Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan: Hiking in Ala Archa National Park Part 1 – The Alpine Cemetery Trail

Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan: Hiking in Ala Archa National Park Part 1 - The Alpine Cemetery Trail

Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan: Hiking in Ala Archa National Park Part 1 – The Alpine Cemetery Trail

The country of Kyrgyzstan seems to hide shyly in the back streets of the backpacking world. It’s not so much a “sleeping giant”, but an “awake baby”. It’s crying to be found, and sometime it will be. While the “self-professed cool crowd” backpack their way through Bangkok, Ulun Danu, Siem Reap and Chiang Mai on wide boulevards full of immigrants, foreigners, backpackers and “ex-patriots”, the self-professed weird ones find their solace in the deserted alleys of unblemished and magnetic Kyrgyzstan, where I’ve decided to stay for the next few months. And this country is a sparkling gem to lift you out of the mundane. Your smiles will be genuine.

"Magnetic" and Kyrgzstan

“Magnetic” and unblemished Kyrgzstan

Take it from me – if you want to go backpacking in Asia – get a flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan booked. It’s too cool for school. Too cool, you forgot where it was on the map. Check your maps and the visa requirements. Lots of nationalities can get a FREE 60 day tourist visa on entry. Which is exactly what I did when arriving at the land border from Korday in neighbouring Kazakhstan.

Arrival at Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan

Arrival at Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan

Once you’re here in Kyrgyzstan, find a base, make new friends, get a map and start ticking off the touristic spots. Remember, everywhere in the world is a touristic spot – we are the tourists, everywhere we go 😉 There are just places with more people and places with less people. But it’s all tourism. Kyrgyzstan sparkles in the morning sun for tourists and locals alike. I based myself in Bishkek, the country’s capital city, here at the cosy Apple Hostel Bishkek (also known as Bishkek B and B) and headed out on some cool tours.

Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan - Apple Hostel crowd in Bishkek

Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan – Apple Hostel crowd in Bishkek

First up I made a dash to the tranquil Issyk-kul Lake where I toured the Petroglyphs and the Ruh Ordo Cultural Centre plus a trip to Burana Tower. Then it was time to tour the beautiful Ala Archa National Park, situated just 25 kilometres south of Bishkek.

Driving to Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan

Driving to Ala Archa National Park, Kyrgyzstan

Booking a tour to Ala Archa National Park
There are two main tour companies I recommend for booking your tour to Ala Archa National Park – Silk Road Explore and Iron Horse Nomads. Both companies are experts in the field and they are based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Booking a trip to Ala Archa with Silk Road Explore

Booking a trip to Ala Archa with Silk Road Explore

I opted for a day tour of Ala Archa that included a hike to the Alpine cemetery and a hike along the gorge to a mountain waterfall. The one day tours cost from $45 US and this includes transport there and back (they do hostel/hotel pick up), entry to the national park, a guide for the day and lunch. Prices vary depending on time of year, group size and any personal requirements etc. They are so easy to work with and flexible that they can tailor the tour to your own needs. I wanted a local lunch included and a trip to the cemetery.

Booking a trip to Ala Archa with Iron Horse Nomads

Booking a trip to Ala Archa with Iron Horse Nomads

Leaving Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
My guide for the day is Azamat, from Iron Horse Nomads. Azamat is local to Bishkek and his English is superb. He is a good tour guide and driver to have and my tour was arranged through Dinara at Silk Road Explore. We leave Bishkek by car and within half an hour we are on the edge of the Ala Archa National Park.

In the car on tour with Azamat, Iron Horse Nomads

In the car on tour with Azamat, Iron Horse Nomads

Arrival at Ala Archa National Park
When we arrive at Ala Archa National Park, there is an entry gate where the fee to enter the national park is paid and taken. Please note that NOT all tours include the entry fee. As of January 2016, the cost to enter the National Park here is 450 Som, around £4 or $6 USD. It is a one off entry fee, whether you are staying over night in the hotel or camping inside the National Park.

Arrival at Ala Archa National Park

Arrival at Ala Archa National Park

Please note that there is no public transport inside the park or that go to the gate and park entrance. The nearest you can get to Ala Archa National Park on public transport is by Marshrutka to Kashka-suu (a ski resort). If you are going it alone, from Kashka-suu you will need to pay a driver for a taxi right up into the National Park (and back again of course, so it’s less than ideal).

An information leaflet you get on entry at Ala Archa National Park.

An information leaflet you get on entry at Ala Archa National Park.

When you pay for your national park entry, you get a small information sheet, it’s written in Russian.

An information leaflet you get on entry at Ala Archa National Park.

An information leaflet you get on entry at Ala Archa National Park.

Hiking on the Alpine Cemetery Trail (to The Northern Star Lodge)
Once you are inside Ala Archa National Park, it’s time to explore and admire. The mountains here are simply stunning and even the drive through the main road in the National Park is something to inspire you. To the left there is a mini village, which is mostly made from Summer huts and dies down in winter time.

Summer huts in Ala Archa National Park

Summer huts in Ala Archa National Park

Azamat and I decide to do the cemetery hike first up so that is what I’m writing about here. I also did a second hike after lunch, which I will write about separately in Part 2.

Views on the drive through Ala Archa up to the start of the Cemetery Trail.

Views on the drive through Ala Archa up to the start of the Cemetery Trail.

I was here in January 2016, winter time, so make sure you come prepared – it’s common sense really – hats, scarves, coats, thermals to keep you warm and of course water.

Well wrapped up and warm

Well wrapped up and warm

Snow has frozen the national park over and it is hard to see where the exact route to this mountain cemetery is. On the map, the cemetery is shown as a triangle and it is on a path which spans a 6 kilometre circuit. Our plan is to complete the 6 kilometre circuit. I take some photos of the map and information boards at the start of the Alpine Cemetery hike and off we go.

The green trail is the hike we are doing to the Alpine Cemetery

The green trail is the hike we are doing to the Alpine Cemetery

First up, we have a tricky icy cold river to cross. The bridge has been destroyed sadly so we have to find another way to cross and this river winds its way through the valleys, we end up crossing the river three or four times. On the first attempt, I slide into the river! My feet are frozen, great start to the hike from me!

The river we had to cross

The river we had to cross

Crossing the river may look easy in the photographs, but it wasn’t – even the rocks were slippy with ice.

The river we had to cross

The river we had to cross

The land parts can be tricky to walk through as well, with hidden rocks and ice, and deep deep snow.

The deep deep snow that you sink into

The deep deep snow that you sink into

We took a while on the river area trying to work out where the actual real trail is. There are no markers to show it and with ice and snow, the route is less than obvious.

Searching for the real trail

Searching for the real trail

Eventually we find where the actual real trail is, it was not obvious in the snow and Azamat and I were the only two hikers on this trail that day.

Admiring the views on the real hike to the Cemetery in Ala Archa

Admiring the views on the real hike to the Cemetery in Ala Archa

Azamat and I on the trail

Azamat and I on the trail

When we noticed two trees fallen over, we know that the trail has been affected by the bad weather and this part of the trail we skip, choosing to head up to the top of the hike, which is where we believe the cemetery to be.

Fallen trees and a break in the normal trail path

Fallen trees and a break in the normal trail path

The beautiful hike here in Ala Archa

The beautiful hike here in Ala Archa

Arrival at the Alpine Cemetery/Northern Star Lodge
After about an hour and a half, we arrive at a flat area part of the way up the mountain. Here is a wood area with a peaceful forest and we are delighted to finally arrive at the Alpine Cemetery.

At the end of these woods, we find the cemetery.

At the end of these woods, we find the cemetery.

The Cemetery is enclosed with a fence and has a gate at the front. The name of the cemetery is the Northern Star Lodge.

At the entrance to the cemetery - the Northern Star Lodge

At the entrance to the cemetery – the Northern Star Lodge

We go inside and explore. Each grave is well designed. It’s a peaceful resting place for those at ease with nature, those people who had an affinity with this park during their lives.

Northern Star Lodge - the Alpine Cemetery

Northern Star Lodge – the Alpine Cemetery

A dominant grave in the cemetery

A dominant grave in the cemetery

A tombstone

A tombstone

The visitors box with tributes and items that have been left, plus the log book.

The visitors box with tributes and items that have been left, plus the log book.

The graves are easy on the eye, unusual for a graveyard I know. This isn’t a bit of gory or horrific backpacking, there is a real sense of peace, happiness and tranquility within.

Peace and tranquility at the Northern Star Lodge cemetery

Peace and tranquility at the Northern Star Lodge cemetery

We sign the log book which is inside a visitors box. There were some German tourists here before, but the rest of the signatories are in Russian, I couldn’t see any English writing from tourists who had visited.

Signing the log book

Signing the log book

The graves date back to the 1960s when this cemetery began. The most distinctive grave here is that of a helicopter pilot at the rear left. His helicopter propeller blade has been attached to his grave stone as a mark of respect.

Helicopter rotor grave

Helicopter rotor grave

Helicopter rotor grave

Helicopter rotor grave

Rest in peace. We close the gate and finish the last part of the trail.

Views on the way back down

Views on the way back down

Again, the views on the way back down are totally sensational. We have probably walked around 6 kilometres but not the full hike, due to the fallen trees and confusion over the exact path, we kind of did part of it as our own hike, but it was great fun!

Flying my Northern Ireland flag in Kyrgyzstan

Flying my Northern Ireland flag in Kyrgyzstan

Loving the freedom of Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan

Loving the freedom of Ala Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan

The entire trail that we did took about 2 and a half hours. You can do it faster, you can also do it slower and veer off the main hiking trail.

Views on the way back down

Views on the way back down

Lunch in Ala Archa National Park
For lunch in Ala Archa National Park, you have three options:
1. Bring your own (cheap)
2. Ask for the price of your tour to include a packed lunch (my choice!)
3. Buy lunch in the Ala Archa Hotel (dear)

Hotel Ala Archa

Hotel Ala Archa

I’m always keen to sample the local ideas in such places so I chose to try the lunch that the tour companies provide. This proved an excellent choice. It was a tasty rice, beef and carrot meal and we drank water.

 

My tasty lunch in Ala Archa

My tasty lunch in Ala Archa

 

There is a restaurant in the Ala Archa Hotel, which is a short drive further down from the start of the Cemetery trail. The restaurant in there includes a food menu, coffee and tea and also alcohol. You can choose to stay overnight too, but it’s not that cheap. Most people camp out or stay in one of the summer homes near the park entrance.

Hotel Ala Archa

Hotel Ala Archa

After eating lunch, we headed to the start of the second trail for the day (part 2 is here), a hike up to the waterfall and canyon further and deeper into these fantastic mountains.

In order to book the tour to Ala Archa National Park, here are the details of the two companies I recommend:

1.Silk Road Explore
28 Minbulakskiy Lane, 720042,
Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic
+996 550 914 408
info@silkroadexplore.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/silkroadexplore
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/silkroadexplore/

2.Iron Horse Nomads
Email: travel@ihn.kg
49 Turusbekova (between Kievskaya and Toktogula), Bishkek, KYRGYZSTAN
English: +996 555 800 278
Russian or Kyrgyz: +996 550 375 509
In the USA: +1 864 641 0515
Skype: ryanh1006
Facebook: facebook.com/ihnomads

Here are some videos of my tour to Ala Archa National Park:

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