The afternoon before we had walked quite easily all the way from Aksuu until Altyn Arashan, a charming valley not so far from Karakol, famous for its hot springs and astonishing landscapes. That first trek was 15 kilometers long and not too steep. We arrived in Altyn Arashan that was almost totally dark just on time to pitch the tent, eat something fast and go to sleep at a decent hour to be able to wake up early the day after.
Our experience trekking to Ala Kol
Our first purpose for the day, waking up before 6 AM to be able to enjoy the free hot chocolate and pancake in the camping where we were staying, was accomplished. We also left the campsite at 6.30 AM, as planned, to have all day long to reach our destination, the wonderful Ala Kol, a lake of crystalline water surrounded by so high peaks. So far everything was going according to our plans. The sunrise on the valley as well was really beautiful, with people waking up and getting out from their houses, tents and yurts, animals grazing around and the sun shining all over the top of the mountains.
Let’s start saying that the main goal of our day was walking the 11 km to the lake and back. So far, doesn’t sound as something that crazy, right? The little detail to be added, but quite determinant for the success or not of our mission, is the difference of altitude that was waiting for us: 1,500 meters. So, counting also the way back, we had to do a total of 3,000 meters of slope in 22 kilometers.
Anyhow, even if in that time of the trip we were not in the best shape ever, we didn’t let those big numbers demoralize us and we started the day full of positive energy.
The first unexpected obstacle that made our faith stagger a bit, was when after only fifteen minutes walking we got our feet totally wet in the muddy soil, due to the overnight rain. Jordi totally sunk until the knees with both legs in kind of quicksand and he was so stuck in it that I really had trouble to get him out of there!
After a few minutes pushing hard, finally I could pull him out and even if he was totally full of mud, he didn’t give up and of course, we just kept on going. We walked quite a long way, crossing a river twice. The first time through two little bridges, that weren’t exactly made by the best engineers. They were just a couple of thin trunks across the river’s banks lying so close to the water that was making them so slippery, that only with a false move you would find yourself inside the river.
We crossed them both and until there anyway, everything went quite smooth. The big challenge was when we had to cross the river the second time, but on this occasion, there wasn’t any trunk where to step on, only rocks, most of them covered by water. And of course, it wouldn’t be an adventure to tell if somebody doesn’t fall into the water. And yes, this time, that would be me. Jump, jump, jump and splash! Boots, feet and legs totally wet and moreover frozen. So, after crossing it as we could we took a quick stop to get the shoes and socks a little dry but since it was cloudy, to be able to continue our excursion we ended up putting plastic bags on our feet to keep them warmer and dry.
The view along all the path was really beautiful and even more in this last part with high and stunning mountains looking over the valley and the river. The horses drinking water in the creeks, running freely like the goats having as background a chain of peaks covered on the top by snow. And those, the farthest ones standing on the horizon, were the mountains we had to cross in order to reach the so aimed lake.
We spoke with some other hikers on their way down and they said that we were almost there, just a few kilometers more until the last challenge: the pass of the mountain.
We kept on walking so happy to have gotten until there already and when it was right in front of us, just half kilometer away, suddenly within seconds the sky got totally dark, cloudy and windy like if an apocalypse was coming. Anyway, we didn’t mind and we continued advancing and we arrived at the foot of the last mountain when we felt a drop. Then a second one, a third and with a frightening thunder, the heavy rain started.
Obviously, we couldn’t cross the pass in those weather conditions, because even if it wasn’t a long way the difference of height was 300 meters and the road was already quite muddy, and being a rough terrain with the heavy rain it was getting worse and worse. We waited a little there and we met some trekkers coming down from the pass and they said it was crazy to keep on going, since behind the mountains it was full of dark clouds and that the rain we were having at the moment, probably would be nothing compared to what was coming.
So begrudgingly and a bit disappointed, we wisely started to head back and definitely it turned out to be the best choice since from that moment until we arrived down, it rained on and off all the time, and at some point, it even hailed. Luckily, when this happened, we were nearby some yurts and we asked to be sheltered while it calmed down.
After the crazy storm, even if it was still raining, we kept on going back and when it was starting to get dark we finally arrived back to the camp totally wet and covered by mud from the feet to the top.
We went to sleep super early because we were totally destroyed by the long trekking and the conditions in which we did the way back, and when the morning after we woke up with the shining sun getting our shoes dry, even if we couldn’t make it until the lake we felt definitely proud of ourselves. Without doubts, we overestimated our capabilities and our shape, but nevertheless we did our best, we didn’t give up and what’s more important, when the weather turned against us we realized it and accepted our limits and the fact that we should head back.
I’m sure we will go back to Kyrgyzstan one day and it will be even more satisfying to reach the lake!
Practical information about the different trekking options:
Full trekking: Ak Suu – Altyn Arashan – Ala Kol – Karakol
- Total distance: 50 km
- Duration: 2-3 days hike
- Max altitude: 3,860 m (on the pass)
- Best period: Summer
Ala Kol is a glacial lake located nearby Karakol at an altitude of 3,500 meters surrounded by the peaks of the Terskey Ala Too mountains. It is possible to reach it quite easily just in summer and even then, if you are planning to camp up there or nearby, it is opportune to bring a good sleeping bag and tent for the night, because it can easily reach 0°C or below. In our case, we were there in July and as we said it was hailing!
There are two main ways to reach the lake, the most popular it’s the one starting from Karakol valley on the way to Altyn Arashan, where you will be able to take a bath in the hot springs which is such a relief after 2-3 days hiking! It is also possible to do it the other way around, and in this case you will not have to pay the entrance fee, which is 250 SOM (3.5 USD) per person, required when entering from Karakol valley.
To have a map of the trekking, besides buying it from tour agencies or the tourism office for 150 SOM (2.1 USD), you can easily download it on your phone thanks to the app MAPS.ME, where there is the complete path and it makes it so simple to follow with GPS.
In any case, here you will find a guideline for the main parts of the trail:
Ak Suu – Altyn Arashan
- Total distance: 15 km
- Difference of altitude: 670 meters
- Facilities: drinkable water on the way, horse and jeep hiring, hot springs, accommodation and food
Ak Suu is a little village around 20 kilometers away from Karakol. To reach it you can either take a taxi or if you want to keep a low budget, there is also a marshrutka running between the two cities that will let you right in front of the path to get to Altyn Arashan.
There you will find the famous hot springs, that actually are not that big a deal, but quite relaxing after a good walk. You can access the main one only paying, but there are other wild ones to enjoy for free right next to the river. Just ask to some locals and they will point you in the right direction.
The marshrutka is the number 350 and you can get it directly from Karakol city center in the junction between Tynystanova street and Gebze street, near the park. The price shouldn’t be more than 30 SOM (0.4 USD) per person counting also the big backpacks.
Once you get off the minibus the way to Altyn Arashan’s hot springs is all straight through Ak Suu valley. The trekking is a total of 15 kilometers with a difference of altitude of 670 meters, so it’s quite easy to hike. If you want there is also the possibility to hire a jeep 4×4 to do the trek or also to do it on horseback. In any case, there is almost no traffic on this path, so if a car passes by, most probably he will offer you a lift.
Altyn Arashan – Ala Kol
- Total distance: 11 km
- Difference of altitude: 1,400 meters
- Facilities: yurts (drinks, food and accomodation) in Kel Diki gorge, drinkable water from the river, horseback riding
Without doubts, this will be the hardest day, but also the most memorable one because of the sceneries you will find along the way. In this valley, famous for its hot springs, there are different kinds of accommodations from yurts to campings and even a couple of guesthouses. Of course, you can wild camp, and it will be for free, but we heard that rangers may come to ask around 100/150 SOM to let you camp. Normally we would have just pitched the tent wherever, but this time, to be able to leave everything there the day we went hiking we decided to stay in the camping of Vladimir. He is such a nice guy and you can pitch your tent for 150 SOM (2 USD) and if you wake up before 6 AM, you will get a free breakfast (hot chocolate and pancake).
The trek to the lake is beautiful and also quite hard to do, moreover if you plan to walk to the lake and back the same day, as we did. The hike starts pretty easy getting out of Altyn Arashan, after passing the little bridge and walking couple of kilometers you will find a river, Kel Diki. If you want to know more about the rivers and bridges you will find in there, check above our experience and the problems we had with them.
After the river crossing, pay attention not to lose the path because it is not well marked, even more if it has been raining. Just keep in mind that you will have to start to climb up the mountain on your right. Going up you may find different paths but don’t worry, since all of them will bring you to the right way, and in case you have doubts just keep on following the river, which should be on your right then. Once you have walked around 3 kilometers (slope of 420 m) you will have to cross the river back, but this time there will be no trees to help, just some rocks. We actually tried to figure out a way to cross without getting wet, but without success.
- Based on our experience, we advise you to take off the boots and cross walking the second river. It’s only knee-deep and it’s going to be fucking freezing, but better that than ending up in the water and having to keep on walking with wet footwear.
Now walk for another 5,3 kilometers to get to the pass of the mountain. On the way, there are also some yurts where you can stop to drink a hot tea, eat something and also sleep there. The way to the pass has a difference of altitude of almost 900 meters, starting from the river crossing. And up there on the pass, you will be reaching the highest point of the trekking, which is 3,860 meters upon the sea level. Already from the top, as they told us, you will be able to have a nice the view of the lake, but to get closer, of course, you should hike down on the other side.
Attention! From the bottom to the top of the pass is steep with a difference of altitude of 300 meters and the path is characterized by rough terrain. So be careful, moreover in case of bad weather.
Ala Kol – Karakol
- Total distance: 23 km
- Difference of altitude: 1,700 meters
We are not really able to tell you much about this part because we didn’t do it. We walked around few kilometers until a ski station, which they told us it was nice but to be honest it was quite average. What we know is that there are campsites where you can spend your night in the tent (the price should be 100 SOM (1.5 USD) per tent) and as said above, there is an entrance fee of 250 SOM (3.5 USD) to pay at the entrance of Karakol valley.
To get to the park you can take a taxi from Karakol or the marshrutka number 101, that for only 8 SOM (0.1 USD) will leave you in front of Monarch Hotel which is only a few steps away from the entrance to the valley.
Where to sleep in Karakol?
➡ If you want to save money and you do not mind sleeping in a tent, you should definitely check out . For 8 USD / night you have a tent for two people, with mattress, pillows, Wi-Fi, shared bathroom quite in the center of the city. You can get a bunkbed for 5 USD / person.
➡ If you are not really into camping, still want to keep the budget low and prefer to stay closer to the mountains, you have . For 8 USD / night you have a bed in a mixed room and a hearty breakfast included each morning. Since usually it’s not full, most probably you will end up being alone in the room for the price of a simple bed. It’s located next to the starting point of the trekking in Karakol valley.
➡ If you don’t mind spending more and getting a more comfortable option, you have . For 65 USD / night you have a double room with private bathroom and a huge buffet breakfast. Aside from the swimming pool and sauna, you will appreciate also the free laundry service and the fact that during winter season there is also a free bus service every hour to the ski stations around. It’s located right in the center of Karakol.