I arrived in Karakol with the idea of trekking for just a few days. Not being properly equipped, I had to find a tent, and be able to leave a baggage somewhere to leave with only the minimum necessary. But most importantly, I needed to know WHAT to do, and HOW, and was hoping to find people to do it with… this means: information, a map, a trail, and company!
Mission number 1: Information
In Karakol, there are two different places for tourist information: the local tourist info office, and the CBT info centre (Community Based Tourism). I went to both, but later realized I had bought the worst map in the worst place. Still, I had a map and an itinerary: trek to lake Alakul and Altynarashan in 3 days (2 nights camping).
Mission number 2: Find a tent or other people to join
In Bishkek and on my way to Karakol, I had bumped several times into a couple of Brits who told me they had booked an expedition with guide and porters for this itinerary, for €330 each. They offered to join, but I thought it was too expensive, and I wasn’t very interested in having guide and porters. I declined their offer. I went to guesthouses and to the tourists and expats hang-out Karakol Coffee to look for people and/or a tent.
I could find tents for rent for up to 300 SOM per day, which is outrageously expensive considering the price of a tent to buy, and the price of a night in a guesthouse (approx 300/400 SOM per night). Eventually, I asked at the guesthouse where I was staying, and they offered a tent for 100 SOM per day, which was reasonable. And the good new was, I could drop the tent in Altynarashan, where the guesthouse owner had a house there too.
My search for other people was unsuccessful but in the meantime, I was told the trail was easy to find, well enough marked, and that there would be other people on the way, so I wouldn’t get lost…
For a moment, I thought that my fancy Air Max weren’t fit for the job, and that may be I ought to find proper hiking shoes, but eventually didn’t want to bother nor pay any extra… so I was ready to go.
Final preparation: Packing and food shopping!
In the evening I packed my big rucksack with my warmest clothes and minimal equipment for the trek: (small) sleeping bag, Swiss army knife, lighter, my Slovenian spoon (thanks Dašo!), and made a separate bag with all I didn’t need to leave at the guesthouse.
On the following day, I went shopping for food: Juice, water, tinned corn, red beans, sardines, crisps, chocolate, bread and a roast chicken.
Last Facebook check and coffee at Karakol Coffee, and I left around 11am…
First day: Karakol Valley
Bus 101 terminates at the entrance of the Karakol National Park. There is a fee of 250 SOM per person to pay for the guard and the barrier here. From there, the road actually continues a few kilometres up to the ski lifts and one small hotel before turning into a track. Another couples of kilometres and I passed the last houses, chickens and Ladas to plunge into the deep green valley.
I walked for a few hours, passed occasional groups of friends out for a picnic by the river, some with loud music blasting out of the car with all doors open.
I stopped for my own lunch break in a quiet spot near a stream to was my tomatoes and refill with water.
The valley was long, and I was still walking on a track, and sometimes met vans that were taking people who took the guide and porters option as far up as possible. A spot I reached later in the afternoon where a bridge crosses the river to get to the other valley branching off to lake Alakul. This is where it starts to go up seriously: 1500m up to the pass and lake. I was getting a little tired, and I think I had already been walking for 4 hours, with my pretty heavy bag. I had noticed on the map a flatter area roughly half way up the pass where I thought I could camp. But there was another 800m to climb, and I knew it would be difficult.
I crossed the bridge, and the trail was going straight up the narrow valley through the forest, sometimes disappearing into the lush vegetation. Strangely enough, there was no water flowing here, but only mossy wet ground.
Some 400m higher (in elevation, but much more in distance!), I started feeling exhaustion, but was still quite far from the flatter zone. So I pushed further up, but my shoulders were aching, and my legs were getting soft. I continued, struggling, but could see on the map I was really getting close. I passed meadows which seemed eligible for nice camping spots, but saw no one. It was getting late, and had it really been a suitable place for camping, there would have been people here. So I pushed further still. I finally reached the flat area but only to discover a huge scree with massive rocks and boulders. The elevation was now 2800m. I could see the pass up there, at 3500m, with quiet a hefty waterfall and torrent coming down. So where was the water going? It was probably going underground somewhere before the scree or vanishing among the rocks. Just beyond the scree there was a bushier area, and a small wood formed at the brim of the tree line. This had to be the base camp! There had to be one, there had to be people resting for the night before getting to the lake. I walked across the scree for several hundred metres, but my legs and shoulders were begging me to stop. And at last, after 6pm, I reached the bushy area, where a small group of French people with guide and porters had indeed set camp. I dropped my bag, recognized in a glance the British couple by the nearby pond. I joined them and they told me they had been taken to the bridge down the valley by car, and only climbed up the last bit with the porters and guide. They were camping in the wood. I was glad I didn’t go for this option! I noticed the pond was actually the place where the torrent was vanishing into the ground. I wanted to wash, but the sun had already passed the horizon, and it was too cold. I was also too tired to be hungry so I went straight to ‘bed’… The temperature inside the tent was 9°C… Even with my clothes on and tucked into my light sleeping bag, I was freezing. I shivered through the night until the morning light. It was a very long night…
Second day: the lake and its many wonders
After a rough night, I got up to the invitation from the guide of the French group to join them for breakfast. I ate cereals in hot milk and drank hot coffee… salvation after such a cold night! When the guide realized I was poorly equipped and fed, he gave me an extra Snickers bar for my survival… I washed in the torrent, and by half past nine, I set off to climb the last 700 metres to the lake, along with the French group. They stopped half way by the waterfall, but I went on, too impatient to see the lake, and beyond the pass. The last part was really steep, but the view from the pass was really rewarding! The lake itself was splendid, but the mountains and glacier around were magnificent. I sat by the lake for an early lunch, but because of the altitude and the bad night, I needed to take it easy that day!
This was my second meal with roast chicken, crisps and a tomato. Nice, filling.
I started climbing again to the next pass up to 3800m where I would descend toward the hot springs of Altynarashan which I was really looking forward to after such a cold night… By the way, where would I spend the following, and how? I would have to haste to get as low as possible not to freeze to death…
Well, the ascent to the pass was really steep and rocky. This was hard. And with the altitude, fatigue, and lack of oxygen, I really thought I would not make it! But as I was progressing, the view was opening beyond the first mountains around the lake, and I could see more and more white peaks. I was getting more and more excited, and bewildered by the spectacle unveiling all around me.
Out of breath, I finally made it to the pass. The view was astounding. Four other people were already there, taking pictures from a nearby pedestal. The photos merely render the beauty of the 360° sight. What a reward! What a joy!
I stayed a bit to savour the fruit of my effort, and catch up my breath! But as the others left, I felt I should follow quickly. I know I could not make it to the hot springs but again, I had to try to get down as much as possible to avoid the cold night.
The valley on the other side looked pretty different. Much broader, more flat, and greener. A different world. But the direct descent from the pass was even steeper than on the lake side, and on gravel… I slid down the gravel, feeling the sole of my fancy Airmax disintegrating with every centimetre… From 3800m, I found myself at 3600m only a few minutes later, with my shoes worn out, and full of dirt and gravel… I emptied them and kept walking down. The gravel quickly made way to the green pasture. And I was progressing fast downhill.
But the way down was long and long… and long… It was getting late. I could camp anywhere on the grass, but I really wanted to reach the trees to be able to make a fire. There was no way I would be so cold again as the night before. But again, my body was in pain. My shoulders sour and my legs floppy. I had to stop. And I wanted to be able to wash in the stream before the valley had plunged into shadows. I decided the shrubs and bushes would probably provide enough wood, and set camp at 2800m. I also convinced two Czech guys I had met at the pass to camp there and keep me company. I gathered wood, washed, light a fire once the sun had said goodbye, ate my tinned sardines and red beans, heated in the fire! The Czech pair joined me later for a chat around the hot fire until it was dark and we all went to bed (separately of course…!). I then put the hot stones from the fire in my towel, and huddled against them. They kept me warm until two in the morning, but then after I was freezing again till the end of the night.
Third day: final descend to a rising temperature…
I woke up a little later than the Czechs, and they left before me. I made a quick breakfast with my last piece of melon and yoghurt, and the Snickers bar the guide gave me. I descended straight to the Arashan valley, through the green pastures and forest. Once at the confluence of the torrent I followed down the valley and the Arashan river, I found myself stuck. No bridge in sight, and as I was observing, I saw a few locals cross the small river on horses. I decided to do so on foot… I got into the water with my shoes, at the same spot where the horses crossed, assuming the river was more shallow and the current softer there. But I quickly got freezing water up to my thighs, and the strong current was making me teeter almost to the point of tripping into the water with my heavy bag… I would have been swept like a dead leaf with all my stuff on the back… I realized I had been reckless, but focussed and said to myself: “you can do it!”, and shambled across to the other side, where I threw myself onto the bank. I was glad I had made it, and was safe! I was wet to the waist, my feet were icy cold (again!), but my pack was dry, and I had reached the other side. I stripped down to my pants on a rock to dry and warm up in the sun. I then saw the Czechs passing in the far on the other side of the river. I couldn’t call them or waive at them, they were too far. They disappeared again in the forest.
Once nearly warm again, I set off again, now obsessed by the idea of dipping into the hot springs… only to find myself walking into marshland. Again, my feet were sinking deep into cold mud… for another few hundred metres… But I couldn’t care less… or almost. I was so weary and blazé about being wet and dirty, that all I cared for was moving forward to those damn springs!
At last, I got on dry land and I could see the houses: Altynarashan! I was getting close! At the first house I asked for Valentin, and was shown the direction of farer house. When I got there, I met Valentin, a rough but warm Russian bloke in his 60s. He offered me tea. On the first sip, I was ravaged by a feeling of profound relief. It was hot and tasty, comforting… life saving! He later gave me the key to his private hot pool, and I ran to it! It was so unbelievably hot! Very hard to get into, but again, a relief, a compensation to all the cold I endured during the trek. In just five minutes, I’d caught up all the missing degrees lost in two nights and wet feet… the rest of my 10-minute dip was bonus, for peace of mind and skin soothing…!
Quick dry, goodbye to Valentin, quick picnic with the last tomato, the leftovers of the chicken and the tinned corn. It should give me enough energy for the remaining 4-or-so-hour walk to Ak Suu, the village at the bottom of the Arashan valley. Well, not only I, again, underestimated the distance and time, but walking on this long dirt track along the noisy river quickly got me worn out. By the time I got to the first houses outside Ak Suu, I was totally exhausted. I had nothing left to eat, just water left, but I wouldn’t allow myself any break as it was getting late. Once in the village, I was looking for any mean to cut the suffering short: car, taxi, mashrutka. After a few cars had passed, I turn round to see the mashrutka (minibus) 350, the ONE! I jumped in, and 15 minutes later I was back in Karakol. I almost got straight to bed after a good shower, that sadly wiped out the delicious sensation of the hot springs…
This was a beautiful trek, wonderful opportunity to push my limits, but still, I slightly underestimated the difficulty, mainly because of high altitude and long distance. But I’m so glad I could do it!
While walking, I was considering how lucky I was to be physically fit to do it, how privileged I was to be here in Kyrgyzstan, how glad I was to be alive and free. Thanks to my parents, my ancestors to have made me who I am: my birth, my upbringing, education, and then my own choices of lifestyle, work, love… My parents have always supported me, respected me, and stood by me, and they still are! I’m happy now and where I’m going, and I would like to thank them today! My parents and family are wonderful and I love them.