A hike, a hamlet, and a hot spring

May 27, 2013

The trip took on a new character today. Gone were the leisure and relative sloth of Karakol. Once dropped off by the mashrutka, we had 14km of hiking uphill towards the hamlet of Altyn Arashan (roughly 3000m/9800ft). First, however, we (Sjoerd, Julian, and I) said goodbye to Salima, who was headed back home to Almaty, and Bart, who continued his journey towards Mongolia.


The valley leading to Altyn Arashan

The valley leading to Altyn Arashan


Clicking my backpack’s waistbelt buckle quickened my pulse. It was nothing more than a fear of holding back two kids 15+ years younger than me, but once on our way that fear quickly faded. Truth be told, Julian was carrying the most weight by far, as he had EVERYTHING with him. Sjoerd and I left some of our gear in the Neofit Guesthouse for a nominal fee, which, in retrospect, was very trusting of us given our history there. That said, I did not leave my Canon A-1 and it’s three lenses behind, so despite only having a daypack, I was carrying some significant weight. The route up was a gradual dirt road with a few steep, boulder-y sections thrown in, which begged the question, “Why would you ever pay for a ride up here?” Surely, you would be thrown around the vehicle like a rag doll. I was breathing too hard most of the time to make much conversation, so I disguised my labored effort by limiting my participation and used a video break to get one reprieve. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country and most people (almost all) that own horses are nomadic and don’t want them running away. So, they are tied up in in various ways to limit how far their horses can wander and graze. The most common way I saw was to bind the two front hooves together, although I also saw some horses with one hoof tethered to a stake in the ground. At least the former allowed the horse to graze and move, albeit in the most disabled and depressing manner. As you will see in the video, the horse is afraid of humans likely due to abuse from the owner.

We made good progress and were smugly satisfied with our sense of accomplishment. To reward ourselves for arriving in less than 4.5 hours (when the book said 5-6), we went to the hot springs after confirming we had a place to sleep and that dinner would be cooked for us as well.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a story about squealing naked women this time, well, actually there was. Sjoerd’s curiosity got the better of him again, and he looked into another cabin’s window to see if the springs were different. I don’t believe he got an eye-full this time, but there was a startled female when he pressed his face against the window. I tell you! His girlfriend was going to be a lucky lady when he got home! Without the prying eyes of some stranger, our cabin and its 1m deep hot spring was really peaceful and relaxing.  Situated next to a stream of snow runoff, it was only customary to test our circulatory health by immersing ourselves and then run back into the hot spring. Then Sjoerd decided that the visit wouldn’t be complete without doing a cannonball, which he photographed with a self-timer.

Avoiding hot mineral water getting in my eyes as Sjoerd proudly documents his cannonball.

Avoiding hot mineral water getting in my eyes as Sjoerd proudly documents his cannonball.

Back at the guesthouse, we met the others staying there while waiting for dinner to be served. Before we really got to know them the sun decided to peak underneath the day’s uninterrupted blanket of clouds and we all rushed to photograph some precious sunlight before sunset.

The first glimpse of sunlight in days was worth a photo. Hot spring cabins in the distance along the river.

The first glimpse of sunlight in days was worth a photo. Hot spring cabins in the distance along the river.

Staying at backpacker hovels in remote places always means a good conversation. Anyone that made the same effort you did is going to share common interests. This is always good news for me because I am uncomfortable talking to strangers cold turkey. Sharing the house was Yuta, a Japanese national on his second year of traveling, after leaving behind a finance job. His English grammar, accent (Queen’s English), and inflection made his upper class background obvious, but had gentle soul and pleasant demeanor. The other (coincidental) Japanese national was Maruka. She had quit her job at a hotel in Chiba City to travel for a year. Lone female travelers are rather uncommon, but one in this part of the world is rare, especially since she was typically Japanese, reserved and quiet. Rafael and Sam were the two twenty something French friends that were really into talking about photography, marijuana, and French labor laws. Great guys. Markus was a German in his mid 40’s that managed to drive his Volkswagen sedan up that crappy road in one piece. Finally, were Martin and Vladimir. These two Slovaks had been friends forever and travel together every two years or so. Martin lives in Norway and is a hotel manager, so his English is impeccable. Vladimir is a mechanic in Slovakia and did pretty well keeping up with the conversation.

Martin and Vladimir in the foreground, Markus, and Maruka behind.

Martin and Vladimir in the foreground, Markus, and Maruka behind.

Dinner was salad and pasta with meat and liver. Certainly not the most glamorous of meals, but I was starving and it was delicious and not enough. It seemed that the rest of the calories would come from beer. Once we ran the place out of beer, Vladimir and Martin pulled out the vodka and their stories about women in Russian nightclubs. As good as they were, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I found one of the only rickety beds still open and spent the rest of the night trying to find a position where the saggy springs didn’t rest my body on a crossbar.


19 thoughts on “A hike, a hamlet, and a hot spring

  1. Curt Mekemson

    Great story, and where is a Therm-a-Rest when you need one. Good photos and beautiful country. “Delicious and not enough.” Maybe even not so delicious it would have been not enough. –Curt

    1. manyounighted Post author

      That’s funny that you mention the Therm-a-Rest. I had that exact same thought as I wrote it. Next time, I am carrying my NeoAir for moments like that! I have to say that it was one of the few times that I really wished for more food on the trip. It wasn’t because I was that much more hungry that day, but that I had a chance to eat something that was different for a change. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, Curt! Next post will have even better photos! Guaranteed!

      1. Curt Mekemson

        Looking forward to it! My Therm-a-Rest has saved many a night. It’s amazing that something so light and thin can provide so much comfort. –Curt

      1. manyounighted Post author

        You bring up a good point.I would have never guessed that such a practice would have been done in the US 100+ years ago. I suppose that’s because I imagine that pioneers established property rights and put up fences as soon as possible. There, there aren’t fences for pasture land in Kyrgyzstan because of the communal use between the nomadic families.

        Haha! I gave up caring about my tan in my teenage years. That said, finding sunscreen in these countries is VERY challenging. It means finding a nice store in a capital city and going down the cosmetics aisle. Not that I know from experience. 🙂 The message seemed clear to me. Only you sissy, rich, white people (local Russians or tourists) need sunscreen.

  2. Mabel Kwong

    This sounded like a great climbing adventure trip. Surprised to see you lug your Canon and the lenses all the way with you too. They must be heavy, do you ever get a sore shoulder from lugging that around everywhere with you? Sometimes I get a sore shoulder when I’m carrying around a digital camera in my sling bag 🙂 Those are great shots, probably something you’ll see once in a life time…that cannonball one is really something. Perfect timing.

    I think for a lot of us, when we travel for sights and adventure, we don’t get too fussy about food. However, what I tend to avoid eating is seafood.

    1. manyounighted Post author

      Haha! On this trip, it was a pretty uneventful day- nearly dull. You want adventure and drama? Here are the top five:







      I definitely get sore shoulders at the beginning of the trip and then your body accommodates. All the extra weight means that the food would have to be pretty questionable for me to not eat it. I had fish that was locally caught in Tajikistan and it was one of the best meals of the trip. I trusted it because it was fried quite thoroughly and our hostess cooked it for us. I judge my food based on how popular the establishment is and I have had great success with that approach.

      I will tell you Sjoerd’s secret to getting the perfect photo. Not only did he use self timer, but he used the burst mode as well to make sure he got the shot he wanted. It only took two attempts.

      1. Mabel Kwong

        LOL. Drama indeed now. What is it with you and unreliable transportation? Maybe it’s a sign you should be getting around on foot more! On the subject of food, I tend to avoid anything cold and creamy. Maybe I should try your approach since it hasn’t let you down too much.

        Only two attempts, that’s very good. I am horrible at taking photos with the timer on. Have to retake the shot again, and again, and again 🙂

      2. manyounighted Post author

        Unreliable transportation is par for the course in Central Asia, it seems. It got very frustrating trying to keep my schedule without all of the unforeseen delays. I certainly walked on foot as much as possible. I was really jealous of the bike tourists that I met. They had the freedom to go where and when they wanted, but the down side is that they didn’t mix with the locals as much as I did…

        I usually follow the cold and creamy rule, too, but I got addicted to Russian style salads (mayo, boiled egg, pickles, potatoes, ham, and peas at the core) on this trip. So, I bravely ate on. Of course, I had to trust in the cleanliness of the restaurant first. 🙂

      3. Mabel Kwong

        Unforseen delays…but that’s what makes every trip interesting! And on the subject of food, you’re much braver than me! One bite in of something cold, I usually pass it on my plate to the person next to me 🙂

      4. manyounighted Post author

        I totally agree that it makes the trip more interesting, but when almost every intercity trip is complicated and often horribly delayed, it is rather tiring. Transportation in India was easier, if that gives you any idea how challenging transportation Central Asia is. 🙂 Georgia and Armenia (not coincidentally former Soviet Republics) were nearly as bad but still easier.

    1. manyounighted Post author

      It was. Sjoerd knows how to bring the fun! Even without a cannonball, the hot springs were the perfect end to a long-ish hike! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  3. Lani

    I’m glad you found me through Holistic Wayfarer (?) so I could follow you. What an adventure you are on. I’ve plopped right in the middle of your story and I’m hooked!

    1. manyounighted Post author

      Wow! That’s awesome! I’m glad that you are enjoying the trip! I did find you through Holistic Wayfarer, btw. 🙂 I don’t think I will ever forget your potato metaphor! Brilliant!

  4. LaVagabonde

    I’m also ill at ease striking up conversations with strangers, but it’s true that the more off-the-beaten-path that you go, the easier it is, because the others often have similar personalities. I was wondering about solo female travelers in those parts. Do you we need to be vigilant in that region?


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