One of the best places in Kyrgyzstan to get deep into the stunningly beautiful Tien Shan mountains is around the small town of Karakol (big by Kyrgyz standards, though!), at Issyk Kul’s eastern edge. The Terskey Ala-Too range rising behind the town, forming the borders with China and Kazakhstan offers a wide spectrum of natural brilliance – starting with elegant green foothills, rocky canyons with rough trails along roaring rivers, flowery, juicy meadows of grassland dotted with yurts and animal herds in summertime and finally the white glaciers towering over everything else.
Karakol makes a perfect base due to its location, very close to a number of beautiful valleys that give entrance into the mountain wilderness and its infrastructure for travelers. Those who don’t carry all the necessary equipment for high mountain adventures find several places in town to rent stuff at reasonable prices. If you feel like going with a guide, it can be organized as well in one of the tourism offices (e.g.: EcoTrek, AlpTour Issyk Kol, CBT and a few more) same as specific adventures like multi day horse treks or yurt stays. Personally, we spent a lot of time in the Ecotrek office, as our couchsurfing host was working there and if we had the money, we would have gladly organized something like a horse trek with them – they seem like a bunch of good and reliable people! Those agencies sell excellent hiking maps as well, with all major trails well marked – pretty much a rarity in most of Asia.
The most popular and often recommended treks which everybody can do by himself in the area are the Karakol valley hike, the hike to the Altyn-Arashan hot spings and the Jeti-Oghuz rock formations with trails up to the Kök Jayik meadows and futher up to fantastic glacier valleys. Another popular spot of beauty is lake Ala-Kol at an altitude of staggering 3530m. One of the best aspects is the fact that all those treks can be interlinked, as the initial north-south trails up the valleys are connected by east-west trails over high mountain passes down into the neighboring valley. As a result one can explore one of the places even in just an extended day hike or connect the valleys and get lost for more than a week in the mountains! Sure – due to the popularity you won’t be completely alone in the busy summer months. But the vast majority of tourists tends to end the hike at the first pretty place to have a picnic and return – the further up you go, the lonelier and prettier it gets.
Be aware that the season in which the higher areas are snow free is short! Even in June the interlinking passes have still been deep in snow and made traversing without a guide nearly impossible, as the trail vanished in a the brilliant white. The weather in general is very moody and unstable at any given time. We met hikers who sweated while hiking up at Jeti-Oghuz one warm mid June day and woke up with nearly 30cm of snow around their tent the next morning.
Of the three mentioned hikes we left out the Karakol valley, as there a national park fee of 250 Som per head has to be paid and we saw no reason why it should be worthier than the free of charge alternatives east and west. So we hiked up to Altyn-Arashan and Jeti-Oghuz and fell in love with the nature at every step.
For all the possible treks we absolutely recommend to have a tent and decent sleeping bags – it would be a waste to be dependent on accommodation in such a beautiful surrounding blessed with world class camping spots! Carry cooking equipment as well, firewood is around plentiful and fortunately water is no problem, as all the valleys are full of smaller and bigger streams in spring and summer.
Some practicalities for both destinations shall be given in the following lines:
Catch marshrutka 350 (30 Som) from Karakol with direction to the village Ak-Suu, get off at the last stop (‘Korort’ or Sanatorium). If you mention that Altyn-Arashan is your destination, all drivers will know. We recommend to buy all resources you need already in Karakol, as there is no shop very close. From the drop off point the road is splitting, stick right and walk through the small village until some kind of gate and improvised picnic spot is reached after about 40 minutes. From there it is tough to get lost – just follow the slowly degrading dirt road mostly along the gushing river higher and higher up until the scenery climaxes into a magnificent alpine valley at around 3000m altitude with the white Peak Palatka (4260m) in the background. There you’ll find a bunch of simple huts offering food, accommodation and warming dip in the hot springs.
Admission to the springs should be around 200 Som, pitching your tent close to one of the settlements is around 100 Som – but further up the valley you could camp alone and free of any charge. Prices for a bed would start around 500 Som, but we can’t say definitely.
From Altyn Arashan a small trail is forking off eastwards, around two hours of hiking takes you to a few remote glacier lakes – we didn’t manage to check those out ourselves as the weather turned bad – but were told it is well worth the additional walk. From the Marshrutka stop to Altyn-Arashan settlement it should take around five hours of walking, so it’s definitely possible in one day. Further onwards continue towards the glacier or head east over the Adyr Tor pass or west over the Ala Kol pass to connect with Karakol valley with the chance to see lake Ala Kol on the way. But be aware that this could be difficult to do on your own before mid June!
The village of Jeti-Oghuz is located just a few kilometres off the Karakol – Balykchy main road and can be reached easily by marshrutka 371 (20 Som) from Ak Tilek Bazaar (western corner) in Karakol. The actual starting point of the hike is at Jeti-Oghuz Korort though, an hitchhike further on to the Korort. There you can gaze at the strangely formed red sandstone cliffs which give name to the whole area. Jeti Oghuz means seven bulls and the legend goes that in some past seven bulls roamed through the lands devastating everything in their way – until a spell turned them into static red rock. Those cliffs are said to be the most photographed natural feature in Kyrgyzstan.
The useful side of the places popularity is the existence of a few small shops and eateries, so stock up on what you might need right there if not already done in Karakol. Then start hiking along the trail that goes behind the shops on the left side and follows the river until it reaches the vast and beautiful mountain framed meadow named Kök-Jaiyk (Valley of Flowers). Bring up the energy to hike up one of the ridges on the left side of the trail before crossing the river – the view is rewarding enough! On weekends expect the place to be full of local tourists and picnickers, some bringing not enough bread to compensate all the vodka…
Walk past the seasonal yurts at the meadow and follow the river as the trail gets steeper. Each turn offers new stunning views until you’ll reach a bridge over the river with a few simple houses / yurts. There the trail splits: to the left the high pass to Karakol valley starts, while crossing the bridge brings you closer to the glacier and one of the most beautiful alpine valleys we ever hiked. Reaching the glacier from that junction would take another two to three hours. We spent the night camping amidst cows and horses in the valley but could not cross the pass to Karakol valley as it was still snowed in. From Jeti-Oghuz to the glacier valley plan at least five better six hours.