The coniferous forests in the world are notorious by their beauty. They wake an images of wild, cold, high mountains, and in the same time, for many people- fairy tales, and even Christmas. The higher, the sharper, the prettier. They are usually associated with regions like Canada and USA’s Rocky mountains, North Europe and Siberia. You can often see such forests in some of the most beautiful mountain scenery photos ever created.
But not too many people know that some of the most beautiful coniferous forests can be found in Tianshan mountains– in Kyrgyzstan and China’s Xinjiang. If you love coniferous forest mountain landscapes- go to Tianshan and you can find breathtaking views that can compete with the most popular coniferous forest areas in the world. In fact, although these forests cover only less than 5% of Kyrgyzstan’s area, they are one of the country’s symbols, which can be seen in many artist’s pictures.
I really love coniferous forests. From my childhood, these forests have been always like a dream, awaking a lot of fantastic memories. In the same time, the mountains of Central Asia (which are the highest mountain ranges in the world, known as “Greater Ranges”) have been firmly set in my mind and planned to explore.
So, long time ago, when I just start to research more seriously this area, browsing in internet and looking for photos, I discovered a place, which really settled in my mind due to its stunning beauty. It was Altyn Arashan- a little known valley, somewhere in the heart of Asia.
Usually, the image of the Greater Ranges mountains like Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir, and the Tibetan plateau is known as an image of naked, deserted hills and valleys, dominated by sharp icy giant peaks. I knew that in some areas the Greater Ranges are covered with some forests. But the coniferous forests of Tianshan, combined with the mighty snow capped peaks, as well as the local culture- the yurts, the horses, the people, has formed some of the most beautiful views that I have ever seen on Earth.
WHERE IS ALTYN ARASHAN, AND WHY IS IT SPECIAL?
The coniferous forests of Tianshan can be seen in many places of its mountain ranges, mainly on the north slopes. They especially cover the mountain valleys descending northward, thus make these valleys amazingly beautiful, covered by high, sharp and very narrow coniferous trees. If you wonder what exactly this tree is- it is Picea Schrenkiana, an Asian spruce, growing mostly in Tianshan mountains.
Geography of Tianshan
If you look at a map of Tianshan, you will notice that it is a complex system of many mountains, mainly situated from west to east. Between some of them you can see large plains, as well as one of the largest lakes in Asia- Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan.
And there is a mighty range south of Issyk Kul, part of Tianshan mountain system- Terskey Alatau. Its highest peak is Karakol (5216 m). Terskey Alatau is a typical alpine type mountain. There are a lot of valleys, descending from its peaks and glaciers to Issyk Kul lake in the north. Few of the valleys a well known for the travelers and the lovers of such areas- among them are Karakol, Djety Oguz and Arashan. If you open Google Earth and see their satelite images, you can notice the dark green color, covered the valleys- this is their fir forest cover.
Tianshan nomadic life
Since ancient times this area has been scarcely populated by nomads, living in the high mountains, among the dark forests and grasslands in their yurts, with their livestock. It is same even now- they live there in the summer, but in the winter they descend to the lowlands, waiting the snow to disappear. And when the new summer begins, they enter the deep north valleys of Terskey Alatau, one of which is Arashan valley.
Altyn Arashan- the Golden Spa in the high mountain
What makes Arashan valley so special? The other neighboring valleys have quite similar looks- steep slopes, covered with fir forests, a furious mountain river, and snowy peaks in the background. But Arashan has something more- hot mineral baths (although there are few more hot mineral springs nearby, but those in Arashan are the best). They are located in its most beautiful part, at 2500 m altitude, just in the beginning of the glacier formatted part of the valley. And all this landscape, covered with dark fir forests and grasslands, is dominated by the glazing snowy peak Palatka (Tent), which really looks like a white tent. This place is called Altyn Arashan (the Golden Spa).
HOW TO REACH ALTYN ARASHAN
Altyn Arashan is located near Karakol city, which is the basic starting point to reach this place.
Altyn Arashan is one of the points of a route, which became quite famous for the travelers in the recent years. The route starts from Karakol and it has two versions. The shorter version is following Karakol valley upward, then turns left to Ala-Kol lake, crosses the summit between Arashan and Karakol valleys and descends to Altyn Arashan. Finally it follows Arashan valley downward to Ak-Suu village and by minibus (marshrutka) backs to Karakol. The longer version follows Djety Oguz valley instead of Karakol valley, and from Ala-Kol lake onward it is same as the shorter route. For more information see here.
Directly from Karakol
This is the popular adventurous way to reach Altyn Arashan. The easier way is starting from Karakol (you can reach Karakol from the capital Bishkek by marshrutka), by marshrutka No.350 (you can take it from the center of Karakol)- to Ak-Suu village. You have to stop and get down from the marshrutka at Altyn Arashan junction (you can tell to the driver “Altyn Arashan” and he knows where to stop).
The 15 km trekking
Then you start walking 15 km on a dirt road, following Arashan river valley- for about 5 hours. The route is easy and the landscape is very picturesque, passing almost all the time through the coniferous forest around. Since you start at 1800 m altitude and finish at 2400 m, the road is almost plain most of the time. In summer you can often see passing hikers, horse riders, 4×4 jeeps and bus-trucks. The local bus-truck is a heavy truck machine with passenger’s cabin.
We passed this road (as a part of our trip to Kyrgyzstan) with our children without any problem, so if you are a family, looking for something more adventurous, Altyn Arashan and the route to there is an excellent choice. And since it is often visited by hikers from all over the world, it is very safe.
The extreme driving road
If you rent a car from Bishkek (or other place), better don’t try to drive on this road! It is very bumpy and a small car definitely can’t pass it. Only heavy machines can go there. There are few companies which can arrange a bus-truck group to Altyn Arashan. Normally the price for a whole bus-truck is 15 000 KGS, or 1000 to 1500 KGS per person (which is around 20 USD). We haven’t used it, but we met a 4×4 jeep in the middle, which took us for 1000 KGS (4 persons together) to the final point. However, you can bargain with the jeep drivers.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ALTYN ARASHAN
Since Altyn Arashan is in the mountain, but not too high, the best season is summer, especially July and August. This is actually the high season. After that starts a short autumn, and the second half of October is the time for the first snow.
When the winter comes, Altyn Arashan is almost abandoned. The visitors gradually disappear and the locals close most of their accommodations and other activities. Winters are cold, snowy and long.
From April the snow starts melting and June the area becomes free of snow, the new green grass grows, with a lot of flowers. Thus the summer begins. Generally the summer is pleasant and cool, sunny most of the time. But sometimes there are thunderstorms which may be dangerous for those who are in a middle of a hiking route.
ACCOMMODATION IN ALTYN ARASHAN
First- don’t expect and don’t look for any luxury. This is a wild mountain place for people, who like adventures. Now there are few guesthouses in Altyn Arashan, as well as many yurts, where you can sleep. You can also bring your tent and sleep beside the yurts and the guesthouses.
You can look for guesthouses Ala-Kol, Altyn Arashan, Gulnara and Elza. Their rooms are shared, usually with 6-8 beds. In summer they also offer meals (which you have to order in advance). There is also a small shop beside Elza guesthouse (Elza is the host of this guesthouse- a nice girl with good English, managing the guesthouse with her brother and her parents), which can be opened by request. But don’t expect more than some cookies, waffles, water, coke and a beer inside.
All the guesthouses have their own Facebook pages, so you can contact them in advance (just searching in FB by their names). We slept in Elza guesthouse and we had a nice experience there.
Price in Elza: 600 KGS/bed. Meals: 300 KGS for lunch and dinner, 200 KGS for breakfast. The price in the other guesthouses is almost the same. When enter inside, don’t forget to take off your shoes (as everywhere in Kyrgyzstan)!
There are few yurt camps beside Gulnara and Ala-Kol guesthouses. The conditions there are poorer than in the guesthouses, but it can be an exciting experience for the adventure minded people.
As I mentioned above, you can bring your tent and sleep beside the guesthouses for 300 KGS (which you pay to the host of the guesthouse).
No mobile connections in Altyn Arashan. No WiFi! The locals contact with the outside world only by their satellite phones, so if you have urgent calls, just talk with them for help.
THINGS TO DO IN ALTYN ARASHAN
This stunning place has a lot to offer. Actually, if you have more time, it is worth to stay there at least 2-3 days or even more, and again your time would be full.
– Mountain hiking
The mountain area around Altyn Arashan is not extremely high. You can do mountain trekking on a few routes:
- The classical route to Ala-Kol lake. You can do it in the opposite direction and it is still amazing.
- Southward- to Palatka peak foot. Just follow Arashan river upward, to its initial glacier valleys.
- Eastward- to a small Ak-Su lake. There is a smaller side valley just south of Altyn Arashan. If you follow the path, you can reach the smaller and not so famous Ak-Su lake.
- Northward- back to Ak-Suu. You can choose to back to Ak-Suu and Karakol on foot, and it is still a nice trekking experience.
– Mountaineering expeditions
The most popular mountaineering expedition from Altyn Arashan is the 7-days hiking to Palatka peak. Since it is an alpine type peak, it requires some mountaineering skills.
– Spa in the thermal baths
Actually it is one of the things that make Altyn Arashan popular. There are few wooden huts with pools beside the guesthouses. Talk to the host in advance and reserve a time for a bath. The water is 38 C- a very comfortable temperature. They will give you only 40 mins for a bath, but actually you don’t need more- it is enough to make you feel very hot. The people often go out of the pools and enter the icy cold waters of Arashan river, then again back to the pool, and it is a very exciting experience. Usually the price is 200 KGS per person (for 40 mins).
– Horse riding
Kyrgyzstan is a country of horses. There are a lot of horses in Altyn Arashan too, and in summer the horses are very busy. For 1000 KGS per person you can hire a horse and make a horse trekking to Ala-Kol or down to Ak-Suu. However you have to hire the horse master too (another 1000 KGS), so it is worth to do it if you are a group, which can share the guide’s expense.
– Picnic, photos or just relax
The landscape around Altyn Arashan is so beautiful, that you can just get your small bag with some food, and your mat, then choose a place inside the fairy landscape and enjoy a picnic or just relax. The views around are excellent for photos too.
Altyn Arashan is a quite safe place, but you have to aware of these two things:
They can be dangerous, especially if you are under a lonely spruce tree. Avoid lonely trees, find shelter if possible, or at least some lower place inside the forest.
There are a lot of livestock animals in the area, so their herdsmen normally have guard dogs. Since there are a lot of visitors, the dogs are already got accustomed with them, but if you are in a more remote place, especially if you are alone facing few dogs, they may become aggressive. Don’t show fear, don’t run (especially if you are too close to them) and look for their master.
So, if you go to Kyrgyzstan and want to visit its most representative destinations, the coniferous forests of Tianshan are definitely one of them. And Altyn Arashan in my opinion is the best coniferous forest place of this country.
Check out some travel books about Kyrgyzstan:
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