Many stories had set me on the path to looking for great tales of the landscapes, people and mountains and Kyrgyzstan was no different. I remember gazing at my map and wondered how Kyrgyzstan was surrounded by other isolated countries in the stans which I had no clue about.
Ala Archa National Park, an alpine national park in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan is just 40km away from Bishkek making it an easy access for the locals to trek or hike their country's highest peaks in a short distance on a day trip from Bishkek.
One morning while waiting for my plans to materialise and my biking partner to arrive, I decided to grab a a local bus no. 265 to Ala Archa National Park and start my trekking journey independently. The air was crisp, the sun was harsh and I needed to get away from the hustle and bustle of sleepy Bishkek onto the foothills of their nearest mountains which was the country’s famed national park, Ala Archa National Park.
Archa in Kyrgyz means “variegated juniper” in Kyrgyz, which is a coniferous plant that grows on its steep mountains slopes. The country’s national park stunning mountain scenery is often compared to that of the Alps, and it is also called the “the Alps of Central Asia.”
The park covers about 200 square kilometers, and its altitude ranges from about 1,500 meters at the entrance to a maximum of 4,895 meters at Peak Semenova Tian-Shanski, the highest peak in the Kyrgyz Ala-tau range of the Tian Shan. Believe it or not there are 20 small and large glaciers and some 50 mountain peaks within the park.
The Beginning of All Trails: Hiking to Ak-Sai Waterfall
Getting to the trail head was relatively easy, I got down at Kash-Kasu, paid the entrance fee of 80 som and hitchhiked to the trailhead which was a distance of 12km for a relatively low price. I met a young German couple (Jacob and Carla) and we shared the fees and paid a minimal sum of 100 som to reach the trail head.
Upon reaching the Alpager at an elevation of 2,200 metres, we had to decide on which route to take. The nearest peak soared through the trees orientating towards the south-east. The trail to the left leads to the Ak-Sai Waterfall Trail (a 2 hour hike) and then to the Ak-Sai Glacier (4 hours) onwards towards Ratcek Hut where avid mountaineers often stopped at the hut before they made their ascent to Mount Uchitel, a 4,500m peak.
On the trail to the right, a relatively easy walk called the “Ala Archa River Trail” will take you to open views of the entire mountains in Ala Archa, and if you walk another 10km you’ll come across an old, now abandoned, ski area and numerous other 4,000m peaks. If you want a picnic out in the mountains and don’t really have a lot of time, you can choose the River Trail.
Alpager Hut Towards Broken Heart
We set out on a gentle climb towards the Ak-Sai Waterfall trail on the left at about 10.00am and stared deep into the mountains in the Ala-Archa National Park. Mounting these trails deep within the pine forests required marginally less effort until the afternoon heat began to penetrate as we turned left to the next crests.
We tottered along looking at the azure blue skies and wonderful pine trees dotting the mountains of Kyrgyzstan as we climbed up graveled paths and glacier streams. Standing here opened up new ways to take in the beauty of Kyrgyzstan, and showed a world that was profoundly interconnected.
Wildlife in this part of the world includes wild goats, roe deers, furry marmots and even the very rare snow leopard who are often seen up in these snowfields and alpine meadows. Word has it that a snow leopard was photographed by the park’s camera for the first time in May 2017. We wondered if we would be lucky to spot one
At 2,380m above sea level, we passed our first checkpoint “a broken heart” which was essentially a large rock split into halves.
Tepshi Plato to Ak-Sai Waterfall
After ascending relentlessly, we took a break at the second point at Tepshi Plato at 2,460m. From here onwards, it is a relatively doable trek to Ak-Sai Waterfall which will take approx 1 hour. To see nature in stillness and its glory with open views of the jagged peaks that stood in the horizon, it seemed like Kyrgyzstan would easily be named as planet’s new ‘lost worlds’.
The howling winds and the snowy summit twinkling in the sunlight gave me new ideas on whether this day trip should be extended to 3 day trip if I were to make it Mt. Uchitel. However, I saw mountaineers with ropes, helmets, large backpacks packed with pre-packed food and camping equipment - a sign that Mount Uchitel (which means teacher in Kyrgyz) could teach you a lesson if you don’t come prepared for the slippery ascent and the cold. With that thought, I decided to finish my last trail mix and push on to the final sweeping views of the Ak-Sai Waterfall.
The trail descended down a steep boulder-like valley towards a crystal stream. We just needed to make some crossings without getting wet and pick a less gnarly path to step over these rocks. As we finally dodged boulders, rocks and loose slippery gravel we came across to the fresh flowing Ak-Sai Waterfall.
While the waterfall was nothing to shout about, the magnificent views of the entire valley with layers of green mountains and the distant snowy mountaintop was enough to add watercooler to our senses and take a breather from that heavy panting that we had endured in the last few hours.
We saw people taking their chill life to new levels with a cosy corner being set-up to either camp the night or just stopping for a read. We were not that ambitious and were fixated in the views and the fresh water that was next to us. It was time to fill-up some water!
Descending from Ak-Sai Waterfall
In the mountains, the weather can quickly change and it can get pretty ominous with bursting clouds, dark skies and wet trails. We decided to make our way back. As the gloom gathered, it was amazing to look at the rugged cliffs casting a great shadow across the mountains and see it change colour.
We chatted along the way with a lot of European trekkers, some from Spain and Germany who had came here on a private tour and some independent mountaineers who were on a 3 day 2 night epic trek to the one and only Mount Uchitel.
I felt as if I was disappearing into the enormous landscapes, receding further and further until I became smaller than a dot on the green valley floor before finally vanishing all together into the darkness of the universe. We sat on a boulder to enjoy the cold windswept views and take in one final last look; this was just the beginning of my trip and my first hike - it was incredibly beautiful to be able to admire the stark geography in this part of the world.
Not long after, we befriended a Canadian girl and we saw that she had empty spots in her car. We asked if her guide could give us a lift to the trail head / bus stop and they gladly obliged!
How To Get To Ala-Archa National Park
By public transport / marshutka: The easiest way to get to the park is to take Marshrutka #265 from Osh Bazaar (you can look it up on Maps.Me). The bus will take you to Kash-Kasuu, the closest village near Ala-Archa National Park for 50 som. You can negotiate with the bus driver to drop you at the entrance of the gate. From the gate, you can pay the entrance fee (80 som) and hitch a ride to the trailhead for 12km. The bus is unpredictable sometimes but leaves approximately at 7.45am and 10.50am and the last bus to Bishkek is at 5pm / 5.30pm. I decided to go with this because I did not want to go to with a tour and thought this was easy and fairly doable.
By private taxi: You can organise a taxi for a return trip with your hostel. People at Apple Hostel and even Freelander Hostel paid 2,400 som for a round trip and it seemed pretty convenient if you don’t want to worry about catching the bus.
With Trekking Union of Krygyzstan (TUK): The folks at TUK do always organise treks on the weekend to different spots in Kyrgyzstan. For 450 som, you get everything taken care of and get to go with a large group if you don’t feel comfortable hiking alone.
Where To Stay In Bishkek?
Freelander Hostel: I stayed here throughout my stay in Bishkek and absolutely loved the hostel, how clean it is and spacious the property is! You can even get private rooms and mingle with other people from all over the world.
Apple Hostel: A convenient hostel for organising and charting out all your trips in Bishkek. They do offer their own tours sometimes as well!
Interhouse Bishkek: Immaculately clean and well-designed hotel; works well for solo travellers!
Art Hotel: Funky, modern boutique hotel at a really affordable price!
Baikhan Hotel: Cozy and rustic hotel that’s really lovely if you love living with a local!
Jannat Regency: If you want a Central Asian luxury experience, then this hotel delivers.
Orion Hotel: If you’re not too fussed and still want the comforts of the 21st century, then Orion Hotel very well takes care of that.
What To Pack?
Nothing like having a hot cuppa of hot chocolate or coffee when you’re camping out and looking over the peaks. Stanley's tough and durable 17 oz classic Food Jar keeps hot water and food for 12 hours so you can enjoy an outoor meal any time!
This is perhaps the single most important product when I was out there in Kyrgyzstan. It has served me well, and this small, light, compact makes an excellent unit that won’t break the bank. It even holds dirty water. Just make sure you don’t fill it with water near animals, always go to the source or higher up in the mountains.
I have always used Osprey backpacks as they tend to be extremely lightweight and offer an integrated and removable raincover, superb ventilation, a sleeping bag compartment, and hipbelt pockets. You can stuff all that you need without having to worry about space when you’re climbing the mountains.
This jacket is perfect if you're a cold person like me who loves to be warm when you’re hiking in the mountains, but not overly layered up where you can’t move. I had layers on and it was easy to wear this as my outer most layer when hiking in the mountains!
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