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Activities around Karakol

A ski resort in winter, the summer turns the Karakol valley into a series of flower-strewn meadows, used by herders as summer grazing. The ski lift and kilometre-long slopes are actually in the side valley of Kashka Suu. Enthusiasts can ski on Terim Tor glacier in summer. Summer options include walking and camping; the Karakol valley has no villages.

Trekking around Karakol - Although the possibilities are almost infinite the most popular routes tend to be those listed below. Rivers from the glaciers which envelop the peaks of the Terskey Alatau rush towards Issyk Kul, cutting deep valleys in the flanks of the mountains. Several treks cross these ridges, parallel to the lake, at two levels; the higher involves some glacier walking, reaches 4,200 metres and passes beneath the great walls of the peaks, while a lower one is less demanding, peaking at 3,860 metres and takes in pristine turquoise Lake Ala Kul. Conveniently, the treks range from 3 to 12 days, depending on which valley you choose to start in.

All of these can be done without support by anyone who is reasonably experienced and fit enough to both hike and carry the tent, food and equipment that will be needed. Alternatively a trek can be arranged using the services of a local tour agency. Crucial factors are your fitness, response to altitude and the weather - you could easily see burning sun, a hail storm and snow blizzard all in one day. Bring adequate layers for warmth and full water and windproof gear. The best maps for these treks are the gorniy tourism series available in Bishkek. They should not be attempted without a good map and, with the possible exception of the Karakol to Altyn Arashan trek, preferably a guide. Beyond the first day, paths are unmarked and the route is often difficult to decipher.

The trekking season is fairly short, from the end of June until early October, and the majority trek between late July and early September; August is the peak month. Beyond this season, nights are very cold and snow is possible. Bad weather can, of course, occur at any time and rainstorms are something that should be prepared for.

Of numerous possible routes that climb to passes below 4000m, the best of them take in the alpine lake Ala-Kul above Karakol and the Altyn Arashan hot springs above Ak-Suu (Teploklyuchenka).

Ak-Suu village to Altyn Arashan & Back Minimum one or two nights. Hike about 3,5 to four hours up the Arashan Valley, climbing from 1800m to 3000m. Tell the driver you want to go to Arashan Valley. A day-hike extension could take you 4,5 hours further up the valley, branching east and then south for views of Palatka (4260m).

Karakol Valley to Arashan Valley, via Ala-Kul - Minimum three nights. This is a popular route, taking in the Ala Kul Lake in four to six days. See the Karakol valley section above for the route to the Seer Ata campsite. From this camp you leave the Karakol valley and head east. The path climbs steeply, close to the river, for about two hours, past rock walls to a waterfall, gushing from Lake Ala Kul. Traverse south, above the waterfall, for about half an hour to a rocky bluff overlooking the lake. Descend to Lake Ala Kul (3,523 metres), keeping it on your right.

The choice is to camp here early in the wild barren beauty of the lake or to slog on over the Ala Kul pass, making a very long day. The path all but disappears here. Follow the lake, rising to a crest at the central curve of the lake, from where you can see to the far end of the lake and other tempting camping spots (one hour's walk) near the base of moraines and glaciers. From the central point of the lake head north-east across scree slopes up to the Ala Kul pass (3,860 metres) and descend steeply to a number of possible camping spots in the Kol Dooke valley or the junction with the Altyn Arashan valley (about three hours from the pass). From here, a good trail leads down the valley for under an hour to the Kholkhoz Co-op Guesthouse and bathhouses.

Jeti-Oghuz to Altyn Arashan, via the Karakol Valley - Minimum four or five nights. The trail heads up the Jeti-Oghuz river valley, crossing east over the 3800m Teleti Pass into the Karakol Valley. From here head up to Ala-Kul, and then over to Altyn Arashan and Ak-Suu. Beginning at the Jeti-Oguz sanatorium the route continues south along the valley through the Valley of Flowers (Tsvetov Dolina), which is a good place to camp. About 5km further on the gorge of the Teleti River leads off to the east. The route follows the river as far as a small confluence a couple of hours' upstream. The valley bottom here is another suitable place to erect a tent for the night.

From here, the route climbs sharply to the northeast towards the 3,759m Teleti Pass, from where it descends to join the Karakol valley, a 5-6 hour trek in all. Reaching the Karakol valley, the river is followed north for two hours as far as the footbridge, where the route to the Ala-Kol Pass alongside the Kurgak-Tor, detailed above, is followed.

Kyzyl-Suu to Altyn Arashan, via the Jeti-Oghuz & Karakol Valleys - Minimum six to eight nights. From Kyzyl-Suu head up the Chong-Kyzyl-Suu Valley to the Jyluu-Suu hot springs or on to a camp site below the 3800m Archa-Tur Pass. The route follows the Chong Kyzyl-Suu River southeast until an old meteorological station is reached where the river splits in two. There is a rustic hot spring pool along the way, 4km short of the weather station. The route follows the course of the left-hand river, the Kara-Batak, which is followed until a suitable camping area is reached. Next day cross the pass, head down the Asan Tukum Gorge into the Jeti-Oghuz Valley. From here it’s over the Teleti Pass to the Karakol Valley and to Ala-Kul, Altyn Arashan and Ak-Suu, as described previously. You can combine any number of these parallel valleys to make as long a trek as you like. You can also add on wonderful radial hikes up the valleys, for example from Altyn Arashan to Pik Palatka or up the Kul Tor Valley at the head of the Karakol Valley for views of Karakol Peak (5218m). There are also longer, more technical variations on these that climb as high as 4200m and cross some small glaciers, but these should not be attempted without a knowledgeable guide and some experience with glacier walking.

Skiing - About 17km south of Karakol, the Kashka-Suu Valley becomes the area’s winter playland of snow and ice. The season kicks off at the end of November and runs to March although canny locals sometimes get an additional two weeks worth of skiing in May when avalanches create temporary ski fields.

Karakol Ski Base (www.karakol-ski.kg) operates three chairlifts to a height of 3040m and one sledge drag. Together they access over 20km of trails. Most trails run through coniferous fir woodlands and the guided, winter forest ski tours are a magical experience. The ski rental equipment is relatively new.

Karakol Ski Resort operates the Karakol Ski Base and the only accommodation on the mountain itself. There are a total of six doubles, four triples and two apartments (each with two bedrooms) within the hotel and two A-frame chalets that each sleep eight to 10 people. The rooms are basic but comfortable, all with TV and en suite. The other option is to stay in Karakol town and hire a 4WD to take you up to the ski base.

When to Go - The season for the treks noted here is normally late June to early October. August is a popular time for picking mushrooms; blackcurrants are in season in September. For Altyn Arashan only, you could go as early as May or as late as the end of October, but nights drop below freezing then and the surrounding mountain passes are snowed over. Locals say that Altyn Arashan is loveliest in June and in September. Weather is the region’s biggest danger, with unexpected chilling storms, especially May to June, and September to October. Streams are in flood in late May and early June; if you go then, plan your crossings for early morning when levels are lowest.

Getting there - Take the No. 1 bus from Karakol centre to the outskirts of town and walk to the park entrance from there. Alternatively, take a taxi. Foreigners pay an entry fee of US$5 in som and an extra US$0.50 per car. If you are in a car, you can save yourself an uninspiring 45-minute walk from the entrance by driving as far as the bridge. A track rises gently up the wooded Karakol valley, offering views to Przhevalsk Peak at the head of the valley, and skirts a couple of marshy pools where the river widens. The third broad meadow, where there is an old Soviet tented camp, is a good camping spot, from where you can explore the valley. This is about three hours' walk from the lower bridge (or five and a half hours from the end of the bus line).

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