This post is a continuation of a previous post. If you haven't, you should start reading from Part 1! Click here.
The 4th and final part of this blog series will cover 2 main parts of our trip - a 2D1N hike up to Altyn Arashan, and a visit to the Snow Leopard Rehabilitation Centre (NABU) in Ananyevo.
Part 4 will cover the bolded section:
Bishkek (1 day)
Kochkor / Song-Kol (3 days)
Bokonbaevo (2 days)
Cholpon-Ata / World Nomad Games (3 days)
Karakol / Altyn Arashan (2 days)
Ananyevo / Cholpon-Ata (1 day)
Bishkek (1 day)
DAYS 10-11: KARAKOL - ALTYN ARASHAN
We sat on the almost-empty marshrutka at the bus interchange of Cholpon-Ata for a full hour, all the while wondering what was the 'tipping' number of passengers before the driver would decide to go ahead with the journey. When the van was half-filled, the engine ignited and off we went! This 2h ride from Cholpon-Ata to the westside town of Karakol cost 150 soms (~2 USD) per person.
Located at the crossroads of Central Asia, the city of Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan is a fascinating gateway to the region's diverse history, cuisine, and nature. Many unique cultures contribute to the town's culinary history and cultural heritage: Kyrgyz, Tatar, Russian, Dungan, Uighur, Kalmyk, Uzbek, and more. And with both the Tian Shan Mountains and Lake Issyk-Kul nearby, you'll discover limitless outdoor adventure opportunities, too. Whether you're visiting for the trekking, the food, or just pure relaxation, you'll find it here. (Source: Destination Karakol)
Karakol is an amazing city on its own - and to top it off, it has a surprisingly well-managed website by the local tourism promotion agency. No other attraction in Kyrgyzstan has so much information readily available online!! So I will not touch on the town of Karakol too much. Please visit the link above if you are keen to find out more :)
We arrived at nighttime, and checked in to Evergreen Guesthouse, which is owned by a very nice Russian lady by the name of Katya. It was one of the most comfortable nights we had in the entire trip, and it had a bit of a winter lodge vibe to it. The room cost us 2500 soms/night for 3 of us, but that was after some negotiation with the owner.
Fast forward to the next morning...
Altyn Arashan is BEAUTIFUL.
We woke up in our cosy guesthouse, feeling really well-rested. Took a marshrutka to Ak Suu (Ак Суу) and we alighted at a fork road, which was the start of our arduous 7h journey hike up to Altyn Arashan, the Golden Spa! Due to time constraint, we would not have time to visit the Ala Kol, as that would take an additional 7h trek.
This was the part where we received so much kindness from the local people! We were only 10 minutes into the hike when these two drivers stopped next to us and offered to drive us up. If we took a paid vehicle, it would have cost us 4000 soms (~58 USD). These two drivers expected nothing in return from us. Рахмат кубар, Аргын!
After a 1.5h bumpy ride (and aching butt because I flew off my seat multiple times), we were greeted with this view of Altyn Arashan. It is a quiet settlement with a few clusters of guesthouses. We checked in to a guesthouse "Eco Yurt" (450 soms per night per person) which had many yurts available for rent but we chose to stay in the main heated wooden building this time round. Dropping some heavy baggage, we attempted to continue the hike towards Ala Kol.
The guesthouse owner at Altyn Arashan tells us it takes 8 hours to do a roundtrip to Ala Kul. It was 12pm, so we thought we could make it back by 8pm. Hence we set off with a light backpack.
But at the edge of the Altyn Arashan settlement an old man told us it takes 10 hours to get there, and another older couple coming from the other way told us that they took 8 hours to get up and 5 hours to come back down. Seems like we misunderstood our guesthouse owner. We just continued trekking to see how far we can go. (Afternote: It would take 7h for one way journey to Ala Kol from Altyn Arashan! We grossly underestimated the amount of time that we needed.)
There were actual nomadic people living along the trail, shepherds etc. They didnt exactly like coming into contact with tourists like us. Some parts of the hike had no trail at all. We were walking on natural vegetation and hopping on rocks across streams.
It was a steep climb. By 1:30pm we decided to stop for lunch and then head back to the settlement. The view on the way back was even more beautiful in my opinion. The path was mostly downhill, flat, and generally relaxing to walk. I dipped my muddy shoes in the main stream to clean them. The water was freezing. But I learnt that once you tell yourself to embrace the cold, the discomfort goes away.
By 3:30pm, we were back at the guesthouse. Essentially, we only took a short 2h trek but the view was nothing short of splendid. If possible, do plan for at least a 3d trek so that you can visit the famous Ala Kol which we unfortunately missed!
We chilled by the front porch of the building. It has large glass panels that allowed us to look at the yurts outside from the comfort of the cushions and carpets. There was a hole in the wooden wall though, so wind managed to come in and made it quite cold. We were nicely wrapped up so it was bearable.
The next day... back to Karakol.
So we set off from the Eco Yurt guesthouse at 7:30am. Initially it was quite an uphill climb. I was in front leading the way, but after a while, the jeep track disappeared and we realised that we were off the path. Luckily Su downloaded Maps.me and we managed to navigate back to the path after another 30 mins. The rest of the path was easy to follow.
By mid afternoon, we were back in Karakol. It was time to try some famous local food -
DAY 12: ANANYEVO - SNOW LEOPARD REHABILITATION CENTRE (NABU)
On the final day of our stay, we had to visit the famous snow leopard conservatory in the country. At the small dusty town of Ananyevo, we were hosted by the family of Mr Urlan. Pictured below is Urlan and his lovely family (wife, grandson) who took us in for the night because there were no guesthouses that were available in the village of Ananyevo. Urlan works for NABU, the snow leopard rehabilitation centre in Kyrgyzstan.
NABU protects the last snow leopards in the country. In Kyrgyzstan, snow leopards used to roam the huge ranges of mountain, but there remains only ~250 of them based on recent estimates, down 80% in just a few years. Snow leopards have been hunted for primarily their beautiful furskin, and it doesn't help that it takes 16 dead snow leopards to make one full coat.
With the help of rangers, poachers have been arrested and their weapons confiscated. Five snow leopards have so far been rescued alive, three of them - Bagira, Alcu and Kunak - had severe injuries and could not be returned back into the wild. They now live in the protected natural enclosure owned by the NABU. (Source: wildcatsmagazine.nl)
The enclosure was a circuit, leading up above the hill and round back down. The ranger who brought us around, Асылбек, opened a small door of the wooden shelter at the bottom of hill. There he peeped through and gestured for us to look. We followed, and saw a snow leopard sleeping peacefully. It was dark and the snow leopard was not keen on coming towards us, so we only managed to catch a glimpse of its side view through the small door. It felt surreal to be in the presence of this majestic animal.
Normally, to gain access to the NABU compounds, tourists are required to get written permission from the Bishkek headquarters to receive a tour. However, we were lucky as we met Mr Urlan by the roadside (what are the chances!) while in the main town of Ananyevo, and thanks to his hospitality, we were able to visit the enclosure in such a short notice.
I would also like to highlight that Mr Urlan and his family hosted us for the night absolutely for free. They even provided us with dinner/breakfast and took time to bring us to NABU (we did not pay for anything there either). All 3 of us felt very imposing at that point in time, but I think this really shows how hospitable and welcoming the Kyrgyz people are. I hope I can return them the favour some day.
Day 1: Bishkek, spent the night at Airbnb guesthouse. 500 soms incl. breakfast.
Day 2: 6-hour marshrutka to Kochkor, 300 soms. Song Kol horseriding tour, spent the night in mountain yurt camp. 7200 soms for tour (all-in).*
Day 3: Song Kol horseriding tour, spent the night at the lake yurt camp.
Day 4: Song Kol horseriding tour, return to Kochkor, spent the night at guesthouse. 600 soms incl. breakfast.
Day 5: ~4-hour shared taxi rides to Balykchy, then to Bokonbaevo, 333 soms. Spent the night at the old couple's house. 600 soms incl. breakfast.
Day 6: Bokonbaevo, visited attractions via car, 1000 soms each. Additional 100 soms for entrance fee to Tuz Kol. Spent the night at the old couple's house, 600 soms incl. breakfast.
Day 7-9: Shared ride from Bokonbaevo to Cholpon-Ata, 300 soms. Apple hostel for 3 nights - US$60
Day 10: ~2-hour shared taxi ride to Karakol - 150 soms, Evergreen Guesthouse - 833 soms per person incl. breakfast.
Day 11: Free transport, which would have otherwise cost 58 USD. 450 soms for guesthouse stay, including dinner and breakfast.
Day 12: Marshrutka to Ananyevo, 150 soms. Mr Urlan and family hosted us for the night.
Day 13: 1 night stay in Cholpon-Ata, Apple Hostel, 1500 soms incl. breakfast.
Day 14: Marshrutka to Tashkent, 350 soms.
Total spent (excluding World Nomad Games, assuming 15 USD for each day of meals): 14,966 soms = 484.46 USD.
That is the end of my Kyrgyzstan | A 2-Week Journey Blog Series! Hope you had enjoyed it as much as I had writing about it. Feel free to drop me an email if you need further information on any part of our itinerary - I'd love to share them with you to the best of my ability.
Kyrgyzstan has truly touched me and is a beautiful country in all aspects - its magnificent scenery and delightful people are bound to captivate you and make you wish you could extend your stay here indefinitely, because that was what happened to me. If there is a chance to visit again, I would go back in a jiffy to explore the other areas which we missed - Jeti Oguz with its red cliff formations, the spectacular alpine national park of the Ala Archa mountain range, the ancient Silk Road's Burana Tower, and of course, Osh, the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan, I will be back someday!