Hiking to Altyn Arashan Hot Springs in Kyrgyzstan
If there is something that Kyrgyzstan is known for, beyond the [intlink id=”1305″ type=”post”]dead goat game[/intlink], it is the spectacular mountain scenery that blankets the country.
In fact, the small country is so high and has so many tall peaks that it towers as the fourth highest nation in the world, with an average elevation of 9,805 feet (just shy of 3,000 meters).
Naturally, getting out to these beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan is a major must do, and for my first alpine trek I headed for Altyn Arashan, one of the best hikes in Kyrgyzstan.
Spoiler alert: My motives were not merely the exercise, hiking Altyn Arashan in isn’t just about the phenomenal Kyrgyzstan scenery…there are hot springs at the end! Bring on trekking in Kyrgyzstan!
Where can you Hike in Kyrgyzstan?
Hiking Altyn Arashan is a huge highlight for any outdoors person heading to the Issyk Kul region of Kyrgyzstan. So when an Australian friend Sam from my time in Nepal emailed and said that she was making good on her promise to visit, and that she wanted to hike, I thought of the gorgeous mountains around Karakol.
Sam arrived in Bishkek with her friend Sarah and after teaming up with my Peace Corps bestie Steph, we decided to give the Aussies a true Kyrgyz Holiday, just like the Roman one, but different. And we were all Audrey Hepburns in the scenario.
Travel to Issyk Kul village in Kyrgyzstan
First off, Sarah, Sam, and I spent a night with Steph at her host family’s house in Dolon, Issyk Kul, a tiny village 40 minutes shy of Karakol that sits on a gorgeous lake up against the Tien Shan mountain range. Steph’s Kyrgyz family welcomed us with open arms, a lot of food, and a ton of vodka. By 3pm, we girls and Steph’s father had already polished off the bottle of vodka we had brought as a hostess gift, we had sung songs (including the old Titanic theme song stand-by), and used the outhouse more than several times. Welcome to village life in KG!
On a mission for more vodka, we went exploring the village, looking for an open shop selling ‘white tea’. Along the way, we stopped to chat up Steph’s neighbours and the kids down the street, taking photos pretending to be totally sober. Finally, we found some more vodka and bread in a shop, where Steph and I also learned how to use an abacus. Like, a real abacus TO DO MATH. No calculators in Dolon!
Best Hiking in Karakol Kyrgyzstan
The next day, all four of us set off towards Karakol, where we were going to take a taxi to the trail head in Ak-Suu. We were planning on staying at the Altyn Arashan Hot Springs, which sits at 2600 meters and offers a very small array of dorm style accommodation, with a BYO kitchen. Most importantly, Altyn Arashan translates to Golden Spa, and it has 10 different hot springs pools for patrons bathing and amusement.
We did some quick grocery shopping, for you know, food.
Before we knew it we were starting to climb, because that’s the only way you get to 2,600 meters in Kyrgyzstan, no gondolas to these hot springs! Most of the trail follows the Altyn Arashan valley gorge, which is beautiful and lush, especially in early April, which is when we were there. There was still snow on the ground in parts of the lower levels, only to became regular about an hour from the top. The trek to the Hot Springs is 16km, and while much of it is at only a slight incline, the last hour is a sure climb and you are looking for the end.
Thankfully, when you do manage to lift your head and take a breath, the vistas along the way are nothing short of incredible. Plus, you feel like some hard core Sir Edmund like trekker trudging through snow like that. Or you feel like a snow leopard, depends on each of our beings.
Altyn Arashan Hot Springs Kyrgyzstan
Arriving at the hot springs camp, we wasted no time in picking out our beds (determining which four of the 10 in the room were the least horrible) and got into our bathing suits as fast as possible. Different pools had different temperatures, and all were enclosed in small huts, with doors that you could lock. Like many alpine hot springs, being in the freezing air is incentive enough to get you into the hot hot water, though we all wanted to rest our achy muscles after that arduous trek (Fact: it wasn’t that bad, I’m being dramatic).
After enjoying a couple of beers in the baths, we all met up again in the kitchen and started putting together a meal of some kind as the light waned and the stark lack of electricity became apparent. There was no heat in the rooms, so we stayed in the kitchen late for the warmth of the stove, playing cards and chatting with a couple of other hikers. I taught the girls my Aunt Ev’s Solitaire card game which to the family knowledge she herself had never won. We pieced together that Sam’s brother knew one of the other hikers back in Australia (because we truly do live in a teeny tiny world).
After dinner, Steph and I decided we needed another bath and hit the pool again. This time we picked a bath that was private, but shared a little hut with another pool, full of Kyrgyz men who were drinking and smoking. They couldn’t see us and assumed we couldn’t understand what they were saying, so we did some high level eavesdropping. Fascinating misogynists aside, we were feeling risqué and braved the hot springs sans suits, which I can firmly state is a fantastic state of being. There is something heavenly about being 2.6km from sea level, naked, and in really hot water with one of your best friends.
The next morning, we packed up our now lighter, food-less and beer-less bags and started to descend. The trek down was understandably easier, though with no hot springs waiting for us at the bottom, our energy levels were not quite so high. Sam, Sarah, and I were pressed for time though, as we needed to bus back to Bishkek and then get ourselves to the airport to fly south to Osh.
Travel from Bishkek from Karakol
After a quick lunch in Karakol and a loving goodbye with Steph, we hopped a marshrutka along the beautiful south coast of Issyk Kul. Nearing Bishkek, I started chatting with a lady, who said that she lived near the airport, so her son would drive us. Great! A young guy with a tiny two-door hatchback met this woman, her two grand children, and us three white girls on the side of the road, and took it as his mission to fit us all, with our bags, into that car. It was a true squeeze, but if there is one thing you lose in Kyrgyzstan, it’s your sense of personal space. And a free ride to the airport is never to be denied!
Hiking Altyn Arashan in Kyrgyzstan
We had a tour agency, Eco-Trek Karakol call the hot springs before we went to make sure there would be room for us. Thankfully, as every single truly uncomfortable bed was slept in that night.
If you’re going to hike anywhere in Kyrgyzstan, at any time of year, take warm clothes! Though, because we were staying in the lodge, no need for sleeping bags as the pillows and heavy blankets called tushuks are provided! Still, wear your thermals.
There were several hot springs dogs roaming around. One was a true mountain dog, as he came down the trail almost half way and walked back up with us as we were climbing up to camp. He was like a guide, a guide who we couldn’t communicate with but trusted implicitly.
I have a feeling the men that Steph and I were eavesdropping on in the hot springs were also naked.
You don’t have to be Tenzing Norgay to get to the Altyn Arashan Hot Springs. You can also hire a jeep to take you up the road. While it still takes a couple of hours to get there because the road is so bad, at least you won’t feel like dying at the end. I’m assuming you can also somehow arrange to ride a horse, because it’s Kyrgyzstan and seemingly you can arrange to ride a horse anywhere.
Steph states that she is not a hiker, but she joined us on this climb and was a true trooper, and surprisingly enough didn’t even really complain. She’s the greatest. I’m not sure that Steph has hiked since.
Note: This hike occurred in April 2015. I never published the blog or the pictures due to extenuating circumstances. These circumstances no longer apply. So I’m happy to share the experience with you all now, and encourage you, if you like a challenge in nature, hit up Kyrgyzstan, it really is the next big thing in adventure travel!