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Ala Archa National Park

The wide beautiful valley of the Ala Archa river sweeps up to the highest peaks and largest glaciers of the Kyrgyz Alatau range. To protect its tremendous natural diversity it was made a national park in 1976. The scenery of Ala-Archa Canyon is wild mountain nature with large, with over 50 mountain peaks, more than ten glaciers and 30 mountain passes. The valley's steep wooded slopes, pristine water meadows and craggy cliffs provide habitats for over 170 animal species, including eagles, shy Marco Polo sheep, bear, lynx, wild boar, wolves and, in its upper reaches, rarely spotted snow leopards. It also supports over 800 plant species; a dream-come-true in spring for alpine flower enthusiasts. To the casual observer, spruce, birch and juniper woodland dominate most of the steep slopes of the park and diminutive alpine flowers cover the meadows in drifts of colour in spring. The park's principal river is, of course, the Ala-Archa, but there are also two smaller rivers - the Adygene and Ak-Sai - that are fed by glacial melt-water. Both river and park both take their name from the archa tree, a brightly coloured juniper that is traditionally burned by Kyrgyz to chase away evil spirits.

The park has everything that you might expect of an alpine zone - snow capped peaks, fast-flowing streams, alpine meadows, pine forest and steep crags - and it can seem remarkable to find so much unadorned nature so close to a capital city. It is this very accessibility that is actually the park's greatest draw, especially to foreign expatriates and Bishkek's middle classes who come here to picnic. As well as a convenient spot for picnicking weekenders, the park is also a magnet for hikers, skiers and mountain climbers. The valley's charm and accessibility from Bishkek attracts the crowds so try to avoid weekend visits if possible. Once you've left the suburbs of Bishkek you pass through an arch entitled 'Alamyedin'. The cemetery to the right contains the memorial tower to Baitik Khan (though he was buried elsewhere) who went quietly to his grave without knowing how profoundly his actions would affect his land. Leader of the Solto and Sary-bagysh tribes, he rebelled against the tyrannies of the Khokand khan, killing him in 1862. He asked Russian troops for assistance, they successfully stormed the Pishpek fort and Tsarist rule was introduced in the region.

In this very grand, rugged but accessible gorge south of Bishkek, you can sit by a waterfall all day, hike to a glacier (and ski on it, even in summer) or trek on to the region's highest peaks. Most of the Ala-Archa Canyon is part of a state nature park, and visitors are charged small entrance fee plus separate levy if you're in a car. The park gate is 30km from Bishkek aтв ten kilometres beyond the village of Kashka Suu. The small museum near the entrance exhibits local species, including a sad array of stuffed animals. The ten and 30 minute guided tours appear to contain the same information, but delivered at different paces.

Some 12km beyond the gate, at 2150m, the sealed road ends at the alplager (base camp), home to a weather station, an A-frame lodge and a basic hotel. In summer it has recreational facilities, baths and a sauna. Beyond this point the only transport is by foot or 4WD.

Trekking in Ala-Archa Canyon - There are plenty of options for walking and trekking in the valley and it is best to bring your own food and camping equipment, although you can sometimes get a bed at the turbaza for a small fee. The starting point is at this unsightly building, 12 kilometres from the park gates. It was well maintained for climbers in Soviet times but is now principally a restaurant and bar. At this altitude (2,150 metres) the weather can change swiftly so come prepared for cold and wet.

With dozens of trekking and climbing possibilities here, there are generally three main and most popular options.

A popular, fairly gentle walk heads downhill from the turbaza, across a footbridge and south-west for eight kilometres below the Andygene glacier. Along this way is a climbers' cemetery in a larch grove, a pretty and poignant scene. Most of the graves contain little more than fragments of clothing or scraps of climbing equipment, as the human remains of the victims were never found. A solitary grave outside its boundaries is for the man who 'committed suicide' by cutting himself free in order to save his comrades. As such, this is regarded as an act of suicide and so he cannot be buried in consecrated ground. Elsewhere, a broken rotor blade commemorates helicopter pilots killed in the area. The track continues for about 7km to 3300m, below Adygene Glacier.

The track from the climbers' cemetery continues for 7km or so through forest beneath the Adygene Glacier, ascending very gradually at first before becoming steeper as it approaches the magnificent glacial cirque of Stayanka Elektra. This route tends to be quieter than most and you are very likely to see birds of prey on the wing, particularly griffon vultures riding the thermals on the warm air radiated by bare rocky outcrops.

Another popular, but tougher, walk takes you within view of the Ak Sai glacier. The path climbs steeply to the east above the turbaza to a meadow at the entrance to the Ak Sai canyon. A little further up is a waterfall. The path beyond is rough and steep and climbs high above the river to a stone hut called Ratsek at 3,300 metres, a popular camping spot. The hike from the Alplager takes around 4 hours to this point, so the stone hut is a good turn-round point for a strenuous day hike in the park. Beyond lies the terrain of the experienced mountaineer with equipment and a guide. Unless you have climbed very gradually to this point it is quite possible that you will suffer from some form of altitude sickness here so it is worth leaving enough time to return to the turbaza if your symptoms are bad. Just beyond the Ratsek is a large rock with memorial plates attached that commemorate perished climbers. A trail leads left from here towards Uchitel peak, a 3-hour climb, and there is another trail a little further on that angles left towards the rock wall of Bachichiki and the north wall of Korona. At the end of this trail is another small metal hut, reached after about 3 hours' walking from the Ratsek.

Taking the trail past the rock with the plaques and then angling slightly right leads to the south side of Korona. The trail climbs steeply along the left side of the glacier before flattening out to reach a climbers' steel hut at 4,150m. From here, there are climbing routes to the peaks of Korona (4,692m) and Uchitel (4,572m).

For climbers there are numerous options in the valley, of varying degrees of difficulty, accessible from the Ratsek: the Bachichiki rock wall, Schwaba, Box, Tikitor, Free Korea and of course, Korona peak itself

The most popular trek goes straight up the main canyon on a disused 4WD track about 22km, to the abandoned Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base. There's a run-down ski chalet here, where trekkers can stay if it's not full. This is a long and tiring walk (six to seven hours) so start early in order to reach the ski chalet before nightfall. You may find it difficult getting there - early in the season there may be too much snow, late in the season the river may be too high to cross. Most demanding and dramatic is Ak-Say Canyon, with access via Ak-Say Glacier to the area's highest peaks. A trail climbs steeply to the east immediately above the alplager, continuing high above the stream. A strenuous four to five hours brings you to the Ratsek Hut at the base of the icefall at 3370m (with a backpackers' tent city in summer). Bring all your own food.

Another hour or two's hike brings you to the beautiful glacial valley. Beyond here, climbers use a steel hut beside the glacier at 4150m (accessible only with some glacier walking). Serious climbing routes continue up to the peaks of Korona (4860m) and Uchityel (4572m). Semenov Tianshanskii (4895m), the highest peak in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too, is nearby. You should be particularly careful about altitude sickness on this route. Try to do at least one day hike before tackling this route and don't sleep any higher than the icefall on the first night.  The trekking season around Ala-Archa is May to September or October, though the trail to the Ak-Say Glacier can be covered in snow even in August. Geoid in Bishkek sells a good 1:50,000 topographic map of the entire park, called Prirodnyy Park Ala-Archa.

Transport - Public transport from Bishkek's Osh Bazaar goes only as far as Kashka Suu, ten kilometres from the park entrance and 22 kilometres from the turbaza. If you plan to hitch out of the valley you should leave early. The most convenient option is to hire a car and driver from a travel agency or negotiate the day trip with a taxi at Osh Bazaar, which is really not prohibitively expensive if there is a group of you. You can either get the taxi to wait if you fancy a short hike or pay for just one-way and take your chances getting back to Bishkek.