Visited July 2017
I was bounced up out of my chair. Once, twice, and then again. Shaking off my drowsiness, I looked out the window to see what was going on. To my left stood a small village with just a few scattered buildings while to my right sat a giant blue lake, stretching as far as the eye could see. Mountains, taller than any I had ever seen lined the horizon in every direction while the road beneath had now become a rough, uneven dirt path, hence the bouncing. I looked over to the passenger next to me, a new friend named Gautier, somehow still sound asleep despite the excessive turbulence. It was five hours into our trip across Kyrgyzstan from the capital Bishkek in the west to the small town Karakol in the east near the Chinese border.
One more hour of driving and finally our vehicle came to a stop. We exited, Gautier rousing himself out of slumber, and took a look around at our new surroundings. A few small shops and food stands stood here and there while a few old apartment buildings loomed in the distance. Trees were everywhere while sheep moseyed around the primarily dirt roads. Modern industry and development was essentially absent. This was the rural countryside of Central Asia. We had made it. Now it was time to find out hostel, which according to the directions was about 3km (2 miles) away. Eager taxi drivers immediately swarmed us, but we repeatedly brushed them away, welcoming the walk after sitting in a vehicle for so long. Along the way, sever children were playing in their yards, only to stop as we, two sweaty, disoriented foreigners with travel backpacks, walked by. The air was fresh, unlike that of the cities, and every once in a while, the scent of fresh baked goods (there were a lot of bakeries along the way) drifted through the air. Thirty minutes later, after passing many little food stands, an old wooden Russian church, and a mosque with Chinese-style architecture, we finally reached out destination: a backpacker's haven called Duet Hostel.
The hostess, a local named Anna, greeted us speaking perfect English and proceeded to show us around the whole place. We first passed through the kitchen, where a guy with long hair and an even longer beard was busy cooking dinner, then we went to the outdoor hangout area which was populated with several other trekkers and fully equipped with couches, artistic decor, and a bar. Gautier looked over towards me as if to say, "Yeah, this pace is awesome," but before he had the chance to speak, we made our way to the final destination: the sleeping area. For this, we did not walk into a large room, nor did we even go inside the building. Instead, we walked around back and found, ready to greet us, three large, circular, white yurts. Each was big enough to fit six people comfortably and had a swinging door that could be tied shut. For the next few days, this was to be my bed, and I couldn't have been more overjoyed.
But, while all this was well and good, I need to be honest. These are not the reasons people (myself included) go to Karakol. The city itself is pretty interesting, but it takes less than half a day to see every part of it. The real reason everyone goes is for the nature and mountains. It is to go to trek up to glaciers and through valleys alongside herders and wild horses. Karakol is a base-camp for those seeking to venture out into the wild. It is a settlement where you can buy food and rent tents and equipment (for as little as $1-2) before setting out on an epic journey through lands seemingly lost outside of time
Probably the most well known trek in the area is a 40-50km (25-30 mile) hike up to a mountain lake called Ala-Kol, through a 4000m pass and past hot springs. While I usually don't recommend doing what everyone is doing, I have to make an exception here. The route through the valley just may be the most gorgeous place I've ever seen, and since Kyrgyzstan hardly gets any tourism, you can go for a couple hours without seeing anyone except some local herders while hiking this 'most trafficked' route.
I just have to make one comment here though. It is often said, on other travel blogs and tourist info sites, that it takes 3-4 days to complete this trek and that doing it in one is impossible. That is wrong. After attempting this route, I want to make it clear that doing the whole thing in one day is absolutely possible. My friend Stefan (see story 'Mountaineering Madness') and I attempted this and within just over three hours, we covered 1/3 of the total distance. We were well on pace to finish in one day, and probably would have if we didn't get lost and head in the wrong direction for two hours in the middle (we're both pretty bad with navigation).