Ala Archa National Park/Ала Арча мамлекеттик жаратылыш паркы
Entrance fee 80 som/person (about $1.75)
As you walk around Bishkek, it’s hard not to notice the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains that dominate the southern skyline. They’re especially well framed by the buildings that line Ala-Too square, and the sight of snow in 100-degree heat can be both invigorating and discouraging. Luckily, when the summer heat and dust begins to overwhelm, Ala Archa National Park is a short drive outside of the city, about 40 kilometers away. This past weekend, I ventured there with some friends to seek respite from the city in the nature you can see tantalizingly close.
While marshrutki don’t go directly to Ala Archa, it is possible to take a taxi. This becomes an especially attractive option when you realize that the trailhead is located 12km from the park entrance. In order to drive those 12km, you’ll have to pay a 200 som vehicle fee in addition to the 80 som/person or 60 som/student fee to enter the park, but it’s well worth it. For those who don’t mind trekking the additional 12km or are planning a longer stay in the park, you can hire a taxi to take you to the park entrance, then call for a return ride at the end of your journey. To make matters even easier, the London School often includes Ala Archa on the itinerary of weekend excursions.
Once inside the park, there’s a guesthouse and some small kiosks and cafes at the trailhead, though most looked unattended when I was there. The trail has a very informative display at the base, including English descriptions and directions, and soon diverges to two itineraries. One trail leads 3.75km to the Ak Sai/Ак Сай waterfall then an additional 2km to the Ratsek/Рацек Hut, while the River Trail trail meanders 1.3km along the Ala Archa river basin, eventually passing an alpinist cemetery. Being well-rested and enthusiastic, my friends and I immediately set out for the waterfall.
Forty minutes later I was sweaty, winded, and famished. While I’d like to blame the altitude (we started at about 7000 feet), the trail was a little steeper than I had bargained for. There’s a small lookout point about 1/3 of the way to waterfall that allows you to sit down, have a snack, and take a break. Luckily, we had packed food and had a delicious mountain lunch of bread, cheese, and samsy. From the lookout we could just make out a waterfall, but the thought of hiking to that distant point seemed incredibly daunting. As we set off again, I promised myself that I could stop at any point and wait for my friends back at the lookout. From this point, however, the trail leveled off a bit and slowly began to offer enticements and rewards for all the hard work: gorgeous views, a river with which to splash cool water on your face, and the increasingly near waterfall. Finally, after about 2.5 hours of ascent, we reached our goal… almost.
We had finally hiked as far as the waterfall, but from our vantage point on the trail it remained another significant hike straight up. One of my friends went for it, and he was quickly at 10,000 feet, above the waterfall and getting closer to snow. I, however, was content to sit by the small stream of water that was flowing down to our location. Surrounded by wildflowers in bathed in the mountain breeze, I took off my hiking boots and soaked my toes in the water. But only for about fifteen seconds, because that water was absolutely freezing! After a nice rest, we packed up and started our descent back to the trailhead and our waiting taxi.
All told we spent about 4 hours hiking around Ala Archa, but by the time I got home tired, thirsty and sunburnt, I felt like I had definitely gotten the full experience. With a range of trails of varying degrees of difficulty, the park has a little something to offer everyone. The best part is the park’s proximity to Bishkek, and knowing that Kyrgyzstan’s famed mountainous terrain is really just around the corner.