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River Guide • Tien-Shan
Rivers by Region

Tien-Shan map
Tien-Shan map

The Tien-Shan, literally “The Heaven Mountains”, occupies nearly all territory of Kyrgyzstan, a former USSR republic. The range extends almost 1000 km west to east and 500 km south to north; the highest summit is Victory Peak (7439 m, 24405 ft) at the Chinese border. More ranges, with more seven-thousanders are located further east in China, but we currently have no information about Chinese part of the Tien-Shan. Northern and western outskirts extend to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The area is irregularly populated; most towns are located along major roads and rivers. There are large, nearly uninhabited areas, mostly in the eastern and southern parts of Kyrgyz Tien-Shan.

The locals (Kyrgyz) are of Mongolian type, doing mainly stock-breeding and little agriculture. They speak a dialect of Turkic but Russian is generally no problem here too (nowadays children in remote villages may not know Russian though). The Islam influence is quite noticeable in the areas adjacent to the Fergana Valley and in Uzbekistan, although the rules are rather relaxed (more like Turkey than Pakistan or Saudi Arabia).

In the ancient times Tien-Shan was an essential part of the Silk Road, a major trading route between China and Europe. Numerous caravans came over the passes from China to the fertile Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan.

The ranges south of Fergana Valley are called Alai (or Pamirs-Alai) and do not geographically belong to Tien-Shan, although the landscapes and the people are all the same.

Type of Paddling
Typically short and medium (rarely self-supported) multi-day runs of any level of difficulty. Most rivers are quite short and require no more than 2-3 days on the water, so it's a good idea to have a car to shuttle between rivers. The car would be also a restock center, because local food supply is limited. Keep in mind that some rivers do not have road alongside and emergency escape may be difficult.

Season & Climate
Late April to late May and late August to October (late October is still possible but may be quite cold). Summer time is high water level because all the rivers have significant glacier drainage, although many sections should be runnable through the summer. The climate is quite dry, especially in the fall, and of continental type – cold nights and hot days. The Tien-Shan is mosquitoes-free area. The rivers typically flow at an altitude between 1000 and 2500 m, rarely up to 3000 m above sea level. Effects of the altitude sickness may appear near and above 3000 m.

Getting There & Away
The major gateway city is Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, with regular flights to Moscow and few cities in Europe and Asia. For the northern (Kazakh) Tien-Shan, another gateway is Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan, with similar air connections. Yet another option is Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and biggest air hub of Central Asia (thanks to aggressive politics of Uzbekistan Airways), but it is rather far from most of the Tien-Shan.

For local access, a major road comes from Bishkek via Toktogul to ancient town of Osh in Fergana valley and further south to the Pamirs in Tajikistan. Another important road comes from Bishkek along the western corner of Issyk-Kul Lake to the town of Naryn and further south to China. This route has numerous local forks allowing access to most rivers of the Central and so-called Inner Tien-Shan – arid mountainous country along the Chinese border. For Eastern Tien-Shan, there is a road around Issyk-Kul Lake to the town of Karakol. Most side roads are rough and require a 4x4 vehicle.

There are currently very few local flights in Kyrgyzstan – you can only fly from Bishkek to Osh and possibly to Naryn.

Bear in mind that Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are now independent countries and each entry into them requires a valid visa for foreigners. Uzbekistan is known as having the most restrictive border rules for neighbors and no Kyrgyz or Tajik vehicles may normally enter its territory (and vice versa) therefore you have to change the car at the border. Thus, because almost all the Tien-Shan is located in Kyrgyzstan you probably will want to just come and stay within this country.

The area along the Chinese border (south to Osh, Naryn and Karakol) is a borderland restricted zone and you should get an appropriate permit with Kyrgyz authorities in advance.


Kara-Kudjur / Djoon-Aryk / Chu
Chu is quite a big and rather easy river along Bishkek - Issyk-Kul road with some class 3-4 sections; within just a couple of hours drive from Bishkek. Looking at the map it may appear that Chu flows directly out of Issyk-Kul, although it actually just passes by. There are some more class 3-4 sections far upstream (the river names are Kara-Kudjur and Djoon-Aryk up there).

Chong-Kemin is a right tributary of Chu, flowing in a valley to the north of Issyk-Kul Lake. Easy access from Bishkek and nice pine-forested class 4-5 gorges make this river very popular choice.

Chilik is much like Chong-Kemin but flows in opposite direction (east and in Kazakhstan) along the northern side of Issyk-Kul. There is no road in Chilik valley and the only reasonable way to the put-in is hiking from Issyk-Kul, involving Kyrgyz-Kazakh border crossing which is difficult to make legal.

This is an unusual river in Kazakh outskirts of Tien-Shan. Unlike other Tien-Shan rivers it has almost no glacier component and therefore no summer flood. The water level, high in the spring, decreases gradually by July. The river has low gradient and consists mainly of individual, but very serious rapids. Easy access by road from Almaty.

Mighty Naryn is the major river of the Central Tien-Shan, traversing it all from east to west. Upstream of the town of Naryn is splits into two sources – Smaller Naryn and Greater Naryn, both with class 4-5 gorges just before confluence. Upper stretches of both rivers are accessible by road from Issyk-Kul Lake but have little interest. The Naryn itself is a big and mainly flat river although there are some huge bouncy rapids in its lower gorges.

This is a right (northern) tributary of Naryn, accessible from the Bishkek-Toktogul road. Upper section is quite difficult class 4-5 gorge, while lower half till the Naryn confluence is rather easy and flat, with just occasional class 4 rapids.

This is another right tributary of Naryn, flowing out of high-altitude Son-Kul Lake at 3000 m above sea level. Access to the lake is possible by a road from the Naryn town, but the river itself is a deep isolated gorge requiring a self-support run. There is an extremely difficult and still unrun 4-5 km long section just after the lake, containing several waterfalls.

Arpa / Alabuga
Arpa is the left (southern) tributary of Naryn near the Chinese border. It can be accessed from the Naryn – China road (borderland permit required) but was rarely run because of its remote location and technical difficulty. It is a completely self-support class 5 expedition.

Issyk-Kul Lake
The area has numerous small creeks coming into the lake from the south, but because of lack of water these creeks are better runnable in August rather than September (usual season for the Tien-Shan). Some of them have been run.

Sarydjaz is a very special river at the very east of the Tien-Shan, in a completely lost and abandoned territory adjacent to the Chinese border. The river is very difficult and as a bonus it flows into China, so you have to take out near the border unless you like Chinese jails. Nobody entered gorges at the Chinese side yet. The take-out itself is a full-scale mountaineering expedition and two or three groups who have reached that point just threw away their whitewater equipment on the way back. No Kyrgyz helicopter agreed to fly there as the official status of this part of the valley is under discussion.

Chatkal is a classic grade 4 river in the west part of the Tien-Shan. Easy access and spectacular gorges made this trip very popular in the past. Nowadays though, the most obvious way to the put-in involves Kazakh-Kyrgyz border crossing and the river itself flows into Uzbekistan. All this require a lot of paperwork made in advance to avoid border problems.

This is a small tributary of the Chatkal offering a more difficult alternative to the easy upper part of the main river. All the bureaucratic burdens apply here too.

Oigaing / Pskem
Located in the next valley to the west of Sandalash / Chatkal it flows entirely in Uzbekistan. This river is more difficult than Chatkal and some stretches have almost never been run. Although the access from Tashkent appears to be easy, this valley is now a borderland restricted zone and an appropriate permit is required.

Oital / Tar
This is one of many rivers that flow into the Fergana Valley. It is another classic class 3-4 river with easy access from Osh.

Gulcha / Kurshab
Gulcha / Kurshab is the river that follows the East Pamirs Road and flows from the Alai Range right into the town of Osh. The river is quite difficult up to class 4 (possibly with some 5) and has a couple of noticeable side creeks that may be kayakable.

Kichik-Alai / Akbura
Located in the next valley to the west from Gulcha / Kurshab it flows directly into Fergana city. It generally has the same level of difficulty (mainly class 4), but having said that, sources of Kichikalai contain several class 5 sections probably waiting for the first descent. There is no road access to the upper valley, and hiking is required to run those sections. Take-out is possible within Kyrgyz territory (before the river enters Uzbekistan).

Khodji-Achkan / Sokh
This river is located even further west and is significantly more difficult. Upper part of it (Khodjiachkan) is mostly class 5 and contains numerous unrun sections, but again, there’s no road access to the upper valley. A major drawback is that this valley is a junction point of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and the river crosses various borders so many times that official permits may be just unobtainable.

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