“I think we'll leave around 6.” said male half of the kindly Polish couple at base camp.
“Yeah, mhmm, me too.” I replied, as though it was the plan the whole time. Surely he didn't actually mean leaving at 6, right? I mean that's just… so early. That's for crazy people.
Welp. He did. We did. And it is.
We had set out from Karakol that afternoon, staggered in small groups. Per usual, I was planning to walk mostly alone, because, well I sweat a lot and had a heavy bag and a runny nose and have been known to pant like a Siberian Husky that's been smoking for 20 human years. It’s just not a pretty sight. And per usual, this planned independence never materializes 100%, but I never regret the people I meet trekking.
The walk from cute, sleepy Karakol is only about 15km, gentle ups and downs along the route of a glacial river. You pay at the entrance to the nature preserve, about 3km out of town. It's reachable by marshrutka, just wear ridiculous hiking gear and act helpless and you'll be dropped off at the right place.
This segment of the trek was gorgeous, lush, and truly relaxing. Great emerald pines pose in profile against the intimidating wall of rock in the distance. The water in the river is crystal blue, a reminder of where it has travelled from - the distant glaciers piercing the sky.
I already loved Kyrgyzstan on this day. It would get more intense and even more rewarding, but I was already sold.
After about 5 hours, we have climbed slowly up to what can best be described as “base camp"; it’s more like an opportunistic, overpriced, serviced campsite that was set up recently when it became clear that foreigners really dig that lil’ lake up there.
With that said, it did the trick. I was able to rent a tent and sleeping bag for about 10 USD, and enjoyed the feeling of wearing multiple layers on every part of my body. Let it be known, especially to those of us from Northern countries who think we're the only people on earth who experience cold - the people who say that you need winter gear to do this trek after October 1st are not being melodramatic. I was fine thanks to shameless layering, but had I attempted this a couple weeks later I would have been really miserable.
I shared a samovar of hot water with the aforementioned Polish couple and a handful of assorted stragglers, cooking some kind of instant Korean noodle dish I brought from a shop in Karakol. A deep chill overtook the campsite as soon as the sun started to set, and soon I felt very good about wearing 100% of the clothes I had packed all at once. A few times throughout the night, I woke up a bit nervous about the next day’s trek. During a late-night walk to the “toilet” (a hole in the ground with a rustic stone structure around it) I found the stars so spectacular, I actually spent a few minutes trying to photograph them, before realizing that’s just not a thing phone cameras do.
Just as I’d dared myself the day before, my alarm went off at 5:30 and I unfolded my sore limbs from their cocoon. After a brief stop at the loos, I began what would be the longest walking day of my trip to Central Asia: 18 kilometres and 1400 metres of elevation gain over 11 grueling hours.
The trail to Ala-kul plods back along the river briefly before sharply turning northeast and beginning the ascent. From that moment to the first pass that overlooks the lake, the gradient doesn’t let up. In fact, it becomes rapidly more aggressive. By 9:00 or so, I was staring at what felt like a headwall, with no apparent way but up. Once above the trees, the switchbacks stop, and the trail becomes a slow, demoralizing climb. But damn, the reward is spectacular.
By this stage I had aquired companions: an English doctor working for MSF in Tajikistan and a jolly Liverpudlian teacher. We were a nice team, in hindsight; without words, we quickly established the expectation that everyone would move at their own pace, and we make chit chat over breaks. I really hate being waited for, so I was relieved at this.
Around 11:30, I finally came over the first pass, and saw Lake Ala-Kul spread out before me like a brilliant turquoise gem. It would be impossible to oversell the aesthetic drama of pure white snow on black rocks overlooking a vibrant, crystal blue pool. No Instagram filter can do it justice.
We take a brief rest at 3650m. The Polish-led party decided they will not all continue. I silently question whether I should be going back with the returnees, but choose to go onward. After a few minutes and photos, we continue to the second pass that overlooks the lake. Snaking about 2km east around the lake, the climb of 300m shouldn’t theoretically have been as trying as I found it to be, but perhaps it was the altitude just hitting me. It took over an hour, and by the end of a long, steep haul, I finally reached the pass where we would say goodbye to the lake. At this point I was genuinely shocked at my own survival and my legs felt like stiff bars of lead.
I learned about a delightful exotic subculture when my English companion asked us to take a picture of him brushing his teeth at 3900m. I guess that's a thing, according to him. Climbing a mountain and brushing your teeth. Who knew! Personally I was debating whether I needed to vomit. I did not.
When we had all taken our pictures and established our evidence, and had clean teeth, we set off over the other side of the pass, toward the valley of Altyn Arashan.
The other wall of the pass was just covered in snow, so I was initially terrified that this would be a kneecap-smasher. But, as has happened to me before in several different countries, I realized after a few meters that sometimes snow really is just snow. This wasn't like skiing in New Hampshire, there was no hard blue layer beneath the white powder. It wasn't easy to get down, and we all were on our asses a few times, but it was far from the icy death trap I'd imagined.
Finally, we arrived onto earth with a manageable slope, a gentle valley that would take us toward a river. This part took much longer than I was prepared for, particularly considering we all had the feeling that the "real hike" was supposed to be over.
After running out my phone battery (fail) I managed to attach myself to the world's least prepared German, who was armed with - ready for this - PRINT-OUTS OF GOOGLE MAPS and shoes that he declared were meant for “clubbing in Bishkek". I decided not to point out the many ways he didn't made sense, as I was not in a position to negotiate.
We finally arrived to the beautiful cluster of buildings (“village” is an exaggeration) called Altyn Arashan, where I found a warm welcome and plenty of cheap Baltika beer at Elza's Guesthouse. It's one of the first houses after you cross the bridge. I awaited my companions and we drank our well-earned beer until the sun started to go down. It was a 12 hour day: we left at 6 and arrived at 17:30. We used Elza's hot spring natural bath in the evening, which turned out to be exactly what my sore muscles were calling for.
After a filling, meaty dinner and kasha for breakfast, I finished the trip on the third day with a relatively short (5ish hours) walk through the valley from Altyn Arashan to the start of road that leads to a village called Ak-Suu. The walk is quite unmemorable but pleasant, a slow descent through a beautiful mountain valley. There are a few hot springs along the way, which we stopped to investigate. But found they are essentially just very dirty caves filled with lukewarm water - not very appealing for swimming.
We found a marshrutka only a few minutes into town, and though he dramatically overcharged us for it (50 som instead of 25) we were pleased to be back in Karakol.
Overall it was a hike I would recommend to anyone fairly fit and experienced with trekking, and one I will be boasting about for years to come. The electric blue lakes and jagged black peaks are instagram gold, and I couldn't ignore the thrill of being close to true wilderness - if there is such a thing left on earth.