When the alarm goes off at 6, we really have to force ourselves to get up. We have spent the night in a roomy canvas tent with thick foam mattresses, and we both reluctantly wake up raving about the awesome night of sleep we had. It’s a good thing, because we have a big day in store today. We are hiking to Ala-Kol Pass, and, little do we know at the time, but we have a super steep, fairly technical 4200 foot climb in front of us today. Ignorance is bliss. At least while it lasts.
The day starts normally with a quick breakfast in the food tent at the tented camp. We are served a big bowl of rice with some tasty sautéed veggies on top. It’s not your typical breakfast fare, but hopefully it will provide enough carbs to help us get up that pass. Thankfully, it looks like the weather is in our favor today. We have bright sun skies, and so far at least there’s not even a cloud in the sky. We can’t remember a day so far here in Kyrgyzstan that has started out so promising.
We filter some water on our way out of camp in the smaller river that we have to cross as we backtrack to the wooden footbridge. It’s all in shade this morning, so we’re happy we spent a few minutes here on the way into camp last night photographing the waterfalls. We’re still puzzled by the sign that says Altyn-Arashan, the hot spring village where we hope to stay tonight, is 25 km away. Our map shows it as about 17, so we’re not sure which is correct. After relatively short trail days on these two past treks, we are optimistic and hope we’re up for the challenge. We’ll just have to see how we feel after tackling the pass.
After crossing the bridge, we begin climbing right away. At first we are following a muddy trail through a pretty green forest. It rained a lot here yesterday, so everything looks extra lush. We have to pick our way carefully over all of the slippery wet rocks and roots as we steadily gain elevation.
Eventually, the trail opens up into a gorgeous meadow. Flowers are in bloom everywhere, and the birds are out and making the most of it. We spy our favorite purple bunting-type bird feasting on some flowers that have already gone to seed with his mate just a few feet away. They stay just ahead of us as we make our way up the trail. They provide good encouragement to keep moving onward and upward.
At the end of the meadow, we begin to gain elevation in earnest, making our way up a rocky knob, gaining better and better views of the valley where we camped last night. The trail levels out in an open meadow where the Queen Anne’s Lace is growing prolifically. It’s a pretty scene, and we run into a German couple who are there admiring it as well.
The German couple is hiking in the opposite direction and did the pass yesterday in the rain. They said it was super steep and slippery for most of the way, especially with the trail being so wet. They say we should have a better time with the weather today, but, when we tell them our plan is to stay in the hot springs village, they get big frowns on their faces and tell us it is likely too far to go in one day. They tell us about a tented camp just on the other side of the pass, so we can always change our minds if we wish.
We make our way over a few boulder fields as we continue up the trail. I find the sections with bigger rocks a bit easier to manage than the smaller ones that seem to rock more under my feet. Sometimes it’s hard to know if we are going exactly the right way, but inevitably we find a small rock cairn or a blue spot of paint that points the way and erases all doubts.
The trail levels out a bit, and some enterprising Kyrgyz have opened up a tented camp right here on the trail, where you can rent a tent or some bedding in a yurt for the night. They also serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, in addition to stocking a small shop where you can buy a variety of beverages and snacks at a bit of a mark up as you would expect.
The most notable thing about this tented camp is the captive Golden Eagle that they have tethered to a perch right beside the trail. The young man working in the camp comes out to tell us that it is still young and growing and that it costs 100 som ($1.50) to take a picture of it. We don’t like to pay for photographs, and we would much rather photograph an eagle in the wild, so we take a pass. Even so, it’s cool to get a close-up encounter of the majestic bird, who already looks impressively big in our minds.
The trail continues by the river and starts to climb steeply toward a gushing waterfall. It’s almost 11 now, and we are getting hungry for a snack. We can see some hikers on the trail ahead of us climbing up beside the waterfall, and we decide to make that our break destination. Getting there takes some serious effort, and, by the time we make it up the boulder fields and the slippery, exposed spots, we practically collapse on a big boulder at the top of the falls.
It’s amazing how much water is coming down this river. The sheer roar of it is hard for us even to talk over. So when the next section of trail has us skirting the edge of a rocky outcrop on yet another steep rise right at the river’s edge, I try to keep my attention on precisely where to place my next footstep. When my mind wanders, it starts to think about what would happen if I were to suddenly lose my focus.
As we climb higher and higher upstream, we see another waterfall coming over a giant rock wall. There are still large patches of snow here and there, and the waterfall appears to be emerging beneath the snow. We also see the trail that we are going to take switchbacking its way up and over the wall to the left of the waterfall.
It’s a lot to take in, so we stop at the base of the waterfall and fuel up with another snack before tackling this next portion. We take a look at the map and can see that Lake Alakol will be at the top of the ridge, and this massive body of water has been supplying the raging river we have been hiking next to for the past few days. It’s exciting to realize that we are almost there. But first, the wall…
The trail up the wall is a barren, rocky slope that ascends at a 45 degree angle. There’s no vegetation or soil to grip onto, so we put a lot of faith into the tread on our shoes as we slowly but surely start making our way up to the top. Once we get close the trail turns to a boulder field that we pick our way across.
Matt is much faster than I am. At one point he turns around to see how I am doing, and a small weasel bolts right between the two of us with a mouse in its mouth. Besides the birds and marmots, this is the only other wildlife sighting we have had, and it provides the adrenaline rush we need to push our way up to the top.
Once we finally crest the wall, the glacially-fed waters of Lake Alakol shimmer beneath us. The lake is walled in on all sides by picturesque mountain peaks capped in snow. We’ve seen quite a few alpine lakes in our day, but this one is something else. Its color is as unbelievably turquoise blue as any of the alpine lakes we have seen in Peru or the Canadian Rockies. At the far end, we can see the glacier that is feeding the lake and producing its magnificent color. Even so, it’s hard to get a sense of how big the lake truly is, but we are about to find out.
It would be so nice to sit here for hours, but we look at the map and realize that we are not even close to being done with all the climbing or the distance that we hope to cover today. We’ve already come up almost 3000 feet, but we still have another 1500 feet to go. It’s almost too exhausting to think about, and I ask Matt if we can just rest a few more minutes before we take off. I find a flat rock and sprawl out trying to muster the energy it will take to get up to Alakol Pass.
We don’t dare rest too long, or we might never get going again. The trail contours the mountainside above the lake. At first it’s relatively level, and it’s noteworthy because it’s the first time we’ve walked on a flat surface all day. It ends quickly, and we spend the next hour or so ascending and descending as we negotiate around the rocky outcrops of the mountains surrounding the lake. All the while, we are getting a better vantage point of the glacier at the end of the lake that stretches off into the horizon as far as the eye can see.
We stop ever few minutes to gawk at the incredible scene and to take photos, which allows us to catch our breath. The trail is steadily going up now, and, as we get closer to the end of the lake, we can finally see the trail up to Alakol Pass, a thin line in the dirt rising up at a 45 degree angle along a scree slope. That’s my kind of trail…not!
Just before we really start climbing, we have to negotiate a recent rock fall that is covering the trail. We’ve crossed all kinds of boulder fields while trekking in Kyrgyzstan, but this one seems so fresh and unsettled that it’s a little more nerve-wracking than the others. Luckily, nothing gives way, and we continue on our journey up, up, up to the pass.
By the time we hit the final stretch, I can’t keep up with Matt anymore, and I tell him to go ahead to the top and wait for me there. We are almost at 13,000 feet now, and I’m moving so slowly. It’s almost all I can do to muster the energy to put one foot in front of the other. We’ve hiked much higher than this before in Nepal, India, Peru and Kilimanjaro, but the ascent on this trail has been relentless since we started this morning, and it is kicking my ass.
I tell myself that it is all mental and that I can do this. Instead of thinking about how hard the trail is, I try to focus on how incredibly beautiful this day has been from start to finish. I start setting rocks further ahead on the trail as landmarks I need to reach before I can rest. When that gets too hard, I start counting my steps, and try to make it to at least 25 before I stop to catch my breath. As much as I am struggling to get to the top, I am already worried about what the trail will be like on the other side. I have to do something to take my mind off that and counting steps seems to work, at least for the time being.
I see Matt crest the top of the pass and then disappear from my sight. That provides the last little bit of motivation I need. When I finally get close enough to the pass to see him again, he is watching me from above and yells down that he’s not going to take off his pack until I get there, too. At the present moment, all I want to do is rip off my pack and throw it in the lake, so I really appreciate the sentiment.
When I finally make it to the top, we high five and hug between my huffs and puffs. I walk in circles on top of the narrow pass, trying to get my breathing to return to a normal rate. We shed our packs, sit on some rocks and eat one of the Soviet energy bars we squirreled away on our last trek.
There’s a ridgeline of snow behind us, and then a sheer drop down on the other side of the pass. A group of five Kyrgyz porters carrying the hugest backpacks we have ever seen are about to head down, and we are curious to see how they do it. There’s a small notch cut through the snow, and they are presently lowering themselves backwards down through it.
From there, they use a few rocks as handholds to drop down to a small ledge where they can turn themselves around and pick up the “trail” which is a nearly vertical scree slide snaking its way down the mountainside. These guys are young and fearless and start running as soon as they get to that point. With all that weight on their backs, they have to move their feet as fast as they can go to keep themselves upright, and they are just shy of being totally out of control. I can’t even look.
Matt wants to climb up to the high point where you can get a panoramic view of the lake and all the mountain peaks that seem to stretch on forever behind it. It’s only a few meters higher than where we are now, but, if he had asked me to go up there five minutes ago, I would have said Hell, no! Presently, anything that will take my mind off of doing that descent sounds like a fantastic idea, so up we go.
When we get to the tippy top, we have to share the tight space with a group of six hikers who are there with a Russian guide. We could see them from below as we were making our way up to the pass, and it doesn’t look like they have any intention of leaving anytime soon. They are taking oodles and oodles of photos of themselves in various poses and positions in every possible combination of the six of them. We wait patiently for our turn, and, in my head, I am trying to solve a math problem of how long this never-ending photo shoot is going to take. If there are six of them and each person needs to appear in every possible position, how long will to take for them to finally finish? Good grief!
Their guide says something to motivate them to leave and then starts heading down the ridgeline beyond the point. I figure that he is looking for a secluded spot to use the facilities, but Matt thinks he is headed down the pass an alternate way. Sure enough, the group follows after him (not before we get one of them to take a zillion photos of us, thank you very much!). There is another path down. Hallelujah!
This one traverses a few snow patches, but, from our viewpoint, it looks slightly more sane than the alternative we saw the porters do. We go back down to retrieve our packs and hike back past the photo spot to pick up the trail.
We follow the ridgeline until we see the faint trail heading down the pass. The first 50 feet or so are pretty mellow, and we couldn’t be more pleased with our lucky find.
We have three small snowfields to traverse until we get near the bottom where there is a larger flat one. The first three are clinging to the slope of the mountain and present more of a problem than the last. A nice lip has formed on the outside edge of the well-trodden path, giving me a little sense of security (false, but I’ll take it!) as we make our way across. It’s late afternoon now, and the snow mushes under our shoes. We walk in other people’s footsteps and try to avoid the deep ones where post-holing is a possibility.
We make it across the first snow patch without incident, and I am feeling happy about our choice to come this way. The second patch has less of a lip and a few more postholes on the outside edge of the path. It’s a straight chute down below with little to nothing to stop our fall for a long way down the mountain. It makes my heart race when I look down to my right, so I try to keep my eyes looking dead ahead on the trail as I inch my way forward, step by step.
The third snow patch is about 50 feet below us now, and the trail between us is the steep, bald trail that I can’t stand. It is going straight down the mountainside. Matt is leading the way and knows that option is going to make me start hyperventilating. He sees a slope of loose sandy scree next door and leads us there. We take both our poles and hold them in our downhill hand, lean into slope of the mountain, and use our uphill hand for balance. With each step down, we sink into the soft sand and slide a foot or so down the mountain. Over and over, I lead with my left foot, slide and then bring my right foot down to meet the other. Matt is directly beneath me, and I tell him I feel like I am taking half the mountain down with me as I go. He says not to worry, that he is doing the same, which brings me a small sense of relief. Deep inside I wonder how many people can do this before the whole mountainside collapses beneath them?
The third snow patch is the worst. I can see a few tracks where people have either glissaded down the slope or fallen and left a trail. Matt is already safely across, but I start to panic about halfway through. He turns around and coaches me through it. Look at my face. Come to me. Trust your feet. You’ve got this.
I have no choice but to believe him and keep moving forward, so that’s what I do, slowly but surely, until the snow is finally behind me. We have one last vertical stretch of soft sand to “ski” down, and the fourth and final flat stretch of snow is at the bottom. Knowing that is as far as I can fall boosts my confidence, and this part goes a little faster.
The walk from there is fairly flat, which is the first time we’ve walked easy all day. It feels good to finally hike at a normal pace and without having to think about our every step. What a relief!
The trail takes us down to the river where we cross on foot. There’s a yurt camp set up here, and two men come over to ask if we want to stay there for the night. It will cost 2000 som ($30), including dinner and breakfast. It’s tempting, but it looks like there are already a bunch of people staying there, including the group of snap-happy hikers from the pass. Matt’s not into the idea of a slumber party with a random group of strangers, so we keep walking and head around the corner to the next camp that has tents in addition to yurts.
We wander up and ask if we can rent a tent for the night. The young man we are talking to speaks no English, so we play a game of charades to communicate with each other. We get the message across that we want a tent, but he shakes his head no. We ask how long it takes to get to Altyn-Arashan, the hot springs village where we had hoped to stay. He says about 3 hours. It’s already 5:30, meaning we would be arriving just around sunset if we are lucky, which sounds unappealing. The guy can see that we are disappointed, so he motions for us to wait, and he runs off to do something.
He comes back a few minutes later with an older gentleman with a beard who pantomimes that we can stay in a tent, have dinner tonight and tea in the morning for 2000 som. We have a deal.
We set about doing some camp chores and taking photos of the cool rock garden that they have set up behind the tents. There are small groups of other guests hanging out and chatting together scattered around the campsite.
While I am filtering water, an older Asian fellow comes over to ask me what I am doing. I explain how the Sawyer filter works which seems to satisfy him. I ask him where he is from, and he proudly states South Korea.
Wait a minute. As I look around, I realize that everyone who is there is from South Korea.
How many of you are there? I ask.
We were 28 originally, but 6 dropped out. Now we are 22. We are hiking for a week.
Wait a second…we were camped right above you in Jergez Valley…on your first night…we were on a little hill just above.
He looks perplexed until I pull up a photo on my iPhone and show him a photo of his campsite that we took from ours. It’s pretty clear that he has no recollection of us, but we definitely remember the group of 28 South Koreans who we camped beside on our last night of the Jyrgalan-Jergez Traverse.
We head back to our tent, and one of their guides comes over to see if there is anything we need help with. He speaks better English than most of the people we have encountered so far. He was the guide Matt spoke to as we were setting up camp that night in the Jergez Valley. He doesn’t remember us at first either, but, after Matt pulls out his iPhone to show him the photo, his eyes get really wide and a huge smile spreads across his face. We have a friend now, and he is eager to speak English.
As we are unpacking our bags in our tiny tent, we hear the pounding of hoofsteps go right past our tent. The sound continues, and it is reallly close by. Three of the guides are on horseback and are practicing kok boru, the rough game played on horseback that these accomplished horsemen can’t get enough of.
They are using the trail right in front of our tent and galloping, prancing and dancing their horses back and forth as a threesome as they try to jostle each other for prime position. It looks a bit like bumper cars on horseback, and we have to admire the great skill of the horsemen, even though it truly is a little close for comfort. Getting trampled by horse hooves would not be my number one choice for how to go, for sure!placeholder://
The guide calls us over to have dinner in the yurt at 6:30, which is earlier than we are accustomed to. We sit at the end of a long table and are joined by a Japanese fellow named Taka who works as a geophysicist at the University of Maryland. He is primarily here in Kyrgyzstan to do a long distance bicycle ride between Karakol and Son-Kul Lake and then the Pamir Highway, which is supposed to be one of the world’s most scenic high altitude roads. The Ala-Kol hike is just a warmup for him. He is headed in the opposite direction, so we give him what we hope is helpful advice on where to go to get over the pass from this side. He is all ears and even makes a sketch in his notebook so he can be doubly sure.
We are served a simple dinner of ramen, tomato and cucmber salad and some cookies for our tea. It’s pretty slim pickings, especially after such a hard day of hiking. One of the guides is getting dinner ready for the South Koreans, and he slips us a plate of sliced cheese and sausage. We are grateful for the cheese, and Taka, the lone carnivore among us, eats the meat.
We are asked to clear the tent, so that the South Koreans can come have their dinner as soon as we are done eating. I head to the tent to catch up on my trail notes, while Matt and Taka finish their tea while watching the sun go down. The temperature drops, and that’s Matt’s clue to join me. We finish setting up the tent and then go to brush our teeth.
As soon as we get settled back in our tent, we hear a tapping on our tent fly that startles us. Outside, the English-speaking guide says that he has something for us and asks us to open the fly. He is holding two big bowls of plov, the typical rice dish made in the mountains with bits of meat. We thank him kindly but turn down the dish, saying that we are full from dinner and have just brushed our teeth. We couldn’t have eaten it anyway, but we are touched that he thought of us. The kindness of the Kyrgyz people continues to impress us.