Tian Shan Mountains

The mountains, Gorges, Valleys, Lakes, history and legends of Tian Shan


The mountains Lakes Legends of Tian Shan
Valleys Gorges Historical artifacts

Tian Shan MountainsTian Shan is the majestic and beautiful mountains in the heart of Central Asia. People come here to lose their heads from the beauty of landscapes, leave a part of their souls in deep gorges and lose peace forever, falling in love with dense coniferous forests and crystal lakes.

The Tian Shan mountain range stretches from east to west throughout China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The northern Tian Shan, marked by Ketmen, Ile (Trans-Ili) Alatau, Kuyngey-Ala-Too and Kyrgyz Ala-Too ranges, stretches from China through the territory of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is easy to get to most areas either from Almaty (Kazakhstan) or Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). The eastern, including the Borokhoro, Bogdo-Ula, Sarmin-Ula, Kuraktag ranges, is almost entirely located in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. The ranges of the Western Tian Shan - Karatau, Talas Ala-Too, Chatkal, Pskem and Ugam begin in Kyrgyzstan, and end in Tashkent region of Uzbekistan. This popular tourist destination is accessible from both Kyrgyzstan and the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent. The southern and south-western border of Tian Shan - Fergana Range - borders the Fergana Valley. The pearl of Kyrgyzstan - the inner (central) Tian Shan - is surrounded from the north by the Kyrgyz Ala-Too Range, from the south - Kakshaal-Too, from the west - by Fergana Range, and from the east - by the Akshirak massif. Issyk-Kul Lake located here attracts guests from all over the world. You can get here by car, bus, train and even by plane.

Tian Shan is one of the highest mountains on the planet - more than thirty peaks here exceed the mark of six kilometers. It is not by chance that the name of these mountains is translated as “heavenly” or “divine” mountains.

An extensive chain of foothills, gentle slopes and numerous valleys and lakes made them attractive both for life and for recreation. Many diverse trails, modern infrastructure transfers Tian Shan into a magnet for active tourism. There are routes for mountaineering, light and heavy trekking, ski tourism in the winter, a relaxing summer holiday on the beach, as well as many interesting objects for admirers of ecological and ethnographic tourism.

The mountains

Tian Shan Mountains Climbers and sportsmen aim at the snow-capped Jengish Chokusu or Peak Pobedy (Victory Peak) - the highest summit of Tian Shan - and Khan Tengri - undoubtedly one of the most beautiful mountains on Earth and the northernmost seventhousander. Besides them, there are still a lot of unconquered peaks in the Tian Shan, especially in its Chinese part.

Jengish Chokusu or Peak Pobedy (Victory Peak) (7,439 m) is located on the border of Kyrgyzstan and China. Due to the fact that it is covered by mountain ranges from all sides, the summit remained unexplored for a long time, and its height was precisely determined only in 1943. The majestic peak has a slightly flattened and stretched top. The mountain makes a deceptive impression - it seems calm, and even somewhat imposing, but in reality there are strongest winds under the clouds, fog is falling from above, avalanches come down often. There is an opinion that Jengish Chokusu is one of the most difficult seventhousander. This summit ascend requires good physical shape, equipment, but most importantly - endurance and stunning bravery. At the same time, today dozens of athletes managed to get here, which means that the victory still belongs to the brave and persistent.

Tian Shan MountainsNeighboring summit Khan Tengri is known since time immemorial. A beautiful correct pyramid with a height of 6,995 meters complemented additional 15 meters by glacial cap - is visible from all directions. In ancient times, the locals believed that a deity lived at the top - Tengri. Hence the name of this mountain. There is one more name - Kan-Too or “bloody mountain”. At sunset, Khan-Tengri is painted bright red; the snow cap remains crimson even when the neighboring mountains plung into twilight. As part of the Khan-Tengri rock there is pink marble - it gives an effect of sunset rivers, glittering and sparkling, flow down the slope.

The proximity of the Kazakhstan and China state borders made the geographical identity of Khan-Tengri controversial for a long time. As a result, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China agreed that the summit is the common property of the three states.

Athletes have successfully stormed this beautiful peak since the mid-30s of the twentieth century. The classic route runs along the western edge. The weather here is also unstable, it can suddenly be hit by severe frosts, and a breeze, so going to Khan-Tengri can be a strong test of strength. However it makes the summit even more attractive. The popularity of Khan-Tengri has another reason. Geographically, if you look from the north, the location of Khan-Tengri (7,010 m) and its western conjoint (5,900 m) to Chapayev Peak (6,371 m), though two hundred meters lower, but still very similar to the Himalayan giants: Mount  Everest (8,848 m), its South Col (7,900 m) and the neighboring Lhotse Peak (8,516 m). Therefore, many come to Kyrgyzstan to work out the Himalayan "classics".

Those not completely sure they can reach the summit can try the trekking route to the base camp on the South Inylchek glacier. Here opens a stunning view of the high mountain Tian Shan. By the way, South Inylchek is the largest of all 7.3 thousand km2 Tian Shan glaciers. Its neighbor, Northern Inylchek, is slightly smaller. At the junction of two ice branches, one of the most interesting glacial-dammed lakes is located - the “disappearing” Merzbacher Lake. Every year - in winter and summer - the roaring lake completely loses water in several days leaving the bottom covered with icebergs blocks. It is difficult to bypass the reservoir in full-flowing period as it is surrounded by rocks. The age of Merzbacher Lake, as well as the mechanisms of its discharges, are not fully understood. That’s why both adventure seekers and scholars aspire to it. The glaciers of the Tien Shan are also being studied in connection with global warming. Climate change has led to their rapid melting, so the shape of the glaciers and their size are carefully measured.

Tian Shan MountainsTian Shan Mountains is a popular skiing destination for snowboarding, freeride, and practicing heli-ski. The season lasts December to April, while the weather is often mild and sunny. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan ski resorts offer variety of routes, differing in both complexity and configuration. There are popular destinations and new routes. The descent from the glaciers and helicopter transfer to the top can be the part of the tour. In Kazakhstan, there is a high-mountainous ski base “Chimbulak”. In Kyrgyzstan, “Karakol”, “Kashka-Suu”, “Orlovka”, “Oruu-say” resorts have made a name for themselves. “Chimgan”, “Beldersay” are known in Uzbekistan, the “Amirsay” ski resort is being built. The infrastructure of such resorts is getting better every year, guided by the best European experience. The advantageous difference between the Tian Shan and the ski resorts of Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy is that this direction has not yet become so popular. In Tian Shan everyone can get their own unique ski experience.


Tian Shan MountainsTian Shan gives chances to all tourists. In Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, a lot of peaks and scenic passes, are ready to surrender to those who are stubborn and self-confident. Here you will not need professional equipment, comfortable clothing and shoes would be enough, there is no need in long-term acclimatization. And do not be afraid of the attractiveness of these places among tourists - Tian Shan is so extensive and so beautiful that there are many reserved corners, obscure destinations and unexplored paths here.

In the mountains of Kazakhstan, the Almaty region remains a popular area, in which the “Medeu” sports complex, the “Assy-Turgen” observatory and the “Chimbulak” ski resort are located. For picturesque views in the Kazakh Tian Shan one often goes to the Kolsay (Kulsay) lakes. Three reservoirs are hidden among the green spurs in the Kolsay Gorge 10 km north of the border with Kyrgyzstan.

In Uzbekistan, the modest indicators of the summits Bolshoy Chimgan (3,309 m) and Okhotnichy Peak (3,099 m) are more than compensated by the picturesqueness of the Takhta and Kumbel passes, the beauty of the Pulatkhan Plateau and various routes, many of which do not require serious sports training. Moreover, here you can learn the mountaineering basics at the May Alpiniad. The shores of local resort - Charvak reservoir (Charvak) - host a lot of hotels and guest homes.

Tian Shan MountainsNumerous directions for trekking of varying difficulty, as well as for horse riding and cycling, are also expected in Kyrgyzstan. You can enjoy incredible panoramic views from the passes, and higher up in the mountains along the Ak-Suu and Tash-Tekir rivers, you can see how the rapid mountain rivers bring their waters down from dizzying heights: high-mountain waterfalls of Sharkyratm, Kuldurek, Archaly-Tor and Takir-Tor, and many other remaining nameless, but always beautiful. Covered with dense coniferous forests, the mountain ranges of Terksey-Ala-Too and Kuyngey-Ala-Too change the concept of the mountains as a stone kingdom.  Here reins dense carpet of tall trees and spicy herbs, and in the spring the slopes are painted with a diverse, bright palette. Dark green giants - Tian Shan fir-trees - amaze with their size. And relict nuts are growing here since the Cretaceous period - for more than 50 million years. Scattered along the spurs of Tian Shan and most concentrated in the Arslanbob mountain zone in Kyrgyzstan, these trees are not only striking in size, but they still bear a lot of fruit.

Spurs of the Tian Shan is a network of interesting gorges. The red slopes of the Jety-Oguz gorge will awaken an artist in every viewer. Fairy Tale Canyon, reminiscent of one American Grand Canyon, and the other mysterious Petra, appears to be different for each visitor, the play of light and shadows creates fancy, different shapes and outlines each time.

The most beautiful gorges of Ak-su, Barskoon, and Chon-Koy-Su are the kingdom of forbs and turbulent mountain streams.

In the gorges of Chon-Ak-Su (Grigorievskoe) and Semenovskoye (Semenov’s Gorge) they set up yurt camps in summer. A yurt is a big fabric tent - a kind of a house - traditional dwelling of Asian nomads.  Here you can not only enjoy the pristine nature, take a break from the city noise, but also get acquainted with the life and culture of Tomiris, Atilla and Genghis Khan’s descendants.Tian Shan Mountains Kyrgyz are very devoted to their history; they cherish customs and culinary traditions. In the yurt camps they show guests their traditional outfits, music, cuisine, organize horse riding tours around the area.

And such gorges as Chon-Koy-Su and Tamga altogether turn the view of the mountains. Chon-Koy-Soo is the abode of ancient people who left behind numerous petroglyph drawings telling about their life, animals that lived here on local stones. And Tamga got its name (from Turkic - “sign”) thanks to the ancient Buddhist symbols that the local religious community had carved on the stones long ago.

The gorges will be interesting for those as well who like to tickle their nerves on mountain rivers. Angren, Akbulak, Ili, Itokar, Koksu, Kyzylsu, Maydantal, Naryn, Oygaing, Padysha-Ata, Pskem, Tarim, Chu, Ugam, Chatkal and others are ideal for rafting and foldboating. They pass many rifts on their way, reaching the plains only in sections, going along narrow stony canyons in the headwaters and lowlands.


Tian Shan MountainsAlpine valleys and jailoo pastures are ideal as a holiday destination for camping, trekking, and paragliding. This is the pristine world of tall grasses, sliding glaciers, mineral springs and crystal lakes.

Suusamyr Valley is one of the largest and most famous. The triangular crystal clamped in the grip of the Kyrgyz Range, Suusamyr-Too and Jumgal-Too, has become an ideal destination for fans of extreme. In winter, when slopes are covered with dry and crumbly “Tian Shan snow”, you can ski and snowboard, on wild tracks as well, or descend from a high-altitude peak after a helicopter gets you there.

In summer, tourists enjoy trekking from a campground or paragliding, encompassing all the beauty of the Suusumyr Valley from a bird's eye view.

 Juuku Valley is majestic alpine meadow, overlooking the picturesque highland Arabel Plateau. This lake country was formed by glaciers covering the It-Tash Peak, which is a little less than five kilometers high. There are several dozens of different sized lakes - Zhuuchuchak, Zhuuku, Chokolyk-Kel, Predlednikovoe, Sredneye, Nizhneye and Maloye. The most picturesque is a crystal lake Kashka-Suu, like a mirror reflecting the mountain peaks.

The Manzhyly-Ata Valley is known not only for its picturesque landscapes. Pilgrims and those who appreciate mineral springs come here. Stone Age petroglyphs, Scythian burial grounds, medieval ruins and sacred Buddhist inscriptions meet you here. According to an ancient legend, Mother Deer, progenitor of the Kyrgyz Bugu tribe once lived here. And the valley got its name in honor of the Muslim preacher, Sufi and wonder-worker Manzhyly-Ata teaching Islam here. Numerous mineral springs, according to those who used them, help to recover from almost all diseases.


Tian Shan MountainsThere are places in Tian Shan for a relaxing beach holiday as well.

Issyk-Kul Lake ranks seventh among the deepest world’s lakes. This crystal smooth surface framed by high mountain ranges is a real pride of the gray-haired Tian Shan Mountains. Its name translates as “hot lake”. Although the temperature in the premises in winter falls much below zero, and many high-mountain reservoirs are covered with ice, the brackish warm Issyk-Kul remains unfrozen all year round. The first mention of Issyk-Kul was left by Chinese travelers in the II century BC. In their notes, they called it “Zhe-Khai” - “the warm sea”.

Issyk-Kul today is a resort that lives an active year-round life. In the summer, people come here to soak up the water - there are more sunny days here than on the Black Sea, and the infrastructure is at a good level - beaches and piers, hotels, shops and restaurants offer a choice for every taste. In winter, trill-seekers: skiers, snowboarders, and freeriders gather around Issyk-Kul. In the numerous mountain gorges, leading off the lake in different directions, there are a lot of trails of varying difficulty.

Not far from Issyk-Kul, you can even experience what is possible only in one place on the planet - on the Israeli Dead Sea. Kyrgyzstan has its own dead lake - Kara-Kul, located just 400 meters from Issyk-Kul. Salinity is more than 70 percent or 132 grams per liter - enough to have a rejuvenating and healing effect, as well as to allow “lying” on the water surface, without any effort.

Fans of outdoor recreation, as well as birdwatchers and eco-tourists, will appreciate the numerous high-mountainous reservoirs of Kyrgyzstan.

Tian Shan MountainsSary-Chelek ( also Sarychelek) is one of them. This lake among the green western spurs of the heavenly mountains is worthy of the most eminent artists’ brushes. Located at an altitude of 1,878 meters above sea level in the eponymous protected area, Sary-Chelek is one of the deepest lakes in the Tian Shan - in some places is 220 meters to the bottom. However, the water in it is so clear that in a smooth mirror you can see what lies beneath. The lake got its name translated as the “yellow bowl” from the Kyrgyz, due to the fact that it reflects the surrounding mountain ranges wonderfully. In spring, a blanket of bright flowers and shrubs breaks through among the Tian Shan spruces and a yellow carpet is reflected in the mirror of water surface.

Green western spurs of Tian-Shan are full of numerous brothers of bright Sary-Chelek. In the northern part of the Chatkal ridge, small pearls of reservoirs are hidden. The calm Aflatun Lake, lost among the green spurs, and Kara-Tokoy lakes following a string of a high-mountain river like a necklace gems, - lower lake, famous for its underwater forest, and the upper in the grip of the same name gorge.

A completely different landscape opens from the reserved shores of the lakes Chatyr-Kul and Son-Kul. These reservoirs of the Central Tian Shan, located at an altitude of more than three kilometers above sea level, are trapped by gray stone peaks in tectonic depressions among the flat valleys and green pastures jailoo. Both are covered with ice for the winter. In spring, summer and autumn, various birds flock here from all over Eurasia. Ideal directions for practicing birdwatching,  eco-tourism, admires of pristine nature and its timid inhabitants.

Historical artifacts

Tian Shan MountainsTian Shan would not be Tian Shan without people who left their mark here. The most ancient evidence of these lands inhabitance is Saymaluu-Tash or Saimaly-Tash ("Patterned stones") district. Here, in the high-mountainous gorge near Kazarman, more than 107 thousand pictures carved on the rocks, dated to the II-III millennium B.C., were found. Similar artifacts of III-I thousand B.C. are found on the Chumysh rocks of the Fergana Range’s spurs. Rock galleries of “younger” and smaller scales are also found in the Issyk-Kul, Naryn, and Talas regions of Kyrgyzstan.

These paintings of varying complexity and skill tell about peoples who lived here and paint the surrounding nature’s beauties.

Those interested in history will appreciate the fact that at different times numerous local and Turkic beliefs, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity were spread across the Tian Shan.

In the Middle Ages, the Tian Shan was an important landmark on the caravan routes from Europe to China. The remains of the fortified settlement Koshoi-Korgon, as well as the mysterious Tash-Rabat caravanserai, remained silent witnesses of that era. Located among the picturesque mountains, they became guardians of the beauty around them, and still attract and amaze with their many unanswered questions.

Legends of Tian Shan

Tian Shan MountainsKyrgyz Olympus
The ancient peoples - the Turks and Mongols worshiped the god Tengri, creator of the world along with the goddess Umay and Erlik. They called him the deity of the world’s upper zone and believed that he wrote fate, measuring each his term and determined who will rule among people. Khan-Tengri Peak was considered a kind of Olympus - the home of the supreme deity.

Tian Shan and Issyk
 A beautiful legend tells about the origin of the names Tian Shan and Issyk-Kul. Allegedly, in ancient times, there lived a shepherd Tian Shan strong as the hero, and his beautiful and modest wife Issyk. And descendants would have glorified their happiness for centuries, but only the evil sorcerer Khan Bagysh got attracted by Tian Shan’s faithful spouse.  Sorcerer’s minions kidnapped blue-eyed Issyk in front of frightened children. In the evening, Tian Shan returned and did not find a spouse in the yurt. He took a bow and arrows and went to the Bagysh’s palace. Numerous troops were sent against him, but the shepherd scattered them all in righteous rage. The sorcerer was frightened, he turned into a giant eagle and raised Issyk in his claws to blue heights. He sent a spell to turn Tian Shan into stone. The mighty Tian-Shan felt how his legs and arms grew numb and heavy, and decided on the last desperate attempt – he put an arrow on his bow - and fired. A good arrow pierced the wing of an eagle. Bagysh released the coveted beauty from his claws. He cursed her, wishing her to become water, and went underground, without having gotten to anyone. Tian Shan rushed to catch her in the palm of his hand. The shepherd petrified, turned into mighty mountains, and his beautiful wife became a crystal lake. Their children turned into swift mountain rivers, forever remaining with their epic parents.

Biblical trace
It is believed that the flooded monastery of Armenian brothers with the Apostle Matthew relics rests underwater near the northern shore of Issyk-Kul. This legend was born because of the Catalan Atlas of the World of 1375, in which the northern shore of Issyk-Kul is marked as the burial place of the Christian Apostle and Evangelist.

Counted stones
One of the stories says that the Santash Pass (“counted stones”) east of Issyk-Kul was named after Tamerlane - Amir Temur. The commander organized three treks to this territory - the nomads, seeing the approaching soldiers, hid in the mountains, and returned again with their departure. Before another attempt, Tamerlane ordered each of his soldiers to take a stone and pile them. Nomadic tribes’ guerrilla war took many lives. To count the survivors on the way back, Tamerlane ordered everyone to pick up one stone and lay them nearby. Unfortunately, the second mountain was much smaller than the first.

Atlantis of Issyk-Kul
Many legends say that the waters of Issyk-Kul keep cities and ancient settlements. Scientists, however, are confident that some of these legends are true. So, in 2006, an expedition of archeologists headed by Vladimir Ploskikh,Vice President of the Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan, found evidence of the existence of an ancient 2.5 thousand years old settlement at the bottom of the lake. In addition, in the coastal zone, archeologists managed to find the ruins of another antiquity witness - the city of Chigu - the capital of the nomadic Usun tribe, contemporaries and allies of the Huns.


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