We returned from the Pamir Highway dusty and travel-worn. Our hearts were full from the adventures and sights we had just experienced, but our bodies were a bit run down from the 10 days in the Pamirs. In all of our prior travel experiences, this was probably the most challenging and rewarding either have experienced.

There was no rest for the weary though as we had a prior commitment to meet friends Oihane and Aitor for a camping trip in north eastern region of Kyrgyzstan. Oihane is a good friend of Quan’s from Shanghai. Her boyfriend Aitor had planned the hiking expedition for the group and they had traveled from the Basque region of Spain for the trip. They had arrived a few days earlier to Kazakhstan to hike and camp Charyn Canyon, one of the top local recommendations for Kazakhstan.

After an evening of rest in Osh, we caught an early morning flight to Bishkek ($20, 40 minutes). From Bishkek it’s a five hour drive to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan where we would meet Oihane and Aitor.  They were making their way from Kazakhstan crossing the border into Kyrgystan similar over land as we had.

During the Pamir Highway we had previously visited Karakol, Tajikistan, we very nearly planned to end our Pamir trip there as we assumed it was the same city we would meet Oihane and Aitor for our camping trip. Luckily maps and geographic grounding prevailed and we realized that there is also a Karakol in Kyrgyzstan.

Karakol, Kyrgyzstan offers stunning access to the Terksai Ala-Too range of the Tien Shan mountain which looms above on three sides. It is the premiere place to go in the region for incredible hikes and was the setting for many of the famed expeditions of Russian explorer Nicolai Przhewalsky.   From there, travelers have easy access to Issyk-Köl Lake, Ak-Suu, Altyn-Arashan, the fabled Karakol Valley and the road to Inylcheck Glacier.

The route that Aitor has planned for us was a 4 day, 3 night hike in the
Tien Shans that included the highlights of Lake Ala-Köl and the natural hot springs of Altyn Arashan.

Issy Kul Route

The night prior to our departure for Karakol, Jesse had a slight fever and ear ache and we both did not feel like our full selves. Quan made a trip to a local pharmacy and using google translate and some broken Russian she was able to get some meds to help with Jesse’s ear. We also let Aitor and Oihane know of our current health conditions. There was no way we would miss seeing them and would make our way to Karakol, but we weren’t sure if we were fit to continue with the original plan to hike and camp in the mountains where conditions would get pretty cold at night.

Luckily, Aitor had planned the expedition with Karakol CBT, which offered us some alternatives upon our arrival. CBT stands for Community Based Tourism which works to build link between foreign visitors and the emerging family owned tourism companies of Kyrgyzstan. We told them that due to our health conditions we weren’t fit to continue the original trek. They offered an alternative where we would take a counter loop up the mountain via horseback riding. As the horses are much faster, ours would only be 3 day, 2 nights. We would base ourselves at the yurt camp of Altyn-Arashan hot spring and would have an evening with Aitor and Oihane on their descent. This allowed us an extra day to rest in Karakol before heading into the mountains, we would still get to see the two highlights Lake Ala-Kol and the Alytn hotstprings. The yurts were also much warmer than the tents we had originally planned to camp in for the first few nights and most importantly we would still get to share parts of the journey with our friends.

OA and JQ Route

With this news in place we met up with Oihane and Aitor and had an evening out in Karakol. 

We sent them off in the morning and tucked ourselves in for a day of rest: drinking lots of seltzer, binge watching Netflix, and catching up on the news. We both felt much better after our day of rest set off on our horse trek the next day.

In our daze to find a solution we both neglected to realize that our only prior experience with horses was during our honeymoon in Cuba. There we rode gentle mares through a tobacco plantation- very flat surface and nothing technical. Here we were riding wild mountain horses that had been tamed by the local family and we were riding them up rock mountain trails- very technical. Our guide was a teenager named Adilet whose English consisted of “Excuse me! Excuse me!” when we were veering off course and a shy thumbs up when we were on track.  Suffice to say, Day 1 was a challenge for all of us. The route up for Day 1 is shared with cars and we had to pull the horses over several times to make way for the vehicles.

The ride though was beautiful. We rode along mountain streams and got glimpses of the glacier as we rode the switchbacks up to the mountain. Thankfully the first day’s ride was also very short- 3 hours to the yurt camp at Altyn Arshan Hot springs.

Quan made Jesse hold hands while horse back riding, this lasted exactly 2.5 seconds

You can read more about Altyn Arshan here. This was home for two nights in the mountain and was the base for our full day horse back trek to Ala Kul Lake the next day.

This is also where we reunited with Aitor and Oihane on their descent from Ala Kul. We shared an evening in the Big Yurt playing card games- they taught us some Spanish card games and we taught them our favorite Chinese card game. It was amazing to all of us that we were able to spend this time together in this remote and beautiful region of the world.