Kyrgyzstan: Cracking Karakol

One of Kyrgyzstan’s premier hiking bases is the city of Karakol to the east of Issyk-Kul lake. Whilst it sits around the lake, it isn’t a lakeside spot, instead popular for its accessible trekking routes and stunning scenery. It was easy to get a marshrutka from Bishkek’s Western bus station. Karakol in Cyrillic is very similar to its English name (Каракол) and once I bought my ticket (350 som) the marshrutka filled up and we were on our way for the 5-6 hour journey.

Because it was busy, I got put on the front seat which was a bit irritating since I had to get out every time someone else wanted to leave. But the journey more than made up for it in views. Bishkek to Karakol along the Northern shore of the lake is absolutely stunning, passing through mountains, canyons and rolling hills, along with a stop at the most scenic service station I’ve ever visited. Five hour journeys in cramped minibuses are rarely fun but Kyrgyzstan’s beauty made for a fantastic trip.

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The most scenic services I’ve ever been to on the road from BIshkek to Karakol.

Once in Karakol, I headed to Duet Hostel which I’d really recommend. Apart from actually having people there unlike my other Central Asian hostels, the set up was great. You can stay in a dorm or one of their backyard yurts as I did. The yard is still a work in progress but once it’s finished it’ll be ace. They’ve also just opened a cafe/bar right next to the hostel which is a great place to socialise, meet new people and plan treks. The owner, Ana, is super knowledgeable and friendly. It was the best hostel of the trip.

It was great that so many people were staying there since we could plan trips and hikes together. On my first full day there, a French girl, a German girl and I headed to Jeti-Oguz where there are some short treks and incredible rock formations. Apparently you can take a marshrutka but this only goes to the village which is 12km from the rocks. We opted for a shared taxi which cost around 450 som one way from Karakol. This took us right up to the rock formations.

Next to the rocks is a hill which is an easy climb up and there you get a panoramic view of the surroundings. It was truly incredible. Predictably, I got separated from the other two so ended up chilling up there for a while. There’s a dirt track you can follow on the hill which gives you further stunning views. I could have stayed there all day.

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The incredible Jeti-Oguz rock formation.

With my companions not in sight, I decided to head down and walk the 12km back to the village. There is apparently a waterfall trek to be done in this area too but I didn’t want to risk getting lost. The 12km along the road was anything but boring. There are just relentlessly beautiful landscapes all around and whilst taxis and kind drivers pulled up on occasion to offer me a ride, I declined in favour of continuing this amazing walk. As well as the scenery, I passed nomadic life ticking on by and was frequently waved at by excited children. I definitely wouldn’t dismiss the walk back from the rocks.

Once back in the village, the taxi driver from earlier spotted me and offered me a lift back to Karakol for 200 som. Once there I reunited with the others (phew!) and we laughed about the whole thing over some beers.

The most notable hike around Karakol is Altyn Arashan valley which you can experience through a 2D/1N trek. I had intended to do it alone but luckily half our hostel seemed to be doing it the same weekend so 10 of us ended up hiking the route.

Marshrutka 350 heads to the beginning of the trail for 25 som but since there were so many of us we took taxis, which was 350 som per car. From the trailhead, it’s a 15km hike which surprised all of us with how simple it was. The first half is rocky but almost entirely flat, running alongside a gushing stream. Towards the end there’s more of an ascent but it’s never particularly steep and doesn’t last too long. As a group it took us about 4 hours to get to the valley where there is a range of accommodation.

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The hike to Altyn Arashan.

The hike itself is, to overuse this adjective, stunning. Hundreds upon hundreds of pine trees loomed over us whilst snowy mountain peaks could be seen in the distance. It felt like a proper alpine hike, the like of which I’ve never done before. Then, at the end, it opens up into a gorgeous valley which becomes all the more exciting once you realise you’re staying the night there.

We stayed in the first guesthouse – Ala-Kul which was 500 som a night plus 300 som for dinner and 100 som for breakfast. Ana from Duet Hostel rung up in advance to make sure there was space but there was plenty of room so if there’s not so many of you you could probably just rock up. The owner was very friendly, the food was great and they even sold cold beers (100 som each).

The valley is a great place to explore and wander round. There are a number of hot springs, both natural and man-made. The natural ones are free but are situated along a pretty perilous 15 minute trek which I didn’t enjoy too much. The indoor one’s a bit dingy but much easier to get to. You can haggle the owners down on price if you wish. Other than that, the valley is just a great place to relax. It got pretty chilly at night, even in June, but the guesthouse got a roaring fire going next to which we could drink beer and play cards.

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Altyn Arashan valley

We hiked back the next morning after breakfast which took around 3 hours. Luckily a marshrutka was waiting for us at the end so we headed back to Karakol on that. Otherwise you can walk to the road and get a taxi or hitch a ride. Rather than just going back on yourself, you can also head deeper into the valley where the more strenuous hikes begin. For us, we were knackered enough already and were content to head back to Karakol and relax for a while. We were a little bit tired but, like just about everything in this wonderful country, it had been well worth it.

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