Trek to Ala-Kul lake in Karakol Kyrgyzstan
The highlight of our visit to Kyrgyzstan was definitely the trek to Ala-Kul, a turquoise lake which lies at an altitude of approximately 3.500m. It was something we had really looked forward to, so I’ll gladly share with you the planning, gear & the trek itself.
I was advised by local people to use a guide for the trek, keeping in mind our safety and that we knew little of multiple day trekking, we used the services of Visit Karakol to get us there & back. We had also contacted other companies, to check whether the requested price was competitive, but we always received the same answer: “there’s still snow in June, we don’t go there then, could be dangerous”.
Of course, we continued with our plan and opted for a two day/ one night trek, the total price for 4 persons was 783 USD which we paid the day before our trek in cash at the tour company’s office in the town of Karakol. The price included almost everything such as transport to the starting point & back from Altyn-Arashan, cooking stuff, tents, mats, food (2x lunch, 1x dinner, 1x breakfast) and 1 guide, 1 cook & 2 porters each carrying 15kg of supplies, food, tents and some of our personal gear. If you want you can hire an additional porter for 25 USD per day. We each carried our backpack, but the sleeping bags & extra food/drinks, they carried for us.
The team picked us up at 9AM at our excellent Altay guest house in Karakol ,in something what seemed to be a soviet van, from there it was one hour drive to our starting point of the trek:
Perhaps I may not yet be an expert in trekking or hiking, I did receive some good advice on what to bring along during this trip. We weren’t sure what the weather would be like near & at the top, so we prepared for the worst but hoped for the best. Sturdy boots, comfortable backpack, camera gear and of course multiple layers of clothing: weather resistant, lightweight & durable. I was much better prepared now than for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.
I brought the following stuff along…
- Sleeping bag: Simond Makalu II Down L comfort temperature -8°C, limit -15°C, extreme -36°C. The tour guide had sent an email in advance to notify us that we would be needing sleeping bags that could withstand temperatures as low as -20°C to – 30°C. So I invested €199 in a more than suitable sleeping bag and it turned out to be a great decision. We assume the temperature was approx. -5°C during the night, others were wearing long johns (or so I have been told), but that wasn’t necessary for me, I actually slept really well in just boxers (TMI? I’m sorry). Added bonus: the bag doesn’t take up that much space in your bag.
- Sleeping pad: Quechua Self-inflating sleeping pad XL. Visit Karakol also provided us with (cheap) pads, but I slept really well by using my pad in addition to theirs, it does take up quite some space in your bag (more than the sleeping bag) but it’s definitely worth bringing along for a good night’s rest.
- Inflatable pillow: small investment, huge win for quality of sleep and doesn’t take up any space. Must have.
The clothes that I was wearing & had extra in my bag, from top to bottom:
- Raincoat: Full option Quechua raincoat , this was really essential, no wind or rain got through but you could still open the “air vents” under your arms if it is too warm. I used this several times, for ‘cover’ against the rain, or to add an extra layer to keep warm in the evening. For 99 EUR it’s a bit more expensive than its peers, but a great solution and worth it if you do not want to get soaking wet.
- Jacket: hybrid jacket designed for mountaineering when temperature is approx. 0°C, another must-have to wear over your fleece jacket. I opted for an XL which gave me more elbow room to move around.
- Sweater: Because of the intense level of exercise, it’s not a super easy ascend, I was quite sweaty, unfortunately the sweater that I was wearing did not meet my expectations, it didn’t dry at all. Even after hanging it to dry during the night, luckily I had a spare zipper hoodie with me for the 2nd day.
- Longsleeve Techwool t-shirt: FANTASTIC, dried very quickly, no bad odors.
- Pants for trekking: Quechua Trekking Forclaz 500 which wasn’t too warm and I especially liked that I dried very quickly after getting wet or being soaked from a river crossing (I also had a spare zip-off pants, tucked away in my bag)
- Long “underpants”: I only wore them when we had settled down in the evening and were eating our dinner, not to lose too much body heat, it wasn’t cold enough to need them otherwise.
- Two different pair of socks: Quechua Forclaz 520 (red) & 900 (brown), personally I preferred the former and they’re even 5 EUR cheaper (€14,99 for 2 pair). Why? Because it felt better… I always get blisters from walking, always, but not this time! And the only thing I changed were my socks
- Walking boots: mid high boots to give firm grip on the ground
- Emergency blanket
- Two air tight compression bags (used it to protect my camera & drone during river crossings).
- Rechargeable flashlight: NiteCore MH10 (1.000 lumens)
In addition to the trekking gear, I also packed some sugary snacks, water, camera & lenses and a DJI Mavic drone.
If you only want to drink bottled water, you’ll need to bring it yourself, otherwise there’s plenty of water running down the mountain..
I stuffed pretty much everything in a 50l backpack, which was ideal for this two day trek. If you don’t want to end up with back pain at the end of your trip, keep in mind that it’s super important to adjust it to your back, so use the EasyFit grips. It also came with a cover to protect it against the rain which I end up using twice.
Here are some of the items mentioned above (shopping spree 1 of 2), others were used during the overnight in Grigorievska gorge:
TREK DAY 1: 2.300m to 3.300m
From our starting point, we walked a bit over an hour to ‘the bridge’ where we had lunch, we didn’t really knew what was coming, but after we had crossed the bridge it was quite steep through the thick forest. We continued our way for two hours or so, with short breaks in between to catch our breath, to the wooden cabin by the river (approx. 3.000m). It’s a camping spot where many probably choose to spend the night, but we continued along the small, very narrow path over rocks, next to the waterfall for another 2 hours to our spot for the night at 3.300m.
Once we had arrived, I took out the drone to “verify” our altitude and get a first glimpse of Ala-Kul. Soaring more than 200m above us, the first images appeared on my screen and it wasn’t the turquoise lake we were expecting but it was still mostly covered with ice & snow!
What should you do when thunderstorms hit when you’re camping?
Thunderstorms were something we weren’t prepared for.. but it happened, together with heavy rain & hail. Normally you should look for cover but unfortunately that wasn’t an option, there simply wasn’t anywhere to hide so we stayed in our tents..
A quick search on the interwebs, returns the following:
Look for a dry, low-lying area such as a valley and become the smallest target possible. Do this by crouching down with your heels touching, head between the knees, and ears covered. Minimize your contact with the ground and do not lie down flat.
After about an hour, everything returned back to normal so we were ready to get some well-deserved sleep.
TREK DAY 2: 3.300m to 3.500m , 3.800 and descend to 2.500m
The next 200m up to the lake were rather steep and the path consisted of rocks, small & big, I don’t recall exactly how much time it took us to reach the lake, but the view was amazing, you could still see a shade of blue peeping through.
We rested, took pictures, enjoyed the view, .. for over 30 minutes, not knowing (or wanting to know) that the hardest was yet to come: the Ala Kul pass to an altitude of 3.800m, directly followed by an incredibly steep (& dangerous) descent. Rocks, snow, rocks, rocks & snow. I’d be lying if I said that was the fun part. The view however, incredible.
The descent to Altyn Arashan took us several hours (4h-5h) to reach the natural hot springs, but was a nice change of scenery, past Yurt camps, through & over rivers. Our Soviet-style van was waiting for us to take us back to Karakol which would take about 2-hours. However, the “road”, a quite liberal interpretation of the word, turned out to be absolutely horrendous and I ended up walking for an extra hour..
The trek to Ala Kul turned out to be a real adventure, a bit more intense than we were expecting, but definitely one of the highlights of our time in Kyrgyzstan.
We all agree that having a guide during this trek is more than useful, unless you’re experienced in multi-day trekking of course. If you don’t want to spend the extra cash on a tour company, you could also just hire a porter for only 25 USD or 1.700 SOM (KGS) per day. I personally wouldn’t recommend setting up the tent at 3.300m, so either you continue to the lake or it might be a good idea to extend your trek with an additional day, camp at 3.000m and in the valley on the way to Altyn Arashan, stay in one of the yurts..
I’m also happy to report that for the first time in… forever, I didn’t have any blisters. What a pair of decent socks can do 🙂 Useful and durable gear doesn’t need to be expensive, I had a lot of new stuff with me, but the outdoors is definitely starting to grow on me, so I’m confident I’ll be going on similar adventures in the near future. Gear that was of great added value to me: socks (again), longsleeve techwool shirt, pants for trekking, raincoat, inflatable pillow and warm sleeping bag.
Have you seen the video of my trip to Kyrgyzstan already? All footage taken with a DJI drone 🙂