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!

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