Exploring an Abandoned Soviet Young Pioneer Summer Camp in Kyrgyzstan
The doors were locked, the concrete paths underfoot were heavily overgrown, the windows were boarded up and shattered glass covered the floors. The dilapidated remains of this Soviet Young Pioneer Summer Camp were hardly welcoming, but I was very much intrigued as to what lay inside the enormous, abandoned compound that stood on the beautiful shores of Issyk Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan.
With other bloggers accompanying me – for moral support of course – I climbed over the locked gate at the entrance to the camp, and as I jumped down onto the concrete walkway, I hoped there were no guard dogs waiting to spring into action on the inside.
Issyk Kul Lake and the Bel Tam Yurt Camp
I was on the southern shores of Issyk Kul Lake, exploring the scenery and staying by the beach in a rustic Yurt Camp named Bel Tam, close to the town of Bokonbayevo after travelling here after the World Nomad Games. This is an area of Kyrgyzstan known for its natural beauty and an area that has long been a tourist destination. In heavily landlocked Central Asia, Issyk Kul Lake, after all, has some of the very few beaches in the region.
During the Soviet era, tourism grew here as visitors flocked to Issyk Kul from across the Union, and sanitoriums and holiday resorts were built around the lake. Here, next to Bokonbayevo and just a few hundred metres from the beach, a huge, sprawling Young Pioneer Summer Camp was constructed, but when the Soviet Union collapsed and Kyrgyzstan declared independence in 1991, this vast complex was simply abandoned.
Young Pioneers of the Soviet Union
The Young Pioneers of the Soviet Union were essentially the communist equivalent of Scouts, and in fact, the Young Pioneer movement was started in order to replace the Scouting movement. They wore white uniforms and red neckerchiefs and learnt anything from marching to socialist theory. In summer, many of these Young Pioneers would be sent to purpose-built Summer Camps, to spend a few weeks learning, training and whatever else the state saw as appropriate for them.
Kyrgyzstan was no exception, and one of the many Young Pioneer Camps constructed was built here next to Issyk Kul, providing access to the nearby wilderness and to the exciting prospect of the lake and beach in an effort to encourage pioneers to spend their summer here.
Exploring The Abandoned Young Pioneer Training Camp
Being a firm lover of the abandoned, and in particular, of anything abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union, during my stay at Bel Tam I made sure that I was going to hop over that padlocked gate to explore this abandoned Soviet Young Pioneer Summer Camp.
I was with a group of bloggers, and we turned quickly from exploring the scenic vistas of Kyrgyzstan to exploring this abandoned Soviet relic with relish. There was little information about the place, and even the locals and frequent travellers to Bel Tam barely worried themselves with this huge compound that from the side of the road looks rather unassuming in its abandonment. Google Maps though, had this place marked down as Pionerskiy Lager’ Zor’ka and a recent article from travel company Young Pioneers Tours, meant that I knew this was the summer camp.
Haunting Playgrounds and Empty Parade Squares
Once we were over the locked, sun faded gates, we were surrounded by a broken landscape of desperate looking houses and cracked pavements. A huge line of tall trees led down a straight path towards what looked like the main school of the summer camp. The trees were the only thing in good shape, left to grow tall and green on the shores of the lake. This would have been a grand entrance to the camp in its day, but now it was ragged and forlorn.
To the side of the tree-lined boulevard was a haunting playground. It had nothing on the playgrounds of Chernobyl I’d seen in Ukraine, but it was still harrowingly eery, a place lost in time and frozen by the collapse of the once all-powerful Soviet Union.
By this shattered and rusting playground stood an empty flagpole, still standing in the middle of a wide but overgrown square where the silence was piercing. This must have been a parade ground, and now covered in weeds and branches, I found a Soviet-style signboard written in fading Cyrillic.
Abandoned Classrooms and Dormitories
Surrounding this main square, and stretching far out across the wide perimeter of the former Young Pioneer Summer Camp, were countless small houses and larger, multi-storied buildings.
Most of the doors were firmly locked, bolted or nailed shut, but many of the windows had over time shattered or been broken. The night before, while staying in a yurt, a small earthquake had rocked the shorefront, a common occurrence here, and these buildings were over the decades left to the elements, and to the mercy of man too.
Some of the windows had been boarded up again, but the planks of wood were crumbling and many had already fallen, leaving the buildings open for some urban exploration.
The first building our group of bloggers entered had been all but stripped bare. There was little left except for a few vacant toilet cubicles. Even the lightbulbs had been taken away or plundered.
The huge tree-lined walkway led to the entrance of an even larger, multi-storied building, and this it seemed, was perhaps the main classroom area. There were lockers in some rooms, a small open area full of mouldy chairs and falling plaster and dead birds everywhere.
The corridors were long and the rooms were numerous, and even in the mid-morning light, it was a dank and strange place to be exploring.
After walking through the crumbling classrooms and along the cracked pavements, it was time to leave the abandoned Young Pioneer Summer Camp and to head back to the Bel Tam Yurt Camp.
While the concrete buildings of the Soviet Union may have stood tall for years, they eventually crumbled, to be left broken and empty on the shores of the lake. The yurts, however, the product of thousands of years of nomadic Central Asian culture, were still being standing.
How To Travel To The Abandoned Soviet Young Pioneer Training Camp
The Abandoned Soviet Young Pioneer Camp is located right next to Bel Tam Yurt Camp, which is on the southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake. To travel here, you need to take a Marshrutka from Bishkek to the town of Balykchy, where you could then change again to get to Bokonbayevo. From here you would most likely need a taxi or to hitchhike. Staying overnight at Bel Tam would give you a good base to explore the abandoned camp and the surrounding region.
On Google Maps and on Maps.Me the camp is labelled as: Pionerskiy Lager’ Zor’ka
The given address in Cyrillic is: Пионерский лагерь Зорька
The Bloggers I travelled With!
I travelled here with some awesome other bloggers as part of my journey around Issyk Kul Lake with Discover Kyrgyzstan. We only had an hour off from the ‘official’ itinerary to explore the abandoned summer camp, and we barely touched the surface of this sprawling compound, so I’d recommend taking longer if you can as there is much, much more to be discovered here.
You can find my companion’s websites, and loads of awesome content about Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia below:
Nico from Journal of Nomads
Kay from Jetfarer
Max and Rohan from Travels of a Bookpacker
All Words and Pictures by Richard Collett