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Altyn Arashan Valley

Running parallel to the Karakol valley to the east, but separated from it by the ranges of Kara-Beltek, Aylanysh and the high 4,000m-plus peaks of the Terim-Tor, is the Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa) valley. Of all the valleys that lie close to Karakol, this is probably the most popular overall, and with good reason. Even by Kyrgyzstan's high standards, the valley is extraordinarily lovely, with silver threads of streams trickling down to join the Arashan River, lush meadows sparkling with wild flowers, and smooth green slopes cloaked by dense stands of conifer higher up.

This spartan hot spring development set in a postcard-perfect alpine valley at 3000m, with 4260m Pik Palatka looming at its southern end. Bears are said to inhabit the area, although there does not seem to be any record of attacks on humans in the region. Much of the area is a botanical research area called the Arashan State Nature Reserve and is home to about 20 snow leopards and a handful of bears, although the only animals you’re likely to see are the horses and sheep belonging to local families. During Soviet times it is rumoured that 25 snow leopards were trapped here and shipped to zoos around the world until Moscow cancelled all collecting and hunting permits in 1975. It is also bear country: goats are a favourite breakfast for bears but locals say there have been no attacks on humans.

This outstandingly beautiful valley, alive with hot springs, is the ideal spot to relax and take day-or overnight walks (it is also the end point of the Ala Kul trek. Locals may have time to act as guide, for an appropriate fee.

The valley begins close to the village of Teploklyuchenka, to the east of Karakol town. Just south of the village the road splits, veering left to reach the spartan Ak-Suu sanatorium and continuing straight on for the Altyn Arashan springs along a steep, and extremely rough, 12km track through pine woodland close to the Arashan River. The road is only suitable for a really tough 4x4 vehicle and is such a slow, uncomfortable drive that walking may be the longer but more appealing option.

Along the road up to the hot spring complex are a number of hidden cold and hot springs, and there is a small cave 500m downstream from the Yak Tours guesthouse that has hot sulphurous water piped from a nearby spring. The hot springs 'complex' at the end of the track is fairly rudimentary, but a wonderful place for a hot bath after trekking, or as a place to stay and use as a base for hikes further up the valley. Day treks may be made to nearby 3,800m peaks - around 7 hours' round trip from the hot springs complex.

Altyn Arashan has several small hot-spring developments. Natural hot water flows into a series of concrete pools enclosed by wooden sheds. The pools reek of sulphur but there is a translated certificate pinned to the door extolling the curative properties of these waters and listing, in exhaustive detail, the diseases they will cure.

Each shed is lockable and you can get the key from the house closest to whichever shed you select. It is a great way to relax and it’s almost mandatory to run, screaming, into the icy river afterwards. From the springs it’s about a five-hour walk on foot to the snout of the Palatka Glacier, wrapped around Pik Palatka. Another hot springs, open-air but concreted, lies just off the track, about 25 minutes walk towards the village of Ak Suu.

Getting there & away - Buses leave several times a day from the local bus station in Karakol town centre for Ak Suu. Beyond this village, the road snakes perilously into the mountains, each winter claiming several trucks which lie snow-bound until the spring thaw. The road is too rough for taxis but you might be able to hitch on larger vehicles. From the turn-off to Ak Suu Sanatorium it’s a steep, five to six-hour (14km) climb south on the 4WD track beside the Arashan River, through a piney canyon full of hidden hot and cold springs. There’s little traffic so hitching is hit and miss. You can hike in as the climax of several possible treks to/from the Karakol Valley.

Excellent camping is to be had under two hours walk up Altyn Arashan valley from the bath house at the junction with Kol Dooke valley, or in the trees further up Altyn Arashan. The area is used by summer herders so it might be possible to buy koumys but keep an eye on the dogs! You will need to bring your own food. Trekking permits are needed for this valley.