“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 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 all my clothes at once. 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 my clothes 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.