Ala-Kol Trek, Day 1: Up the Karakol River

We wake up this morning in the Ala-Kol Guesthouse in Karakol to the sound of rain. When we look outside the window, we see a blanket of gray clouds has descended on this tiny town veiling the mountains beyond. Good thing we had planned to spend the morning on our “nero” day, part 2 relaxing and taking care of various details before heading out on a short 3-day trek to nearby Ala-Kol Lake and Pass. Luckily, we took our laundry off the line last night. Other guests left theirs out overnight, and now it’s soaked.

We head down for breakfast and chat with our hostess, Kima, a bit. She wants to know how we enjoyed the treks we did out of Jyrgalan and if there is anything that they can do to improve them. She is happy to hear that we liked our guide and horse porter and is open to our suggestions. She is also surprised to hear that we love the Karakol specialty of ashlyan-fuu so much and that we are planning on getting another bowl of the cold, vinegary noodle soup before we hit the trail.

There are also three guys here from Kerala who work as engineers in Dubai. One of them, Rijas, strikes up a conversation about photography, and we soon discover he shares our passion for wildlife and birds in particular. He shows us amazing shots of lions and cheetahs in Africa, but it’s the birds in Kerala that catch our attention. India has been on our minds lately, and we are always eager to meet fellow travelers and exchange information.

After breakfast, we pack up our daypacks for the 2-night trek and leave the rest of our stuff at the guesthouse. It’s so comfortable and friendly here at Ala-Kol. Gulmira, Kima and Farkhat have gone out of their way to be helpful and make our stay enjoyable, just as they did at their other guesthouse in Jyrgalan.

The Ala-Kol Hike that we are doing is touted as Kyrgyzstan’s most beautiful and popular hike, so we are eager to see what that is all about. Our plan is to hike to a tented campsite tonight, so we will only need our sleeping bags. Then, on Day 2 we’ll hike up to the lake and cross the pass and end our day at a guesthouse, so we strip our bags down to sleeping bags, cameras and some snacks. Keeping it simple is the way to go!

Before we leave we have a few important errands. First, we head back to the market to enjoy another bowl of ashlyan-fuu. This delicious Dungan specialty, along with a piece of peroshka, Russian fried potato bread, is the perfect fast food just before a trek. And the price is budget friendly! Two bowls and two peroshka cost a whopping 90 som in total (approximately $1.50).

Having sated our hunger, our next task is to go shopping for some new camp shoes. We’ve found it’s quite wet out on the jailoo, so we’re in the market for some cheap slides or slip-on sandals. Farkhat drives us out of the central market area and pulls the car onto a dusty side street. We follow him into a somewhat dilapidated building and up a flight of stairs. We are reminded of a search for a dentist we once embarked on in Leh, India a few years back.

This doesn’t look like a place to go shoe-shopping, but don’t judge a book by it’s cover. On the second floor is a decent-sized market, sort of a Kmart of Kyrgyzstan, where one can buy toiletries, packaged food items, clothing and, most importantly, the coveted slides we’ve been looking for. There’s a table piled high with different sizes, colors and brands. We sift through quickly until we each find a suitable size and color: mine are forest green, while Alison’s are purple. The cash register doesn’t lie: total cost is 170 som (or roughly $3)! We’re beginning to really like the cost of living here in Kyrgyzstan.

Farkhat drops us off with a friend who runs a tourist company. He will drive us to the entrance gate of the national park and drop us off at the trailhead. So we pile in with our backpacks and hiking poles. Three other Kyrgyz people join in, and it’s a bit like a game of sardines in the backseat.

Now begins the real adventure. Our driver likes speed and doesn’t slow down much for potholes or speed bumps. We’re seated 4 across the back seat, with really nowhere to move, so even though we are jostled about, we collectively pad one another from the worst bumps. At the entrance to the national park we pay 500 som (for two foreigners) as an entrance fee and then back in the car we go.

The road is now gravel, but, because of the rain last night and this morning, it is quite muddy with huge puddles. None of this phases our driver who relishes hitting the puddles and sending huge sprays of muddy water in all directions. He seems to have taken some American car commercials as a license to drive like a nut!

He could stop at any point and let us walk, but instead he takes us further up this rocky, muddy track, bouncing off of rocks, all the while listening to 80’s American anthems: Scorpions “No One Like You”, Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (which seems prophetic), and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” which begins to describe how my butt feels after a few kilometers on this road! We reach the end of the road, so to speak, and fall out of the car, a bit road weary but ready to hit the trail once again. We bid a merciful farewell to our driver and begin the slow climb uphill to the tented campsite.

This valley is fairly narrow and follows the Karakol River which is a raging and roiling Class IV torrent, ice blue and swollen from the recent rain. The rest of the riders take off right away, but we only have 4.5 miles to cover and are in no hurry. The weather is partly cloudy/partly sunny and delightfully cool with a gentle breeze. We are in great spirits after a quick overnight recharge and refresh, so we follow the road and the river gently uphill, trying our best to dodge the giant mud puddles as we go.

With no guide or horse porter waiting on us, we feel free to stop as often as we like to photograph flowers and look at birds. We see an eagle flying low and follow him as he moves from tree to tree. Even though we get good looks at him with the binoculars, he stays just out of reach of our long lens.

Several times we are passed by large Soviet trucks that seem to be ferrying people down the mountain, like a 4-wheel drive bus ride. It’s a bit strange to see vehicles on a hike after seeing none for the last 5 days! Besides the occasional truck, we have the place to ourselves, which is one definite upside of leaving later in the day.

The ice blue river, thick stands of evergreen trees, and the low-hanging clouds combine to make a beautiful scene. If it weren’t for the occasional herd of horses and cows, we might even think we were back in the States, hiking a trail in the Pacific Northwest. With all of the recent rain, small streams have overflowed onto the road, creating a few fun obstacles on our way.

We pass a raging waterfall and soon arrive at a footbridge with a sign indicating directions and distances to various places to stay. There is a footbridge here, but we will cross it tomorrow. Our campsite is only a few hundred meters further on. We cross a stream on a footbridge and walk into a complex of private tents.

We are greeted immediately and shown to our tent, which is canvas-sided and tall enough to stand up in, which feels like quite an upgrade from the tent we’ve been in the last 10 days out. We wander around and explore a few nearby waterfalls before a little light rain forces us inside.

Soon, however, dinner is ready, and we move to a dining tent and sit in plastic chairs. This may not sound all that exciting, but, after ten days of trekking without chairs, tables or room to stand up, this feels quite luxurious.

Over dinner we chat with the young woman who shared the bumpy ride up the hill with us. She made the vegetable soup that we are eating for dinner, so we assume that she works here at the tented camp. Soon we discover that Jyrapa is a student who just finished her degree in economics at a university in Bishkek. She has a job at a bank but has come here for a few days in hopes of seeing Ala-Kol Lake. Why she is cooking for us is still a mystery to us.

Jyrapa’s English is very good, and we learn a lot from her about the economic situation in Kyrgyzstan. Many young people seem concerned about the low wages that they make working here in their own country, and so they express an interest in coming to the US or Canada. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult for them to obtain a visa to enter the US. Even so, Jyrapa invites us to visit her hometown of Chong Kemin and promises that her mother will cook traditional Kyrgyz dishes for us. It’s very tempting to take her up on the kind offer, but, unfortunately, our time is already spoken for.

Soon, it’s hikers midnight and time to turn in for the night. We are hopeful the clouds will lift and that our climb to Ala-Kol tomorrow will be sunny and smooth.

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