It all started with a Soviet-era Russian army truck and a change of plans. We were standing outside our hotel in Karakol, at the end of the second-largest saline lake in the world, Issyk Kul. The rumbling from the exhaust vibrated down the street, the noise arriving well before the truck did. Colossal, camouflaged, designed to charge across the plains of Siberia with zero qualms; it was a sight to behold. This Russian truck was to be our transport into Altyn Arashan, a hot spring development picturesquely situated in a valley, high up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
Our Dragoman adventure had scheduled us in for a few nights of wild camping in Jeti-Oghuz Nature Reserve, but the end of the tourist season and the approaching winter had changed our plans to now spend some time in Altyn Arashan Valley. A popular way to reach this glorious part of the country is to trek from outside of Karakol. But with winter settling in, and an easier option available, 15 of us squeezed into the dusty cab, and we drove off towards the wilderness. The roads were notoriously bad and our Dragoman truck would be unable to make the drive itself. An hour into the journey it became apparent why. With the rains falling hard the route into Altyn Arashan was a quagmire of muddy tracks and exposed rocks. For our driver and his ex-army 4×4 truck however it proved to be no issue. Two hours after our departure we peaked over a valley and saw the first views of the “Golden Spa”.
Even in the drizzle the location was stunning. A river flowed through the valley with craggy mountains on all sides. The snow line was only a few hundred metres above us, coating the summits in dense blankets of white. Clouds danced along the ridges. The grass was green, and a slight smell of sulfur mixed with the mountain air, a result of the natural hot springs found in the area. It truly was paradise.
We checked in, dropped our bags off into the basic dorm-style accommodation and immediately began exploring the surroundings. The cool weather meant we didn’t get too far however, and our group quickly found ourselves in one of the hot springs, with beer in hand. These were man-made concrete baths in timber sheds, fed by the steaming natural springs below. It was a shame to not have them out in the open, but being protected from the relentless wind proved to be a welcome respite. Suitably soaked, we continued our drinking session over dinner and music in the dining room.
The morning came rough after a late night on the vodka and beer, but we were amazed to see the sun beaming brightly through a pale blue sky. We wolfed down breakfast and immediately set off for the mountains around us.
Most of our group opted to climb altitude towards some small lakes, while a few others followed the river upstream to Ala Kul, a larger lake hidden high in the alpine. The evening had brought about heavy snow only a few hundred metres above us meaning, Ala Kul was off-limits without snow shoes or crampons. A true shame, but all was not lost.
For us the hiking was mellow, with a steady gain in elevation through fragrant pine trees and lush grass. The trail was muddy but not treacherous. Every few moments we stopped to snap photos and soak up the serene landscape. The temperature was still only just above freezing, but the sun was becoming stronger as the day went on. Another river gently tumbled down the gorge, which only added to the sublime beauty.
The higher we got the more spread out the valley became. Soon the pine forest gave way to low-lying shrubs and trees, and we narrowed in on the alpine region. The temperatures dropped and piles of snow clung to rocks and in the shadows. We had no idea where the lakes were, but we trekked on. Intermittent trail markers kept us confident that we were at least on the right path.
At around 2900m the piles of ice turned into a complete carpet. Well and truly above the snowline, we were surrounded by a sensational crisp whiteness. The snow got deeper and the mountains became more defined. To us there is nothing more beautiful than a scene covered in snow. We were in heaven.
Alesha and I aimed our sights towards a natural bowl and assumed that that would be the home of one of these fabled lakes. Clouds rolled in and out, but the temperature kept rising. We passed over the occasional animal track, including some that we excitedly assumed to be a snow leopard. The rare feline is found in these mountains, and I followed the tracks for a few hundred metres hoping to spot the elusive species. Of course I was not so lucky.
Eventually we came across a flat meadow covered in a thick layer of snow, and we thought we had found the body of water. However it became clear that if this was the place, it was now frozen over. We picked a rock to rest on and snacked on fruit and sandwiches.
The clouds dispersed and we were left with only blue skies. An hour had passed since we rested on the rocks and we decided it was time to head back. To our astonishment most of the snow had melted already, leaving glistening pastures amongst the peaks. Alesha was ecstatic, snapping hundreds of photos in the magnificent scene.
Descending was quick and we managed to arrive back at camp just before the sun dipped behind the mountains for the evening. Tired but happy, we leapt into the hot springs to soothe our muscles before dinner. With all of the alcohol gone, and everyone exhausted from the day’s activities, it was a much-needed sober night.
When we awoke the rain had settled in again, and the terrain was properly saturated. Luck had been on our side the day before. Breakfast was rice porridge and piping hot tea, and we packed our belongings into the army truck, ready to head back to Karakol. Waving goodbye to the owner of the hot spring development, we bounced back towards Issyk Kul.
The road was precarious, but nothing the truck couldn’t handle. Once we got lower in elevation we jumped out to walk part of the way in the captivating gorge. Everything about Altyn Arashan was truly mesmerising.
Time flew by and less than two hours later we were standing at the Karakol bazaar. The Russian army jeep left us to go on its next adventure, and we were reunited with the Dragoman truck. Finally after our third time to Kyrgyzstan, we had got to experience some of its mountainous beauty. Looking back at the photos it is clear that Altyn Arashan was one of the most beautiful places we had visited in months. And even though we had caught it at the end of the season, the secret valleys deep in the mountains definitely did not disappoint.
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