Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan – an easy hike near Karakol
Why visit Altyn Arashan?
Altyn-Arashan, which means ‘Golden Spa’ in Kyrgyz, is the most popular hike near Karakol in the north-east of the country. The hike is relatively strenuous but certainly not impossible, with some lovely gorge views afforded on the way and there are rich rewards once you have reached the snow glistening mountain valley.
Furthermore, the site is famous for its several hot-springs where natural sulphur infused water flows into concrete pools housed in wooden sheds. The water is hot, around 50oC and is the perfect antidote to weary bodies.
Where is Altyn Arashan?
Altyn Arashan is located 20km south-east of Karakol and near Issyk-kul Lake, in an alpine valley dominated at its southern end by the 4260m tall Pik Palatka (‘Tent Peak’). The valley forms part of the Arashan State Nature Reserve which is famous for its unique wildlife, including snow leopards and a few wild bears. Don’t worry though, it’s very unlikely they will make an appearance and the only animals you are likely to see are the horses and sheep owned by local families.
Distance: 14km (one-way)
Time: 5-6h up / 3.5-4h down
Difficulty: moderately easy
Altitude: Start: 1810m Finish: 2435m
How to reach the hike
The hike’s start point is located at the southern end of the town of Teploklyuchenka, which is more commonly referred to as Ak-Suu, about 12km east of Karakol.
To reach it, take the marshrutka #350 from Karakol centre (tell the driver you want to go to Altyn-Arashan and he will tell you when to get off). When returning the last marshrutka back to Karakol leaves at 6 p.m. in the winter and 8 p.m. in summer.
Once the driver lets you off the bus it will continue along the asphalt road and you have to veer right. The path to Altyn-Arashan is easy to follow and will generally follow the track used by a couple of 4x4s that might also be making the journey to the hot springs.
After 3km you will cross the river (from the right bank to the left) and after that you will not cross the river again.
After 12km the path becomes a little confusing but stay left (up and away from the river; don’t cross it). When the road cross backs on itself twice, after a rest area, you can take a hiker’s short-cut and go straight up but apart from that just follow the jeep tracks.
The first part of the hike follows the river and you will be surrounded by pine trees crawling up the hills around you, after which you will be given glimpses of the snow topped peaks. However, it is only in the final part (about 2km) before reaching the valley can you really see the peaks in all their glory.
Staying at Altyn Arashan
Altyn Arashan is not a village but a collection of 4 lodges so don’t expect wide accommodation options. The lodgings are simple and many choose to bring a tent with them to camp instead.
Yak Tours (250 dormitory / 500 double) serves food (sometimes!) and has a warm common room and on-site natural springs (200 for non-paying guests). They also asked us to pay 150 to camp on site but we just went the other side of the fence and camped there instead.
Arashan Lodge is located 200m beyond Yak Tours and charges 500 for dorms with access to the hot springs included.
Food is not always guaranteed but during the peak season shouldn’t be a problem. You can also buy some basic supplies but it is recommended to bring everything (food, water etc..) with you.
The hot springs are located in wooden cabins that can be locked from the inside. Shampoo and soap is forbidden and no swimwear is necessary (just go o-natural).
Hike map and transport links
For longer hiking options, it is possible to reach Altyn Arashan through an alternative Karakol valley. The most common hike is via the alpine Ala-kul lake, but be warned that this is a very demanding hike and should not be attempted if there is snow on the passes (all year round except late June to August) without an experienced guide. You don’t want to be the stupid foreigner who gets stuck on a hill being overly confident!
This hike also requires an entrance fee of 500 SOM.
Start hiking along the Karakol river from near the town of the same name. After 4 hours of gentle inclines cross the river, 2 hours of uphill, hard slog will leave you at 3000m, panting for breathe and at a small wooden cabin. Here is a good place to spend the first night.
The next day will be the toughest. First up, another tough ascent up the turquoise, alpine lake of Ala-kul. After admiring the scenery and catching your breathe, follow the shoreline for a few hundred metres before another climb up to the Ala-kul pass at a lung emptying 3800m.
The descent into Kel-deke valley is where many inexperienced hikers come unstuck. In bad weather the steep descent is ludicrously dangerous, and not that much safer when the conditions are fine. You will need to essential slide down the 500m descent as the path is non-existent.
If you make it the bottom alive, the flatter and more sane path will lead you north-east through the Kel-deke valley through to Altyn Arashan.
Read more about this hike: Goats on the Road – A Hike To Remember: Trekking To Ala-Kol & Altyn Arashan.