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Kyrgyzstan's Ala Kul Trek - The Slow Route

"The internet did not say this!" bellows our new found Kazakh friend, after we have nervously stumbled our way down the terrifying descent from Ala Kul pass at 3,900 m. The views from the top are astounding, with a vivid turquoise lake backed by giant snowy peaks in one direction, but on the other side of the knife edge ridge are winds and a giant drop into the barren valley below.

I can tell I'm nervous when I don't take many photos, and the narrow ridge at the top of the pass is evoking far more fear than excitement. To those that ask, I will blame the sudden onset of clouds for the lack of photos, but for those who read this, you will know I was just bricking it, too scared that I'd drop my camera and then my dignity into the abyss below.

Terror aside, Ala Kul lake is a beautiful part of the world, situated in eastern Kyrgyzstan near the Chinese and Kazakhstan borders. The diversity of scenery on show for such a short four day trek is astounding. With views reminiscent of Canada, Pakistan, Scotland, and Japan, it is hard to believe that the Central Asian gem of Kyrgyzstan isn't better appreciated amongst keen trekkers and travellers.

For most humans, this is a three day trek. For us however, with our wee legs, propensity for snack breaks, and enthusiasm for taking 1,000 photos a day, it is a four day trek. It starts in the lush Alpine like Karakol valley, up through the vivid autumnal colours to Ala Kul lake, and then scrambling across the loose rocks up and over the scary pass. It ultimately ends at Altyn Arashan village where, praise the lord, there are natural geothermal hot springs to soak our weary legs in.

The trek starts with a completely misleading plod along a flat valley, albeit a stunning flat valley surrounded by turquoise rivers, horses playing, and giant stick thin pine trees reaching into the sky.

I am equally attracted to, and terrified by, the mountains. Having read every mountain disaster book under the sun, I insist we take a guide, despite the advice of some rather optimistic travel bloggers out there who described this as merely a ‘medium difficult’ trek. The stories we hear from only days prior back up this decision, where our guide was sprinting to avoid cricket ball sized hailstones, acting as a reminder that nature will get you if you’re unprepared.

Luckily for us, the weather was perfect with not a cloud in the sky, and all our EcoTrek guide Azat needed to do was sing songs or obscure 90’s ballads, that he memorised as a student when learning English. Think Savage Garden and Backstreet Boys.

As the sun begins to set on our first day, we reach our camp at 2,500 m, which is a sprawling flat flood plain surrounded by tomorrow's steep ascent towards the lake. It being late September, it is just us boiling our noodles for dinner, as most yurt camps and tourists have fled the cold.

Camping evokes a simplicity of life that means once we've eaten, we may as well get in my sleeping bag and read until we fall asleep at a gloriously early hour. That is until I realise the Milky Way has come out to play, and I stare aimlessly at the millions of stars and galaxies above me, waiting for the fleeting excitement that is a shooting star. Then I pass out as I succumb to the will of my legs.

Pain comes on day two, as we go up 1,000 m of vertical ascent. After a tentative unzipping of the tent, I know that stunning mountain scenery awaits, but also that the brisk morning air outside of my sleeping bag will send me into shivers. Sure enough, the mountains win, and I forget all about the cold as I clasp my hands round my mug of coffee to warm me up. Instant coffee has never tasted this good.

As we go up, the dark green pine trees intermingle with more and more red and yellow bushes that turn the landscape from lush Canadian-like valleys into a colourful array that could easily be mistaken for Hunza or Gilgit in Pakistan. The reward for the day’s efforts is a campsite perched above the glorious vivid blue of Ala Kul lake, surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains.

The unnatural looking, but entirely natural, colour of the turquoise lake comes from the glacial sediment that has been deposited in the lake there over the years. A few more hardy trekkers camp with us tonight, as once again, the stars keep up as all awake slightly longer than we had hoped. The only sounds nature provides are the distant groan of a creaking glacier and the scurry of rockfall that warns of tomorrow's dangers. The water is boiled, the instant noodles are inhaled, and we slither inside our sleeping bags once again, ensuring to pull the cord as tight as possible so that only our cold red noses poke out the top.

Ala Kul pass looks tantalisingly close from our breakfast view on day three. To get there, up to the 4,200 m pass that signals the top of the trek, we have to cross a trail with loose rock that gives way under our feet, making each step a tentative prod. Even a tiny rock picks up some serious pace as it accelerates down the rock face to the lake below. As we get higher, the rock face opposite becomes dwarfed by the giant snowy peaks that were previously hidden, revealing a seemingly never ending network of mountains that run into Tajikistan and China beyond.

As we reach the pass, glaciers, lakes and mountains should be competing for my attention, but the biting cold and wind whipping through me only serves to focus my attention on each footstep, to try and avoid falling into the new valley that has come into view. If you have ever stood at the top of a black ski run for the first time, unsure if and how to poke your skis over the edge, this will be a very familiar feeling.

Leaving behind the lake and the snowy peaks, the terrifying element of the descent is over within 30 minutes, after I have skidded and stumbled my way to a gradient that I feel confident on. It is reassuring to run into our new Kazakh friends who seemingly have the same opinion as us, that this is a lot harder than we were expecting. Indeed, this is not what the internet said.

Memories of Scotland come flooding back as the rolling mossy hillside then merges back into the Alpine valleys of Switzerland and Canada, which guide us home to Altyn Arashan, where hot steamy baths await to soak up any remnants of energy we might have left.

The hot springs of Altyn Arashan are a mix of indoor concrete blocks that are like sitting in a sauna, and some entirely natural hot springs that sit amongst the trees, adjacent to the flowing river below. I felt it only right that we try both types of hot spring. After dinner, we stumble through the darkness to the indoor baths that feel great on our muscles, but leave a lot to be desired aesthetically. Unless you like grey concrete blocks with rotting wood, that is.

The next morning however, we set our alarm just before sunrise, to find the natural springs in the woods that we had been told about by Taalai, the excellent owner of Teskey’s guesthouse in Karakol. Frost has given the grass a crisp white tinge, but after a 10 minute walk into the woods, we can see a little pocket of steam emanating from a pool. While not as hot as the indoor equivalent, these hot springs are right up there with some of Japan's most beautiful onsens. Surrounded by the giant pine trees, with only the chirping birds and the roar of the river below for company, the scattered early morning light fights its way through the trees, and I feel an overwhelming sense of a job well done.

We may not be the most hardy of trekkers, but we know a good bath when we see one, and despite the internet once again misleading me, I know this feeling is enough to lure me back into the mountains again and again.


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