Despite my intention of getting out into the mountains when I separated at Kyzart to head for Karakol, I didn’t actually have any plan beyond a loose thought and idea. I knew of this route from a friend who had done the same, and read one or two blogs about it, but aside from that I had no information. But I did know that I had to get from Balykchy to Karakol, up to Ala-Kul Lake and down again to Karakol, and to Bishkek in the span of three days as I was due to meet my friends again in the capital. I had consciously written off the idea and had resolved to come back in the future to accomplish it, and yet I was still heading for Karakol. In my head I thought I might relax in a mountain town a few days, chilling in coffee shops and writing as I tend to do. But I couldn’t convince myself I was satisfied with that idea.
So when I awoke in Balykchy, I decided it had to be done. I checked out of my hostel, went straight to the bus station, and got a ticket to the other end of Issyk-Kul to Karakol. Four hours later, I got off the bus and went to the hostel I reserved on the way to drop off my stuff. Even at this point, I was only 70% sure that I was going. Then I went across the street to a tourist info office and was asked if I needed a tent to rent. It was in that moment that I was 100% decided.
“Yeah, I’m going to Ala-Kul.”
It was about 7:00 PM at the time. Still, I got my tent and sleeping bag (I chose to forgo the sleeping pad in the name of saving money and space, which was a mistake), and went back to my hostel to pack. Everything that wasn’t necessary to take — which was anything that wasn’t a single shirt, a single pair of pants, and my hiking sandals — got shoved into a locker in the hostel. I went out and bought the essentials as well: three thick flatbreads (the ones that comprised 90% of my meals in Kyrgyzstan), two snickers, and one more water bottle refilled with vodka. I was going to depart in the morning, go all the way up to the lake and camp, then come back the next morning. Close to 38 miles in distance and 2000m elevation gain in two days.
With everything packed and ready, I got in bed to sleep for the next day.
I woke early. I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to find a ride to the trail head that was about 10 miles outside the town. I went to the tourist office to have them write the name of my destination in Russian so a taxi driver could find it, and then I went to the taxis. One looked at it and nodded that he knew it, but it quickly became obvious he had no idea. After a 45-minute loop through Karakol, he admitted he was lost. I showed him the route on the map and tried to direct him, but he couldn’t seem to understand my directions, even when I converted my phone to Russian. I gave up and told him to take me back, and went to the tourist office once again to hire a jeep out.
By the time I reached the trail head, it was 11:00 AM. I had woken at 7. Still, I set off down the trail through the valley, happy to be in the mountains for a change.
The first half of the Ala-Kul trail is just a dirt road. Sometimes cars drive up it, but not very often. Mostly it’s guys on horseback moving their flocks around. For a couple hours, the trail moved through a narrow valley. There was a large river on one side and snowy peaks further down, but the trail itself just steadily rose in elevation with a cold wind blowing down off the mountains. Much of it was quite muddy or just underwater, which wasn’t as much of a problem since I was wearing sandals. But a couple wades through frigid mountain water was enough for me.
About two hours in, the valley widened and the trail came out to a huge expanse of green grass with a river running through it, mountains rising sharply on either side. Horses grazed in the grass by the river. I dropped my bag and tore off half of one of my pieces of bread. It was as good a place as any to stop for lunch.
I sat for 30 minutes or so, but light rain began so I decided to keep moving. The trail followed along the river for another 45 minutes before steepening as it climbed the hill beside a large waterfall. Above it was the place I had been told to look for on my map: a small bridge that crosses the river and leads up the mountain. Thankfully there was also a sign to confirm my location.
As soon as I crossed the bridge, the trail went from a road to barely more than a footpath, winding between trees and across mossy boulders. It rose sharply in elevation as well. For the first 20 minutes it was just a scramble, but for the next three hours I was on a 45 degree angle slope heading straight up.
For the most part, I was surrounded by huge evergreens. The peaks around me would be visible between the trees, but it was heavily forested for most of the way. At one point I ran into a band of horses that blocked my path, and had to take a 30 minute detour through the forest to get around them.
Very little of the trail was flat, and by the end of the ascent I was exhausted. It took three hours to cover two miles due to the elevation gain. But the work wasn’t quite finished when I reached the top. The next 30 minutes were spent finding my way through a massive rockfall, connecting the dots between spray-painted X’s on large boulders in a zigzagging line across the field. With my backpack and sandals, it was not a fun experience.
But the moment I made it through, I was in a big alpine meadow. This was the place to set up my tent. It took only 7 miles and a few hours, but I was exhausted when I arrived. I set to work setting up my tent right away so I could relax, but the ground was far too wet. Instead I spent the next several hours trying to hand-dry the floor of my tent while also trying to figure out a way to sleep without drenching my sleeping bag. This is when a sleeping pad would have come in handy. But I didn’t have one, and had to tolerate another cold, wet night in Kyrgyzstan.
I waited outside my tent for the sun to go down. It was warmer to sit outside than in, and I was waiting on the possibility of stars. But the clouds remained, and once it became too cold to tolerate in my basically bare feet, I decided to head to sleep.
My plan was to wake with the sun and head up another 200 meters to Ala-Kul Lake. I knew it was frozen and that the pass beyond the lake was under a meter of snow, but I wanted to try anyway. But when I unzipped the door of my tent, I heard the swiping sound of snow sliding off the roof. I stuck my head out and sure enough, snow surrounded it. I sat down in my tent again and debated if I really wanted to hike through snow to get up to the lake, and ultimately decided I didn’t. Instead I sat in my tent a little longer while the snow melted, then got out to pack it up, mostly drenched.
Once everything was back in place, I began the long, arduous descent back down to the valley floor. On the wet trail, footing was scarce. In the rockfall, I got lost and had to find my own way through. And every step wore into my feet again and again. My sandals — hiking sandals though they were — were not meant for this climate. By the end of the day, my feet were cracked and bleeding.
Still, once I made it down the valley it was smooth sailing to the end. I stopped to fill my water bottle in the river by the bridge and had some more of my bread, and my last snickers. I let another 15 minutes pass and then got back on the trail, trying to set a more ambitious pace as I was planning on hiking the full 17 miles back to Karakol. The road wound on just as it had before, but the view of the first valley was much better from above.
It didn’t take long to make it back to the trail head. I passed some other hikers on the way, each curious to know how much time they had until they would reach the lake. Since I never ended up reaching the lake, I could only give estimates. But I’m alright with that. I usually have issues when backpacking where I get too focused on the destination and forget to enjoy the journey of it. Scrapping the destination altogether was liberating in a way.
I continued past the trail head and down the access road, past the national park entrance and beyond. Another 20 minutes past that, I had to take refuge under a bus stand as a hailstorm passed by. Instead of waiting and waiting, I decided to catch the next bus into Karakol to skip the last couple miles and get ahead of the storm.
Once back in Karakol, I went to my hostel and re-packed my bag, returned my tent to the office whose staff was upset that the tent got wet (because tents never get wet in the mountains), got a cup of coffee from a local cafe, then booked it to the bus station to get a ride to Bishkek, some five hours away. By midnight, I was at my hostel in Bishkek and on my final stop in Kyrgyzstan.