Most people who travel to Kyrgyzstan will hear about Ala Kul at some point. This stunning alpine lake is one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, if not the most beautiful. It’s simply spectacular, characterized by an astonishing shade of milky blue against the snowy peaks of the Terskey Alatau mountain range.
As Ala Kul sits at 3560m, it can only be reached by trekking up into the mountains. Most people trek from the Karakol Valley up to Ala Kul, before descending into Altyn-Arashan and onto the endpoint of Ak-Suu over the course of 3 or 4 days.
It’s a challenging yet thrilling hike, taking you through some of the most beautiful coniferous forests, rolling grasslands and alpine peaks of the Karakol Valley. In this guide, I’ll discuss the logistics of planning an Ala Kul trek, as well as walk you through my trekking itinerary.
Did you know? “Kul” is the Kyrgyz word for “lake,” so Ala Kul directly translates to “Ala Lake.” That’s why it’s not referred to as Ala Kul Lake, as this would mean Ala Lake Lake!
Ala Kul trek overview
How to get there: The trek starts at the entrance to the National Park just outside of Karakol. You can take Marschrutka 101 from the main road in Karakol to the start point for about 10 som.
How to get back: At the end of the trek, you can take Marschrutka 350 from Ak-Suu back to Karakol for 25 som.
Time: 3-4 days.
Difficulty: Challenging; lots of steep uphills, slippery downhills and altitude up to 3900m.
National park fees: Entry to the National Park is 250 som plus 100 som for a tent.
Ala Kul trek — 4 days itinerary
The Ala Kul trek starts in the majestic Karakol Valley, taking you through green meadows, into a forest, up into a rocky high-altitude landscape and to Ala Kul Lake itself. You must then cross Ala Kul Pass (3900 metres), before descending into the Altyn-Arashan Valley and finally following the river to the endpoint at Ak-Suu.
Many people do the Ala Kul trek in 3 days. We did the trek in 4 days, as this allowed us to take our time, and the pacing meant that we could set up camp right next to Ala Kul itself at the end of the second day!
The choice is yours, depending on how much time you have, but here is my 4-day itinerary for completely the Ala Kul trek.
Day 1: Karakol Valley to Sirota Bridge (16km)
The start point of the Ala Kul trek is at the entrance to the National Park, just outside of Karakol. You can hop on the Marschrutka 101 from the main road in Karakol, which will take you to the start point for about 10 som.
The first day of trekking is fairly laidback, with steady inclines and decent paths. Once you cross the first bridge, the Karakol Valley will really open up in front of you; green meadows, meandering rivers and grazing horses. It actually reminded me a lot of the mountain scenery in Switzerland.
Every now and then, a Soviet-looking 4×4 will pass by, transporting supplies and people to the yurts in the mountains.
Our campsite for the night was at the second bridge (Sirota Bridge). Our porters had already pitched our tents by the time we arrived.
Day 2: Sirota Bridge to Ala Kul Lake (12km)
It’s worth getting up early on Day 2, as you’ll be doing a lot of ascending. From the Sirota Bridge camp, you’ll cross over the Karakol River via the bridge itself.
From here, you’ll be ascending about 600m up through the forest. It’s a sweaty climb, but the higher you go, the more beautiful the valley views behind you will be. Don’t forget to glance back every now and then!
Once you reach the yurt camp, you’ll follow the river uphill. It can be quite steep and rocky in places, so be sure to watch your step.
After a few kilometres, you’ll be rewarded with your first glimpse of Ala Kul.
The scenery was mesmerising, and the reward of reaching Ala Kul made the arduous climb completely worth it. We were blessed with an impossibly blue alpine lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Photos honestly cannot do Ala Kul justice.
Surprisingly, we were the only group camping by the lake that night. This is one of the perks of opting to trek for 4 days rather than 3 days — other trekking groups will be camping elsewhere!
It was quite chilly and windy at such a high altitude, but it was by far the most beautiful camping spot I’ve ever stayed at.
Day 3: Ala Kul Lake to Altyn-Arashan (16km)
I had woken up during the night a few times, feeling quite out of breath and with a racing heart. This, as it later transpired, was due to the altitude taking its toll on me.
We were to be heading downwards today, towards a hot spring village called Altyn-Arashan, where we would be spending the night. But first, we had to walk over a steep pass before we could take the path down. This pass would be reaching 3890m.
We started our ascent over the pass. I couldn’t believe how difficult walking had become. Every step was extraordinarily demanding and I began to feel very dizzy as the air became thinner and thinner. Altitude sickness had definitely hit me.
However, the views from the top of Ala Kul Pass were worth the effort, as you can see from my photos below.
Our descent was very sudden. The side of the mountain from which we made our descent was essentially a rockslide, and hence we slipped and skidded our way down. Every step sent gravel shales tumbling beneath my feet and I fell over a couple of times. However, when we reached the bottom of the trail, we sat down for a break and I began to feel a lot better. It’s amazing just how quickly you recover from the altitude once you’re exposed to more oxygen again.
After we’d successfully navigated our way down the slope, the path became relatively flat. Once again, we were graced with lush green valleys and meandering streams. From Ala Kul Pass, it’s a 10km downhill walk to Altyn-Arashan.
Once you hit the Arashan River, it’s just a couple more kilometres to Altyn-Arashan.
Altyn-Arashan translates to “golden spa” — it gets this name due to the hot springs that line the river here. Most of my group made good use of the hot springs to soothe their aching muscles!
In case you’d prefer not to spend another night camping, the valley has a few guesthouses to choose from.
Tip: If you feel that you’ve had enough of walking once you reach Altyn-Arashan, you can flag down a 4×4 to take you to the endpoint at Ak-Suu. This can, apparently, be quite an expensive option though.
Day 4: Altyn-Arashan to Ak-Suu (16km)
You may be pleased to know that Day 4 of the Ala Kul trek is the easiest by far. It’s a gentle 16km walk to Ak-Suu, following the Arashan River for most of the way.
Once you reach Ak-Suu, you can take a minibus back to Karakol for about 30 som per person.
Planning your Ala Kul trek
When is the best time to complete the Ala Kul trek?
June-September is the peak season when most tourists choose to complete the Ala Kul trek. Outside of this window, yurt camps may be packed down for the winter and conditions on the trail can be dangerous.
How much does the Ala Kul trek cost?
If you choose to complete the trek without a guide, the costs would be as follows:
Marshrutka #101: 10 Som
National Park permit: 250 som
Tent permit: 100 som
Guesthouse at Altyn Arashan: 500 som
Dinner and breakfast in Altyn Arashan: 450 som
Marshrutka #350: 50 som
Total: 1360 som (16 USD)
You’ll also need to factor in snacks etc for the duration of the trek.
If you choose to trek with a guide, you’ll need to pay them roughly 1270-2500 som (15-30 USD) per day.
I personally completed the Ala Kul trek as part of a 10-day adventure tour with Journal of Nomads. The tour included a 2-day horse trek, a visit to Skazka Canyon, Barskoon Waterfall and Issy-Kul, as well as the 4-day Ala Kul trek. It was fantastic and I highly recommend it!
What to pack for the Ala Kul trek
Layers: When it comes to mountain trekking, layers are the way to go. Weather can be unpredictable and can change quickly, so it’s best to be able to add/remove clothing when needed. It was very hot on the first day of the trek, but it was freezing once up at a higher altitude.
Waterproofs: Due to the unpredictable weather, you’ll want to be prepared for any rain.
Sleeping bag: Bring a warm sleeping bag as it can get very cold at night.
Water filtration: There’s not really access to bottled water on the trek. It is possible to pick some up at yurt camps, but I wouldn’t rely on this. Water from the rivers should be safe to drink, but I suggest bringing a UV water purifier pen to kill any bacteria.
Sunscreen: You may feel cold in the mountains, but you’re closer to the sun, and hence burn a lot easier. I especially recommend bringing a good lip balm with SPF as my lips chapped to hell.
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