"Trip to Arslanbob"
We've done several treks in Kyrgyzstan and have found that with the exception of the popular Ala-Kol trek near Karakol, there isn't a lot of information that could help people choose a trek in Kyrgyzstan. With a view to sharing information with other travelers, here's a trip report for our recent trek to the Holy Lakes on July 3-6, 2015.
A longer version with photos is on our blog at http://designthinktravel.com/trek-guide-holy-lakes-kol-mazar-hike-kyrgyzstan/.
TLDR: this is a beautiful hike, not as scenically stunning as the central Tien Shan but with varied mountain and jailoo scenery and cultural interest around the Holy Lake. More strenuous than expected, with some four-point scrambling on a near-vertical scree slope to cross Friendship Pass. The "trail" consists of steep cow paths and horse trails with crappy, loose underfoot conditions. The cost of hiring a guide, porter, and cook adds up.
Holy Lakes trek 2015
Our first trek of 2015 was to the Holy Lakes near Arslanbob. The local CBT coordinator, Hayat, is quite a character and one of the key people in the CBT movement in Kyrgyzstan. He arranged a guide (Abdul), porter (Zia), cook (Ugun), food, and camping gear for us. The porter seemed a bit of an extravagance since we usually carry our own gear. However, we were cognizant that we were somewhat out of shape and the hike was at altitude with a steep pass on day two. Other CBT offices provide guide/cooks but this was not the case at Arslanbob. The functions of guide, cook, and porter should have been combined in two people, as they were in our later trek in Sary Mogul. We got the impression that Hayat tries to provide employment for as many people as possible and therefore over-staffs treks. We enjoyed the company of Abdul, Zia, and Ugun, but their wages brought the cost of the trip to around $100 per day.
Day One (Arslanbob-Holy Rock-Ridge above Holy Rock)
9am–6pm. Lunch 1.5hrs. Gained 1600m. Final camp was at 3200m
This was a long hot and dusty day’s walking. Thankfully, the CBT includes a horse and horseman to haul bags up to the first night’s camp. The first 3-4K you head North through the village past the old Soviet Turbaza (Summer Holiday resort). The main point of reference for the day’s walk is the distinctive cuboid Holy Rock, which can be seen on a hill top above the town.
We had lunch in a shady spot by the river in pasture lands. The cook prepared a delicious stew (dimlama) and we had melon for dessert. It was a real luxury to have freshly cooked food on a trek, but the time it took to light a fire, cook the meal, eat it, and clean up added a lot of time to each day’s walk.
We were warned that there was no water at the camp so we should stock up at a spring near the Holy Rock an hour before camp. However, the spring was a tiny trickle when we got there and although we eventually filled our bottles you might feel a little grossed out by the cow shit and slobber around the spring. It is possible that the spring will run out late season so our advice would be to keep filling bottles as you head up to the rock.
We sterilized the water from the spring with our Steripen. The guide drank the water directly from the stream and was a little sick the next day.
The Holy Rock was nothing particularly special but the views down valley were quite pleasant. The walk up to the campsite was steep in parts, crossing rolling green pasture and angling up slopes of wildflowers. A guide was useful to know which cow path to follow. This terrain would be a muddy, slippery nightmare in wet weather. Our camp was on a ridge below the Friendship Pass, which is the high point of the trail.
Day Two (Camp One-Friendship Pass-Holy Lakes)
Start time 7.30am. End time 3.30pm. Lunch break was 1 hour.
It was imperative to get an early start on Day Two. Thankfully, the weather was clear in the morning but the guide informed us that we should aim to get to the pass by 10am since the weather often turns by late morning. The backside of the pass is covered in snowpack so it is advisable to cross the pass early before the snow starts to melt and makes the walk down a little more treacherous.
We dropped down around 200m from the ridge to meet up with the obvious trail going left to right on the scree below the pass. The trail conditions were particularly rough as we headed up the slope. The scree was fairly unstable and it sat on top of a thin layer of dry and loose soil. On steep sections, the scree and soil crumbled underfoot. At times, we were scrambling up using hands and feet and needed the guide and porter to help us up. A couple of times, we inadvertently caused small rock falls as we scrambled up, which was dangerous for anyone walking below.
We hit a small patch of snow above the scree, which added to the fun! The snow patch was steep and was above a couple of patches of exposure. A slip up here could have been fatal. We headed over the snow without too much hassle and made it to the pass at 10.30. The backside of the pass was snowbound at the top and loose scree lower down. The snow was considerably more pleasant to walk on than the scree.
Lunch was on an overhang underneath some cliffs on the right side of the path down. After lunch, we hiked up a grassy slope to our right on an obvious trail. The view from the grassy ridge was spectacular. Fine views back up to the pass and at an overlook a little further on we got our first view of the Holy Lakes.
The trail conditions deteriorated once more and we really wished we had walking sticks since our knees and ankles were taking a battering. The last twenty minutes gave us some respite from the scree but added in the annoyance of slipping continually on the wild onion stalks!
The Holy Lake has a bunch of pilgrim’s huts for local villagers who come to make goat and sheep sacrifices at the Lake. We were invited into the camp to drink tea and eat bread (we passed on the offer of mutton) and then set up camp for the night.
Since a lot of sheep are slaughtered at the lake there is an abundance of mutton.. Despite eating almost no red meat at home, we decided to be more flexible about this in Central Asia. However, we maxed out at the Holy Lake. Chunks of dry mutton and mutton broth for dinner, and plov for breakfast, turned us off meat for the next few weeks.
Day three (Holy Lakes-Ontama)
Start time 8.30am. End time 6.45pm. Lunch stop 1.5 hours.
Day three starts with a gentle descent through pastures covered in wildflowers. You follow the stream that outflows from the upper lake to the lower lake (Paynav Kol). The trail bears left after the shepherd’s yurt on a well-defined horse path. The trail swiftly turns steep up a narrow canyon and the underfoot conditions deteriorated once more. Oh, how we rued the decision to leave our walking sticks at home!
The gorge tops out at a green pasture after an hour or so. We followed an obvious trail up through pasture land to the top of a green hill, where we could see back the way we came towards the Holy Lake. The views back to the massif reminded us of the wild views of the Olympic mountains in Washington state. The views in the other direction were a profusion of rolling pasture in every imaginable shade of green.
We headed left across a rare flat section of pasture. The trail descended down a steep slope towards an area known as the White Rocks. Beyond this giant outcrop of white granite, we saw the path ahead. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The next section had switchbacks! The first we encountered on the whole trail! It would seem that the typical Kyrgyz attitude to trail building is draw a line between two points and build a trail along the line. This made the trail grueling and particularly unfriendly toward knees.
At the top we took the trail to the left of the ridge. The mountains on the other side of the valley were beautiful in the late afternoon light and we were particularly looking forward to the sunset from the camp on the ridge that Hayat had described back in the CBT office. We saw yak grazing up on the high pasture above the valley. We briefly descended into the valley along animal trails before heading up to the saddle to camp.
Except we couldn’t camp at this spot. We found out later that a local shepherd had decided to set up for the night at this spot with 400 sheep! Our guide didn’t initially mention this and marched on beyond the camp without saying anything. We were confused about where we were going and how far we had to go. At one point he dropped off the trail and headed down the side of the hill. After a long day, another section of steep off trail slope was definitely not appreciated! Eventually, we stopped at a small flat outcropping to set up camp and Abdul explained why we descended from the sunset spot. One of the occasional frustrations with Kyrgyz guides is that they seem to be reluctant to keep you updated on changes to the itinerary, problems, or time to camp.
Anyways, we were bummed to miss out on what would have been a fabulous sunset but after a long day we were soothed by another delicious dinner and tea.
Day Four (Unknown campsite to Arslanbob)
Start time 9am. Finish 2-3pm. Lunch 1.5 hours.
The morning began with an off-trail descent in search of the proper trail. This section was pretty crappy underfoot but once we got the main trail it was pretty easy going all the way back to Arslanbob. The trail is mostly through Jailoo (pasture) and after a couple of hours Arslanbob comes into view. The last hour of the trek was through the shady walnut groves that Arslanbob is famed for.
Scenery: The hike takes you through quite varied landscapes. The dominant features were the snow-tipped peaks of the Babash Ata massif, the rolling green jailoos typical of much of Kyrgyzstan, and the blue-green alpine Holy Lakes. No glaciers or huge mountain ranges here: go to the central Tien Shan for that.
Culture: The lakes are a major pilgrimage spot for villagers so there is a fair amount of activity on the shore. However, beyond the occasional slaughtering of sheep it is difficult to ascertain any real religious ritual occurring. To be honest, it felt more like a local picnic spot than a site of great religiosity.
The trail was more grueling than we expected. There were a few personal factors that played into this. We were definitely out of shape, the hike was our first of the year, we were not acclimatized to the altitude, and we did not have walking sticks to help us on the steep slopes. However, even if the reverse was true it would have still been a tough hike. The trail conditions were not great, the temperatures were high, and there were a few scary moments heading up Friendship Pass. Most of the route consists of extremely steep ascents and descents on loose rock or dirt where it would be easy to twist an ankle. If you have a fear of heights or are not comfortable with scrambling on loose steep scree then do yourself a favor and hike elsewhere.
Osh to Kashgar via Irkeshtam
I made the trip at the end of June 2015. Figured this could help others planning the same. Don't take the overnight bus because you miss the incredible scenery. Plus, that bus crossed the border the same time we did.
This trip will take no less than two 2 days. The website below was of immense help. All the information was accurate at the time. http://www.farwestchina.com/2014/09/cross-xinjiangs-irkeshtam-border-kyrgyzstan.html
NOTE: Stock up on snacks and plenty of water! There is absolutely none alone the way!
During your first day, you want to make your way to either Sary-Tash or Irkeshtam / Irkeshem / Erkeshtam / Erkeshtem. The marshrutka leaves the Osh bus station to Sary-Tash at around 2pm for 250 som. The bus is near the exit gate, away from the main area. The trip took about 4 hours. Sary-Tash is not the final stop so make sure you tell the driver when to get off. You should see a large gas station that divides the road. It is possible to get to from Osh to Irkeshtam in one day. You'll most likely get a ride from a truck driver, who will have to stay the night there anyway because of the border closing time. Pick the experience you want to have lol.
I met other traveller on the bus, and we stayed at Hotel Gostiniza? (on maps.me). Basically had the living room of a family's home. 500 som/night with dinner and breakfast. You would never guess, but there are many many other foreigners here, especially cyclists coming from/going to Tajikistan. Most of them stayed at the bright pink guesthouse.
We headed out early at 8am. Luckily we came across a passing marshrutka that was going to Irkeshtam. We paid 400 or 500 som each.
Here's what happened next:
9:11 checkpoint 1 finished
9:45 Kyr passport control
9:50 Get into random truck
9:56 Chinese passport check
10:00 walk along crazy line of trucks
10:15 first security check. You will give your passport to the Chinese immigration. They will check your bags. You will not get your passport back until you arrange transport with a driver . 400RMB/car no negotiation. You can wait for others who need to cross as well.
11:40 Passport check #2
12:52 Arrive in Uluqat (Border city)
2:25 We were told to get back in the car and driver gets our passports back from agent
2:34 Dropped off at passport control
3:15 Start lining up. Go thru border in groups
3:35 Finish border check.
We talked to the Osh overnight bus driver who crossed the same time we did, and he agreed to take us to Kashgar for 40 RMB/person. Alternatively taxis from the border are 50RMB/person. Bus arrived at the international bus station. It was about a 20-25 minute walk to the Old Town Hostel from there.
How to Cross Xinjiang’s Irkeshtam Border to Kyrgyzstan
Border crossing from Xinjiang into other countries in Central Asia isn’t necessarily difficult, but getting reliable, up-to-date information is. Take the Irkeshtam border crossing for an example – it’s one of the most common ways to travel from China to Kyrgyzstan and yet I have a hard time finding any published info on the process.
Thanks to the input of several travelers, I would like to present a simple “how to” to make crossing the Irkeshtam border easy for future travelers.
A map of how to cross the Irkeshtam border from China to Kyrgyzstan
*Special thanks to Sim Yi Hui and Jon LaRosa as well as Lee and Galen from Silk Road Hitchhikers for their contributions to this article.
Irkeshtam Crossing from Kashgar
Most people base their journey into Kyrgyzstan from Xinjiang’s western city of Kashgar, although technically you could bypass the city and go straight there from Highway 314. For the purpose of this article, however, we’re going to assume that you’re waking up in Kashgar.
The following is an hour-by-hour account of how to find your way across the Irkeshtam border (all times listed are Beijing Time despite the common use of local time around here).
8am – Kashgar: Wherever you decide to stay in Kashgar, most travelers decide to begin their journey at the International Bus station on the northern edge of town. From here you can find taxis that will take you to WuQia Zhen (in Chinese: 乌恰镇, known locally as Ulugqat). Taxis are usually rented for anywhere between 120-150 which, if you travel as a group of four, could be equally split to make things cheaper (this is the case for many places around Xinjiang). The journey should take a little over an hour.
10am – WuQia Zhen: You should arrive in WuQia Zhen early but your goal is to make it to the Chinese Border Processing Center at around 10am. One account of getting here referenced a golf cart that drove travelers from the road to the processing center. Border personnel will arrive at 10am but likely won’t begin processing your passport until 10:30am. It is during this time that you need to arrange for a vehicle to take you across the border. It is virtually impossible to hitchhike. A taxi from here should cost about 100RMB per person or 400RMB for the car.
10:30am – Border Processing Center: Once everybody begins working, the actually processing of your passport should take no longer than 15 minutes. At this point you jump into your taxi to begin the journey.
Chinese Irkeshtam Border Processing Center
12pm-1pm – Checkpoint: depending on the speed of your driver, you should arrive at the intermediate checkpoint between 12:15 and 1pm. This should’t be more than a cursory passport check but don’t be surprised if they ask you to step out of the car.
1pm-2pm – Final Checkpoint: An hour after the first checkpoint you’ll reach the final checkpoint about 4km away from the Kyrgyzstan border. Unfortunately, like most everywhere in Xinjiang, lunch break starts at 1:30pm and usually lasts until 4:30pm. Unless your driver is particularly speedy, expect to waste a few hours at this final checkpoint waiting for patrol officers to report back for duty at 4:30pm. You should probably have a lunch prepared as all you’re likely to find is a small store and maybe a hole-in-the-wall place to grab some food.
4:30pm – Final Checkpoint: At this point a lot of different things could happen. Chinese border guards are unpredictable and could let you right through or give you grief for a few hours. They may take your passport or they may just glance at it. Be prepared for anything. Once given the green light to pass, your taxi is no longer useful to you. One traveler describes having to board a “Chinese big truck” while another describes a “very nice bus”. Either way, it seems that transportation to the final 4km to the border is provided.
5:00pm – Kyrgyzstan Border: One traveler describes having to change transport at the Kyrgyzstan border (which he walked across) an then take a taxi to the Kyrgyz customs processing center. The one thing to note with this is that unless you already have Kyrgyz Som (money), you’ll probably have to exchange your Chinese Renminbi at the border for a terrible exchange rate.
5:30pm – Kyrgyzstan Processing Center: Unlike the Chinese border crossing, Kyrgyzstan will likely only take about 15 minutes. They will look at your passport, possibly write down the number and then stamp it.
5:45pm – Entering Kyrgyzstan: At this point you have a choice to make, especially after all the travel you’ve already done. You can try to negotiate transportation to Osh (another 4 hours at least) or you can take a much shorter ride to Sary-Tash (only 1 hour). A shared taxi to Sary-Tash should run you about 60-100 Som (approx. US$1-2 or 6-12 RMB). A shared taxi to Osh will run you between 1,000 to 1,500 per person (approx US$18-28 or 110-170 RMB).
Congratulations! You’re now in Kyrgyzstan. At this point you can hopefully find your way to a nice hotel to lay down and rest.
Special Notes | Irkestam Border
There are a few notes and warnings that I want to give for those considering crossing the Irkestam border in Xinjiang. This may not always apply, but it’s good to hear what has happened in the past.
First, sharing a taxi with Uyghur passengers could slow you down. It’s sad, but it’s a fact. One traveler was held up at the border for an extra few hours because his fellow travelers were Uyghur. It’s blatant discrimination but as one traveler told me “If you can, try to find Han Chinese to share a car with”. Perhaps easier said than done.
Second, cheaper transportation isn’t better. It seems that it is possible to hitch a ride to Osh with a truck driver in Kyrgyzstan for half the price of a taxi…but it might cost you an extra 2-4 hours on the road. Is US$10 really worth the headache?
Third, remember the time change. This might not be hard if you’ve been living off of Xinjiang’s “local time” that is two hours behind the official Beijing time, but just remember that once you cross the border into Kyrgyzstan, you’re now officially two hours behind Beijing.
Finally, Lee from SilkRoadHitchHikers.com shared with me that it might work best to shift this schedule two hours later (i.e. starting at 10am instead of 8am). The reason for this is that even though he arrived at the border before the 1:30pm lunch break, they still wouldn’t process him to go through. He contends that you might as well just sleep in and arrive around 3:30pm-ish to wait for them to open up again at 4:30pm. Any plan that involves sleeping in sounds good to me!
So that’s it! I hope this has been helpful in your planning. If so, please share this or leave a comment below. Thanks!
Kilometers across Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek – Naryn – 360 km
Naryn – Songkol – 150 km
Bishkek – Osh – 660 km
Naryn – Cholpon Ata – 255 km
Bishkek – Songkol – 400 km
Songkol – Suusamyr – 140 km
Suusamyr – Toktogul – 232 km
Osh – Sarychelek – 350 km
Suusamyr – Bishkek – 200 km
Karakol – Jetioguz – 35 km
Balykchy – Kochkor – 60 km
Kochkor – Songkul – 100 km
Bishkek – Toktogul – 360 km
Talas – Suusamyr – 220 km
Sarychelek – Chychkan – 180 km
Chychkan - Songkul – 260 km
Songkul – Osh – 796 km
Osh – Jalalabad – 100 km
Osh - Kazarman – 240 km
Kazarman – Naryn – 200 km
Songkul – Toktogul – 390 km
Songkul – Jetioguz – 360 km
Osh – Kazarman – 240 km
Bishkek – Kyzyloi – 190 km
Kyzyloi – Songkol – 170 km, 250 km via Sarybulak
Osh – Uzgen – 55 km
Osh – Achycktash base camp – 380 km
Osh – Irkeshtam – 288 km
Osh - Sarytash – 200 km
Osh - Sarymogol - 220 km
Sarymogol - Tulparkul - 25 km
Kochkor – Suusamy valley – 130 km
Karakol – Kochkor – 260 km
Osh – Kyzylart – 360 km, 7 hours
Osh – Chychkan – 480 km
Bishkek – Chychkan – 250 km