Altyn Arashan

Altyn Arashan Travel Blog

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People i met here who contributed to and improved my trip: Julia (Russia)

On Tuesday morning we caught Minibus 350 (20Som/$0.55) from Ak Tilek Bazaar, which took us from Karakol to the turn off to Altyn Arashan. The weather was quite pleasant, although after been caught out in the rain the previous day, we had come equipped with some warm clothing and waterproof attire, to cover all eventualities.

The walk began steadily enough, following a stream up into the valley along a four wheel drive trail. Our first contact with civilisation came when a small rosy cheeked Kyrgyz boy approached us with an open outstretched hand, saying 'Dai, Dai, Dai', which translates as “give, give, give”.

We tried smiling and saying no several times, but the little bugger kept persisting. Five minutes passed and only two different words came from his mouth amidst all the “Dai's”, which were “chut chut”, and “hleb”, which mean “a little” and “bread”. The child had fatter cheeks than Julia, which is saying something, so there was no way we were giving away what little food we had with us.

The path continued to snake upwards, passing mountains covered with fir trees and the occasional grazing cow. The further into the valley we went, the gloomier the weather became, until eventually we heard a clap of thunder and saw a flash of lightening. It didn't take long for the first drops of rain to fall, so we found some shelter under the trees.
For fifteen minutes there was a torrential storm, with hail stones the size of peas hammering down from above. I was glad we had some protection both under the trees and from our raincoats.

Thankfully the storm soon blew over, although the gloom didn't lift and we were aware that it could turn bad again at any minute. Looking into the grey sky above, we spotted two birds of prey circling overhead, but they left after some time, probably to find some nicer weather! The only other form of life that we saw at this time was a few guys riding their horses, all of whom offered a polite nod of the head as they passed us by.

Our next encounter with animals came when we rounded a corner and stumbled upon a flock of sheep blocking the path. A woman and her two small children were on horseback, trying to move the sheep along, with the aid of one man who was on foot.
Three sheep in particular were stubbornly trying to stay put, including a black sheep, which was living up to its stereotype! Eventually the man lost his patience and with a combination of a stick to the legs, a foot to the backside and a kick to the ribs, which temporarily knocked one of the stunned sheep over, they finally got them moving along the path, and back with the rest of the flock.

Four and a half hours after setting off, we got our first glimpse of Altyn Arashan, located in a basin and surrounded by mountains on all sides, with a river gushing besides. Looming in the background was the incredibly impressive snow covered Palatka mountain, which resembles a tent in shape. Palatka in Russian actually means tent, so the name in this instance really was quite fitting.

The community of Altyn Arashan consists of a few houses and yurts, and this would be our home for the next few days. We settled into Yak Hostel, a spin off from the one in Karakol and were shown to a snug double room, where the comfortable beds cost 200 Som ($5.55) per person. I couldn't really figure out why it was cheaper to stay here than in Karakol, when the location was idyllic and the room just as nice. Then again, maybe the lack of anywhere to wash and an outside squat toilet could account for the price difference!

After dumping our bags in the room, we went and sat in the communal living area, which had a log fire and nice wooden furniture. The female chef brought us some warm tea and cherry jam and shortly afterwards a group of four Israeli trekkers joined us.
Valentin the owner brought out some honey liquor, which the six of us polished off in no time, and then Julia and I went to relax in our room.

In the evening we sat around the fire, ate some food that we had brought along with us and enjoyed the peaceful surroundings. I was a little disappointed that we had brought our own food, as a family of Russians had also arrived, so it would have probably been good to eat as one big group. The food was quite expensive though, about double what you normally pay, and as we were staying a few days, there was plenty more opportunity to eat the home cooked cuisine. It had been a fairly long day and Julia wasn't feeling too great again, so we called it a night just before 23.00.

The next morning we awoke at 06.
45 and went downstairs for breakfast, where 100 Som ($2.80) bought us some soup with bread and a pancake with a bit of salad and either tea or coffee. Although it wasn't cheap, i thought it was a reasonable price due to our location, so opted to buy their packed lunch to take out for the day. Julia had just proceeded to vomit all of her breakfast up (still suffering from food poisoning), so told the owner Valentin to pack her left overs with my lunch, as she couldn't possibly go hiking. I was therefore annoyed to find that my 150 Som ($4.15) lunch was Julia's left overs plus a bottle of coke. When i complained, he put in one extra tiny pancake and made out that i was unhappy for no reason! At this point i made a promise that i wouldn't be spending one more penny on their food, if they were going to pull a stunt like that.

The day ahead was going to be a long one, as i planned to hike up to Ala Kol Lake and then back down again, so the last thing i needed was to remember after 5 minutes that i didn't have my spare camera battery with me, and thus i had to return to camp. Setting off for the second time, the path soon branched off up a mountain to the East, but this didn't make much sense, as Valentin had told me i should be following the river South, but also the path. Thankfully there was a German guy nearby who had done the trip with a guide the previous day and he was able to give me some clearer directions. I was beginning to understand now why most people took guides.

The weather was already sunny and getting hotter by the minute, but the walk itself began quite gently, with the exception of some muddy wet patches, which had left my feet soaked.
Plenty of grazing cows chewed the cud at the base of the towering mountains and the view of the far off snow covered Pik Palatka became steadily more impressive, as i advanced on my journey. Amongst such tranquility, i could have hardly expected what was to happen next.

I have always admired the men that dare step into the narrow streets of the town of Pamplona in Spain, to participate in the annual 'Running of the Bulls' and i have half considered that one day i may give this a go myself. Following todays escapades, i think I'd rather wrestle a grizzly bear.

As i strolled along, minding my own business, i noticed a bull in the distance that seemed to have taken an interest in me and had begun to wander in my direction. This didn't overly concern me, until it started making noises that sounded like it had severe constipation.
At this point i decided that the sensible option was to up the pace a little and thus not agitate it, in the probability that i was on its turf, and it just wanted me to go away. The bulls response was to break into a gentle trot and at this moment i felt the first pangs of terror.

I'm not sure how fast i can run, but its a shame the Olympic committee wasn't there to witness my 100m performance, otherwise i could have found myself on a plane to Beijing this summer. The problem is, bulls are no mean athletes either, especially when they see some silly little white guy providing them with something to chase. My heart was in my mouth as i dashed across the field, but the question had sprung into my mind, "Where the hell am i running to!?" I could hear the thuds of hoof on turf, progressively getting louder, why hadn't i been to Church recently!?

I was left the following choices, option a) was to become a matador and do my best to face the frenzied beast, perform some intricate dancing pattern that would see it fly past and then re-evaluate my options, but did i really fancy my chances of ducking out of the way of a piercing horn at the last millisecond? Option b) was to fight the bull, but my trusty pen knife surely couldn't bring it down, where was my sword when i needed it? Option c) as far as i knew was quite an untried theory and one that i had little confidence in working, but i had to try something, so i punched in option c) into my brain and this is how my body responded.

With the bull closing in fast, i turned, raised my hands and screamed as loud as i could. I recalled having once watched a program on TV, which said that if you were confronted by a bear, you should make yourself look as big as possible, then quietly back away. I knew a bull and a bear were two completely different creatures, but my train of thought was that maybe by appearing bigger, the bull would think twice before goring me. Why i was screaming like a mad man, i can only attribute to sheer panic, but combining the two together, this incredibly worked. 400 Kilo's of beef came skidding to a halt about five metres away, with a confused, angry look on its face.

It took a second for both of us to register what had just happened and the bull to recognise what a big sissy it must have looked to back down to a comparatively small creature like myself.
My split second triumph was soon to disappear, as the bull began huffing through its nose and scratching its front right leg, it didn't take much understanding to spot that this meant trouble!

I backed away slowly until i found a patch of large rocks on the floor and picked a couple up. The bull kept advancing, so the first stone got thrown just to the side of its head, but this made no effect. The bull shadowed my every move and when the second stone whistled just past its head, it became even more aggravated, so i decided that this technique wasn't the way of avoiding an attack.

After what seemed like an eternity of trying to inch away, only for it to follow me, there appeared a small ridge, with some fir trees and a large boulder. As we walked towards this, i slowly dropped down the ridge and it kept its standard distance, which gave me the chance to duck behind the boulder, cut into the trees and then run hell for leather.
I vividly remember two horses stood nearby looking at what was happening and God only knows what they must of made of it!

50m at full pelt and i reached the fast flowing river, but there was nowhere to go other than along the embankment. 20m further, this river combined with another river that was flowing down from the mountains, forming a T-junction. My only choice was to race up the mountain besides this river, until i reached a crossing that was made from two fallen trees. With little hesitation i darted across the logs and up the embankment on the far side. I had visions of a confused looking bull, peering around the boulder by the ridge, becoming extremely pissed off to see that i was no longer there and storming around the field in search of me.
I hid behind some trees trying to catch my breath, out running a bull at 2800m (9250ft) is no mean feet!

The mountain rose sharply into the valley and i knew that this was the rough direction that i should be heading in, even though i wasn't able to pick up any path. My head was spinning with thoughts of what could have just happened (and probably mild altitude sickness), so not picking up the trail that i was supposed to be on, seemed rather trivial. Ten minutes later i finally spotted a faint trail that led up to the main path and i just followed this as far as it went up the mountain.

Valentin had mentioned a small tent that was in the valley, and i noticed this across the river after nearly two hours of walking, but i couldn't remember why this had been important.
I did know that it had some bearing on the direction that i needed to take, but amidst all the excitement, my mind had gone blank. I made my mind up to cross the river on the stones and put my basic Russian skills to the test. The sheep farmer inside the tent came out, surprisingly understood my questions and gave me some simple directions. I was pleased and slightly shocked that my language capabilities had reached such an understandable pigeon level!

The next two hours of the journey became increasingly difficult as i had several factors to deal with. The first issue was that the trail was constantly uphill, the second was the high altitude and the third was the cows! I've never come across such aggressive bovines as these in Kyrgyzstan, which clearly have a major chip on their shoulder! Every time i seemed to approach a herd, which were always grazing by the trail, one would come to the edge of the group and eye me up with keen intent.
I had no desire to push my luck and would as a result take a wide path around, which was adding to the distance of my journey. I began to feel like i was becoming overly paranoid, until another bull that must have been a good 400m away started charging in my direction. Thankfully it halted its progress when it saw that i was trying my damnedest to scramble up the side of a hill!

I reached the foot of the Ala Kol pass four hours after setting off and i was left physically and mentally drained. I felt like i had run the gauntlet and had only just made it half way. What stood in front of me now was a mountain that had incredibly steep faces, which were made out of small stones at the base and large rocks at the top. I tried to pick a route up, but there was nothing obvious, and i wasn't really sure where the lake was actually situated.

The bottom half of the mountain was incredibly tough going, as the stones slipped beneath my feet and for each step up, I slid half a step back. Every 10 metres that i managed to inch my way up, i had to dig myself into the gravel and rest, gasping for breath. By the time i reached the half way point, my legs were burning and my heart was racing. The second section on the larger rocks was a tiny bit better, but by this stage i was shattered, so it was still slow going. An hour after beginning the final ascent, i reached the summit of the 3860m Ala Kol pass.

The views below were stunning, with Ala Kol Lake hemmed in by mountains on all four sides. Turning to look back at where i had come from, i not only got a jaw dropping view into the valley, but also unbeatable views of the snow capped mountain range that towered on the horizon and could only be seen from an equally high altitude.
Nearby was one huge snow covered mountain, from where the water was running down, to create the lake. It had been a tough ordeal to make it there, but as i sat in complete solitude, with the first spots of snow falling on me, i was in no doubt that every last step had been worth it. Its not often in this World that you can enjoy such a moment with only yourself for company.

I ate some lunch and drank the last of my drink on the top of the mountain, which i knew wasn't good. I had no water purification tablets, so understood that the next hours were going to be tough going, with only saliva to quench my thirst. The weather had clouded over 45 minutes before i had reached the top, but after 30 minutes of waiting for some improvement and blue sky, i decided i couldn't wait any longer and i started my descent.

Going down is always easier on the heart, but i often find it technically harder and a real drain on your limbs. Descending the first section of the pass was tricky, as the bigger stones could slip from behind your trailing leg and crash into the lead leg and this culminated in my ankles getting pretty badly bashed and cut. The second half was more like skiing, as i stood on the loose gravel and let it take me down the mountain. The main problem here was a foot getting stuck and also falling over.

It took 20 minutes to come down the pass and once i made it to the grassy section, it began to drizzle. The rain made the surface very slippery and it wasn't long before i fell pretty heavily on my left arm, getting a deep cut on my palm, wrist and forearm.
I would have given anything to be taken home on a horse at this point, but i was the only person for miles around.

The descent was far quicker than going up, although i was still having endless problems with my four legged nemesis. I made a mental note to eat as many hamburgers as i could physically manage at the next possible opportunity! Thankfully there were some more friendly animals, which were the gophers, who kept popping out of their holes and shouting to their neighbours to watch out for the weird creature approaching in his yellow poncho!

Three hours after leaving the pass, i found myself back where the two rivers converged and nervously eyed the opposite embankment for signs of the angry bull. I decided that there was no way i was taking the marked path that led up through the forest, where I'd had my first run in, but would instead try and find a route alongside the river.
This worked out pretty well, until i spotted a man made rickety bridge and decided to chance my luck on it, with the knowledge that if i made it across in one piece, i was out of harms way from the bull! On all fours i progressed over the river and safely on the opposite side, i was sure that my journey was as good as over.

What i didn't expect was to have to walk across a marsh and then find another river coming from the opposite mountain range and blocking my path. There was no bridge here, the water was incredibly fast flowing and the rocks slippery and most of them subsided in the water. I felt drained and didn't fancy having to return back across the marsh, the bridge and take the route where the bull was lying in wait, so when i saw a log that stretched somewhat out into the river, i knew this was my only hope (see photo).
I balanced on the single log, as water gushed against it and once i reached its slippery end, i made a jump for a rock, which i just landed on and managed to spring onto the bank from there.

Ten minutes later and i was back in the room and collapsed on my bed. Julia got me a much needed bottle of water and some re-hydration salts and after guzzling these down i slept for some time. It had taken me just over 9 hours to make the return trip, which turned out to be good going, as two guys from Kyrgyzstan had supposedly taken 14 hours to complete it, including two and a half hours to reach the top of the pass! Julia and I spent the rest of the night lying in bed, both feeling worse for wear, until we went to sleep just after 22.00.

Our original plan was to wake up early on Thursday morning, but neither of us were in any fit state to get up when the alarm went off at 07.
30. A little after 09.00 we begrudgingly began to wake from our slumber and by 10.00 we were back on the road again. I was pleased that i had no cramps from all the walking over the previous two days, and the fine weather added to my spirits.

It took around three and a half hours to reach the main road, from where we flagged down a minivan for the journey back to Karakol. It had been an emotional three days that had left me invigorated, inspired, scared and breathless in all respects. Part of me wanted to stay in the mountains for days, whereas the saner part of my mind was telling me to find a sit down toilet and running water!

Deats says:
All my blogs are typed on the eeepc and it certainly saves me time and money, i love it! So thank you so much for sending it out to me :) Iran is an incredible place and we have met so many people that it has been hard to blog for the last 2 weeks, but hopefully i can get the stories, if not the photos online next week. Im pretty sure i dont have the photo of the bull as i was too busy running away scared! It really was something i'll never forget haha
Posted on: Sep 21, 2008
portia says:
I am home again! yeah, it's good to be home after 4 weeks on the road, still can't imagine what you do! how is the eeepc working out for you? I want to see a photo of this bull :)
Posted on: Sep 19, 2008
Deats says:
Yeah, it was crazy! Sadly i cant find any computers quick enough to upload my photos, hence im falling well behind! Hopefully somewhere in Turkey... How did you like your latest trip by the way? Glad to be home?
Posted on: Sep 19, 2008
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Altyn Arashan
photo by: Deats