If you do like trek and horse activities, you surely cannot miss Kyrgyzstan in your Silk Road journey. Studded with verdant valleys, candid peaks and alpine lakes, the country is the perfect scenario for hiking among the natural beauties and sleep under the beaming stars.
Furthermore, it has surprisingly developed a community-based tourism (CBT) system by which you can easily find cheap homestays in secluded villages as well as rent local guides and equipment (tent, sleeping bag, etc.) for your long treks
Aware of that, we then decided to test the experience in Arslanbob (click here to see how to get there from Osh), famous for the world’s largest walnut forest surrounding a still small and traditional hamlet, where nonetheless plenty of tourists come every summer to enjoy the numerous tracks departing from the centre.
Our primary point of reference there was CBT, the organization managing the intermediation between tourists and local service providers. They have a tiny, anonymous office (behind a blue door with a badly readable writing on top) at 150 meters up from the village centre. They do speak English and provide all the info regarding accommodation and activities around.
As for the former, they assign you one of the available 19 homestays scattered around the village, which evenly costs 500 KGZ Som (including breakfast) per night, plus 200 for the dinner. Definitely a good deal !
The more intricate part is instead the leisure one. Deprived of hiking equipment, we asked whether it was possible to rent tent and sleeping bag to be independently able to trek on our own. Unfortunately, we were replied that it was no longer possible. You are provided the gear (for free) only if you also hire a local guide. That seems quite a forced trade : ). To be honest, they explained us that after losing one tent, they do not want to take any further risk with that. Believe it or not !
So the hard dilemma: either one-day hike or multiple days but with the guide “in the payroll” and marking the rhythm. But we longed for an intense experience. Thus we finally resolved to go for the second option. Indeed, if you are a group of several people, the (split) cost for the guide is fairly reasonable. Conversely, in case you are alone or in two, that might turn out a bit burdensome. As a matter of fact, we got asked 2000 KGZ Som per day. The unclear element is the breakdown figure of the fare: 1200 KGZ for the guide + 800 KGZ for his meals, which appeared to us very generous, especially after observing that guides only eat bread, cheap food in cans and tea. Nothing else.
Anyway we accepted. You can arrange everything for the following day without any notice. They have lots of available guides
The “CBT offer” included the following services:
- 4 days (3 nights) English-guided treks up to Holy Rock, Friendship Pass, Holy Lake (Kol Mazar), Paynav Kul, Jailoo, Kyzyl-Alma and finally back to Arslanbob – 76 Kilometres in total.
- Hiking gear (tent, sleeping bag and mattresses), which you have to carry by yourself.
Food is at your charge and responsibility. No camp stove provided.
Happy with the deal, we had a little “warm-up” in the afternoon inside the huge walnut forest on the western side of the village. It’s a round 2-3 hours circuit in which you:
- see a small waterfall;
- placidly stroll under the shadowy, imposing trees;
- pass aside a bewitching viewpoint overlooking the village.
In the evening, we relished the quiet homestay before the straining itinerary of the four subsequent days.
DAY 1 : TO HOLY ROCK (12 km – Medium difficulty)
The meeting with the guide was planned for 8 am to go and buy food together. After a slight delay of 30 minutes on his side, we walked together to the CBT office (500 meters away) to pick up all the equipment. We eventually went to the shop on our own. Without camp stove, we had to purchase lots of cans, cookies, chocolate, bread and other “ready-to-eat” stuff. We added pasta and rice in case the guide was endowed with any pot or boiler (we kinda hoped he was : )
No need for water, as there is plenty of drinkable sources everywhere!
We never had any issue even without adding the purifying tablets. In total, think that you have to carry around 10 Kg. of weight during the whole treks…so be prepared!
The “urban” northward road is already steeply uphill. Past the holiday house Turbaza, you leave the village and start to see the green pastures above, towered by the imperial Babash-Ata (4427 m), the highest peak in the region, always covered with snow.
We took our first water replenishment right after the last house, at 1800 m height, from a clear torrent coming from the upper glaciers. The friendly guide spoke a decent (learning by listening) English and showed from the beginning a very cheerful and laidback approach with us. Eight years of experience as a guide had taught him a lot on how to deal with tourists, probably any kind of!
He regularly stopped every hour or so for around 10 minutes to catch our breath (and for him to smoke an unavoidable cigarette : ). Besides, his pace seemed to be totally adjusted to our needs. We were actually a bit afraid of it on the eve : ). Instead, all good and smooth.
After two hours, we were able to discern far away the big waterfall (89 m). At around 12 30 h we took our first “lunch break” on the green meadows populated by the ever-present cows and horses. From there, Holy Rock is already visible on top of the opposite cliff. But as always in such occasions, eyes distort distances. And clouds get lower and lower, thicker and thicker! When the sun disappears, the temperatures immediately drop here, especially when you pass 2000 meters height.
Views over Arslanbob and the surrounding mountain keep being breathtaking all along the way up to Holy Rock, a reputedly sacred stone related to Prophet Muhammad (hardly believable though). At about 5 pm – after an abrupt, winding trail – you are well up in front of the “magic” stone (which you can even climb!), 3000 meters high with a phenomenal sight over the entire valley.
You have all the time to eat, rest, set fire for a warm çay and arrange your tent for the cold night, with the harder part still waiting for you after you wake up : )
DAY 2 : TO HOLY LAKE (KOL MAZAR) – (19 km – Difficult)
The day started for us at 7 am. After a short breakfast and set up, we were waiting to resume our hike. The guide, who had slept “outdoor” under a thin tarpaulin (he had no tent to “save” weight), was stretching out and preparing the unmissable tea over a camping fire. At 8 o’clock we were all ready to set off.
Although abrupt, the first kilometres are pleasurably walked on the green pastures among the animals. From the top of a hill, sometimes disturbingly covered by the menacing grey clouds, you could already gaze at the steep rocky wall leading up to the fearful Friendship Pass (3750 m), which opens the way to the next valley.
To our most unexpected amazement, we suddenly saw the guide extracting a rope from the ransack. That meant there would be some “difficult parts” according to him. We were not aware of that : )
With our bulky backpacks we started to ascend the rocky path in zigzags to loosen a bit the trail inclination. In a few stretches we had to firmly grasp the guide’s rope to overcome semi-vertical big stones, without thinking or looking back too much : )
The last section included a final climb on the snow, assisted again by the rope. At around 12 am we were successfully on the pass, tired but jauntily relishing our sandwich lunch.
We thought the worst had already past, but the way down from the pass is as much insidious as the one up
Snow and big, unstable stones were making the walk quite arduous. We fell a few times (no harmful consequences luckily) and almost broke our shoes : ). That lasted for a couple of hours until we started to ascend another hill, from which you finally can peer at the distant Holy Lake.
Although milder, the descent is quite long and takes a while. The view of the lake is really beguiling from some points. The lake is dwelt (only in summer) by a small group of families taking the cattle up for pasture.
When we arrived there, after a scrutinizing inspection from the village chief, we received such a warm welcome and hospitality we couldn’t expect. We also got invited for a dinner gathering inside a guest hut. Plov was the speciality served that day! And çay, of course!
We had later some issues to pitch the tent on the stony soil. It moreover started to rain for some minutes. But all good, we were set for the second night. After greeting another group of tourists coming over, we were already inside our “house” to try to get some rest and sleep after an exhausting day.
In such trekss, you end up in the tent at 8 pm and wake up at 6 am, since you are bloody tired and attractions around are not the most exciting ones : ). By the way, the lake is not accessible for bathing or swimming: too cold and “sacred”!
DAY 3 : TO THE JAILOOS ( 30 km – Medium difficulty )
The third day seemed to be a recovering time after such intense efforts. Indeed, after a relaxing descent to the small Paynav Kul (where perhaps you can swim) and an amusing break at a shepherd’s camp, the path starts to become hard again.
It takes around 1 hour to reach another beautiful, green pass from which you can observe both lakes (Holy and small). There you can discern a lot of locals riding their horses or donkeys, cheerfully greeting back at you.
Afterwards, you go through an up-and-down trail which follows the verdant slopes populated by fresh torrents, grazing animals and horse riders.
We took our lunch on these sunny meadows. After lunch, we suffered from another abrupt ascent to another high pass. The rest of the way is then downhill, first flanking a river, later stepping down a winding trail on the slope of a mountain.
This time we didn’t get away so early! We had to walk until 8 pm (in total 12 hours) before finding a suitable field to nail our tent down. Right in time to avoid the darkness! The altitude (2000 m) and temperature there are much meeker, offering better conditions at night, even a warm sleep.
DAY 4 : TO ARSLANBOB (15 km – Easy)
The last day started quite late at 9 am. The guide told us there were still 5 hours to go. We discovered later we were camped just 3 hours away from our logistic base.
The final part is totally a carefree “parade” towards the village, through well marked paths and even car roads. After 1 h 30 you are already entering the outskirts of the town, facing the hot, sweaty temperatures of the “plain”. At 12 am we managed to arrive to the CBT office to seal the end of our gratifying trip and return the rented equipment.
All fantastic but in the end …
Once at CBT headquarter, we figured out we could renegotiate a bit the price of the 4th day, given the fact we only had hiked for 3 hours (9 to 12). We were perfectly available to acknowledge half day fare (so 1000 KGZ), leaving aside that the meal allowance for the guide for 3 hours of day treks should have been very basic. In addition, we wanted (and then we did it) to gift all our remaining supplies to our friendly companion.
Nevertheless, when trying to logically explain the situation, we got barked back that the “deal” price could not be changed. They could not take less than 2000 KGZ Som per day. A short altercation ensued between the CBT manager and the glum guide, probably (we could not understand) because he was so fast in bringing us back. As a form of compensation, they subsequently tried to offer the guide for a local tour until the end of the day. But we refused, as it was a service we didn’t need. Long story short, we had to pay the full daily amount and leave, fairly resented and disappointed by that irrational, inflexible behaviour.
All together, the experience was definitely inspiring and gratifying. Although we were not told beforehand about the complexity of the treks, we were finally overjoyed with the wonderful landscapes, genuine inhabitants and motivating activity.
- As said earlier, the price was not that expensive, but 800 KGZ Som just for the guide’s daily “meal allowance” is certainly too much.
- The level is between intermediate and high, especially during the first two days.
- The guide was doubtlessly jovial, helpful and understanding. His pace completely affordable. The breaks regular and long enough.
- As for the CBT equipment, actually it was quite old and faulty. Missing tent cover, pegs and guys are to be reported. We got also delivered one “fleas-infested” sleeping bag, cause of itching during the following days.
Just a pity the stiff attitude shown in the end by CBT, which left us a bit puzzled and disconcerted. Apart from this, we resolutely advise to take this treks.
It was very worth the time and the effort we put into it. Great moments !!