A horseback trek through the mountains to a secluded natural hot spring. It sounded good on paper, and looked even better in our imaginations. Mook still owed me a pony ride from a bet I won ages ago, and since we hadn’t seen anything of Kyrgyzstan outside of Bishkek it sounded like a great and reasonable activity for two city slickers. And it’s been coooooold in Central Asia these days, so a trip to a hot spring sounded excellent.
But we, two people who specialise in pubs and parties, didn’t actually think about what we were getting ourselves into. Mountain. Secluded. Winter. Horses. Trekking.
When we arrived in Karakol in the evening, we phoned up the local branch of CBT Kyrgyzstan, a sustainable tourism initiative that works with locals to provide authentic travel services and keep tourism revenue in the community. CBT Kyrgyzstan is incredibly easy to work with, and it’s possible to just rock up to their local offices, tell them where you’d like to go or what you’d like to do, and be off on a tour within a few hours or the next day. And that’s pretty much what we did.
It was too late in the day for any horse trekking, so Azamat, the head coordinator at CBT Karakol, set us up at a fantastic little guesthouse. We got a gigantic, toasty warm room, a big pot of tea and snacks, and breakfast the next day for only 700 som each. After breakfast, Azamat picked us up and drove us to the CBT office to get things started.
In front of the office was Ascot, our guide for two days. He was appropriately dressed for cold-weather hiking, and had shopping bags full of the food we’d be eating on the trip. Inside the office, he started gathering supplies like cups, bowls, gas burner, kettle, etc, while Azamat explained where we’d be going (through the Altyn Arashan valley), how far it was (16 kilometres each way) and where we’d be staying (a hut).
It was at this point I realised that this probably wasn’t going to be a relaxing horseback cruise up to a well-equipped, romantic Japanese-style hot spring, like I had imagined. And I was right.
The trek up through the valley started off ok. We’d been instructed to yell “CHU” at the horses to get them to move, but the only thing they really reacted to was the whoop sound of the small whip held by our amazingly patient horse minder, a dude who had been a shepherd for seven years and who I came to think of as The Animal Whisperer. But the scenery was beautiful and I was enjoying my hard-earned pony ride as we sauntered through the hills at a pace slightly faster than standing.
We reached the halfway point and took a break for lunch. Ascot prepared some ashlam foo, a cold noodle soup, but suddenly the sun dropped behind the mountains and the wind picked up. It was freezing, and our teeth chattered as we rushed to get down the ridiculously unseasonable meal. Mook and I were obviously not dressed for non-sunny mountain weather, but even Ascot and The Animal Whisperer shivered and rubbed their hands in the cold.
“I’ve never done this trek in November,” Ascot admitted.
I was relieved to get back on my horse, who just seemed to radiate body heat up through the saddle. By the time we set off again I was already warming up.
The second half of the journey up the mountain was the hard part. The path got really steep and the ground was covered in snow and ice. The horses didn’t want to hike up a cold mountain in the first place, but they especially didn’t seem like it when their hooves slipped or they fell into a deep patch of snow. Or maybe the horses didn’t mind at all, but I definitely didn’t like the thought of some horse slipping on a rock or some ice and breaking it’s leg with me on top. I was surprised how clumsy they were, but despite all their slipping and tripping, The Animal Whisperer kept coaxing them to go faster because he wanted to get to the hot spring hut before the sun sank lower and it got even colder.
When we finally arrived at the hot springs, I could see why Ascot and The Animal Whisperer had been in such a hurry. Two little wooden houses and a shed sat fenced in next to a roaring river. One was the home of the guy whose job it was to sit all winter and guard the springs. He came out and met us, then began bringing wood and water into the second house, which was the dormitory, kitchen and common room. In summer the place was probably full of tourists having a roaring time drinking, barbecuing, and playing ping pong. But now in the winter it was just us four. Ascot and the Hot Springs Guardian rushed to get a fire going in the stove while Mook and I wasted each other at ping pong.
Why does a hot spring need someone to guard it? I found out a few hours later, as we sat huddled in the dark common room after a twilight dinner, talking and drinking vodka. Because a few years ago, someone had come along during the winter and stolen the electricity generator, and they were afraid the thieves would come back for something else.
Again, I had a sudden realisation. This time I realised that we were actually nuts, two stupid tourists dragging three horses and two men into the freezing cold mountains to a small hut with no heating or electricity, just so we could take a hot bath.
But the baths were awesome. Inside the wooden shed were two pools from two different hot springs, each with a unique colour and smell. The hot springs themselves were the only warm place at the camp, and steam poured up off the water into the cold air of the shed. We stayed in until we got lightheaded from the hot water, and when we left the moisture on my fingertips froze as I touched the metal door handle. It was farking cold.
We were up at dawn, and after another go at the hot springs we gobbled down a hearty breakfast made by Ascot. It felt really strange having two dudes attend to us, preparing meals, washing all the dishes, and handling the fire. At 9am sharp we were back on the horses, plodding treacherously down through the valley towards the warmth and sun of lower altitudes. The Animal Whisperer managed to poke the horses into a trot a couple times, and I narrowly managed to steer my horse in the right direction when it accidentally took a stumble off a hill and towards a cliff. We almost felt like real horseback riders!!
In the end we trekked 32 kilometres in about seven hours over two days. Not exactly adventurer material, but definitely different to how we normally spend our weekends.