The alarm goes off at 5:30, but, oddly for camping in Kyrgyzstan, we do not need it for two reasons: first, due to the angle of the valley we are in, direct sunlight is already hitting the tent and beginning to warm us up; second, the guides and some of the other campers are already up and chatting loudly, making the snooze alarm irrelevant. Both actually aid our cause as we want to get moving early and hike down to Altyn-Arashan to enjoy the hot springs before heading back to Karakol.
We were super warm last night because we were in a 3-season tent with little screen space, so the warm air stayed inside the tent with us. This means we can bound out of bed and quickly pack up our bags. We were told there was no breakfast available and no hot water until 8 am, so our plan was to just hit the trail and eat an energy bar on the go.
When we emerge from the tent, however, we are invited into the dining yurt for chai. It would be rude to turn down the invitation, so we join Taka, whom we met last night, and chat with him and a few of the South Korean trekkers. Everybody is excited about heading up to the pass to see Ala-Kol today. It turns out that one man’s daughter graduated from Northwestern, where Alison and I met and where so many of our relatives went. What a small world!
We wish everyone good luck and set off down the trail. It’s a bright, sunny morning with clear blue skies, and we have a bit of a skip in our step, as this is our 14th and final day of trekking in the Jyrgalan/Karakol area. We’ll take a few days off the trail before starting all over again in the south from Osh. We’re surprised that our feet and legs don’t feel more sore after the pounding they took yesterday, but I guess after 13 days, we finally have our trail legs!
The trail descends peacefully down the valley with mountains on either side. We stop to admire the reflection in a small tarn and have a quick trail breakfast. Somehow everything works out in the end. If we had persisted in getting to Altyn-Arashan, we would have missed this idyllic scene which we have all to ourselves this morning. We keep moving on while the air is still cool. It feels like it’s going to be hot today, and we are dropping altitude, so we want to take advantage of this beautiful morning.
Before long, we descend below tree-line and into spruce forest once again. We even get a little shade from the intense sunlight! Our trail friend, Guy (from Israel) and his guide pass us up. We’ve been leap-frogging each other since yesterday. We discuss a plan to meet up at Altyn-Arashan and share a Jeep ride back to Karakol, and then they are off at a pace.
We meander down to the junction of two rivers, past a few active yurts and into a spectacularly green valley. To our right a snow-capped mountain looms in the distance and a glacier-fed river runs from it past us and down the valley. We follow the river on the left in and out of forested areas. At one point we spy an orange-red squirrel scampering up a tree. When it stops to check us out, we notice it has long, pointy tufted ears with little hairs sticking out, somewhat like a Great-horned owl. Very strange!
Before long we can see the little resort village of Altyn-Arashan and the bridge that crosses the river. Just before we reach the bridge, an older man approaches and asks if we need a place to stay or would like to try the hot springs. We decide to go along, and he shows us where his guest house is. Soon we are entering our own private cabin with a hot pool at about 40 degrees Celsius. We strip down and emerse ourselves and let the warm water soothe our aching muscles. It’s the perfect end to our 3-day Ala-Kol trek.
Relaxed and revived, we meet up with Guy to take a ride back to town. You would think this is where the adventure ends, but you would be wrong. What’s the saying? When God ends one adventure, He starts another… or something like that.
We throw our bags into the back of a grayish blue Soviet-designed mini-bus and find ourselves sharing the road with five other people. The deal is 5000 som ($80) for the ride to Karakol. Split among us, the cost seems more than reasonable.
The truck looks like a VW bus, but it’s built like a Soviet tank. We know, because no other vehicle could withstand the kind of “road” that we find ourselves traveling down for the next hour or so. We only have 11 kilometers to go, but that really doesn’t tell the story. The boulders, the mud, the odd angles at which we find ourselves crawling our way up and down hills, and the shocking condition of the road cannot fully be described in words or pictures. You’ll just have to take our word for it, the road from Altyn-Arashan down to Ak-Suu village ranks as one of the worst roads we have ever traveled on. That said, we have a fun time getting jostled about and chatting with Guy about all the places he’s traveled and trekked. This is one ride we’ll not soon forget.
We get dropped off in the center of Karakol, a bit rattled but no worse for the wear. It’s time to celebrate the end of our first two weeks of trekking in Kyrgyzstan. We cannot leave Karakol without one more bowl of that delicious ashlyan-fu. Then it’s time for my annual haircut-in-a-foreign country, so I leave Alison at a coffee house to write up trail notes.
Then it’s back to the guesthouse where we have scheduled a full-body massage for both of us. Tanya and Dennis from Massage Karakol, bring their massage tables up to our room in the guesthouse. For the next hour we are treated to a classic Russian massage, with light music playing in the background and the afternoon breeze blowing through the window. They are friendly, professional and very affordable. If you ever find yourself in Karakol, we recommend treating yourself, especially after doing a taxing trek like the popular 3-day trek to Ala-Kol,
We will be sad to leave this part of Kyrgyzstan tomorrow, as the friendly hospitality we have been shown here has been the perfect introduction to this fascinating country.