The town of Karakol on the eastern shore of Lake Issyk Kul is the most popular base for trekking in Kyrgyzstan. However, most visitors, if they do an overnight or multi-day trek, choose to do the very popular Karakol Valley – Ala-Kol – Altyn Arashan trek.
This is definitely a great trek, particularly the middle section. However, it is not the only trek in this area. An excellent alternative (or a second trek to do after recovering) is the trek to the base of Peak Karakol (Peak Karakol is not a trekking peak; climbing all the way to the top is only for experienced climbers).
Should you go? A tough but flexible trek
I think this trek offers a lot of flexibility, depending on how long you want to stay in a certain area. You can make your own itinerary. I met people who did not even bring their own tent and bags. They stayed at the Karakol Base Camp where tents and bags and dinner were provided (but I’m not sure of the price). They then did the 4-5 hours up to Peak Karakol and back down to the base camp in a single day.
I did the trek twice, 10 days apart, and it is really quite easy to navigate – but it is not easy to hike. If you already know everything about the area, then go straight to Wikiloc to download the GPS track that I created, complete with waypoints and descriptions (I labelled bridges and other important points).
I did the trek from the gate of the national park to the glacier at the base of Peak Karakol in 9 hours (one way), but it can be done quicker if you don’t take as many breaks as I did. The return trip will take the same amount of time. I first did the hike as a single-night stay, which was not as good as the second time when I did the trek as a two-night-stay. A two-night trek allows for ample time to explore around Peak Karakol and its glaciers.
The hike: park entrance to Karakol Base Camp
The beginning is the same as the first section of the trek to Ala-Kol Lake. You need to take the (10 Soms) marshrutka mini-bus #101 from the town of Karakol to the gate of the national park (where my GPS track begins). You will be dropped off at the end of the marshrutka route – about 100 meters short of the gate. There is a booth window at the gate where you will pay the park entrance fee (250 Soms) and the fee for using your own tent (either 100 or 150 Soms, I paid both rates on different days).
Keep the receipts, if you camp in the middle section there will be a ranger who checks that you paid. Also, I met a ranger further up the trail who asked to see my receipt (many trekkers who come over the mountains from Jeti-Oghuz are attempting to sneak by without paying).
After the gate you will walk on a dirt road until you get to the bridge that crosses the Karakol River. The bridge was badly damaged in July 2017, but a foot-bridge extension was added and you can safely cross on foot.
If you arrange a driver through your hostel or hotel, then you can arrange to skip most of this road and drive straight to the damaged bridge. It’s rough in parts, but 4-wheel drive is not required.
The road after the bridge is damaged in parts (mostly wash-outs and landslides), but there is only one detour (marked by a pile of rocks and yellow arrows pointing up the hillside away from the road, as of August 2017). You can’t possibly get lost on the lower part of the road. After about 4 hours you will walk by the bridge that crosses back over the Karakol River again and upwards to Ala-Kol Lake.
You will ignore this turn and continue up the valley, where you cross a small footbridge and almost immediately arrive at the Karakol Base Camp, a relatively large operation where you can camp, get dinner, and sleep in a large tent (if you are too lazy to set up your own tent).
Karakol Base Camp to Ontor Glacier
From this camp you will continue onwards up the valley next to the Karakol River. Soon you will pass by the confluence of two rivers that merge to make the Karakol River, but the confluence is out of sight. These two smaller rivers are the Ontor (Uyuntor in Russian, and Ujuntor on the local trekking paper map) and the Koltor (Kel’tor in Russian) Rivers. You will be going up the Ontor Valley (but some people still call it the Karakol Valley).
There is a very dangerous looking bridge (if you fall in you will die very quickly) that crosses over to the Koltor Valley, but I did not explore this area.
Soon you will come to the end of the old road, and you may see people coming down the hill from the Jeti-Oghuz trek (this is marked as a waypoint on the GPS track linked above). Keep going up the valley, and don’t go straight up the hill on the trail to Jet-Oghuz by mistake. After this it is single-track trail only, and the steep sections begin. You will go through the forest until you get high enough and out above the tree-line.
At one point you will come over a rise and get your first glimpse of Peak Karakol, but you will still be two hours away from the end of the trek. From this point onward there is not much more elevation gain, and the trail goes through some flat grassy (and wet!) areas.
The trail here becomes hard to follow at times.
Most of the Russian groups tend to stop in this area. For them it is a day trip from the Karakol Base Camp area. They will not go on for the last two hours to the base of the mountain. This is for a good reason. The trail fades in the grass, and then after a rocky area it just ends, and you have maybe a 90-minute scramble through rock fields, water and steep sidehills where a trail is barely visible.
You can really pick your own path after this point. You can cross over the shallow river and walk up the gravel and sand areas, or you can stick to the steep sidehill and scramble over rocks and slippery grass and vegetation.
I chose to take off my shoes and cross the river (knee-deep) and walk up the middle. On the way back I stayed on the sidehill, and it was a bit slower but still possible.
After getting through this difficult section you will come to flat and open areas where people have made campsites. I suggest going farther, right up close to the Ontor Glacier below Peak Karakol, at least to the end of my GPS track and even further until you are level with the glacier. You will find much nicer spots to camp here (on flat sand and gravel). You will probably be exhausted at this point, but your reward is the view.
Day 2: exploring the glaciers
I used most of this day to explore around the Ontor glacier at the base of Peak Karakol.
In this area you will find a wide variety of plants, mineral and glacial formations.
I saw some ibex tracks, but not any live animals aside from marmots and birds:
I was considering staying a second night at the base of the glacier, but I decided that I did not want to do the full hike in a single day. So I stayed a half-day at the glacier and then went 4-5 hours back down the trail to the Karakol Base Camp.
The next day I hiked back to the gate where I caught the #101 marshrutka back to town.
Some things to consider
I brought a single one-litre bottle and used water-purification pills. There is not the greatest selection of creeks between the gate to the national park and the Karakol Base camp. But after this point there are many spots to fill up with fresh clean mountain water.
I spent about 45 minutes scrambling over boulders. It was very difficult, especially with a full trekking bag. Some people may take longer. Some people might give up.
Glacier and river danger
Just assume the glacier is dangerous. Don’t go on it unless you know what you are doing. The river is also dangerous at the lower points. The rocky areas next to the glacier are also dangerous. Many of the big rocks and boulders in the area next to the glacier will move under your feet (I fell hard once), and there is still some glacier under the rocks. Try not to fall into a hole and die.
Very few on the upper portion of the trek. I was alone both times I trekked, but I felt I should have had a trekking partner for security. There are many opportunities to fall and hurt yourself.
Maps and GPS
I used the Soviet Military Maps app, but any map app on your phone will do. You just need to occasionally check your GPS to make sure that you are taking the right turn. Download the GPS track that I made.
Lighten your bag
Almost every hostel and guesthouse can store your extra baggage while you are in the mountains. I stayed at Interhouse Karakol and Nice Guesthouse & Hostel. Both have a baggage storage rooms.
Pack out your garbage
Many of the climbers and trekkers at Peak Karakol left behind garbage. Please be respectful of the Kyrgyz mountain environment.
Do you need a guide?
I definitely did not. But if you have the money and the desire for someone to take care of all the navigation, then why not? You can also hire porters in Karakol to help lighten your load.