Day 110: Back in my Mountain Element!
I left Bishkek early in the morning and traveled an uneventful eight hours to Karakol, in the far east of the country. The drive took us along some atrocious roads and along the northern shore of massive lake Issy-Kul. Karakol is a very “nothing” town that has the feel of a border post. I dumped my bags at the laid-back Yak Tour hostel, run by an eccentric Russian named Valentin, and arranged with him to get up to his hut in the mountains the next day. Karakol backs onto the Terskey Alatau range of the Tien Shan mountains to the south and is a great jumping-off point for all sorts of mountain sports.
After all the cities and pollution of Iran, I was desperate to stretch my legs up in the mountains and enjoy the fresh air and open spaces. While Valentin drives his 50-year-old Russian jeep up to the hut every day, I decided to hike the five hours in, even though the weather was pretty crappy.
Valentin’s hut turned out to be a disused mountain rescue hut at the small settlement of Altyn Arashan (2700m). As you can see from the pic below there’s nothing much to it, but it does have one superb feature (especially given the sub-zero nights and chilly yet sunny days) – natural hot springs!! Oh, and not to forget the fantastic views too! It was a fantastic place to stay a few days.
The next morning I left the hut bright and early to hike up to the 3900m Ala-Kol mountain pass. It was an icy start with an icy frost covering the grass and pools of water frozen. But it warmed up once the sun came up. After hiking a couple of k’s up the main valley, I followed a stream up a side valley which kept on going and going and going. The ascent wasn’t too tough – until I saw the pass! The last section was a good 200m of steep ice and snow on top of wet shale and rock – not a good mix! It was pretty hairy, especially given the elevation, as I really wasn’t acclimatised at all.
But WOW was it worth it!!! Five hours after I started the hike I made it to the top of the pass, and the view across Ala Kol lake to the gigantic mountains and glaciers beyond was outstanding.
I know I’m looking a bit too happy with myself but it was a pretty tough climb! And with views like this…
That was yesterday, and today I hiked out of the mountains. Oh I did have the minor annoyance of having to go back up the track for two hours this morning to retrieve my sunglasses, which I’d left by the stream yesterday.
The minibus ride back to Karakol this afternoon was a laugh. It was rammed with locals and I found myself squeezed between who I thought were two middle-aged prostitutes, who kept inviting me (in Russian mind you, so I’m filling the blanks) back to their “hotel”. When they smiled at me their rows of gold teeth gleamed. I knew they were proposing something raunchy because the bus driver cacked himself laughing every time they propositioned me… Everyone on board was well and truly sozzled as well, and they were boozing away on beer and vodka like you wouldn’t believe – I’ve already noticed that this is not a nation for teetotallers. Of course they generously offered me a swig and hey it would have been rude to turn the offer down! As was also true for the smoked fish they ate whole, bones and all, and this weird grey paste that I couldn’t quite put my finger on… Hmmmm…