This was my first visit to Kyrgyzstan and it’s not a long trip by any respectable adventurer’s standards and I certainly won’t argue with a typical Singaporean traveller who might start missing home after a week. There are numerous trekking possibilities in scenic Kyrgyzstan and on this trip, I only had time for the Ala Kul Lake + two passes trek and the horse trek to Song Kul Lake. The good thing about this trek is that it takes in quite a bit of the Tianshan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan and can be done in under one week.
The company I engaged is based in Karakol, a town just off the eastern tip of Issyk Kul Lake near the border with China. To the south and southeast, are the Tianshan or Celestial Mountains. This is a triangular corner between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, China.
My flight landed in Bishkek from Dubai at 4.00am. I took a very expensive taxi to the bus station and managed to find the correct departure point for Karakol with help from a kind lady and her son. On the bus from Bishkek to Karakol, I met a retired Physics professor from Korea. Prof Chung was also headed for Karakol but he didn’t have any plans. After a brief exchange of travel stories, I revealed to him that I had already booked a trek from Karakol. I was almost taken aback when he asked if he could join me! I guess I must have looked like a really nice, honest and fun guy to trek with. As the bus rolled along the northern shore of Issyk Kul, I messaged the trekking company and informed them to prepare for another trekker in the group. My cost was nearly halved and the professor seemed decent enough.
At Karakol bus station, there was no transport going to the office of the trekking agency. Before the guys at the agency could ask if we needed them to send a taxi, Prof Chung had chatted up a nice lady who offered to bring us to the place in her car. She didn’t speak much English, but we found out that she was a history professor. After a few wrong turns, she managed to get us to the office.
We were introduced to the guide Ermek who surmised that the good professor’s footwear would not last more than 2 hours in the mountains. We went shopping and Karakol turned out to be a happening town with a Globus supermarket, sushi bars, Western fast food and throngs of happening, well-dressed youngsters. Impoverished? Definitely not here.
Presently, the Prof Chung, who was not exactly prepared for a high altitude trek when he was on the bus with me, got his gloves and hiking boots. We were back at the office to make payment and Ermek checked us into a nice homestay run by a Russian woman and her son. The next morning, Ermek and the porters arrived in a minibus. We were introduced to our cook and “jigit” (porters). As we drove, he introduced us to a Kyrgyz candy – a hard and salty cheese ball. I casually mentioned vodka and the driver stopped by at a liquor store where Ermek picked up a bottle.
We soon arrived at Broken Heart rock in the Jeti Orguz Valley which is characterised by bright red rock formations. The porters cheerfully packed and distributed the loads. The vodka was poured into an unbreakable bottle and the glass bottle discarded. Literally in high spirits, we set off.
As mentioned, there are two passes to clear on this trek. The first one is the Telety Pass 3,800m and to get there, we must first get from the Jeti Orguz Valley into the Telety Valley. This part of the trek is not particularly difficult, but most of the itineraries would claim that it’s just a 7km, 3-5 hour trek. I found that it’s more like 7-8 hours. The first part brought us through lush green pine tree forests carved by thundering streams. There were practically no trekkers but we were greeted by friendly horsemen and their equine herds. Barely an hour into the trek, it started raining sporadically.
By midday, the rain was down to a drizzle. We came to a spot with a big tree and an abandoned hut in a field of grass and tiny wild flowers. Within the brief moments of sunshine, rocky peaks with streaks of snow peeked through the distant clouds. We continued our trek into the thinning forests of the Telety Valley which opened up with vast fields of grass and rocks. The waters here were somewhat tamed and no longer gushing. It was a beautiful place infused with hissing streams, rocky peaks and herds of grazing horses. By the time we reached our night stop cold and wet, it was about 7.00pm. After a quick, comforting dinner of lagman (fried noodles) and soup, we had a few sips of vodka and then snuggled into our sleeping bags. All night, the wind and the rain whipped our tents. We hardly had any sleep at all.
We were greeted by a gloomy morning and an uninspiring breakfast. Just as it seemed like we were going to ascend Telety Pass under heavily overcast conditions, the sun broke through and gave a tiny ray of hope. The climb up to Telety Pass at 3,800m is not to be trifled with. The altitude is not great and AMS wasn’t an issue, but the distance was formidable.
From about 2,600m at the campsite, it was a long way to the pass. Just as the pass became visible, we saw what a night’s worth of rain did to the bare, rocky slopes above 3,000m. A field of deep snow had been dumped on the pass from last night’s rain, right at the beginning of summer. I wasn’t mentally prepared for this much snow after the assurances from the agency. It was pretty tough, especially for Prof Chung who, in spite of having lived in Korea most of his 65 years, was quite unfamiliar with snow-walking. Even for me, the deep snow, like sand on the beach, quickly sucked the life out of me, dragging my legs into the freezing depths with every few steps. It was tiring. It was frustrating. The descent was no easier though the snow could be avoided on a few stretches.
Thankfully, we made it safely to the Karakol side of the pass. As the pass took up a lot of our time that day and the professor took a fall with minor injuries, our guide Ermek decided to camp on a field not too far from the pass. We had already been trekking for almost 9 hours that day. Our original plan was to camp in the Karakol Valley but it was getting late. After one sleepless night, we all slept soundly that night and were greeted by a beautiful morning the next day. It was sunny and the peaks stood out majestically gilded in the distance.
Again, the breakfast was uninspiring (the same stale bread) but the weather powered us up. In spite of his injuries, Prof Chung was up and running. We trudged through vast fields of wild flowers. There were not trails – just open space. Depending on the type of trekker you are, this could be paradise even though the going could be tough as hell. After crossing the vast meadows, we were soon descending into the even more stunning Karakol Valley.
Yes, we cleared a difficult pass to get here, but do note that the Karakol Valley is accessible via jeep. This means that you could begin your trek from this valley instead of Jeti Orguz. The only problem is, it’s a pretty intense hike from the Karakol Valley to Ala Kul Lake. You may have altitude problems if you’re not acclimatised. It was not just the sun but also the views that brightened our day. From here, it’s a very long, relatively easy riverside walk in the Karakol Valley until you start crossing the fast-flowing streams, enter the pine forest again and climb back to the 3,000m mark.
It was a warm day, a dip in the frigid waters of the stream during crossing notwithstanding. Probably because of the “uninspiring” food, I was not in top form. We had our lunch stop at a campsite just before Sirota Camp. As explained by Ermek, Sirota Camp is a log cabin built for unprepared hikers. Inside, you’ll find some dirty utensils and cooking implements. There’s even canned food here. Fortunately for us, it had remained a clear, sunny day. Like northern India and Pakistan, summer is about the only safe and relatively comfortable trekking season and it’s also the season with the most precipitation. You need quite a bit of luck to have the unlikely combination of nice warm weather and clear skies.
The toughest part of the trek begins from Sirota Camp. The trail is practically non-existent. You’d either need to climb over huge boulders or scramble up loose rocks and gravel. The going was tough, the scene was as wild, remote and untamed as it could be. Near the top was a partially frozen waterfall. The reward after an exhausting 9-hour trek? Ala Kul Lake at 3,532m. Sadly, I had some stomach issues and didn’t get to “enjoy” dinner that night.
Prof Chung confessed that it was his hardest day and that he would never be able to make it without all the “encouragement”. Formerly an airforce officer, he told me in the tent that night that officers must never give up and let their men down. It was his mental strength that brought him so far. Admirable for a 65-year-old.
Enclosed by rock on all sides, Ala Kul Lake bears some resemblance to the volcanic crater lakes in Indonesia. A friend of mine even thought that my photos were some animation art. There’s truly something heavenly and surreal about this place. With relatively little human contamination, the water in Ala Kul Lake was clear and there’s practically no rubbish to be seen anywhere. It was summer but the lake was still partially frozen. One can imagine how cold this place would be in winter. Perhaps for good reason, we were the only ones there that night, but Ermek assured me that the place would be a little more “crowded” later in the season.
After chewing up lots of activated carbon tablets washed down with orange-flavoured ENO, I was much better the next morning and I even managed to consume a bit of another “uninspiring” breakfast with the remaining chunks of stale bread. Before us, was the final challenge – Ala Kul Pass at 3,900m. To get there, we had to skirt around the lake, climbing a narrow, indistinct landslide-prone trail along the southern wall enclosing the lake. This side of the pass was relatively easy as it was practically snow-free. At the top, a cold wind blasted our already weary faces. The clouds were blown off and on the peaks, threatening to turn the partly sunny day into a grey and snowy one.
But snow had already been deposited on the other side of the pass. It was steep and there was no way to avoid it. It could have been another leg-trapping, energy-sapping trek down. Determined not to let the snow have its way, I went down on my back and started skiing down. It was a nice, practically effortless descent controlled with my trekking pole. Everyone watching was as amused as he was impressed. This time, the snow didn’t manage to sap that much of my energy. I reached the bottom of the pass with my dorsal surface damp with snow. A hot cup of tea would have been most welcome, but we were already running out of tea bags.
For the first time on the hike, we had our lunch in a yurt that has been erected below Ala Kul Pass. After lunch (our last uninspiring meal on this trek), we headed off on the technically easy second half of the trek, but tired after clearing the pass, it was still an exhausting 5-6 hour trek into the Altyn Arashan Valley. Thankfully, the weather held up for the rest of the day. It was at most cloudy with a bit of sun every now and then. We descended to lower ground, cross streams, ascended to verdant alpine meadows and after numerous twists and turns, we arrived at another beautiful place, the Altyn Arashan Valley.
The Altyn Arashan River was a frothy and roaring beast. There were endless fields of grass that stretched all the way to the hilltops. Erect pine tress which looked like they were planted, filled one side of the riverbank. As the village is accessible to jeeps and trucks, it’s pretty civilised. Apart from yurts, there were also well-appointed wooden guesthouses. We had dorm beds, proper toilets, good meals and even electricity but still no mobile signal. Prof Chung and I had a very well-appreciated dip in the hot springs before retiring. Then it started to rain and it was the most pleasant sleep we had on the entire trek.
We woke up to a fine sunny morning on Day 5 but we were not quite out of the woods yet. It was a 18km hike to Ak Suu on the main road in the outskirts of Karakol. It was a hot, boring walk on a jeep track. Then, less than an hour into our hike, a “saviour” appeared out of nowhere. He was a small, boisterous middle-aged man with a military jeep. He walked with a slight limp which bore the testimony to drunken fights. He offered us a ride to Ak Suu for a superb discounted rate of just 2,000 som (US$25). He normally charged 5,000 som. Since it’s just 1,000 som from each of us, we decided that it was a bargain we couldn’t resist. Off we went and boy were we in for a ride of our lives. The trail was incredibly bumpy and we were tossed around like clothes in a washing machine.
The most interesting part of the ride had to be the driver. This crazy uncle could sing, dance and drive his 4×4 over rocky terrain at the same time. With such great multitasking skills, it’s not surprising that he can manage 5 wives. It’s a very old and trusty Russian military jeep. With profit above all else these days, they don’t build them like this anymore.
He blasted his music at full volume. If you have a chance to listen to the authentic music from these ethnic groups, you’ll realise that they sound nothing like the “reinvented” 少数民族 stuff in China. In less than an hour, we arrived at a deserted house near Ak Suu. Ermek asked to be dropped here as there was no shelter further up. We basked in the sun for a while then sought shelter at an abandoned hut when it got too hot, waiting for our “jigit” (porters). In Kyrgyzstan, they call their porters jigit or “strong men”. I guess it should approximate the Chinese address of 壮士. I like this term because I find it very respectful. Within two hours, our jigit arrived. We walked down to the car park to board our minibus for a short ride back to Karakol.