After getting lost yesterday at Jeti Oguz, we took extra precautions this time. I had a second, more detailed trail map, and I also loaded the map into my phone. At the insistence of the owner of the guesthouse that we are staying at, we didn’t catch a taxi to the trailhead (200s – $4), but instead we caught public transport, which included a minibus to the centre of town (7s – $0.15) and then another minibus out to the trailhead at Ak-suu (20s – $0.40). The biggest problem with the public transport is that they use Mercedes mini buses, which has seating for about 14, and then standing room for another 10. The people here are really good about giving up their seat for the elderly, or parents (or even tired looking tourists like Risa). I always end up standing up. And, when I stand up, I can’t see a thing. I have next to no idea where we are at any moment, so trying to work out where we need to get off would be impossible if I wasn’t tracking it via the GPS in my phone. It was a quick navigation through the markets to the 350 bus to the Ak-Suu trailhead. These mini buses wait until they are full, and then they depart. We arrived when the bus was essentially empty, except for the driver who was hawking seats on his bus (there were several other 350 buses also waiting) and a girl who spoke English. She confirmed with us (several times, because I didn’t want to make a mistake) that we were on the right bus. Amazingly, the bus filled up within a few minutes of us sitting down and we were on our way, picking up extra passengers as we went along. The payment system is bizarre – money is sent down to the driver whilst in motion, after the passenger has boarded (and the change being sent back the same way, but in reverse). People have to push and squeeze to get to the front of the bus when they want to leave, but it’s all done so politely without any resentment or frustration. Kyrgyz people are incredibly nice people, possibly more so than Japanese (just not when it comes to customer service).
The bus stopped by a dirt road, and the incredibly soviet looking Dolph Lundgren lookalike driver pointed up the road and said ‘Altyn Arashan’. We made our way out the bus, and up the road. My phone confirmed that we were indeed at the trailhead.
It is a fairly long, but fairly easy hike. 18km with an elevation gain of only 700m (1800m – 2500m). The trail started out as a reasonable dirt road that passed through a tiny town, before eventually joining a river – which it essentially follows for the rest of the way. The road degraded fairly quickly, and it was easy to see why it was recommended only for serious 4WD vehicles (though, I did see one Subaru Forester manage to make it all the way).
The initial section of the hike was quite boring, to be blunt. Maybe it was just because this was the third day that we’d gone for a walk along a beautiful alpine river, up a gentle valley surrounded by tall pine trees. For the most part, there was no great alpine view, which is what made the hike yesterday at Jeti Oguz so enjoyable. We stopped when necessary (usually every 30 minutes) for a quick 5-minute drink break and to snack on some stringy salty smoked cheese – which I think is incredible and needs to exist in Australia.
The skies were sunny when we woke up, but by the time we’d started the trek they were getting quite dark. It started raining gently a few times, but not enough to require a rain cover for my bag. But, when we first heard the thunder echo down the valley, it made us double think our plans… after all, it wasn’t too late to turn around – better that then risk being struck by lightning. Mildly concerned, we continued onwards, a little scared with each strike of lightning off in the distance – the same direction that we were headed.
Just after we stopped for lunch, a little past the half-way mark, Risa had hit a wall and had run out of energy/humour/motivation. We decided to try and catch a lift with the next car that comes along, and for the longest time, we saw no cars. We tried with one giant Soviet truck, but even though they stopped for us, they said no to us (but probably because they were in a logging truck and were headed in a different direction. A km or two after lunch (and after a nice steep climb) we heard a 4WD approaching, so we stopped and waiting for it to reach us – luckily she was able to hitch a ride with them. I was tempted to join her, but it felt like cheating (plus the car was already quite full). We split up and I continued the rest of the way solo and on foot.
About 30-minutes after we separated the valley finally opened up enough to get a view of the beautiful alpine mountains that we were walking towards – I finally pulled my camera from the bag. It was enough to get me to pick up my pace and re-energise my tired legs. Plus, I now had music for company (instead of Risa).
There was one last steep section, gaining nearly 200m in a kilometre, but from the top I could see a few small houses down by the river and hoped that I was looking down at my destination – Altyn Arashan.
As I walked in to town, a wonderfully moustachioed man told me that my Japanese girlfriend was inside – turned out it was only Risa. So, while I had been charging up the trail on foot, Risa had been inside this wonderful enclosed patio drinking tea and playing games on her phone… Viktor invited me to inspect his guest house, which was more than adequate for our overnight stay. It was to be 800s ($16) each for dinner, breakfast, a hot spring bath and a bed – pretty good value if you ask me!
After I had relaxed a little over a couple of cups of tea (with jam as a sweetener, as is common practise here and in Russia), we headed to have a bath in one of the many hot springs that this area is famous for. We were escorted over to the small shed, but when we arrived there were still people using it, so we waited outside for a while. While we were waiting, we noticed that the group that picked up Risa were nearby having a picnic. They invited us to join them… several shots of vodka and big serves of sashlyk (meat on a skewer) later, the bath was ready for us.
The bath house was quite basic, consisting of a large and deep bath, and very little else. To wash you use the small buckets to draw water from the bath and wash yourself outside of the bath, entering once you are clean – just like hot springs in Japan. It was a great temperature, too. My guess would be about 42-44˚C, right in the comfort range of it being warm enough that it is relaxing, but not too hot that you begin to sweat, cook and dehydrate. It was only a quick bath so that we could go back and hang out with our newfound Kyrgyzstani friends.
It was the second time in as many days that we’d been invited to join people for food and drinks, and we had such a good time. One of the guys is an architect in Bishkek and actually designed the Russian embassy in Canberra – if only I knew about that before we visited last. They were only up for a daytrip, so eventually they had to leave before it got dark. Fortunately they ran out of vodka before Risa and I got too drunk!
The skies were clouding over, and the temperature was starting to drop. We had another quick bath before returning to the guesthouse. As we were walking back, past the sheep that were also returning home, it started to rain. The thunder and lightning also started again, so we picked up our pace and started to jog the rest of the way. We spared a thought for the two guys we saw at the guesthouse who were headed further up in to the mountains to camp the night.
Even though we’d spent all afternoon eating with our Kyrgyzstani friends, we had already organised for dinner at the guesthouse. There were also two Swiss girls staying at the same place, so the four of us sat down to an absolute feast.
After dinner, a young Kyrgyz guy came and said hello. He was staying in a tiny house next door and invited us for a sauna. The Swiss girls declined, but Risa and I took him up on his offer – never knock back an opportunity when travelling we say! I was a little hesitant after getting sick the last time I had a sauna (at the camp in Ulaanbaatar). We walked to the little building in the dark. It was still raining lightly, and it was now quite cold. I didn’t bother with a jumper or anything warm in order to make it easier to sauna.
Unlike the sauna ger in Mongolia, this little building was red hot from the moment we opened the door. We stripped down to our underwear (or bikini in Risa’s case) and almost instantly began to sweat. Another Kyrgyzstani boy joined us making for a very tight squeeze. The heat was intense. Our sauna host offered to give me a thrashing with some branches that had been soaking in some hot water by the fire. Again, how could I say no (although Risa did)? I lay down on the short wooden bench and prepared for my whipping. He first put the leafy branches onto the hot rocks, steaming them up. He waved that steam over my body, and the heat was intense. It felt like I walked too close to a large fire. Then he started thrashing the soles of my feet and the pain was intense. He continued to (gently) thrash the branches up the rest of my body, putting the branches back into the water and hot rocks from time to time. Then he got me to roll over and repeated on the front of my body.
I was covered in sweat and bits of broken leaves, but in a way, I did feel pretty good. He allowed us to sit outside for two-minutes (but no more) to let us have a chance to cool down. The heat was too much for Risa, so she had a quick wash and left. Sadly, when the boys were pouring cold water over themselves outside the sauna, they managed to soak all of our shoes, too. The thought of walking back down tomorrow in wet shoes was less than appealing – fortunately there was a fire burning in our guesthouse, and Viktor was able to dry them out overnight for us. It was a fun experience, and certainly not one we’d expected to happen.
We went to bed and hung our wet clothes to dry. We both slept an incredible deep sleep, warm and comfortable in our beds.
Morning came bright and early. The rain had stopped, but was very cloudy outside, and still very cold. We had considered a horse ride further up the valley towards the beautiful Ala-kul, but with the weather being the way it was, it seemed like a waste of time and money, so we prepared to walk back down to Karakol.
But not before another dip in the hot springs. This time we visited two of the natural (free) hot springs a little further down the river. The first one was really difficult to see, since there was a semi-enclosed roof made out of rocks hiding the bath. It looked good, but the other one sounded a little more exciting – a cave bath.
We followed the trail for another 100-200m, and sure enough we found the bath high up in a cave (I say high, but it was probably only 5-10m above the river). Finding it was the easy part, climbing the slippery rocks to get to it was far more difficult. Risa went first and found that the water wasn’t actually that warm, so she quickly got out. It was single digit degrees outside, so not the kind of weather you want to be walking around in wet and without clothes.
We returned to the first bath, and this time I was the guinea pig. The waters were warm, but not overly so. It was basically just warm enough to sit in without getting cold, but not warm enough to actually feel warm. Looking up at the less-than-professional concrete/rock roof above us gave me claustrophobic thoughts of it caving in and entombing us. Luckily we survived.
As the clouds lifted a little, we could see that there had actually been a considerable amount of fresh snow overnight, probably only 300m above us. Now I was really feeling sorry for those guys we saw yesterday – not the kind of weather I’d want to be camping in. Even though we’d just bathed in a hot spring, walking back down the mountain was cold.
There were quite a few tour groups heading up in big rugged off-road vehicles. I was a little jealous of their comfort (though, we did have the option of paying for a vehicle transfer, I was just being cheap, like always). The roads really did necessitate the use of a tough 4WD. I like to think that our Delica could have made the journey, but the truth is that it would probably have only done so if someone experienced was driving her.
I have also fallen in love with these awesome old Russian vans. We first saw them in Mongolia, and they reminded me of a tough, go-anywhere Kombi van. The simplicity is awesome – if only I needed a tough and simple 4WD van…
The rest of the way down was long and somewhat boring. I always hate returning from a hike, there is none of the motivation that is there on the way up. The most interesting thing was us coming across a group of older Kyrgyz men on horses who were picking wild vegetables. He threw one at Risa and yelled ‘Ushi-Kuun’ – so, we guessed that this is what was called? Anyway, he showed us to peel the outer skin off and eat the stem. The taste reminded me of small unripe apples… I don’t see it taking the world by storm.
It took nearly four-hours to walk the 18km back down to the trailhead. By that time we were well and truly worn out. It was another 30-minute wait for the 350 minibus to take us back to Karakol, which felt like hours. There were some other locals waiting for the bus. One man didn’t give up talking to us, even though we weren’t able to understand anything he was saying to us… Oh, and the worst part? When the bus finally came, I didn’t get a seat. I had to stand in a bus that wasn’t tall enough for me to stand in – I had to crouch/hunch for another 30-minutes until we could get off in Karakol.