Karakol, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China

We left Karakol intending to spend the day travelling to Sary Tash, a border town roughly 100km from the Kyrgyzstan/China border, a 950km route that we thought would take approximately twelve hours. We made a few poor judgments, first we left too late, at around 9am from Karakol, we then had trouble finding transport from Karakol, it was low-season, and nobody would go directly to Osh so we had to make do with hoping from one city to another.  Another thing was we planned to cross on the Friday, the border was closed on weekends, and we couldn’t afford to lose another two days waiting for it to reopen.

Our initial transport was a marshrutka (Russian for ‘Fixed Route’), a small slow bus, that stops many times and doesn’t go above 60km/h.  In three hours we reached the Barskoon junction, a measly 80kms from Karakol. We decided to hitchhike as there was no sign of public transport.  Fortunately within ten minutes, two friendly young Kyrgyz men picked us up, who were making pharmaceutical deliveries around Lake Issyk Kol and were then heading back to Bishkek.

The Lonely Planet recommended taking transport from Balykchy, and then towards Naryn and onto Osh.  However we further read that from October to June the Fergana Pass was closed, presumably due to snow cover, this meant we could no longer take the direct route through the centre of Kyrgyzstan and needed to go via Bishkek, an extra 200km journey.  Fortunately, our drivers were going that way.  We stopped for a lunch of traditional Kyrgyz dish beshbarmak (literally ‘five fingers’ as it is traditionally eaten by hand), it is a dish of noodles with lamb and a small slice of horse meat. It was the first time Sonya and I had eaten horse, the way it was cooked was quite spicy.

We reached Bishkek at around four o’clock and headed straight for a tour agency.  During the ride we also happened to read that during May 1st to May 10th the border was closed due to a number of national holidays, we wanted to confirm if it would be open, we were informed that it was, but also reality struck that there wasn’t enough time to reach Sary Tash. We had done the Osh to Bishkek route previously and knew it took around eight hours in daylight.  Osh to Sary Tash would a further three to four hours, then there was the time need to go from Sary Tash to the border, reaching for a planned 9am crossing. If we did attempt it, we would be cutting it extremely close, the driver would be driving all night and through two mountain passes, there was a lot of risk.

After much thought and great disappointment, we eventually decided to fly to Kashgar via Urumqi instead, it was a hard decision to make, but we believe we made the best choice for us. It was particularly painful knowing that if we had planned it a little better this may have worked out differently.

Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

We awoke early the next morning and set off on our hike, taking a mashrutka (number 305) as far as we could, to a place called Ak-Suu Sanatorium, where the mashrutka dropped us off on a track sixteen kilometres from Altyn Arashan. We had some gear with us, as we planned to stay overnight, so when a truck pulled over and offered us a lift about three kilometres into our trek, we took advantage of the offer (note, standing onto the back of a logging truck whilst on an offroad track is far more scarier than sitting on the back of a ute). The truck took us about another eight kilometres before its stop, upon which we then hiked another tough five kilometres to the valley. The trek followed a scenic route of tall sweet scented pine trees, a gushing mountain stream with rock pools of crystal clear water and occasionally, locals camping.

We arrived at Altyn Arashan valley around mid-afternoon and were immediately greeted by Valentino from Yak Tours (we heard he’d be the first to spot us). An elderly friendly Russian who had clearly been doing tours to the area for a very long time, he invited us in for chai and consequently ended up deciding to stay at his cabin (his is one of two accommodation on the mountain). One of the highlights of Altyn Arashan is the hot springs, and Valentino boasted his to be the loveliest, with ceramic tiles and perfect temperature. After our trek, we were quite sticky so after our chai we headed to the hot springs for some relaxation. As per tradition, after some time in the hot spring we jumped into the nearby stream (well I just stuck my toes in) to cool down (as the water was freezing). For dinner we had some delicious beetroot soup (borsch), chicken and potatoes. It was quite an experience when the sun had set – the whole valley was completely dark and empty, aside from a perhaps a handful of other people.

The following morning we headed out for some mountain climbing. Valentino had suggested a nearby mountain climb (relatively low, more a hill I guess) which supposedly provided spectacular views of the valley and some of the nearby high peaks, including Palatka (4260m). He and some Polish travellers (who left the night before) gave us some relatively complicated directions to the easiest route to climb the mountain. However, we ended up taking the steepest route (this happens when you climb mountains with two guys). The climb, though extremely steep, was pleasant for about the first hour and a half for me. It was so steep I was literally climbing, using my whole body, including hands. When we reached the snowy bits it got a bit tricky and I considered going down, however persisted and after about two-and-a-half hours we reached the peak. It did indeed provide worthwhile views and was also quite chilly (Travis’ GPS read elevation of 3200m at the peak). Descending down the mountain was tricky due to the slope of the mountain, Travis and I tried sliding down some parts whilst Andrew looked on quite amused. We ended up taking a less steep route down, passing through some pine trees. We arrived back at our cabin after about four-and-a-half hours, and headed straight to the hot springs for some well deserved relaxation. Had lunch, a delicious bowl of laghman, and it started raining (our trek was well timed!). Travis and I headed back to Karakol late afternoon (in dire need for proper running water) whilst our new friend decided to stay a little longer.

Logger trucks we hitched a ride withAndrew and Travis on the trail to Altyn ArashanArashan River between the pine trees
Winding road with car parked at the topSonya and Travis on the Altyn Arashan trailSome of the lush scenery at Altyn Arashan
Finally, the small village of Altyn Arashan is visibleTravis and Andrew walking towards Altyn Arashan villageThe village of Altyn Arashan, the first building is Yak Hotel
Sonya enjoying some tea after a long walkThe scenery of Altyn ArashanThe scenery of Altyn Arashan, with the Yak Hotel in the middle
The village of Altyn ArashanThe mountains in the distanceTwo horses riding on the green fields
A small stream flowing from the mountainsArashan River flows through Altyn ArashanDinner at Yak Hotel, beetroot soup and chicken with potatoes
Climbing up a small peak near Yak HotelView of the Altyn Arashan valleyClimbing down the small peak year Yak Hotel
View of the Altyn Arashan valleySonya and Travis with the Altyn Arashan valley behindCow grazing at Altyn Arashan

The nearby mountain climb

Karakol, Kyrgyzstan

After spending a few relaxing days wandering around Bishkek we travelled toward the Lake Issy Kol region, east of the capital.  As we had arrived slightly early season-wise, many attractions such as the lake Song Kol were still frozen over.  However, Lake Issy Kol, the second largest alpine lake in the world, doesn’t freeze (due to a combination of thermal activity, salinity and its depth), so we decided to spend a few days hiking around this area.

We travelled to Karakol via shared taxi, managing to negotiate a fare of 500 som each (which seemed to be the local going rate).  The trip was a scenic drive passing the snow-capped Ala Too ranges, and at some point we were only kilometres away from Kazakhstan.  After some time we caught glimpses of Lake Issy Kol – a massive body of water that looked more like a sea.  An hour later, we were still passing it! Arriving in Karakol mid-afternoon, we decided to stay at a quaint Russian-run guesthouse with an extravagantly (perhaps a little too over the top for my liking) mirrored bathroom.  The staff did not speak much English so much sign language was used to communicate our questions.  Later in the afternoon we wandered around the tiny town, admiring its pink cherry blossom lined streets and wooden cottages.  We stopped by the yellow domed Holy Trinity Cathedral before picking up some fruit, samsas (somosas) and kebabs at the local Jakshilik Bazaar.

That evening we met another Aussie traveller, Andrew, at our hotel (who, coincidentally, we’d heard about in Bishkek before we met him!) and eventually decided to hike together to Altyn Arashan, a small resort located in the valley of nearby mountains, the following morning.

Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral