A single photo of this milky blue, glacial fed lake surrounded by snowy peaks was enough to entice us to visit Central Asia. So when we reached the town of Karakol in Kyrgyzstan we had to figure out how to get to this jaw dropping lake named Ala Kol. Most people do a three day hike and carry camping gear for the trip but the idea of carrying all that extra weight was very unappealing so we began researching tent camps and yurts along the route. No one was giving us solid answers and we didn’t want to hike into the mountains and find that they didn’t provide tents and end up spending the night shivering under my emergency silver blanket. So we decided to look into doing the trip in just two days, the first day would be around 18km with a tough 1400m climb up and then the same back down, but we knew it led to Altyn Arashan which has plenty of yurts to stay at AND hot springs, we were sold. Also we realised we had to complete the trek in 2 days to get back to Karakol for a nomad festival.
To cut out the third day we had to arrange a 4×4 taxi with Eco Tours to take us up to the first bridge along the Karakol Valley for a reasonable 3500som (£35). Ok it’s expensive, but, every other place was quoting 6000som so it was cheaper and it saved us one day hiking/accommodation etc. We were picked up from our hotel at 6am, expecting a soviet jeep for that price but getting a modern one with comfy seats. It took two hours to reach the trail head which was a lot longer than we’d anticipated. As soon as we got out the car and looked at the dramatic mountains we were quickly advised by our driver to not hang around, and he was right, it was going to be a very long day and it was only 8am.
So we set off through the beautifully scented pine forest which soon opened up into a flower filled meadow. The early morning sun was scorching our backs so we regularly stopped at the gushing river flowing down the valley and splashed our faces with water. The final quarter of the trail up to Ala Kol was the toughest and we had a pretty steep ascent. The lake looked so close on my map and I was expecting it to take just 20 minutes but the brutal climb lasted nearly two hours.
We consider ourselves to be pretty well trained when it comes to hiking but Central Asia really is kicking our butts and the altitude is sucking all the air from our lungs. After four hours of relentless hiking from the first bridge, we made it to Ala Kol and we couldn’t of been happier. It was the most incredible blue colour with an magical opaqueness to it. The water changed colour as the sun and clouds danced in the sky and it definitely looked better in person. It gets its fabulous colour from the glacier melt at the back of the lake which we soon got a view of as we walked around. Mountains rose around the whole lake and it was just perfect, plus stage one of our mammoth hike was complete so we were feeling pretty good.
We tried to make it up to the pass for a lunch break but it was taking too long so we stopped further down and within a few minutes dark clouds rolled in and 1cm balls of hail fell down on us. We quickly put all our wet weather gear on and just continued hiking while getting pelted by what felt like kids throwing rocks at us (flashback from India). It took us two hours to reach the pass, and it was blowing a gale at the top. The view across the opposite side was even more menacing with a wall of black clouds and misty grey lines of rain falling through the valley…right where we were heading.
We quickly snapped some photos but couldn’t stay long as it was so cold. The route down was from the left side of the pass, not from the higher viewpoint on the right. It’s a steep trail but we loved it as it was soft scree from the rain and hail, and it sort of felt like stepping onto crushed biscuits mixed with butter. We absolutely flew down the zig zagging trail and it was such a relief to not be going uphill. The only problem was the risk of falling rocks caused by the people above us so we just kept moving fast and if we heard someone shout “ROCKS” we’d have to quickly access the situation and see if we needed to move. When nature called on the way down I heard lots of noise amongst some rocks and I looked up to see five Marmots looking at me! I tried to take some photos but they all scurried into their underground lairs. Luckily one stayed out and he just stared into the distance like a Queens guard.
The scenery had completely changed from the Ala Kol area with its rocky terrain, now we were surrounded by gloriously green pastures and mountains. The pass behind us looked insanely steep and it’s black and orange walls made it look like the slopes of a volcano. As we went down the valley we started seeing livestock; big groups of horses and cows roaming the grassy slopes. One very steep mountain was covered with animals and then we met the owner of them, an old chap riding a lovely horse. He had a big Alsatian dog following him and another dog up on the mountain which he was whistling and shouting to from down in the valley. It was incredible to watch him shepherding his animals in this way and they all moved around the mountain-side with such ease. Further down the valley we met the him again and he was at his lovely summer home – a little white tent with his dog and horse outside. The view from his house was priceless with layered mountains everywhere, his shepherding skills were clearly impeccable because from his house he had a clear view up the peak to his livestock.
It was a very long way down to Altyn Arashan, our legs didn’t want to take us any further but the idea of a hot spring kept us moving. We passed an amazing area of pastures filled with cows and distant mountain views, just like the Austrian Alps. We didn’t arrive in the village until 6pm after hiking for 10 hours. It was tough, but we soon had a young female tout taking us to a yurt camp where she assured us that “all yurt here traditional Kyrgyzstan yurt, not cheap China made”. We managed to get an adorable little yurt just for us, plus dinner, breakfast and hot spring for £10 per person, not shabby at all.
A little log cabin with a sort of plastic conservatory was the area where everyone ate and we were quickly led there and given soup, salad, bread and tea. As soon as we finished we were ushered to the hot spring across the river. It was also in a log cabin and our host kindly let us use it privately which was really nice. My god did it feel good sinking into that half concrete, half pebble bath filled with crystal clear water. Our muscles were so grateful to rest in the hot water, it was heaven.
After enjoying a good soak we stepped outside into the rain and ran back to our yurt. While we’d been gone the wife had made up our beds and we just sat inside our yurt with the door open (a piece of fabric rolled up) so we could admire the view. When we woke up in the middle of the night for a wee the stars were absolutely bonkers! The Milky Way was right above us and it was probably one of the best starry nights we’ve ever seen. The next morning we were woken up by our hosts at 8am for breakfast. We desperately wanted a lie in but alas, today wasn’t the day and a bizarre bowl of hot milk with a blob of butter was waiting for us.
It was a miserable, rainy morning so we started our hike with ponchos on, but before we headed back to Karakol we wanted to search for some other hot springs. A narrow trail led alongside the river and eventually we found the first spring, it was man-made with concrete and stones like a sort of capsule right beside the river. Further along was a circular one which was shaped like a frogs head and you sort of sit inside and peer out from its open mouth. At the end of the trail was the best one though, again made from concrete and stone, this one was a simple hot tub circle but built into a small cave and above the roaring river. It was the most idyllic spot but sadly the water wasn’t very hot so after a short dip we got out and the wind instantly froze us. Rain was blowing into the cave and we had very little space to move around and get dressed. All of our possessions were balanced on a slanted slope and if they fell they’d end up being whisked away by the river. But we managed to get some clothes on and move away from the risky area, back on track to Karakol. It was a pretty dull route home walking 16km along a very muddy dirt track. But overall it was a great hike, Ala Kol was a big wow moment for us and ending the hike at a hot spring and cozy yurt really made the trip special.