There’re at least two reasons why the Ala Archa National Park in the Tian Shan mountains is a perfect place to start your hiking trip in Kyrgyzstan. The first is that it’s located near the capital, Bishkek, and is easily accessible by marshrutka (minibus), which makes it a great choice for a good introduction to what the Kyrgyz mountains have to offer. In addition, just a one-day hike brings you to the base camp Ratsek at an altitude of over 3000 meters, surrounded by impressive views on high rocky peaks that can be climbed!

Getting there is easy. Marshrutka number 265 from Bishkek to the Ala Archa National Park runs quite frequently and is easy to catch near the main entrance to the Osh Bazaar in the western part of Bishkek. It reaches the park gate in about an hour. It’s useful to ask the driver for a return schedule, as it isn’t available at the bus stop.

At the entrance gate

From the gate, there’re still 10-12 km of an asphalt road to the start of the hiking trails. You’ll probably find a taxi driver waiting at the gate trying to convince you that the only way to get to the Alpager base is by his car. There is no need to pay quite a lot for that short distance which can be easily covered by hitchhiking. We just picked up our thumbs while walking for a few minutes and soon we got to the Alpager base (2136 m), a former Soviet camp site for climbers, which marks the beginning of two different trails. The directions are marked from the beginning, which is not so common elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan. The Waterfall Trail follows the Ak-Sai river and leads to the left to the Ak-Sai glacier, through the base camp called Ratsek (3350 m). The peaks such us Uchitel, Korona or Komsomolets can be climbed from that base. The other trail is climbing right along the Ala Archa river to the Adygene glacier. We took the first trail and reached no further than the Ratsek Base Camp, as we realized that we didn’t have enough food. This also made us think about finally getting ourselves a stove, but that’s another story.

We started the hike from the Alpager hut and followed a sign to the left, towards the forest. The trail quickly starts climbing a steep slope and brings you in some 15 minutes to the open area above the valley, providing really good views of the canyon and Ala Archa river.

The Ala Archa canyon

Once we left the forest, the path started winding slightly up along the slope and walking was quite simple. Following the Ak-Sai river, at some point we crossed a creek where we filled up the water, then headed to the nearby waterfall, being a good point for lunch. Taking a break for the meal was a really good idea, since we were about to lose a lot of energy during the next stretch. From that point, the path narrowed and led steeply and steadily uphill over the stones and gravel. It wasn’t anymore easily visible and marked, so we just searched for the most convenient ways of ascent.

Trail to the waterfall

Climbing after the waterfall

We climbed continuously for about 3 hours, not being able to see anything behind the big hill in front of us. The last part was the least comfortable because of slippery and steep terrain. We were moving slowly but surely to the plateau situated at the altitude of 3350 meters and reached the final goal, the base camp Ratsek.

Trekkers descending on the hardest part of the trail

This view that awaited us

From here, we enjoyed the view of the high rocky peaks bathed in the afternoon sun, then we set up our tent and finally got some sleep.

Simply enjoying

Our camp

Unfortunately, the next morning we realized that we were short of food and  wouldn’t be able to make it for another night on the mountain. So instead of doing a three-hour walk to the nearby glacier Ak-Sai or climbing  Ucitelj peak (4540 m), we went down back to meet the civilization, the same way we came. Descent to the first shop near the Alpager hut took us about three and a half hours, then walking and hitchhiking to the exit of the National Park took an additional hour. On the entrance gate we were picked up by a marshrutka.

Useful information:

The marshrutka (minibus) 265 drives from Osh Bazaar in Bishkek to Kashka-suu village and drops you at the entrance of the Ala Archa National Park. It’s about 30 km, takes less than an hour and costs 60 som. The same marshrutka goes back to Bishkek for the same price. Check the schedule with the driver.

The entrance to the National Park costs 80 som per person.
A taxi from the entrance gate to the Alpager hut, where the trail starts, the cost 500 som for 4 people. If you’re not in a hurry, do hitchhike. Or walk along the asphalt road.
There’re a couple of small shops  just next to the Alpager hut.

The map of the area is not necessary, unless you climb the peaks. You can get it in Geoid map shop in Bishkek (Kievskaya St. 107). You can also ask around in Racek base camp about hiking to the Ak-Sai glacier and Ucitelj Peak, as during the summer months there’re mountaineers who stay for some time.
 It’s useful to know some Russian.

There is enough water on the trail.
Bring your own tent and (enough!) food.

For more general information related to backpacking in Kyrgyzstan see here.