|Karakol is a spread out town and we found it to be quite a laid back place with cute small houses with wooden shutters (very Ukranian). We spent the first afternoon trying to arrange our trek into the mountains. Most of the group organised a 3-day horse trek - but we decided we wanted a bit more adventure and excercise on our own so spent the rest of the day getting our gear and supplies organised for our 3-day trek in the wilderness.
Heidi then set the alarm for what she thought was 5.30 am ready for our bus at 6am only for us to find out that she had actually set it for 4.30am by mistake - hasten to add that the buses weren't running at that time so we had to catch a taxi to the start point instead. Well this proved to be a bit of an adventure in itself as the driver ended up taking us the wrong way. Luckily we could see we were going the wrong way and we made him stop and pointed out the correct way on our map (it turns out that the start point village on our map was wrongly named and that village was some way away in the other direction). anyway this proved to be in our benefit in the end as he dropped us off at the wrong side of the river and pointed us in the direction of the nearest bridge which the locals use - this meant we managed to avoid the national park fee booth!
Our trek basically took us up the Karakol valley. This is absolutely stunning with green grass, a pretty river and the backdrop of snowy mountains. There were also a lot of horses about - you never go 5 minutes without seeing one in this country. The horses are in foal at the moment so the locals tie the mums front legs together so that they can't go far and also so the locals can milk them and make Airag (fermented mares milk - yum!). In fact the only people we saw on our walk up the valley were a couple of locals on their steeds.
After 5 hours of hiking (most of which we were followed by a goat trying to find its Mum - we felt like we were taking it for a walk), the valley opened out in to a wide area - almost a grassy plain - at this point we started the trek up a smaller valley. As our shoulders were getting quite sore (well we were carrying all our gear, food, water etc - 15 and 20kg respectively) we stopped and had a lunch break in an alpine meadow full of flowers (wild Iris, mountain Daisies, mountain buttercups and loads more that we dont know the name of!). This is when the trek started getting hard as the last couple of hours of that day were just spent going up a steep slope. When we had left in the morning we had decided only to carry 2 litres of water each and to rely on getting fresh water from the streams. Well the map we had did show that there was a stream adjacent the path we were taking. However we were a little worried when walking up this steep section that we could not see a stream in sight and were fast running out of water (and needed some to cook with as well).
Lucky for us we made it to our campsite for the night (in only 2hrs from the bottom of the valley) and there was a large spring which the stream disappeared in to. We were pretty happy with ourselves as had only spent 7 hours walking that day and arrived at 2pm so we were able to sit in the sun and relax for the afternoon - well actually once we had put up the tent we had the quickest wash ever as the water was icy cold and spent the rest of the afternoon boiling water for drinking and cooking and nursing our sunburn. We then relaxed and watched the sun set over the mountains whilst we ate our 3-course meal (soup, noodles and snickers). So as not to be out of kilter with the other 2 campfires that had been lit in the valley, Shaun decided to show his boy scout skills and light a camp fire - this lasted until 9pm when it was dark so we put the fire out and went to bed knackered.
We continued up the valley - another hard slog uphill past the snow level and waterfalls and finally got to the whole point of the trek - Lake Ala-Kol (3530m). This was simply stunning - a crystal clear blue lake surrounded by snowy mountains. After a well earnt lollypop and some dried fruit we headed around the side of the lake traversing scree slopes. At the other end of the lake was a huge glacier facing into the lake - stunning. However at about the same time we saw the 3860m Ala-kol pass that we had to climb over to make it into the adjacent valley (Arashan) - it was pretty bloody steep.
It was hard yacka getting up to the top, carrying our heavy packs and dealing with the lack of oxygen in the air. It was one of the hardest things we have ever had to do - both of us suffered with light heads from the altitude but we eventually made it to the top to immense satisfaction and great views.
However we soon realised that we couldn't see an obvious way down the other side. After wandering around for half an hour we thought our best option was to slide down a steep part on some of the snow. We could see the horsetrekkers a long way below us and some of the group had started walking up the pass from the other side so we knew there was a way down. There was a huge snowy ledge before a massively steep snowy/scree slope that we had to get down. We put our water proofs on, took our packs off and basically slid down on the snow digging our heels in to stop us going all the way to the bottom of the mountain at very high speed. It was pretty scary when we started but we soon relaxed and it was actually quite good fun (although the horse trekkers guide did try and tell us that was not the best way to go - then after watching us he did exactly the same route!).
We were both relieved to make it down and after a quick talk to the others headed down the Arashan valley both looking forward to going downhill for a change. However at about 4pm we realised we had taken the wrong track and had ended up on the wrong side of the river. After following some local farmers path for a while we found some fallen tree trunks over the stream - so scrambled across and managed to get on the right side and got back on the correct track again. However we didn't get into Ak-Suu (where we knew there were some lodges and hot springs) until 6pm (a 10 hr day - 5hrs from the top of the pass even though the map had said it should take us 2hrs - in fact the map was wrong on a number of things!!) both very sore with blisters. So after setting up our tents we had a well earned soak in the hot springs. The horse trekkers were all staying at the lodge as well but we were so knackered we just had our 3 course meal (soup, noodles and snickers again) and went straight to sleep in our trusty tent (well I had carried it all the way so was damn well going to use it)!
A boring 3 hours trek hobbling on blistered feet out of the valley and then a local bus back to Karakol for a well earnt shower and a few beers.
Overall it was quite an unforgetable experience although we will probably be suffering for a few days yet!!
That night we discovered that we definately would not be getting our chinese visas (as the Chinese govt had stopped people obtaining visas from outside your country of residence due to the Olympic games). So we are now trying to arrange Plan B........