear so many skylarks would be wonderful! Lovely piece.

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