Seen from almost anywhere in the city, the snow-flecked peaks of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range (an outer chain of the northern Tien Shan which stretches 400 kilometres from the western end of Lake Issyk Kul towards Kazakstan and boasts around 480 glaciers) to the south loom close, a physical barrier between the flat Chui valley and the Kyrgyz hinterland. The Ala-Too range dominates the skyline with peaks that are not far short of 5,000m and stretches for almost 400km east to west. Close to the city, and easily visited on day trips, lie a number of valleys that give an authentic taste of upland Kyrgyzstan and which can serve as suitable locations for anything from gentle picnics to strenuous trekking. The best in terms of accessibility and alpine landscape are probably Ala-Archa and Alamedin. It is between these two valleys that the highest peak of the range - Semenov-Tianshansky (4,895m) - is found, its name given in memory of the 19th-century Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky (and some say spy).
The main rivers which cut through the mountains are the Karabalta, Ala-Archa, the Ak Su, Sokoluk and Alamyedin. They and dozens of other parallel streams have created a phalanx of high canyons, good for everything from picnics to trekking and skiing to mountaineering. Be warned that the Kyrgyz Alatau receive most of their rain in May and June.
There are many possible do-it-yourself summer treks, but bring your own food and gear and be prepared for cold weather and storms, even in summer. There is limited public transport and you are best off hiring a taxi to drop you at the trailheads, though Bishkek tour operators and trekking companies can provide transport and arrange guided trips.
White-Water Rafting - It is also possible to raft some of the rivers spilling from the mountains. The most commonly rafted river is a 25km stretch of the Chuy between Tokmok and Balykchy although some people extend this by continuing on the calm section of the river for a further two hours.
Skiing - So many mountains, so few chair lifts. By international standards the ski fields in the Ala-Archa and Alamedin Valleys, 30km and 40km south of Bishkek, are undeveloped. If you have realistic expectations or prefer your piste uncrowded, strap on your sticks for there’s plenty of powder. Ski tours and jeeps can be arranged, although it is possible to get there by 4WD taxi, depending on road conditions.
Heli skiing - Despite mountains of snow, the Terskey Alatau range has little in the way of skifield development and many side valleys, ridges and glaciers are seldom, if ever, skied. Some companies can arrange heli-skiing – Kyrgyzstan’s answer to the chairlift shortage.
MI-8-MTB helicopters ferry groups of up to 15 skiers and boarders plus guides and pilots to terrain within a zone selected according to snowfall, the weather and your group’s ability. It is possible to get as many as six different adrenalin-inducing descents within a day’s skiing. Cost is approximately US$250 per day. It’s worth checking that the guides carry an emergency radio to contact either the helicopter or mountain rescue in case of emergency.
Getting There & Away - Bishkek travel agencies can arrange pricey day and longer trips including guides and gear. The best budget alternative would be to hire a taxi or hitch (though you’ll still end up paying for the ride). From the Osh Bazaar bus stand in Bishkek, bus 265 runs five times a day to the gate. Ask vorota zapovednika (nature park gate) when you board. You may even find minibuses running as far as the alplager. If these aren’t running (this is likely outside of summer weekends), take a minibus from the Osh Bazaar bus stand as far as Kashka-Suu village, 7km from the park gate (itself 12km from the alplager), and hitch or hike from there. Also from Bishkek, on Moskva, west-bound bus 11, and on Soviet, west-bound bus 26, go about 12km south to the end of the line near the city limits, from where you can hire a taxi or hitch (ask for alplager, not just ‘Ala-Archa’).
A taxi from Osh Bazaar costs around 150 som one way to the gate, or 400som to the alplager. If you are planning to return the same day negotiate a rate for the day, otherwise you face a long hike back to the gate or leave yourself to the mercy of the taxi sharks at the alplager.