Thursday, 22 July 2010

Karakol Valley, Lake Ala Kul and Altyn-Arashan

Karakol is a popular base for trekking, well equipped with trekking and guiding companies.  But overall it was less touristy than expected.  We planned a trek up the Karakol valley to Lake Ala Kul, over Ala Kul Pass (3860m) and down the Altyn Arashan Valley where there are hot springs.  We were assured this was a well travelled route and we wouldn't need a guide, and this was correct for the most part.  On day one we camped at the base of the path leading up to the lake and the pass.  Dinner was huge as we had over catered and didn't want to carry too much over the pass the next day.

 Some rain on the first night

The roaring river in Karakol Valley

On day two we climbed 1400m up a steep valley with an incredible volume of water flowing down from Lake Ala Kul.  We mistakenly ended up on the wrong side of the river, necessitating a tricky river crossing to rejoin the path. 

 The view of the opposite valley

 The route up: stay on the left!

Here we had climbed about 1000m

At the top there was a slope of gravel and a bit more climbing to the left of a waterfall, and we reached this view of Ala Kul!

  Lake Ala Kul

 Lake Ala Kul

Not realising that this was the last opportunity to collect water before the pass, we continued along the north of the lake (foreground of photo).  The southern shore was mostly scree slopes and we heard at least one avalanche.  At the lake we met a European couple, Omar and Jennifer, taking the same route.  We thought we'd found the way up to Ala Kul pass but after 20 minutes of climbing to a small platform Roger did some scouting and realised we were blocked by sheer walls of rock: our second wrong turn of the day. Unfortunately our new friends had followed us, so one by one we picked our way back down.  The actual pass soon became obvious and was much easier.  

The crest of Ala Kul pass, 3860m

 The way down

 The scree slope we came down

At the crest of the pass we could see the southern slope, a scree slope that fell several hundred metres with no apparent route down.  Roger watched some Russians slide down as if telemark skiing, and followed suit.  Luisa had a harder time, trying to cling to the few pieces of solid rock.  This technique only worked for part of the way, until she too had to learn the "telemarking" technique.  At the bottom was a patch of snow best traversed by sliding on one's pack, as Roger demonstrates below.  Most other trekkers we met agreed that the pass is much more difficult than portrayed in the Lonely Planet, and probably best done with ropes!

View from half way down the scree slope 

Surrounding mountains

 Roger finds a quicker way down

 The last of the snow and a rainbow

 Back on solid ground

We anxiously watched Omar and Jennifer, who were about 30 minutes behind us, tackle the scree slope.  It looked like they were finding it even more difficult than we did but we were too far away to offer any assistance.  Eventually they made it down and we sent a loud cheer across the valley.  They caught up and we walked together down the valley in the drizzle, a common occurence in the mountains.  This made for a lot of mud which, along with the multiple river crossings, had us soon give up on keeping our feet and pants dry.  Omar and Jennifer seemed prepared to walk forever but at 7.30pm we had to stop to camp without them - 11 hours of walking, a 1400m ascent and 1000m descent was enough for one day without missing dinner! 

 The location of the hot springs, Altyn-Arashan

The next day we were rewarded with a long soak in some natural hot springs, which was great but had after effects of dizziness and lethargy.  After this and a large meal at Valentino's "Yak Tours" hostel nearby and it was time for a nap.  When it started to rain again that afternoon we decided to extend our trip and camp another night next to the river, despite its deafening roar, and walk back to Karakol the next day.  Such is the joy of being on a four week break.

Pine forest and river in Altyn-Arashan valley

 Campsite next to the river, with bell shaped flowers in the foreground

River spilling over onto the road

The road down Altyn-Arashan valley was a bit tedious and would have been more pleasant by horse.  Nevertheless there were great views back to the glacier at the top of the valley and of the pine forests clinging to the steep slopes on either side.

Back in Karakol we checked back into our homestay and visited our favourite restaurant by the bazaar, where Roger had another brizol (omelette and a sheet of meat wrapped around salad and mayonnaise).
Menu deciphering success!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Kyzart to Karakol and Lake Issyk-Kul

On arriving at Kyzart after walking all day from Lake Song Kul we were desperate for a cold drink, but all we found was a sleepy town with two dirt roads and some donkeys.  Someone was washing their car in the middle of one of the roads using water from a puddle, but there were otherwise no cars on the road.  On the lookout for a taxi, we were invited into a house by some young men who assured us they would find a taxi.  Their mother fed us with chai and shoro, a home made fermented drink made from yeast that was something like beer.  Then their friend showed up, had a cup of shoro, and announced that he was the "taxi driver".  We negotiated 1000 som (about AUD 23) to Kochkor, a town 50km away that was at the western edge of Lake Issyk-Kul, and we piled into the Audi 100 with his two friends. The lads were taking the opportunity for a night out in the big smoke. We quickly drove around town first looking for Rachael and Tobias who had also walked out from the lake but whom we hadn't seen all day.  We found them further along the road - it seems they took a different pass - and we were happy to be able to share the cost of the taxi.  So the seven of us squeezed in, but ten minutes on the driver stopped in the middle of nowhere and demanded 4000 som.  We refused, outraged at this sudden price hike, and made moves to leave the car.  They protested and we eventually agreed that we would pay 2000 som, which was actually the going price for a real taxi, and continued.  Instead of awkward silence, they were more than happy to continue a jovial conversation, seeming to forget that they had just tried to rip us off.  As a traveller we met later said, "well, would you prefer to be ripped off rudely or with a smile?".  As we neared Kochkor we were told to duck at regular intervals to avoid being seen by the militsia, or police. 

We found a homestay for the night at Kochkor and honed our Cyrillic menu reading skills that night at what appeared to be the only restaurant in town.  The next morning Rachael and Tobias departed for Bishkek, and we headed further around the northern side of lake Issy-Kul via Balakchy to Tamchy. Our first ride was in a black Mercedes owned by a young, well-dressed professional couple who favoured Italian pop. They were initially reluctant to put our backpacks in the boot. We found that this was because there was a live goat inside!

The second part of the journey was in a rowdy marshrutka, or minibus, where we caused quite a commotion just by being foreign: a drunk off duty policeman was competing with a friendly middle aged couple and an elderly gentleman in shouting questions at us in Russian and Kyrgyz and demonstrating their knowledge of Australia. We had a series of photos taken of us on someone's phone. A marshrutka will leave when all seats are full and will then continue to pick up passengers.

Beach essentials: camel and blow up castle

Tamchy has a beach on the shores of Issyk-Kul and is a popular holiday spot.  The lake side was crammed with sunburnt Russians and Kyrgyz drinking vodka and eating smoked fish and watermelon, and the atmosphere was one of a family fun fair.  It was bizarre to be at a sunny beach when you could see snow covered mountains on the opposite shore.  Happily, we found an outdoor cafe serving borsch (Russian beetroot soup) and plov (pilaf) that was also screening obscure 80s glam pop music videos.

Just what every playground needs - a 6m ladder. This Soviet style
playground also had parallel bars, uneven bars and a balance beam 
Smoked fish for sale outside a beach yurt

This zebra-donkey was painted

Dusk at Tamchy

The next day we left for Cholpon-Ata, the largest town on the lake, and home to the president's summer house and cultural museum.  Cholpon-Ata is popular with Russians and Kazakhs, being close to the border with Kazakhstan.  We were disappointed to hear Russian being spoken almost universally rather than Kyrgyz, so we had to do some quick phrasebook revision.  The cultural museum is a strange, slightly ostentatious place where overseas dignitaries are hosted.  We received a personalised tour in English.  Some of the artwork and sculpture was impressive.

Famous Kyrgyz ballet dancer, Bibisara Beishenalieva

This hall and pool can be hired out for parties

Traditional Kyrgyz felt rug

Monday, 12 July 2010

Naryn to Kyzart via Lake Song Kul

After stocking up on fresh bread and raspberries from the market we bargained with a some taxi drivers for a lift to the town of Kurtka where we would meet out guide and horses.  The fare was reasonable, but the cranky old driver made it clear there would be no more photo stops after the gaudy mosque (below), and at Kurtka he dropped us in the middle of town instead of helping us find our guide. 

A gaudy mosque

At Kurtka the horses were loaded up for the nine hour journey that started on grassy plains then headed up a pleasant, pine tree covered valley that really did look like Switzerland.  Only stallions are used for riding in Kyrgyzstan; this is because the mares are used for milking.  So most of the the horses were quite feisty.  Luisa's horse was a 2km racing horse that could not be slowed down - after a while this became tiring so she swapped with Roger and got a slow rickety horse that needed whipping to move at all, and would try to roll onto its back during river crossings.  At lunch, we noticed that one of our hard boiled eggs was part way to becoming a chicken! 
 Grassy plains

Roger reins in the racehorse 

From the valley we turned of to a steep, rocky pass.  It took hours, but eventually in the late afternoon we passed the tree line and crossed the pass to a gently sloping alpine valley with views of Lake Song Kul.
Tobias at the beginning of the pass

Rocky section
Hey Roger, what's on the other side?

 Grassy hills - a relief after all the rocks

Tobias and Roger heading down to Lake Song Kul 

Late afternoon horse shadow


We reached the yurt as the sun was setting, at around 8.30pm, in time for a dinner of mutton noodles at our host family's yurt.  Kyrgyz tend to stay up late and sleep in, even when they are in the jailoo, much to the frustration of many travellers.
 Our guides, packhorse and dog

In the morning we watched milk being separated and tried some kurut, dried sour curds.  We rode for a few hours to the lakeside on a wide grassy plain with a spectacular backdrop.  Rachael and Tobias decided to do some more riding while we headed clockwise around the lake on foot.

Separating the milk


There are evenly spaced yurts around the perimeter of the lake surrounded by grazing sheep, cattle and horses.  Every yurt seems to have a pair of binoculars, essential for spotting visitors as they approach for afar.  The dogs would bark, kids would rush out to stare, and sometimes we were invited in for chai (tea) and kymys.  One girl approached us with a crowd of siblings eager to practice her English.  As it started to hail we accepted a yurt invitation for afternoon tea where we were fed chai, kymys and fried, salted lake fish and we shared the halva we were carrying.  

 Practising English and Kyrgyz
 Boys and their dog

 Afternoon tea stop

That afternoon took us through a tricky swampy section without any yurts or fresh water, so we kept walking until we spotted some yurts on the southwestern corner of the lake just below the pass out to Kyzart that we would take.  It was difficult to judge distances in the expanse of grassy plains - we guessed two hours walk away and that was fairly accurate.  There we found a good spot for the tent with views of the lake and snow capped mountains, a clear stream and some locals drinking vodka outside the designated Community Based Tourism (CBT) yurt where we could have dinner.  The only downside, as Roger discovered, was the risk of being trampled by a wayward cow if you took a nap out in the open.  Because there is no firewood, children collect dung which is dried and compressed for burning.  At night they showed us how they put their chickens to bed in a hole dug into the side of the embankment and covered with a plank of wood.  We heard stories of wolves that would come at night and occasionally kill a horse! 

View from our campsite

 Campsite at dusk
The next morning we borrowed some horses and explored the northwestern shore of the lake, an area of rocky headlands and calm bays, some with beaches.  We took the narrow lakeside horse track, and at one point came across a herd of sheep blocking our way that wouldn't budge.

 Horse cam

Out of the way, sheep!

That night we were joined at the yurt by Rachael and Tobias, Tony, a New Zealander who had been travelling for two years, and another Swiss couple who arrived by horseback.  The local kids wanted a game of soccer, made trickier by the need to avoid the pats of fresh cow dung.  At 3000m, everyone except the kids was struggling for breath after about 15 minutes.


The next day our plan was to walk from the lake to the town of Kyzart, over a relatively straightforward, but steep, pass that would have been around 3500m high.  On the way we were surprised to find another yurt settlement upstream to ours, complete with a little girl peeing into the stream.  The pass itself was grassy but with some patches of snow still.  Someone told us it would take three hours but it ended up taking six (perhaps our Kyrgyz language needs more work), with a long descent into Kyzart and a river crossing at the end.  

Heading up towards the pass

 Getting closer - the view down to Kyzart
 A woodpecker!

 Tombs on the outskirts of Kyzart