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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
When you pay for your national park entry, you get a small information sheet, it’s written in Russian.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Crossing the river may look easy in the photographs, but it wasn’t – even the rocks were slippy with ice.
The land parts can be tricky to walk through as well, with hidden rocks and ice, and deep deep snow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Cemetery is enclosed with a fence and has a gate at the front. The name of the cemetery is 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.
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.
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.
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.
Rest in peace. We close the gate and finish the last part of the trail.
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!
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
2.Iron Horse Nomads
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
Here are some videos of my tour to Ala Archa National Park: