If there is only one trek you can do in Kyrgyzstan, it has to be the trek to Alakul lake. Although this is also the most popular trek in the country, the views along the way are simply too amazing to skip. Alakul lake is an alpine lake 3,650m above sea level and the round-trip trek takes three days. While many may say that this trek is challenging, it is not impossible even if you are a beginner. Here is how you do it:
Start your trek in the city of Karakol. This is also the starting point for many other treks around the region. Stock up the night before and leave any unnecessary belongings in your accommodation. Sleep well, because you will have to leave at 7am in the morning.
Take the mashurtka (minibus) to the entrance of the national park, which is also the last stop. There is only one minibus that goes there, so it is impossible to get lost. Pay for your admission and your tent fee (if you are camping) and you are ready to go.
Hike to Alakul lake
The first part of the hike is pretty flat and easy. You will walk alongside a dirt road for four kilometres or so before crossing a broken bridge. Many people take a taxi straight to the bridge, but I recommend that you walk this section of the trail. It is easy and scenic too, with a beautiful river running alongside you and towering mountains in front.
Enjoy the views of the towering mountains and vast grasslands as you walk along the valley. The meandering streams nestled between snow-peaked mountains make for a great photo opportunity. There are many spots to rest at and slowly take in the magnificence of the landscapes, so go slowly!
The second part of the hike is a constant uphill trek until you arrive at Alakul lake. Before you embark on this section of the hike, there is a beautiful flat picnic area where you can have your lunch. Once you cross the bridge at the picnic area, you are officially in the uphill section of the hike. Pace yourselves well because it will be another five or six hours before you arrive at Alakul lake.
Most hikers stay at the campsite just before the last mountain pass to Alakul lake. If you do not have two hours, or the energy to make the final ascent to the lake, you should stay at this campsite. In addition, if you do not have your own camping equipment, there are yurts available at the campsite. However, I strongly recommend that you camp at the lake instead!
The lake is slightly colder and windier than the campsite, but it is an absolute beauty at sunset and sunrise. If you sleep at the campsite, you will miss the sunset and sunrise moments at the lake. At sunset, the warm hues of the sun reflect off the opaque turquoise waters of the lake, creating a stunning contrast. At night, the water turns transparent and you can see the clear lake against the reddish hues of the sun at sunrise. Camping at the lake is an amazing experience and it is well worth the two extra hours of hiking.
Ascending the final mountain pass
From the lake, you will walk along the slope of the mountain until you reach the mountain pass. The steep ascent will take you through breath-taking panoramic views of the lake and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. The climb is slippery and potentially dangerous at parts, so take care while climbing and go slowly.
At the mountain pass, you can see the entire lake and the glacier that feeds the lake. On the other side, a green valley awaits you. You will be amazed by the countless snow-capped peaks, the sheer height of where you are and the steep drops around you. The mountain pass is windy and cold, but you should stay there for a while to appreciate the sights.
There are two paths down the mountain pass. The first one requires you to retract your steps towards the first part of the pass. I do not recommend this path however, as it is steep and potentially dangerous if you are not experienced!
The second path requires you to continue walking along the mountain ridge. There is a path that snakes all the way down the mountain. Although it is extremely steep, the thick layer of loose soil makes it easy to descend. Literally you could ski your way down the mountain! I was terrified when I had to go down the mountain pass due to the sheer drops. Thankfully there were people around to guide and encourage one another as they make the scary descent.
The long walk to Altyn Arashan
The walk back to the hot spring village of Altyn Arashan is a gentle downhill path. There is not much to see here as most of the mountains are bare and vegetation is sparse. The walk back to the hot spring village of Altyn Arashan will take about six hours from the mountain pass.
The hot springs village of Altyn Arashan is a great place to celebrate the end of your hike! There are many people waiting to invite you to their place for the night just before you arrive at the village. Have a good bath in the hot springs, a warm Kyrgyz meal and a good night’s sleep in a yurt. The village is small and there is not much to see apart from guesthouses and tourist yurts. If you prefer to return to Karakol, there are a few 4WDs waiting to take you back to Karakol.
Third and final day
If you do not wish to take the 4WD back to Karakol, you can walk back to the nearest town to take the mashrutka (minibus). Plan about four hours to reach the mashrutka stop. The route is scenic, though it can get very dusty from the passing 4WDs and horses. I prefer to walk, as it was a leisurely gentle downhill path. As soon as you walk out of the trail, there will be a mashrutka waiting to take you back to Karakol.
The 3-day 2-night hike to Alakul lake and back is challenging. However, it is definitely not impossible even for beginners! Go slowly and pace yourself, and you can complete the hike without too much trouble. If you are camping, bring a warm sleeping bag as it can get really cold up in the mountains, even in summer. Fret not if you do not have any camping gear. There are campsites along the way with yurts that you can sleep in. These campsites also serve up hot, delicious meals so you do not have to worry about going hungry.
Now that the uncertainties are out of the way, it is time to get active and do the hike! It will be a surreal experience, one that you will never forget.
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