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River Guide • Tien-Shan • Chilik
Rivers by Region

Difficulty in September: 4+ (5)
From: Kugantor - Alt. 2880 m (9450 ft)
To: Saty - Alt. 1500 m (4920 ft)
Distance: 120 km (75 miles)
River Days: 3-4 (plus 1-2 days trekking in)
Average Gradient: 12 m/km (60 ft/mile)
Est. Max Gradient: 25-30 m/km (125-150 ft/mile)
Typical Flow in September: 30-40 cms (1000-1400 cfs)
Best Season: Late August-September
First-hand Information: NO

Chilik area map
Chilik area map

The Chilik is a medium size river flowing straight east in a nearly uninhabited valley north of Issyk-Kul Lake. It starts from a glacier vertex beyond a mountain range along the northern shore of Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul, but the whole Chilik valley belongs to Kazakhstan. Unfortunately access to the river is not that easy, and it is much less traveled than the Chong-Kemin, its sister river that flows west from the same glaciers.

For its whole length the river is quite evenly fitted with the whitewater; and the difficulty remains in the range of 4- to 4+ most of the time. There is still one unrun class 5 gorge in the upper valley awaiting for the first descent.

The Chilik is certainly glacier-fed river; it is also quite short so in August water level rises sharply in the afternoon (if the sun is shining) and most people prefer to stop and camp by 2 or 3 pm. These fluctuations are much less noticeable in September.

Access & Logistics
Unlike nearby Chong-Kemin, the Chilik does not have easy access either. There's no road in the valley and nearly all groups ­­undertake a trek from the south, crossing the range that separates Issyk-Kul from Chilik valley.

The trek starts near Semenovka - a big village on the north shore of Issyk-Kul, with easy road connection to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Further north from the village are large highland pastures, and quite a good road comes there from Semenovka. It is quite easy to find horses there for the trek.

From here there are two main passes into the upper Chilik valley: eastern Djel-Karagai (4260 m or 13980 ft; about 20 km to the river from the road head) and western Kugantor (3900 m or 12800 ft; about 15 km to the river). The first pass leads to the most common put-in below the 1st gorge, which is considered unrunnable by most groups. Kugantor trail is reported as lower and shorter, but will give you 15 more km of flat water in the upper valley and [possibly indeed unrunnable] 3 km of the 1st gorge.

The bad part of this trek is that you cross Kyrgyz-Kazakh border on the pass; while no problems were encountered by Russian groups last years, all non-C.I.S. citizens (those who need Kazakh visa) will get into definite troubles as this is not a legal border crossing.

Nowadays the only 100% legal way to get to the river is a 45 min helicopter flight from Almaty, former Kazakh capital - but such a charter costs around $1500-$2000.

Usual take-out is Saty - the first village as the river exits the mountains, with road connection back to Almaty. It is possible to continue some 50-60 km down the river and take-out at the Bartogai reservoir, but this stretch is nearly all flat with just one or two class 4/4+ rapids and the landscapes at the swampy reservoir are not that nice.

You should be completely self-sufficient on this river, as there are no settlements or roads in the valley (you may meet some shepherds and hunters only). Emergency escape from the upper river is possible by hiking back to Issyk-Kul via one of the passes described above; but below the second gorge it makes sense to walk along the river down to Saty - there are numerous trails along either shore.

River Description
From the put-in at the Kugantor confluence (that's a small creek from Kugantor pass) the Chilik flows in a wide open valley and is pretty much flat for about 12-15 km. The 3 km long "first gorge" at the end of this stretch has [apparently] never been run - but a group recently scouted it and reported as mostly runnable class 5 section.

Below the first gorge the river eases to class 3 for about 10 km, and then a long difficult class 4/4+ section comes. It is about 8 km long, first 2 km of which are more difficult and have been named "Leningrad Rapids". At the end of this section Chilik flattens out for a kilometer or two and then enters so-called "second gorge".

The second gorge is a 2 km long, class 4/4+ section, more difficult at the entrance. The Chilik eases again and in a few kilometers a "nowhere" road bridge appears - indeed nearest road is 60 km down the valley. There is another class 4 rapid few hundred meters below the bridge.

Some 6-8 km after the bridge the Chilik enters its "third gorge". First kilometer or so it is no more than class 4-, but straight after that a nasty class 5+ rapid, The Horse Hoof, requires serious attention and possible portage - scout right. Difficult class 4/4+ rapid follows, and then the river eases again to mostly class 3 for next 20-25 km.

Last noticeable feature is the so-called "fourth gorge" - a 2 km long narrow canyon with heavy turbulence inside (but without substantial rapids); canyon entrance is easily seen from the boat. From here the Chilik becomes mostly flat; valley opens and the river meanders among numerous islands all the way down to Saty. These 20-30 km is a quite boring stretch and if you have a car it is possible to take out earlier - there is a road along the right bank.

Climbing the pass Upper Chilik valley Upper Chilik valley Below 1st gorge
Leningrad Rapids Leningrad Rapids Entrance into 2nd gorge Below 2nd gorge
Portaging the Horse Hoof The 3rd gorge The 3rd gorge The 4th gorge

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