Visiting Altyn Arashan – Trekking, Hot Springs and Snow Leopards

Last updated on: 22 Comments

A detailed experience of our visit to Altyn Arashan in Kyrgyzstan.

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”.

READ MORE: Here’s our latest travel guide for Kyrgyzstan!
Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
The muddy trail to Altyn Arashan.
Russian Truck Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
The awesome ex-army Russian truck that took us to Altyn Arashan.

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 sulphur mixed with the mountain air, a result of the natural hot springs found in the area. It truly was paradise.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
Our first glimpse of the sensational valley we would be staying in.

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.

Camp Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
The truck parked up at our accommodation.

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
Starting our trek to the smaller lakes of Altyn Arashan.

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

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.

Snow Leopard Track Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
Snow leopard tracks?

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
Of course we had to build a snowman too…

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
The road back out of Altyn Arashan.

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.

Hiking Altyn Arashan Valley Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan

 

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Hiking in Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

About the author

Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award winning writers and photographers behind this blog, and we have been travelling the world together since 2008. Adventure travel is our passion, and through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. Mackenzie

    Thanks for sharing the beautiful photos and your experience. Do you guys travel with sleeping bags? I need to buy a new one, and I’m wondering if I should plan on taking it backpacking/traveling with me and therefore be more considerate about size it’ll take up in the pack. I ask because I’ll be in Bishkek for 2 months and definitely want to do some trekking. How often do you find it necessary to have your own sleeping bag?

    Majeed

    great Trip, I’m a Landscape photographer and I’m thinking to go there in January.

    I couldn’t find any picture during winter season in internet, Do you have any?

    Norman

    I recently returned from a trip to Kyrgyzstan and seeing the snow leopards was so high on my list. Wanted to visit the conservation station..but wll..it just wouldn’t fit into my itinerary, however much i tried. Saw eagles (ofc), camels, marmots and everything else..just not the much too elusive snow leopards. The day we wanted to go trecking high up in the mountains to see them it was raining very very heavily so we had to cancel *sigh*

    but, I learned that kyrgyzstan is beautiful anyway. Didn’T see the cats, but saw beautiful landscape! that’S gotta count for something 🙂

    Hali

    Another place I HAVE to go to.. hoping in a couple of years as sad as that is away, but do have lots of trips planned and booked already for before then lol. These photos are truly stunning and I’m sure do no justice to the actual sights!

    Jane M

    Kudos to you guys for inspiring we travellers to want to go to places like Kyrgyzstan. Also for inspiring us to learn how to SPELL places like Kyrgyzstan. How do they fit so many consonants into one word.

    Anyway, there is nothing like hiking in the snow, especially when it’s just warm enough to start melting. The sound of the world completely changes with a blanket of snow over it and I imagine where you were you must have felt like the only people on earth.

    Breathtaking photos as usual!

    J

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Cheers Jane! We love being in the mountains, especially when there is snow around. You’re right – the world does completely change with a blanket of snow. Thanks for the support too over the last 18 months! You honestly rock! 😀

    Stephen

    Lovely photos guys, shame you didn’t find those snow leopards!

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      We’ll be back to try and find them 😉

        Stephen

        Sweet business! Yell at me if you want to grab a beer in Bishkek.

          Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

          Definitely will when we get back there mate!

    Ben

    Hey! I’m due to be in south east aisa in 1 month, after i complete my 1 year europe travel!
    I plan on spending 3-4 months traveling and wanted to do most via motorbike before returning to Australia. You have both put in so much work and I’ve gained so much knowledge reading your articles very impressed!
    I had a question with visas, how did you go obtaining your visas? There only valid for 15 days on entry in Vietnam, laos and cambodia?
    Did you apply for a longer term visa?
    If anyone could give me some information it would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you so much absolutely inspired!
    Regards,
    Ben

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Hey Ben! Stoked to hear you are finding some good info on our blog.

      As for visas, Laos and Cambodia you can get 30 day visas on the border. We applied for a 90 day Vietnam visa in Cambodia, and extended it by another 90 days in Hanoi. Not sure if you can still do this or not.

      Good luck on the adventure mate!

    Jazzy

    I love reading about your adventures (love your pictures too 🙂 ) especially since they don’t follow the typical gringo trail! As Always thanks for sharing !

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Cheers Jazzy! We much prefer trying to get off-the-beaten-track, that’s for sure! 😀

    Jane

    Sitting here in the hills outside Melbourne and reading your latest news is wonderful. Your writing is the best of the best and it always feels like we have joined you in some tiny way. Photos stunning, as always.

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Thank you so much for the kind words Jane. Really appreciate it. Glad you’re liking our photos and writing. Will try to keep up the quality 😀

    Manas

    great job tavellers!! Have you been to Uzgen city in Kyrgyzstan :: İ live in Uzgen..
    İ just heard about this places but never been in my 23 years

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      We didn’t make it unfortunately. Will try to get back to Kyrgyzstan in the future though!

    Vividscapes

    Fantastic adventure and love the photos, got to know about dragoman from one of your earlier posts and we too plan to do a trip sometime next year.

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Thanks guys! We highly recommend Dragoman! Definitely look them up, and tell them that Lesh and Jazza from NOMADasaurus sent you 😀

    Katie Featherstone

    What a beautiful adventure you’re having. I think I could get lost in that valley forever. Thank-you for the photos- I’m mentally escaping the English drizzle!

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Thanks Katie! We loved every minute of Kyrgyzstan! Such a beautiful country 🙂

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