Kyrgyzstan is fondly known as the “Land Of Celestial Mountains.”
Once you arrive in this country, it is evident why it got such a name. Anywhere you look, there are towering mountain ranges within your sight. So it just makes sense that hiking and trekking enthusiasts frequent the country to experience what the Kyrgyz mountains have to offer. Even if you don’t hike a lot, there are still areas you can visit on a day trip for a short hike – Ala Archa National Park being one of the best.
Located just 40km south of Bishkek, Ala Archa National Park in the Tian Shan mountains is a popular destination for wanderers, hikers and even families for weekend day trips.
There was no question when we were planning our trip that we would explore this place. For one, the park is near Bishkek which would make it a perfect place to start our adventure. In addition, it would only involve a short hike which is ideal for us since we still wanted to do a hike but are unable to do multi-day hikes due to time constraints. After spending a couple of days in Bishkek sorting out the things we need for the rest of our trip, we headed to Ala Archa on our third day in Kyrgyzstan.
Going to Ala Archa
By 7am, we had packed our stuff in the car and checked out of our accommodation. This was the first time we’re heading out of Bishkek and it marked the start of our Central Asia adventures. We were pretty pumped when we hit the road. We passed through many small villages which gave us an initial taste of the Kyrgyz life outside the main city. Our excitement grew as we drove further from the city and saw the mountain ranges looming closer by the minute.
On the way to Ala Archa (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/400 sec at f/4, ISO 250, 75mm
After about 40 minutes of driving, we finally reached the gate of the national park where we paid the entrance fee of 450COM(5.6USD) for our car to enter. From the gate, there was still a good 10-12km of asphalt road before hitting the second gate. This gate is near the Alpager base which marks the start of the hiking trail. Some people go to Ala Archa via public transport – either by taxi or by taking the marshrutka 265 (a shared taxicab) from Osh Bazaar in Bishkek to the gates of the park – and then walk from the gate to the start of the hiking trail.
Welcome to Ala Archa! (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/60 sec at f/4.5, ISO 250, 12mm
We arrived at the Alpager base after a few minutes of driving. There is a carpark at the base and we saw a number of other people also gearing up to do the hike. There’s a number of different hikes that can be done in Ala Archa . We decided to do the Waterfall trail and hike to Ratsek station – a base camp used by more experienced climbers to hike up to the Ak-Sai Glacier. Based on the map provided to us by the friendly CBT folks, Ratsek Station stands at 3300m elevation and is 6.4km from Alpager base. It would take approximately 4.5hrs to reach it. Surely, with all of our previous adventures, bush-walks and hikes, it would be a relatively easy climb, yes? I have done longer hikes before so I was pretty confident at the start that I can make it. I can’t believe how wrong I was.
Matt and I had decided that we would camp for the night in Ala Archa. We each brought our hiking bags which, with all of our camera gear and camping needs, weighs around 20kg apiece. It was sunny when we commenced our hike and I knew something was amiss when I started struggling right off the start – even just walking from the carpark to the start of the trail. I shrugged it off, thinking perhaps it’s just my body trying to acclimatise to the area.
The early morning dead end hike (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/250 sec at f/8, ISO 200, 12mm
Now, we had a map provided by the CBT and there was a sign at the start of the trail which way to go (which we didn’t notice at first) – but we still went the wrong way. Instead of turning left after entering the gate to follow the Waterfall trail, we instead veered right following a different trail along the Ala Archa river.
Ala Archa Gorge (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/320 sec at f/9, ISO 320, 23mm
It was only after an hour of walking (with our heavy packs!) when we realised that we were far from where we were supposed to be. We were still on the riverside when we’re supposed to already start the ascent up the mountain. A couple we met confirmed that we were not on the right trail. We had to retrace our steps to the start of the trail; that’s basically two hours and a lot of energy lost for nothing. Well not really, since the views we’d seen on the river trail were still amazing.
By the time we got back to the starting point, I was already exhausted and struggling. I realised it was probably because of the altitude coupled with the heavy pack, and that I was still not fully recovered from the flight. Matt, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be as tired since he is considerably fitter than me and had experience hiking at higher altitudes.
Admiring the view from Heartbreak Rock (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/125 sec at f/9, ISO 320, 15mm
As soon as we rested and got our bearings, we finally(!) found the correct trail. From the sign, we followed the trail to the forest, which continues on to a clearing. The climb can be steep at times but the path is clearly laid out. Upon reaching the Tepshi Plateau (1.3km from start, 2380m), we were treated to a breathtaking view of the Ak-Sai valley with its snow-capped mountain peaks, luscious green forests, and snaking glacial rivers below. Even though I was unbelievably tired at this point, I cannot help but be awed by the stunning scenery before me.
Incoming Storm (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/200 sec at f/9, ISO 200, 21mm
Ak Sai Valley Views (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/125 sec at f/9, ISO 320, 12mm
Broken but not beaten (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/40 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200, 12mm
Framed By Nature (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/200 sec at f/9, ISO 200, 21mm
I started getting sick around 2hours into the trek and realised that I might not be able to make it to Ratsek Station. We were still 4kms away, the last 2.4km of which is a steady uphill steep path. To make things more exciting, the weather suddenly changed and the sky turned grey signalling an impending rain. Fortunately, we were able to make it to the waterfall campground before the heavy downpour. When we reached the campground - as much as it pained me to admit, I couldn’t go any further. I was seriously disappointed but considering the physical state I was in, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make the next leg as it is considerably much tougher that the previous one. Originally, we were supposed to set camp in the Ratsek base but we decided to camp in the waterfall campground instead. Matt decided that he wanted to continue on and see how much further he can go. I, on the other hand, decided to take a nap because I was just totally broken by this time.
Digs for the night (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/25 sec at f/4.5, ISO 200, 18mm
Ak-Sai Composition (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/200 sec at f/11, ISO 200, 34mm
Wispy Clouds and Fading Light (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 320, 12mm
Glacial River (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 7-14mm f/2.5 Pro: 50sec at f/8, ISO 64, 9mm
LEE 10 Stop ND Filter
Earths Beauty (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/60 sec at f/9, ISO 200, 100mm
After I had my nap and regained some of my energy I decided to head down to the river to explore. The waterfall campground is right next to the Ak-Sai river. The river comes from the Ak-Sai glacier’s melting water which meant that the water was freezing cold! Since it was glacial, the water was pretty clean making it possible to drink without purification. Sitting by the river, the scenery around me was incredible - snow capped mountain peaks on one side, rocky mountain slopes on another, the Ala Archa gorge opening up on another side. I decided to fly my drone, but unfortunately, I crashed it on the mountainside. I was devastated but still hopeful that I can retrieve it. When Matt returned, we tried to search for the drone before it got too dark but unfortunately, we were not able to find it.
Drone Crash. The last video of my drone... RIP Mavic :(
Hiking, climbing and pushing my body to its physical limits has been a part of my life since I was young. There is no greater sense of fulfilment than completing a strenuous day single or multi-day hike. Just you, the mountains and your mind.
The initial climb to the plateau wasn’t particularly strenuous, it was, however, time-consuming considering we spent 3 hours going the wrong way. By the time I'd reached Heart Break Rock, I knew we wouldn't be making it to Ratsek Hut, despite Kel being adamant that he was going to.
I could see in the distance tiny ant-like figures slowly winding their way up past the base of the waterfall, it looked so close, yet I knew it was a case of 'distance is deceiving'.
Rest stops with a view (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/200sec at f/9, ISO 200, 47mm
The base of the waterfall had a variety of purpose-built camp areas nestled amongst the trees. Whilst technically not the safest location to camp, I could see in Kel's face this was the end of the line. I devoured my cold chicken sandwich and set off alone to see how far I could get to Ratsek before nightfall.
The first half hour was a steady scramble up a wall of mud. Slow and dirty. I continued for another half hour before I was passed by two Kyrgyz men who were on their way to climb the glacier adjacent to Ratsek hut. One man continued on whilst I stopped and chatted in broken English / sign language with the other. We exchanged our names and various small talk regarding the beauty of the area, it was here that he asked where I was from. Naturally, I answered “Australia”. It seemed, however, the idea of an Asian man coming from the land of Kangaroos and Koalas was a strange and unique concept as he pointed to my eyes as if I was lying. Try explaining in Russian or Kyrgyz that I was adopted from Korea!
Ak-Sai Waterfall (Matt Horspool)
DJI Mavic Pro + Polar Pro CPL: 1/60 sec at f/2.2, ISO 100
After a good three and a half hours, I decided to stop and set up a timelapse. I knew there was no point going further as I wouldn't make it back to camp before dark safely. It was here that I cheated and sent the drone up and around the mountain to catch a glimpse of the hut and glacier. It was still so far away. Definitely, would not have made it before dark.
I set up the cameras for time lapse, found a nice spot on the ground, kicked back and relaxed. It was one of those moments where you are alone, insignificant and in awe of the sheer scale of planet Earth. One of those moments you're without a worry in the world and begin to appreciate how fortunate you are to have even been born. I mean the odds are just incredible!
Shades of Light (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro + Hoya PRO CPL: 1/80 sec at f/8, ISO 200, 85mm
Shadow Play (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/50 sec at f/8, ISO 200, 12mm
I decided to descend to the first stage of the waterfall. A quick scramble over slippery rocks placed me in the direct line of spray coming from the falls. I could see where people had flattened out the grass to camp, which would be quite idyllic had we the energy to relocate.
Upon my return, I found Kel out walking the nearby hills. He approached me as he would any other time, we chatted about where I'd been and what I saw from the top, then he dropped the fact he had crashed his drone. He seems so calm and collected, I would have been in hysterical. It was quite frustrating that we never found it, even with the use of GPS coordinates and my drone as a visual reference. RIP Mavic.
Morning Hike (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/200 sec at f/7.1, ISO 200, 47mm
The next morning, the clouds had cleared and we enjoyed our time exploring and taking photos. After breakfast, we packed our camp and again, tried to find the drone. In the end, we didn’t find it as it was just impossible to pinpoint where it crashed even though we had a GPS and the last known coordinates. Adding salt to the wound, I also lost one of our radios – it was just not my day. Giving up on our quest to find the drone, we started heading back. If the trail the day before was tough, it turned out that the trail going back will prove much tougher for me. Most of the trail going back is downhill and I am not the best when it comes to balance and I struggle when I go down scree slopes which is around 75% of the downhill slopes going back. There were a lot of moments where I am not proud of (the struggle going down was real… sometimes, I can’t even move my leg to do the next step in fear of just sliding down) but it was a good thing Matt keeps pushing me to do it and face my fear – because if not, I would probably still be in Ala Archa right now – stuck there together with my drone. 😊
Although I personally had a bit of a struggle in Ala Archa, it didn’t reduce the my amazement and appreciation of the place. The whole area is just amazing and breathtaking. Ala Archa National Park is definitely the place to visit if you are in Bishkek. It’s incredibly close to the city centre and the perfect place if you want to go, explore and have a taste of the nature Kyrgyzstan has to offer.