After a rather short night because of a snoring guy in the room of the family I ended up staying in, I tried to sneak out to be outside as early as possible to start the hike of the day. The goal was to reach Ala-Köl pass, hopefully get a glimpse of Ala-Köl lake on the other side of the mountain, hike back, and down to the main road to reach Karakol later that day. But the girl that had invited me to sleep in their house woke up as well, and insisted on preparing some breakfast. Which, with the many kilometres of hiking at high altitude ahead of me, was a good idea of course. Old bread, butter and sugar, and loads of green tea gave me the energy for the first few hours at least. Meanwhile, the girl and I managed to have at least a basic conversation - with me frantically using the small Russian language booklet I had with me. She ended up showing me the way to the other side of the wild river.
I was still wearing a sweater over my woolen shirt as this morning was another cold one. It had rained a lot lately, apparently, as the trail was very muddy in parts. Within five minutes, no matter how hard I tried not to, my left shoe disappeared completely in a muddy part and I felt the cold water entering my shoe from above and soaking my socks - and cursed. The grass was pretty wet anyway, so also my trousers got wet fast. However, I progressed fast, crossed a rickety bridge, and was gaining height fast through a forest. The trail had been obvious before, but I managed to lose it somewhere. This is the problem with hiking in Kyrgyzstan: there are few, if any, indications, and often no one around to ask - so it is easy to take a wrong turn. I just hoped that by sticking to the stream of water coming down, I would eventually come across the trail as well - which proved to be a correct assumption after ten minutes. Since I was on a tight schedule for the day, I pushed on fast. At one moment, I was confronted with an area with serious rocks, and scrambled up on all fours as good as I could. It was difficult terrain, also because in parts it was a gravely steep hill where I had to fight not to slide down. It was only when I heard a dog barking behind me that I looked around - and realized my mistake. The trail was visible - on the other side of the river. I wondered where I should have crossed - and it was definitely not easy to see. Now, however, I did not feel like descending again, and continued negotiating the rocks.
After I reached the top of the rock field, I had a much better overview of the area, and decided that I would go down on the other side, cross the river, and return to the trail proper. But that proved more difficult than expected. The river, often split in various rivers, was coming down pretty forcefully and I did not really see a spot where I could safely cross. The water seemed to deep to cross without shoes. When I eventually tried, I slipped and my left foot disappeared in the ice cold water again! I decided to continue without socks from here, and in the end had to cross barefoot in the water that was hardly above freezing temperatures. Climbing even faster to warm my feet took me higher and higher, and I was secretly trying to look where that Ala-Köl pass could be. I expected to see it soon, as I had been going up very fast. I knew I was high, as I was already above the snow line. But after every turn, there was another, and in the end, I reached a dead end valley. All around, snowy ridges and peaks - but no pass. I started to wonder, sat down, and had a snack. Even with my powerful zoom lens, I could not detect a way out of here. Had I been mistaken about the pass? It seemed unlikely. Then, suddenly, the answer came in the form of ... human voices. I could literally hear them, skimmed the ridges, and suddenly saw tiny figures on a ridge with a lot of snow. They came from the other side, and were coming down the valley. When we finally met (inevitably, they were a Swiss expedition, with expert guides), I learnt that yes, they just traversed Ala-Köl pass, that the lake was still frozen. At the same time, I realized that going up was out of the question for me, as I did not have the proper equipment to deal with the deep, melting snow. This surely is not the hike it appears to be in travel guides, but a serious, steep climb under difficult circumstances. It hurt to have to decide to go back, but I did not see another option. I hiked back, with pleasant conversations with the other travelers, and after a short stay in the village with a very threatening dark sky and strong wind, decided to leave as soon as I could to avoid the bad weather that was coming down. I was very happy not to be high up in the mountains. Incredibly, in the lower part of the valley the sun was shining and after all the cold of the last days, it was pleasantly warm when I reached Ak Suu. From here, it was a short hop by marshrutka back to Karakol.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Ala-Köl hike (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Ala-Köl hike.
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