We’d had enough of cities, enough of acquiring visa and enough of hostel life. It was time to head to the great Kyrgyzstan outdoors and camp out for a few nights. At least that was the intention.
So loading Matt (who’d been sick for a couple days and was hoping it would pass) into a minivan for some countryside respite didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. A total lack of suspension sees us bouncing down the rough road towards Issyk Kul for starters, then to add to the mix they only decided that now was the time to start rebuilding bridges, rip up the old road and generally create traffic chaos adding several hours to the 6 hour journey time. Add to this being hassled by all the local old women every time he tried to open a window and before we even arrived the day had almost become too much.
Matt: “These old hags like to think they have control over the entire vehicles ventilation – closed when they want, open when they want, all whilst they wear their winter coats in the middle of a 35 degree day!”
(see, almost too much…)
Near on having his stomach bounced out of his mouth we finally get out at the bus terminal grabbing a taxi (KGS70) to Duet Hostel. Beware of the dodgy taxi drivers, they tried charging us 300 the cheeky bastards, but it’s a flat rate to the bus station. The hostel came recommended by a fellow traveller, with the young local owner Anna deciding to open up the modest place in February of 2016 after pressure from her parent to reluctantly return from four years living in London.
The well designed place could have been transported straight from Europe. It’s got everything one needs – comfortable beds, great showers, a sunny chill out room with enough seating and for once it’s a Central Asian hostel with an awesome kitchen. Anna also provides loads of information on sights, trips and where to rent camping equipment. We’d already been in contact with Eco Trek before coming to Karakol otherwise we would have gone with the people Anna recommended as they were supposedly cheaper. Collecting a tent, sleeping mats, cooker stove and gas from their office for the following morning, a quick duck into the small shop next door to Duet Hostel for supplies had us all sorted for the trek the next day.
Our plan was to walk along the river of the Takyr Tor valley, camp the night at a wooden hut along the path up to the pass, spend the following night at the still frozen Ala Kol alpine lake then attempt the snow covered pass at 3,700m before descending into the Kel’deke Valley on the other side to soak in the warm hot springs of Altyn Arashan. We’d then head back to Karakol on the fourth day.
Well we awoke that morning to some of the heaviest rain we’d witnessed in months. Letting it die down hoping that it may stop we eventually gave up hope and having already paid to rent our gear we jumped on a bus anyway, happy that it had at least turned to a manageable drizzle.
‘It’ll be an adventure!’
With Sarah ever the optimist Matt was obviously still not well and less than enthusiastic at the prospect of walking all day in the rain. And rain it did. Paying the entrance fee (KGS250 each plus KGS150 per tent) at the gate the guard offered us a taxi up to the river crossing at the base of the climb. Not wanting to give in at the gate (well Sarah didn’t, Matt would have in a heartbeat and was slightly disappointed again for the second time that day) we (Sarah) stubbornly refused as we took our first steps toward what probably would have been an easy walk to the first days camp sight.
Walking through the village we pass a couple of hikers coming the opposite way who looked relived to have finished the circuit as the rain changes between light drizzle and a moderate drenching.
With Maps.me and some instructions jotted down from a blog to guide us we turn right between two houses as dogs come out to look at the stupid foreigners still walking in the rain. Heads down in concentration, Matt’s with gritted teeth an no enthusiasm, we reach a deciding point in the path. One trail goes up into a forest and the other sticks to the river. All we know is that we need to cross a bridge to the left at some stage that will then take us steeply up towards the lake.
‘All the information on the internet says to stick to the river’
Sarah’s adamant and Matt just couldn’t give two shits. By this stage the rain has become heavier and now instead of just the river flowing through the valley there are rivers criss-crossing down the side of the valley washing out paths, forming new tributaries as we dodge huge piles of cow shit and mud further along the way.
Seeing a local chap in his yurt we gather we’re heading in the right direction as he calls out ‘Ala Kol!’ and motions us in the direction we’re heading. This all happens in Russian mind you, which if you haven’t gathered already we’re pretty shit at. Another couple of kilometres and we see a second bridge, which surely must be the one we need to cross.
‘I guess this is it’
Sarah again figures, and again Matt doesn’t care. He just wants to be vertical and dry and continues feeling sorry for himself. After again asking some local lads who spoke neither English (surprise, surprise) nor Russian if we were on the right track we’re waved onward with a nod yet soon find ourselves stopped in our tracks a further two and half kilometres upstream by a raging torrent of water coming from the mountain above. It’s at this point that Matt sees the path on the other side where it has now rejoined the river. So without muttering a single word he about faces and marches off back the way we came, feet covered in cow shit, head sunk and feeling defeated. Now five kilometres have been added to the day, we are soaking wet and still have another 7kms ahead of us with the afternoon getting on.
Trudging along silently, we find ourselves facing the final 3kms of our waterlogged day where we could pitch the tent and get into (hopefully) dry sleeping bags and pretend that the day never happened. Only one more thing, the mother of all cascades is coming down the side of the valley and spreading out into a river across the path. Soaked to the bone we shrug our shoulders and began to wade through the 15m wide puddle of sorts.
Earlier that day we’d crossed paths with a bunch of guys on ATV who, unlike us, had intentionally ventured out that morning to get as wet and muddy as possible. Lucky for them the only way the conditions could have got ‘better’ was if a hurricane blew through (slight exaggeration on Matt’s behalf here…). Halfway across and struggling to keep our already soaking wet shoes out of the water our saviours roll around the corner, stop midstream and offer us a ride all the way to our camp site, one guy plucking a slightly stranded Sarah from a rock like a knight in shining armour (actually he was a slightly overweight Russian but you can’t win them all!).
Their high spirits (and high speeds) couldn’t have been more perfectly timed as the last 3kms including some of the steepest sections we’d seen all day. Passing through on ATV’s lifted our moral enough to throw up camp and get the cooker on for a pot noodle dinner. Well Sarah did, Matt just got into his sleeping bag. Which wasn’t dry. So Matt pretty much froze and moaned long enough for Sarah to kindly swap sleeping bags with her as she has the -25 degree Rolls Royce of sleeping bags. Luxurious pot noodles in bed was what Matt had envisioned life to be all about and with that we attempted to sleep as the rain continued all night.
The following morning our packs, shoes and tent are still wet so we cook up more noodles and deliberate over a coffee about what to do. Seeing as Matt’s condition hadn’t improved with a sleepless night involving frequent toilet visits in the pouring rain, we hold out for a couple of hours in the morning sunshine to see if the rain is going to make a comeback. Sure enough, it did, so we decided to pack camp and head back to town defeated.
It was about now that we ran into a couple of Polish guys we affectionately nicknamed K2. Spotting a guy looking for something across the river Sarah waves and he soon joins us, explaining that he’s searching for his cooking pot. Apparently the night before Kamil and his friend Kamil (yes really) had given the almost empty pot to a large hungry dog who’d approached their campfire and it had proceeded to run across the river with it firmly in it’s mouth. Unsuccessful in the search they inform us that they’d also turned back from the hike due to the rain and we’re also heading back to Karakol. The four of us no longer felt so defeated and as a team we made the long, wet, muddy hike back together.
Happily back at Duet Hostel Matt fast track it to the chemist for antibiotics and we’re both glad for the hot shower, cup of tea and dry clothes.
There’s not a great deal in Karakol town itself that will keep you from death by boredom if it’s pouring rain and you can’t venture down to the lake shore. The only couple of attractions worth seeing are the grand wooden Holy Trinity Cathedral and the box container bazaar. This market has been around for year and it make you wonder if those London Shoreditch hipsters ripped off the idea from the Cipsters (Central Asia Hipsters)? This is a locals market where you won’t find the usual tourist tat but it’s good to pick up fruit, vegetables and supplies for a camping trip and try a cheap bowl of the local cold Ashlyam-fu soup.
And yes it was still raining on day three.
With our time up in Kyrgyzstan the compass was set for north and the last time crossing the border between Bishkek and Almaty.
For more photos click here to view our Kyrgyzstan album on Flickr.
Tips for getting to Karakol
It’s super easy to get here. First get to the Western Bus Station in Bishkek and ask for Karakol. In season you’ll not have to wait for long and a seat cost KGS350 and takes around 6 hours. Once in Karakol a taxi from the bus station shouldn’t cost more than KGS70.