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Published: December 28th 2019
Day 4: Heights of Alay Trek
The family of the yurt camp where we stayed at the bottom of Jiptick Pass.
Day 1 was like Yorkshire then Mordor. Day 2 was like Azerbaijan followed by the Drakensburg in South Africa. Day 3 was like Arizona and Day 4 was like Scotland with a dab of Himalayas.
Of the three we visited, Kyrgyzstan was our favourite stan. It’s now 3 months later that I’m getting around to writing this blog and just choosing the photos is reminding me how much I enjoyed our time there. I don’t usually have so much difficulty narrowing the photos down either but I may end up posting loads for this ‘stan.
I like a hike. That’s pretty much all we did in Kyrgyzstan, and it was wonderful. The highlight being the Heights of Alay trek – maybe the best trek I’ve ever done. And my backlist includes a lot of really good, or at least really famous, routes.
Bishkek was alright. The highlight for us being Osh Bazaar, which we unintentionally stayed right next to and consequently attempted to eat out of fruit. We couldn’t understand why nobody would sell us just a half or a quarter of the massive watermelons until we realised that a whole one
cost about 20p. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries by the bucket, loads of varieties of peaches, boxes of figs, all for such a low price. I’ve never been so high on vitamin C before.
First we went on another acclimatisation hike (see the previous blog to hear how the first acclimatisation blog in Kazakhstan went) from Bishkek into Ala-Archa National Park. Like Almaty, Bishkek is blessed with proximity to high mountains. Not as blessed that a city bus can take you up and into them but a Yandex (the Uber of this part of the world) can whizz you up for not too high a price. Similar to Almaty, there are lots of hiking blogs by people who have lived in these parts enabling route selection and an idea of what you are letting yourself in for. Though I also recommend getting maps.me on your phone as the paths and elevations are pretty accurate; it’s just missing contours.
The hike took us from Alplager at 2200 m up the valley past Ak-Sai Waterfall to the Ak-Sai Glacier. The view on the way up became increasingly glorious as we got higher and neared the jagged rocky peaks.
Loved these chaps.
In parts it was quite a steep and loose climb but we were surprised when we reached our destination. It took us about 2 hours less than the hiking blogs had suggested so we kept going a bit higher until we had a viewpoint all to ourselves at about 3400 m. Clearly, our hikes in Kazakhstan had us somewhat acclimatised. This would be Magdalena’s first glacier. We sat up there for ages in the sun surrounded by moraine, sheer rock faces, and mucky ice. Getting back down took no time at all and we jumped in a taxi with two Belgian chaps for the ride back to Bishkek.
We were then torn how to spend most of our time in Kyrgyzstan. The obvious and easy option was to head east to Issyk Kul Lake and do one of the multiday hikes south of Karakol. We could then call at Song-Kul Lake on the way back, probably hiking to it from a day or two away. It turns out – we found out later from people who were travelling for a month or so in these parts – that this route is what most people do who are
travelling in Kyrgyzstan. While these two places are apparently lovely, it explained why we were constantly wondering why there are not more tourists in this wonderful country, well apparently it’s because they are all over there.
Instead we went south. I don’t know where we heard about the Heights of Alay trek but we settled on that. While trickier, more expensive, and more time consuming to get to, it was such a great choice. It involved an early morning flight to Osh, a visit to the CBT office (Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association) to rent sleeping bags (at an extortionate daily rate) and buy a map, a trip around the market to stock up on food, then an uncomfortable minibus 3 hours to Sary Mogul. You do need to get supplies, especially fresh things like fruit and bread, in Osh as the few little shops in Sary Mogul don’t have much. I think we managed to get a can of tuna, a chunk of cheese, plus bags and bags of sweet biscuits. We asked if they had anything savoury, like nuts or crisps, but they just laughed and said no.
Next morning around 07:30, after staying
in a lovely guesthouse (avoid the packed CBT one), a taxi took us the 16 km or so to the start of the trek. If you had camping gear I’d recommend walking this bit then camping close to where the taxi drops you off at the end of the track. It’s grassy plains with the odd yurt camp and a few shepherds; it would be a nice easy start and would save the cost of the very expensive taxi (though much cheaper than if booked with CBT).
The hike is immediately gorgeous. We were the first on the trail and it was absolutely silent. You follow a river up an increasingly narrow steep valley until you climb to cut a corner where the valley becomes a precipitous gorge. The climbing continued with us regularly turning around to look at the fantastic view back down the valley. The silence was occasionally and abruptly broken by the shrill alarm calls of big fluffy marmots; the only company we had for much of the way up. That is until we crested a small pass that gave way to an enclosed bowl containing a lovely meadow completely filled by a herd of thoroughly
indifferent yaks. The shaggy majestic beasts would gaze at us uninterestedly until we got quite close before ambling off whereas the curious young ones seemed to dare each other to come nearer to us then at the last second would leap away like baby goats.
Climbing out of the hollow put us onto a broad plateau of sorts; there was no longer any vegetation, just bare dark grey shattered rock. The only colour was provided by the orange marmots – camouflage so poor that even someone as colour blind as me could pick them out. While creeping nearer to one of the big rodents to get a photo, we disturbed into the air one, then another, then a whole “flock?” of enormous shaggy birds. I’m pretty sure they were lammergeiers, or bearded vultures. At about a metre across they were like feathered pteradactyls. I still think they’d struggle with a marmot though as the ones up here were fat little things about the size of a jack russell. Later research revealed they derive about 90% of their diet from bone.
Surrounding the plateau were black jagged peaks and glaciers filling the high valleys between them. As we traversed
Not far from Bishkek.
a steep scree slope we looked down on partially frozen glacial lakes. This is the Sary Mogul Pass and is the highest point of the whole trek at 4303 m. It is a dramatic spot, closely resembling Mordor. Just as we reached the knife edge that is the crest of the pass, a patch of blue sky opened up just long enough to take some photos. Looking down the other side of the pass we were met by a grey cloud billowing up towards and it suddenly started snowing. It was too early for lunch anyway, as we had made better time than we expected; the altitude not really affecting us at all. So we slid and leapt down the steep scree as the snow came down; this bit being the steepest and sketchiest part of the entire hike.
Well, I slid and leapt, Magdalena descended a lot more gingerly as that morning in the guesthouse she had inadvertently yet quite violently kicked a fridge. Thus she was very delicate of toe.
After the initial steep drop it was a more leisurely descent down the valley but frustratingly following a lunch stop we ended up on the wrong
side of the river. The path petered out to nothing on an increasingly steep scree slope with a long drop to the river below. We had to backtrack until we could get down to the river but once we got to it we couldn’t get across. It was raging and the boulders were wet with big gaps between so we didn’t want to risk jumping them with backpacks and four days of stuff. Thus we had to backtrack even more until there was a flat shallow bit of river we could leap and paddle across. This added about an hour but we still reached the CBT yurts in early afternoon. We were thinking of carrying on to the village of Little Sary Mogul that reputedly had a guesthouse but first accepted the invitation of the women at the yurts to go in for tea. This was the first time we realised that “tea” is never just a quick drink and carry on your way in Kyrgyzstan. A mat is laid out in front of you on the floor of the yurt, a pot of tea appears, a basket of bread, homemade jam, plates of biscuits, a bowl of sweets. It’s
Day 4: Heights of Alay Trek
Darbazatash Valley after crossing Jiptick Pass.
lovely. We considered staying the night. These yurts are set up for tourists doing the hike and you pay a fixed amount for sleeping (you get a mattress, a pillow and a blanket, and they’ll get the fire going), for dinner and for breakfast. The aim of the programme is to spread some of the tourism money to the rural communities. There were only two yurts and we currently had one to ourselves, it was forecast for rain as the afternoon progressed, then when Magdalena took off her sock her toe was like a black sausage. We decided to stay the night. We were quickly vindicated as it was soon bucketing down.
It was a cold morning but a vegetable pasta soup for breakfast warmed us up. Especially because we ate almost everyone’s in the yurt (a few more people had arrived later) who for some reason passed it up. An easy amble brought us to the gorgeous village of Little Sary Mogul. The mountain setting, the kids and animals running around, the lack of roads, the cosy houses; it was idyllic. The kind of village I could imagine escaping to if I ever wanted to write
a book. The fields were full of people harvesting hay as soon the warmth would abruptly give way to winter; in fact the yurt camps were already starting to dismantle as the season for this trek is only June-August then the passes become impassable.
A few kilometres along a dirt road then we turned off and climbed. It was boiling hot at this the lowest point on the trek at about 2390 m. We both found this pass the most gruelling of the whole route. It wasn’t the highest, nor the longest, nor the steepest, but because there was no shade, it was dusty, we had run out of water and there were no streams. When in Bishkek we had tried all over to buy water purification tablets but couldn’t get hold of them. Googling revealed it is recommended to bring them from home, or some sort of purification system, as such things cannot be obtained in Kyrgyzstan. Another bit of Googling for alternative solutions led us to buy a small and extremely cheap bottle of iodine from a pharmacy. A few drops in your water bottle, shake it up, then leave it for half an hour before drinking.
This served us extremely well. Especially as we met quite a few other hikers with expensive filtration systems who had gotten sick on this trek – hence we got all the extra food in the yurt camps.
Near the top of the pass we came across a lone shepherd’s hut. Obviously, we were invited in for tea, obviously this involved bread, jam, and homemade cheese (looking like feta but more akin to salty chalk that is nigh on impossible to consume when dehydrated). These kind of situations were always facilitated by Magdalena being able to speak some Russian. I could just sit back and enjoy the tea and food while they discussed life, family, Kyrgyzstan, everything. He then insisted on walking us to the top of the 3415 m pass with Magdalena astride his tiny donkey with her feet almost reaching the ground.
We had a similar dilemma to the previous day as we approached the yurt camp at Koshmoinok. It was early afternoon so should we keep going. We could have easily made the distance to the next village if we kept going but that would have left us with a very long walk on the final
day (as it would shorten the whole trek by a day). We broke through the scrub to look down on the single yurt far below in the valley and it was a beautiful site. A clear river rushed through a meadow, which could provide a refreshing if bitterly cold shower and laundry opportunity; especially as it was still sunny and warm. The meadow was filled with yaks, cows, sheep, goats, and horses, opposite was a huge red outcrop like a sentinel guarding the valley, and of course the snowy peaks and glaciers lie at the head of the valley. The family had spotted us and were waving us in. Why leave this? We decided to stay.
As always, the family were lovely and the food was hearty and plentiful. As expected, the river was freezing but we could get clean and so could our clothes. After dinner we strolled up a nearby knoll and sat waiting for it to get properly dark. The sky was clear and there was no moon so we had high hopes for a starry night, especially given the altitude of around 2800 m and how far we were from any cities or
Day 2: Heights of Alay Trek
Koshmoinok Valley - where we spent the second night.
other sources of light pollution. We were not disappointed as the night sky was spectacular. There seemed to be more stars than there was blackness between the stars and the Milky Way was a bright wide stripe across the sky. We were enjoying gazing upwards, picking out satellites and the odd shooting star, when we saw a couple of torch beams sweeping around below us. Eventually, they made their way up to where we sat. “Come on, we go to bed now” the children from the yurt told us. “No thanks, we are OK” we responded; it being about 8:30 pm and us being adults. “Yes, come with us, time for sleep”. “No, we are quite a happy here”. This discussion went on for a while until we managed to convince them that their genuine concern for us was unfounded and actually we were just fine.
It was another stunning place to wake up and after another filling breakfast we set off up out of the valley up and over another pass. The view from the top was again stunning. The geology was now red sandstone and there were huge rocky buttresses protruding from the hills looking
Day 2: Heights of Alay Trek
Koshmoinok Valley - where we spent the second night.
like a stegosauras’s back. The path stayed high most of the day looking down upon this wonderful geology before dropping in and amongst it. Walking through the sandstone gorges reminded us of last year’s trip in the canyons of Utah and Arizona.
We popped out in Kojokelen village nestled at the bottom at the junction of two valleys. This is where we would have stayed had we kept going the day before. We were glad we hadn’t done that as we would have rushed through that stunning part of the hike plus the village didn’t look such a great place to stay (at least not as beautifully situated as the yurt camp).
From the village onwards was perhaps the most tedious part of the hike. You just follow a dirt road for about 2.5 hours up the valley towards Jiptick Pass. Because you can get a taxi to Kojokelen directly from Osh, avoiding the long road and mountain pass to Sary Mogul, lots of people start their trek there and just walk for 2 or 3 days in either direction. This was what a large party of Spanish were doing with ponies to carry their bags. We were
nervous about space at the yurt camp so we didn’t pause on this stretch so they wouldn’t catch us up. Turns out there was plenty of space as there were four yurts, though one was being dismantled for the end of the season. As always, the food and family were great and they taught us some Kyrgyz dances to music blasted out of a speaker attached to a mobile phone.
We were pretty much first off the next morning and followed the rocky road winding up the pass. Amazingly, this used to be motorable, as a rusting chassis in a ravine attested (or that may have proved it wasn’t). The “road” is now obliterated by landslides and rockfalls and steep shortcuts mean you don’t have to follow all the zigs and zags to the crest. The summit sits at 4185 m offering a sudden and spectacular view of the Pamirs to the south. We didn’t have a clear view of them at the beginning of the trek due to cloud but now they were as clear and as close and as enormous as any mountains I’ve ever seen. In front of us was Peak Lenin, at 7134 m it
is a vast bulk of a mountain and reputedly the easiest 7000 m peak in the world. Though “easy” is extremely relative. All that means is it isn’t that technical but the altitude, the cold, and the rapid changes in weather still make it an ordeal not to be taken lightly. The high white Pamirs stretched across the horizon from east to west like a massive impenetrable barrier and do form the border with Tajikistan. We met quite a few people who had travelled from that way along the Pamir highway with tales that encouraged us to add it to our future travels list (it was probably on there anyway).
The hike then wound down the other side through greener pastures, eventually reaching meadows of cows, horses, yaks, and shepherds’ yurt camps. It was lovely until we made the decision to walk back to Sary Mogul rather than arranging some kind of (very expensive) taxi pick up. It was only 12 km along the flattish valley plain and was fine until we got to the coal mine. This is inconveniently unmarked on the hiking map and the first sign of it is the spoil heap, which from afar blended
in with the foothills of the mountains. The issue was the dust. Lorries full of coal and other vehicles sped to and from the mine along dirt roads that were thick with a completely dry yet almost liquid in consistency fine grey powder. There was such an interweaving network of roads and all were in use that it was hard to escape getting an eyeful, an earful, and a lungful every few minutes. We eventually arrived back in town in desperate need of a rinse.
The Heights of Alay Trek deserves to be more famous but I hope it doesn’t get so. You could end up with competition of rival yurt camps and would lose the intimacy. The guesthouses and CBT office say it takes five days, our reading of the map suggested four which proved about right. In hindsight you could do it in three but why would you when it is such a fantastic place to be. Some internet blogs suggest an unfathomable 6-8 days with ponies to carry your stuff plus with a guide and a pony handler. Get a map, you don’t need a guide, you only need lunches and sleeping bags if
Generally our only company in the hills of Kyrgyzstan.
staying in the CBT yurts (highly recommended), four days is plenty and divides the distances and effort evenly.
A welcome lie in next morning then we set off hiking towards the Pamirs. In rebellion at the taxi costs we thought we would walk the 20 km to Tulpar Kol Lake at 3500 m. It was initially interesting going through the outskirts of the village but soon became quite a tedious plain like walking on a treadmill with the Pamirs seemingly never getting any nearer. Thankfully, a retired German couple stopped unsolicited and offered us a lift. Having done the drive the day before they knew it was tedious but had forgotten a bag at a yurt camp at the lake so were returning to collect it.
To say the lakes are a famous spot, they are not that special. The location is immense with a view north of the Sary Mogul plains backed by the Alay Mountains and a view south of the massive Lenin Peak with its glaciers spilling towards you. We just strolled around and sat by the water thinking our legs would probably thank us for a day off.
Up early next
morning after another delicious and huge breakfast from the – more touristy but probably also more comfortable – yurt camp. We passed through large cleared flat areas, like empty car parks, these being the base camps for Lenin Peak. Most mountaineering companies had packed up for the season but a few rows of brightly coloured tents and branded flags remained. We seemed to be first on the mountain again, sharing it with large herds of sheep and goats heading in the same direction as us along with a lot of screeching marmots warning each other of the abundant approaching hooves.
The hike took us up and over Travellers Pass at 4100 m, from where there is a great view down onto the glacier, and this is the final destination of most of the hikers who come up this way. We fancied going further and had Camp 1 as our aim. After dropping off the pass we traversed a large scree slope dropping towards the glacier below as the valley ran parallel to the enormous north face of Peak Lenin. As the slope got steeper, the scree became smaller and looser, like gravel, and the path became narrower, plus the
Day 1: Heights of Alay Trek
Top of Sary Mogul Pass at 4306 m.
drop got higher and where the glacier met the valley sides a lot of melting had occurred leading to deep gorges in the black dirty ice. Basically, if you slipped on the scree you would slide a long way then drop into oblivion. We both realised around the same time that weren’t enjoying it anymore. Actually, we had both realised that about half an hour previously but had pressed on anyway. A quick discussion revealed we were perfectly content with the hike to that point, especially given the Heights of Alay trek of the previous days, and would not mind at all if we didn’t reach Camp 1 so we turned back. The sketchiness of the path back again vindicated our decision. We took our time until we got back past Travellers Pass when for the first time all day we came across other people (we don’t really like sharing).
Back at the yurt camp there were surprisingly few vehicles (there were none) who may have given us a lift back to Sary Mogul. Rather than hang around we thought we’d set off walking down and flag down a lift on the way. Seems it was a quiet day
on the dirt roads; 2.5 hours and 14 km later we did get a lift from the first car that passed us.
Next day we returned to Osh, dropped off the extortionate sleeping bags, got a taxi to the border, and the Uzbekistan adventure began. This would be the last ‘stan we would visit, and indeed the last country on our 2.5 month summer trip from Poland overland to Mongolia via the Trans-Siberian Railway and back via Central Asia. Not just in hindsight but we even said it at the time; Kyrgyzstan could have been the highlight of the trip.
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