Kyrgyzstan – Altyn Arashan


Even if you have been following the Rio Olympic games like a hawk, then you still wouldn’t have had a chance  to spot this flag. As the post name suggests, we are in Kyrgyzstan. A few things you might want to instantly figure out, like where in the world is this place and how do you even pronounce its name.

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Luckily you have a friend who has been here, so i can help you out on all things Keer-geez-tan. Located south of Kazakhstan, its a small country that no one usually knows anything about, except maybe that it was a part of the good-ol’ Soviet Union. After the fall, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence and in 1992 designed this hip new flag. I have to say that the designer really thought ahead, even now the flag looks modern and cool…not many things from the 90’s can say that.

But the red and the yellow do remind me of the old Soviet colors, the hammer and sickle flag. Wait a minute here… because of the economic crisis that plagued the defunct soviet union states, the government had a bunch of red flag material lying around and some yellow paint for the hammer and sickles left over….so they told the designer that they had to use these…just a thought…

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Back from the land of fantasies. Our first stop in the Kyrgyzstan was in a little city of Karakol. Here i have to come clean…we knew nothing about Kyrgyzstan, it was not even in the original plan to visit. The ONLY thing we looked up before going to the border…do we need any visas…otherwise we are flying completely by the seat of our pants.

So we get to Karakol, find a place to stay, have a couple of beers and pat each other on the backs…only to wake up in the morning and realize that this is not a hang over…i got food poisoning. Actually, took me a few hours to realize that…at first i thought it was just too many light fizzy beers…but then i’ve been able to handle 3 beers in my life and NOT feel like dying the next morning.

Laid around for a day gathering our strength and trying not to go mad from constant power outages and suffocatingly slow internet.

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The next day feeling a tad better and with announcement of a full-day power outages we thought it would be best to go explore the nearby mountains.

There is this one place people kept talking about and coming back from – Altyn Arashan. We asked the hotel if we can drive up there and were told yeah…i think so. Not very reassuring, but we’ll try it either way.

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About 10 km outside of city of Karakol there is a village of Aksu, where you turn South and drive into the mountains. We tried to drive ourselves, but only after about 4 kilometers we had to admit our defeat and go back to the village. The road is passable, but we kept hitting rocks with our spare tire and it was a slow going…in addition to the stomach issues…i wasn’t up to the task.

Back in the village we found a driver, Alexander, who would drive us up for 2000 Som and keep an eye on our car while we were away. The preferred method of transport for shit roads here is a Soviet military UAZ 469. You can see both the car and the driver a few photos up.

As we drove further and further up the road, I became more and more convinced that we made the right decision to take a “taxi” up this road. Turns out that we only did 4 out of 18 km…and probably the easiest 4 km.

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So what is this Altyn Arashan valley? We didn’t have a clue either, but it turns out to be one of, if not the most, picturesque places we have ever seen on this trip. You are going to get tired of these comments by the time we are done with Kyrgyzstan…

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Alexander is a retired Deparment of Forestry worker and knows these lands like the back of his hand. He dropped us off in hostel of his recommendation. On the way up we asked him if its possible to ride horses up there and he said he would help us out. We barely had enough time to get out of the car, as a horse guide popped up out of nowhere. Alexander approved of him and negotiated a price….250 som per person per hour (~$4).

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Sun setting we didn’t want to waste a single moment, ran to the guest house, dropped our stuff and hopped on the horses. We got a couple of horses for each other and a guide just in case our “transport” wasn’t going to cooperate.

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This wasn’t like a guided tour…we just had horses and a helper and could go in any direction we wanted, do whatever we wanted…absolute freedom. That’s Hyein’s horse in the above photo, looking all fabulous…just like the rider i must say. You can also see the main Altyn Arashan valley stretching into the distance, this day we took a couple of hours and rode towards Peak Palatka (snow covered peak in the background).

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Our guide, named Cuba, didn’t mind anything. Whatever you wanted you did…you want to stop and take photos…no problem, want to cross a river?…no problem. It was super chill, just riding and enjoying the beautiful valley.

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I think we didn’t shut up for half of the 2.5 hour ride about how beautiful it is.

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The horses are like fish in the sea…they have too many to give names…so being the most original man in the world I baptized Hyein’s horse with the name “Solongos” (means Korea in Mongolian) and mine was christened “Ors” (means Russia in Mongolian). Original…i know, deal with it.

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With so much excitement i completely forgot that i had any stomach issues. Plus by this time it was becoming apparent that this is not just a simple food poisoning…but something a bit more persistent.

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Hyein was wondering why is my backpack so heavy…not like we had to carry it up ourselves, but still for a day “what did you pack in there HUSBAND?!”

Yes…spurred on by the success of Galaxy watching in Kazakhstan, i couldn’t miss a chane to shoot a bit more of our wonderful Universe…so I lugged our DSLR and tripod up to the mountains.

At night, i set it up to do a little bit of timelapse right outside of our guest house room. The stomach bug came in handy…as every time i would go to the bathroom to evacuate my body of sin, i would check on the progress of timelapse…honestly, the only problem is that in my feverish state it was hard for me to focus properly on the stars. But i’m sure you will excuse me for this little blunder.

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After a shitty night of sleep….hahaha…you see what i did there? Hoping that my body would cooperate for a few hours, but being a cautious young man I packed extra toilet paper and we organized another round of horseback riding.

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Today it would on a different route, up to a little lack in the mountains above the valley.

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The first part of the ride was pretty difficult…for the horses that is, we just sat in the saddle and encouraged the horses to climb up the steep trail.

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As the trail leveled off we got another, much smaller valley. Above the tree line, nothing but green hills and mountains around us.

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And of course, God had a good day when we thought up this place…no detail forgotten…a little mountain stream.

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In the summer this is THE heaven for horses, green lush all-you-can-eat grass around and a clean mountains stream to quench your thirst.

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A bit of selfies for the horses…at first i think they were a bit shy, but i think they got more potential on Instagram than all those puffy lipped girls posing in yoga pants.

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Couldn’t carry the dslr on the horse, so this is the best you guys get…a screenshot from a GoPro video. I think this photo captures the second day in the valley perfectly. Off in the distance by that far mountain is where we slept at night and came from in the morning. All the green meadows you see in front of you, were our playground for the day.

Hyein has exhibited a natural ability and talent for riding horse before, but here she really let the horses go…only the terrain stopping her from galloping from one side of the valley to the next. The first time we rode horses was during our honeymoon in the jungles of Belize. On the first day of riding, Hyein worked all the way up to gallop. I was going faster and faster, thinking i’m the cooler than ice and then i hear “whooping” and thunder of hooves as Hyein blazes past me…making me look like i was chewing grass next to the road.

First reaction was that she lost control of the horse, my heart raced for a brief moment until i saw her look back at me with a hugest grin. Way to go babe…i’m proud of you!

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We could have ridden all day, but since we decided to wake back down from Altyn Arashan on our own 2 feet…we could kill our knees and butts with horseriding. After just 3 hours we got off the horse and could barely walk, as our knees were frozen in the half-bent position. And our behinds…thats a whole different story…lets say that some of us will have marks from this experience for many years to come.

On the way down we took our time, enjoying the beautiful views, stopping for photos now and then. Hyein took this amazing photo where i look like a complete stud…in reality, i was judging how alone we are and i need be if i could duck behind that rock there to deal with my stomach…i’m sorry, truth sucks.

Later, when looking through the photos, Hyein exclaimed that she knows why she is so good with horses…do you see where this is going already?

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“Yeah, babe… you know your chin is long…like a horse’s face…hahahahahahhaha!” Very funny babe, i’ll have you know that i am proud of my strong jawline!

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Ah…the best view of the Altyn Arashan valley…as you leave you climb up a little hill before starting your descent all the way down. The first day we rode all along the valley and the second up to the mountains into the left valley.

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If you ever want to visit a place that will be truly unforgettable…this is THE place to go. After you have ridden around or hiked all day, you can soak your tired body in the Radon hot spring. Our guesthouse had one…i’m sure the other ones will also. Once you get plenty hot from cooking yourself with radioactive decay…jump into the icy-cold river to cleanse yourself of all that is human and become a supernatural human being. We are pretty awesome already so it didn’t do anything to us.

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When i saw that thing coming up the road, my heart sank…someone stole Hodori. But then the logic circuit kicked in…why would anyone in their right mind after stealing a car, drive it up the hardest road in central Asia? Plus we got that kill switch…so you can clean the car out, but most likely can drive it off.

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Second thought was….damn it a Land Cruiser made it up here…that means we could have done it also.  As the truck came closer and we saw the actuation and full travel of the suspension we realized that although this Land Cruiser looks like Hodori…it was built for a different olympic sport. We are more like speed-walkers…and this guy is a gymnast.

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Amazing…both come from the same body…but end up doing very different jobs. You can see the type of terrain that this guy did without a problem, while we are so heavy that we would have scratched the undercarriage at many of these spots.

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Hm…18 km…about 11 miles, not that bad considering that we are mostly walking down, but still not just a little walk in the park. Need to stop and rest for a bit.

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Its a pleasure to just sit and watch. As you get lower down the valley, the trees come back and surround you in the most fairy-tale lush green branches.

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The whole time you are here, you aren’t just happy to be here… you feel privileged to have been chosen to see this part of the world. So far on this trip there is not a single place that we saw that is like this.

Yes, Altai region in Russia is a close second…but there is something special here.

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At first i thought that when we come back here, and this place we absolutely want to revisit on our second trip, there will a normal paved road here. Now, i hope that there will never be a good road here. The road limits access to this valley and hopefully it will keep this beautiful for a long time. If someone does built a resort here….please for the love of everything that is beautiful – make it fit with the nature, dont ruin it with steal and concrete.

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After a pleasant 5 hour hike down, we were back in our car. But you wouldn’t be traveling in Central Asia if on the way down you didnt get passed by a heard of horses, then sheep and then cows being driven down from the mountain to the villages below.

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Back in Karakol, we changed hostels because our first one was full and got some dinner. So far the go-to dish has been “Lagman”, there are many different variations of this dish but in its essence it is noodles with veggies and meat. Sometimes its more like a soup and sometimes more like Chinese fried nooderes. No matter what you order it is customary to get some black tea. The locals drink it strong and with sugar. Even though it might be hot outside, order it. It helps wash down the food and grease.

In Karakol we found a lot of garbage food peddled to tourists. You’ll know these places because you will only see tourists when you walk in….run, turn around and run. Food is utter garbage and prices are sky high. Instead check out Mustafa (GPS 42.489279, 78.390535), im sure if i would have eaten here the first day, i WOULD NOT have been sick. Food is amazing, staff is nice and its cheap $5 for 2 people.

There needs to be a summary for this post…this place deserves it.

People claim that it is the Switzerland of Central Asia. We haven’t been to Switzerland just yet, we will dont worry. What i gather from the photos and movies it does resemble Switzerland, but that undermines the true and fragile beauty of Altyn Arashan. In translation it means “Golden Spring” and is considered by the locals as the oasis in the deserts of Central Asia. Located right in the middle between the Takla Makan and Kyzyl Kum full on deserts and thousand of miles of semi-deserted steppe. Now think where Switzerland is located, yup right in the smack of Europe, surrounded by the Atlantic, Mediterranean and North Sea. Its like saying that Trump is a self-made man…after that generous loan from his father.  You get the point. If something shifts in the climate, the deserts can come in any time and no more “Golden Spring”.

To be honest, i think that you should consider visiting this place…i’m not joking if you have no idea where to go for vacation and Europe seems a bit touristy…pick Kyrgyzstan. You will not be disappointed, if you need help with info i’m here for you. No jokes, you need to see this before you pass on to the next life.

Just imagine yourself on a moonless night, coming out of the hot spring, body steaming in the chill night air, looking up and seeing the stars and Milky way stretch from one side of the valley to the next. Don’t forget to breath.

 

 

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