The Ala Archa nature reserve is a big draw for tourists visiting Central Asia who want a quick trek outside of big city life. As you walk around Bishkek or go up into one of the many high-rise apartment buildings springing up all over the increasingly metropolitan town, it’s hard not to notice the towering Tien Shan mountains that dominate the southern skyline.
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Even catching a view from the central square among the fountains while stuck in 100-degree summer heat, clouds of dust, and crowded traffic jams, the sight of snow-capped mountains can be both invigorating and discouraging. When the busy city overwhelms, the respite of Ala Archa National Park is just a short drive away.
As such, the Ala-Archa Canyon has become one of the most visited places in all of Kyrgyzstan. With snow-covered peaks rising above 4,500 meters (15,000 feet), steep forested slopes, picturesque meadows, unique alpine wildlife and fast-flowing rivers, Ala Archa is the premier destination. As well as a convenient spot for picnicking weekenders, the park is also a magnet for hikers, horse trekkers, skiers in addition to the skilled mountain climbers looking for challenging ice, rock and mixed routes. The wide beautiful valley of the Ala Archa river sweeps up to the highest peaks and largest glaciers of the Kyrgyz Alatau range.
It can seem remarkable to find so much unadorned nature so close to a capital city. It is this very accessibility that is actually the park’s greatest draw, especially to foreign expatriates and Bishkek’s middle classes who come here perennially to picnic. The valley’s charm and accessibility from Bishkek attract crowds so try to avoid weekend summer visits if you want to experience the isolation of the park in all its peaceful glory. The valley of the Ala-Archa river is one the most picturesque sights of Bishkek surroundings. In this very grand, rugged, but accessible gorge south of Bishkek, you can sit by a waterfall all day, hike to a glacier (and ski on it, even in summer) or trek to the region’s highest peaks.
ALA-ARCHA PARK INFO/HISTORY
Ala Archa Natural Park is located approximately 40 km south of the capital city of Bishkek in the region’s largest gorge also named Ala-Archa. It is here, in the narrow valley of an ordinary small river that you may see a concentration of wonderful landscapes, stunning waterfalls and amazing rock formations. The alpine park covers an area of 200 km² (20,000 hectares) and stretches for over 35 km (22 miles) of the western Tien Shan (Celestial Mountain) range. The national park’s altitude ranges from about 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) at the entrance to a maximum of 4,895 meters (16,000 feet) at Semenova Tian-Shanski, the highest peak in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range. Located on the north slope of central part of the Kyrgyz Tien Shan ridge, the park has become in many ways the symbol of Ala-Too itself.
The region’s most famous and highest peaks of the Ala-Too Mountains rise out from the Ak-Sai glacier, including Korona (4860m), Semenov-Tyan-Shan peak (4875 m) and Free Korea (4740m). All higher than anything Europe has to offer, alpinists from all over the world gather here to conquer the summits of these peaks. In addition to more than 50 total mountain peaks, the Ala Archa gorge also is home to more than 20 small and large glaciers and 30 mountain passes. Trekking to almost 5000m is possible, although most people stay near the lower reaches that are often used for picnics. 140 classified mountaineering routes of various levels of difficulty / complexity have been mapped out, but there are still more to be topographically explored. Every May 1st, the Alpinada festival sees hundreds of people camp out in the valley and climb Mount Komsomolets.
The park, which includes the gorge of the Ala-Archa River and the mountains surrounding it, used to be a former Soviet camp site for climbers in military training. Ala Archa development began as solely tent camping in 1951, but as it’s popularity grew, so did it’s size. For alpinists it became one of the most popular places in the world for climbing; only the Caucuses drew larger numbers of Soviet mountaineers. By the latter half of the 20th century, Ala-Archa was firmly established the alpine Mecca of Central Asia and many storied climbers started their alpine career here. The park is open year round, although the most popular season is late summer and early fall.
THINGS TO DO IN ALA-ARCHA
The Geoid map shop (Kievskaya St. 107) in Bishkek sells a good 1:50,000 topographic map of the entire park, called Prirodnyy Park Ala-Archa. The map of the area is not necessary however, unless you climb the peaks. Campfires (for Shashlik or barbecues) are permitted only in specially designated areas. Smokers are asked not to drop cigarette butts because of the risk of fire (in the 1990’s a fire destroyed many of the buildings). A pamphlet given to all visitors upon entry to the park kindly asks for everyone to help keep the park clean and to put their garbage in bags and leave it in a trash-bin found only down at the turbaza so you don’t spoil the beautiful nature for others.
Though it’s very possible to explore the mountains of Kyrgyzstan year-round, the best season is generally considered to be July-September. It’ll still be cold at night, often, but snow should be off all but the highest of trails and water will be available in valleys with rivers. A simple picnic along this river, up to a waterfall, or across a beautiful valley can make for a pleasant afternoon. Bird watchers and nature enthusiasts will be enamored by all the sites, sounds, and smells of the protected beauty of this national park.
For those overwhelmed by the thought of ascending mountain summits, Ala-Archa gorge can also offer a lot of other interesting things to do. Kyrgyz-Travel can arrange some horse riding in the upper part of the gorge along the bank of crystal-clean Ala Archa river. Guided horse tours can be a nice way to experience the beauty of the park without the rigorous steep climbing that inevitably all the mountainous trails lead to.
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ALA ARCHA FLORA & FAUNA
One of the main attractions of the reserve is the unique wildlife found here. The Ala-Archa Gorge is so rich in flora and fauna – with over 800 species of plants, 160 species of birds and about 170 specials of animal – that the Ala-Archa Kyrgyz State Park was established. To protect its tremendous natural diversity, it was made a national park in 1976 marking an end to big game hunting, fishing and logging for the preservation of endangered rare species of animals, plants and trees there. The mountain meadows and snowfields above 2,500 m elevation provide the unique habitat for wild goats, roe deer and marmots. The valley’s steep wooded slopes, pristine water meadows and craggy cliffs provide habitats for such species as eagles, shy Marco Polo sheep, bear, lynx, wild boar, wolves and, in its upper reaches, even rarely spotted snow leopards. Ala Archa National Park is one of the few places in the world for the precious snow leopard (in Kyrgyz: “ilbirs”). Not only does the Russian Red Book of endangered animals list the snow leopard for this region, but high in the valley, a rare blue bird, that the Kyrghyz call “a bird of happiness”, makes its native home.
Not only is the rare fauna guarded closely, but the traditionally revered juniper trees are under strict protection as well. Even a casual observer will immediately take note of the spruce, birch and juniper woodlands dominating most of the steep slopes of the park. The diversity of flowers and plants are a dream-come-true in spring for alpine flower enthusiasts as blossoms cover the newly green slopes. Beautiful diminutive alpine flowers such as the Crocus alatavicus cover the meadows in drifts of color each spring. But while admiring and photographing are welcomed, picking these flowers or berries, collecting medicinal herbs, catching butterflies and capturing other insects, is prohibited.
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ETYMOLOGY OF “ALA-ARCHA”
In Kyrgyz “archa” is local name of a juniper while “ala” roughly translates as “varicolored”. The gorge, park and river all got their names because of the numerous juniper trees that cover the mountain slopes of the canyon. Because there is a great diversity of juniper trees and shrubs in the gorge, with different colors and shapes, it gives a feeling that the gorge is varicolored. So the multicolored variation of the juniper forest here gives “Ala Archa” both it’s unique appearance and its name. For Kyrgyz people the traditional importance goes further than that as the brightly colored juniper continues to be held in high esteem.
Both practically (to rid of bad smells) and religiously (to chase away evil spirits) Kyrgyz burn archa twigs in their homes, around the bazaars or places of business and even in bathrooms. Kyrgyz people use the smoke from the archa’s burning wood and needles to freshen and bless what is valuable to them. However, junipers are not supposed to be planted near homes, because it is believed that they gradually sap energy from human beings living close-by. Because these juniper bushes are such a valuable part of their heritage, they had to be protected from over-harvesting so close to the big city. “Ala-Archa” meaning “variegated juniper” thus fully characterizes the importance of the diversity of pine and spruce forests covering the lower valleys of the park.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Part of the draw of Ala Archa is its accessibility with a decent paved road going to the park and even right up to the base camp. The forty five minute ride takes passengers through small villages outside of Bishkek dotted across the foot of the mountains. It’s a little shocking to see how quickly you can move from the wealth and conveniences of high rising apartments in Bishkek’s center, to the rural simple homes with outdoor toilets in surrounding villages that are basically suburbs of the capital. It’s also a little extraordinary how close this seemingly untouched nature with spectacular glacial canyons and rugged peaks is to a million-plus people, cement metropolis.
Once you’ve left the suburbs of Bishkek you pass through an arch entitled ‘Alamyedin’ and a cemetery to the right which contains the memorial tower to Baitik Khan (though he was buried elsewhere). The most convenient option is to hire a Kyrgyz-Travel (4×4 vehicle, driver, guide and interpret all in one) or you can try to negotiate the day trip yourself with a taxi at Osh Bazaar. You can either pay to get the taxi to wait for you if you plan on a short hike or just arrange for transportation one-way and take your chances getting back to Bishkek when you are done.
At around 2,150m (7,000 feet), the paved road ends and beyond this point the only transport is by foot or 4WD. Drivers are asked not to drive over the grass or among the shrubs or forested areas. Here, at the alplager base camp there is a small collection of buildings including a weather station, a newly renovated A-frame lodge, and a basic guesthouse (aka: the Ala Archa hotel). The turbaza was well maintained year round for climbers in Soviet times, but outside of summer does not operate much more than a restaurant and bar today. In the high tourist season they open up recreational facilities, showers and a sauna to the public along with some small kiosks and cafes. You also might like a photo of the Presidential Yurt located in the park before you start out on a trek.
ALA ARCHA VALLEY TREK
If heading out for a long day hike, the well-marked Ala Archa valley walk (approx 4-8hrs) is the easiest. The trail heads off to the right of the base camp and takes you upstream the stunning Ala Archa river towards the rocky gorge. Even without special climbing equipment, walking sticks, etc. you should be able to manage this nice river walk.
The trek continues down the center of the Ala-Archa valley for more 10 km, but you can easily retrace your steps anytime you get tired. Head straight past the big A-Frame hotel and keep going until the road runs out at a river right past a small yurt tent on a hill to your left.
Walk upstream the river a bit towards the mountain wall, and there are several easy stepping stone crossing points that don’t require getting wet most of the year. About 30 minutes after leaving the paved road, look for a small path down to the river on your right where you can cross over a rickety old bridge. You’ll have to cross back over a little further on, but the left (east) side of the river gets a bit tricky to navigate at times so preferably you want to make it across the bridge. It can be easy to miss, so pay attention and if the east-of-river trail starts to hit scree you’ve passed it up.
This is also a great place to detour up along the Top-Karagai stream to the 3680m glacier of the same name. However, if you didn’t come equipped to do serious climbing, the elevation change from the Ala-Archa River at 2511m to a little shy of 5km is more than a little daunting. Be prepared for some steep climbing to ascend up to the glacier. Another option for great views is at the far end of the same valley (past the second bridge and just before the trail starts to really go up once more) to the southeast.
The Dhaldisuu River climbs steeply up to the foot of the Golubina glacier which stretches a very long ways off to the Ak-Duval Pass (maybe 5km away?). It’s really rough terrain and this isn’t recommended unless you’ve come prepared for some proper mountaineering, but if you’re turning around near here to head back to Bishkek this is a good last scramble to catch some spectacular panoramic photos. Back on the main trail there will be another uphill stretch and around 200m of elevation gain before you’ll have to ford the river. The stream gets broader several times depending on the snowmelt, but jump over where you can. From there you will eventually hit another open stretch of valley. On the right (west) side up a small hill you should spot an old meteorological station, the back side of which makes for a decent campsite when the wind is too strong on the valley floor. If you’re making this trek outside of summer, this valley may also be the last stretch of non-snowy ground you’ll see for a long while.
Continue along this path to another uphill that eventually tops out at the end of the Ala-Archa Valley and a beautiful bowl surrounded by mountains. The southeast pocket of the bowl is where you can check out the remains of an old Soviet-era Ski Base. The old, now abandoned ski base at 3,400m still offers shelter for the adventuresome backpackers who make it this far. There are even still mattresses on the first-floor bunk beds if you’re in need of a nap or night-stay after the long hike. The ski base has 2 drag lifts that have not been in operation for years. The view from the base of the 4,000+ meter peaks of the Ala-Archinskii, Manas, and Toktogula glaciers here is really stunning. If you want to explore the valley’s end a little, look for a small alpine lake to the east (about half a kilometer north of the trail up the Ala-Archa Pass) that stays frozen for most of the year. If you have the time it is also possible to take the 3907m Ala-Archa Pass and head further south towards Kochkor from here. However, most likely it is from here where you will turn around to head north back up the Ala-Archa valley to the alplager or onto Bishkek.
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ANDYGENE GORGE & GLACIER TREK
Of the three main treks, the Andygene Gorge hike is a little less well-marked and used, but can be every bit as beautiful. Head a little back down the road (300 meters) from the turbaza to where the trail begins. The trailhead to the Adygene Valley is a little hard to spot, but you should be able to spot it if you walk downhill from the alplager and off to the west of the Ala Archa Valley. This trail meanders along the Ala Archa river basin starting down a steep ascent, but the track leads up again through a larch tree forest. The fairly gentle hike takes you across a footbridge and southwest for about eight kilometres to an elevation of 3300m below the Andygene glacier. The Adygene gorge is a beautifully wooded valley, with waterfalls, springs and abundant trout. A small reservoir on the Kargay-Bulak river was built to study the Amu Darya trout.
Along this way on the northern slope of the Adigene gorge is a climbers’ cemetery for “fallen” mountaineers in a larch grove, a pretty and poignant scene. Here, in this unique alpine memorial cemetery, family members and climbing friends from many years ago honored the brave people who left their hearts in the mountains forever. Most of the graves contain little more than fragments of clothing or scraps of climbing equipment, as the human remains of the victims were never found. There is one curious grave buried outside the boundaries of the cemetery because (some people allege) he committed suicide by cutting himself free in order to save his comrades rather than pull them down with him. As such, this is still regarded as an act of suicide and so he cannot be buried in consecrated ground. Elsewhere, a broken rotor blade commemorates helicopter pilots also killed in the area.
Where the track divides, try to stay left. You can return by looping back around the other way, but if you fork right here, the way might be harder to find on your way out and involves scrambling across a landslide at one point. After a full day’s hike and an overnight in a tent at the foothill of Adygene pass, you can spend the second day scaling the 4,393 meter (14,400 foot) Adygene peak. The track past the climbers’ cemetery continues for about 7 kilometers through forest beneath the Adygene Glacier, ascending only gradually at first but becoming steeper as it approaches the magnificent glacial cirque of Stayanka Elektra. This route tends to be quieter than most and from a secluded vantage point you are very likely to see birds of prey, particularly griffon vultures, who ride the thermals of warm air radiated by bare rocky outcrops over the mountains.
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AK-SAI WATERFALL & RATSEK BASECAMP TREK
Of the three most popular treks, the most demanding and dramatic is the Ak-Say (Kyrgyz: Ак Сай) Canyon trail. Although tougher, the hike up the Ak-Say valley up to the waterfall that takes you within view of the Ak Sai glacier, is not too hard if you’re used to hiking and are dressed properly for the occasion. A strenuous 6 hours can bring you all the way up to the Ratsek Hut at the base of the glacier’s icefall at around 3,370m. The trekking season around Ala-Archa is considered to be May to September (or October on a warm year), though the trail to the Ak-Say Glacier can be covered in snow anytime of year so be prepared!
For this trek, take a left at the Ak-Sai sign, just after the yurt on the left and across from the hotel. Steeply sloped off from the left (east) immediately above the alplager, the trail takes you right up the mountain a bit high above the stream. The north slope of the gorge is covered with Tienshan fir trees as you head up into the forest. Stay to the right at the first fork and go uphill to the left over roots, where the path continues uphill, straight and wide before eventually opening up into a meadow. The roughly 15 minute climb up to the open area above the valley then provides you with really good views of the canyon and Ala Archa river. Once you leave the forest, the path starts winding slightly up along the slope and walking is rather easy. Under an hours climb from the alplager at the ‘split-rock’ outcrop (well before the first stream crossing) about 1/3 of the way up, there’s a small lookout point that allows you to sit down, have a snack, and take a break with spectacular alpine views. The trail continues along the Ak-Sai River but eventually you will have to cross a stream (where it’s a good idea to fill up on water), and then take a left uphill at a campfire site to the nearby waterfall.
The Ak Sai waterfall (elevation 2,700 meters) cascades 25-30 meters down the hillside and then rushes the rest of the way down the canyon before joining up with the Ala Archa River. The Ak Say Falls is frozen from November to May but still provides picturesque ice sculpture photos. The rocks and cliffs around the falls are fun to scramble around on, but be careful as they can be wet and slippery. For tired hikers needing a rest, the falls make for a relaxing stopping point, while those with too much energy and a penchant for adventure can easily scale higher around the falls for picture perfect vantage points. Even for those climbing the 2km higher up to the base camp, the waterfall is a good midday breaking point for lunch as you will lose a lot of energy during the next steep stretch.
For daytrippers, the 3.75km climb up to the waterfall for a nice picnic is not too difficult with only around 700m of ascent. From that point on, the path narrows and leads steeply and steadily uphill over the stones and gravel. The path isn’t easily visible and marked anymore, so just find the most convenient ways of ascending. This part leads you continuously up for about 2-3 hours, and it’s hard not being able to see anything behind the big hill in front of you.
The last part is the least comfortable (especially when wet and muddy) because of slippery and steep terrain. Climb up slowly but surely to the plateau situated at the altitude of 3350 meters and to reach the final goal, the base camp Ratsek.
At 3,350 meters, this is basically the bottom base of the Ak-Sai Glacier. Ratsek (Russian: Рацек) is the stone hut remains of a Soviet climbing base that indicate the high quality mountaineering within the park. The rudimentary structure has several rooms with bunkbeds, small coal stoves, and basic but high-priced services like garbage removal, firewood sales, luggage storage, and even a “banya” (Russian sauna). There is no electricity, food service or showers but the Ak Sai Mountain Lodge does provide a nice shelter from the wind, snow, and cold outside.
There is usually enough water on the trail going up (and in warmer months trickling down the cliffs around Racek), but bring enough just in case. The cabin rents out beds in two 14-space rooms and one smaller private 6-space room (bring your own mat and sleeping bag). Many alpinists however forego the “luxuries” of the hut and brave the elements in tents all around the camp as they prepare to ascend higher. In summer months, this whole area becomes a backpackers’ tent city. If the conditions are right and you go at a good pace leaving early in the morning, a strenuous day hike up to the cabin and back are possible, but most people make this a full day hike up and choose make camp here for the night. Depending on your pace and duration of breaks, the climb to the cabin can take anywhere from 4 to 7 hours, with approximately 1,200m of elevation change.
From the foot of the Ak-Say Glacier at Ratcek, climbing enthusiasts relish the access to some of the area’s highest peaks. Most climbs past this point require some climbing experience, a guide and carefully laid plans. Specialized equipment is also often necessary. Unless you have climbed very gradually up to this point it is quite possible that you will suffer from some form of altitude sickness as the oxygen is thin so it is worth leaving enough time to return to the turbaza if your symptoms get bad. During summer months there are many experienced mountaineers who stay for some time launching varied treks from around Ratcek, so you can gain valuable on the ground information about weather and trail conditions. It’s useful to know some Russian (or have a Kyrgyz-Travel interpreter with you), but you will probably encounter climbers with varying levels of English especially during high season.
For climbers there are numerous options in this valley around Ratsek, with varying degrees of difficulty. Some go for the Bachichiki rock wall, others prefer Schwaba, Box, Tikitor, or Free Korea. Uchitel (Russian for “Teacher”) is the most popular for novice climbers. Just beyond the Ratsek is a large rock with memorial plates attached that commemorate perished climbers. A trail leads left from here towards Uchitel peak, a 3 to 4 hour climb, and there is another trail a little further on that angles left towards the rock wall of Bachichiki and the north wall of Korona. At the end of this steep trail is another small metal unmanned hut (first come-first served), reached after about 3 hours’ walking from the Ratsek base camp.
Taking the trail past the rock with the plaques and then angling slightly right is a different trail that leads to the south side of Korona (Russian for “Crown”) Peak. The trail climbs steeply along the left side of the Aksay glacier before flattening out to reach a climbers’ steel hut at 4,150m (accessible only with some glacier walking). From this hut, there are serious climbing routes up to the peaks of Karona (4,692m) and Uchitel (4,572m). Semenov Tianshanskii (4,895m), the highest peak in all of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too, is also nearby. You should be particularly careful about altitude sickness anywhere along these routes. Try to do at least one day hike before tackling them and don’t sleep any higher than the icefall on the first night.