Holy Lakes Trek, July 3-6, 2015
Our first trek of the 2015 season was the four day Holy Lakes trek (aka Kol Mazar) starting at the delightful Uzbek village of Arslanbob in Southern Kyrgyzstan. We traveled by minibus (marshrutka) to Arslanbob from Osh via Jalalabad and Bazaar Kurgan. The trip took 3.5 hours and the changes at Jalalabad and Bazaar Kurgan were very straightforward. All accommodation (homestays) in Arslanbob is arranged by the CBT (community-based tourism) office. We stayed in homestay #3 in the house of the Mashurbek the local English teacher. The room and breakfast was $7.50 per person and extra meals were $3 each. The village sits below the Babash Ata massif, which is the dominant feature of the trek.
The local CBT coordinator, Hayat, is quite a character and one of the key people in the CBT movement in Kyrgyzstan. He arranged a guide (Abdul), porter (Zia), cook (Ugun), food, and camping gear for us. The porter seemed a bit of an extravagance since we usually carry our own gear. However, we were cognizant that we were somewhat out of shape and the hike was at altitude with a steep pass on day two. Other CBT offices provide guide/cooks but this was not the case at Arslanbob. The functions of guide, cook, and porter should have been combined in two people, as they were in our later trek in Sary Mogul. We got the impression that Hayat tries to provide employment for as many people as possible and therefore over-staffs treks. We liked Abdul, Zia, and Ugun and didn’t mind having them along, but paying all their wages increased the cost of the trip to around $100 per day.
A word about gear: since we are on a year-long round the world trip where hiking is not the main focus, we didn’t pack tents and sleeping bags. We rent tents, sleeping bags, and mats from CBT offices when we organize treks. This has worked out okay, but adds to the cost and the quality of the gear might not be the same as at home. We would advise travelers coming to Kyrgyzstan on short trips to bring their own gear from home. We’d also recommend bringing your own freeze-dried food, oatmeal packets, and so on from home if possible instead of hiring a cook. Freeze-dried trekking meals are unavailable in Kyrgyzstan so you will need to hire a cook if you want to eat anything other than dried fruit and instant noodles. Our cook, Ugun, made tasty meals and he and the porter carried fresh ingredients like carrots and potatoes for the entire trek! This was a real luxury compared to our usual backpacking meals at home, but again adds significantly to the cost of the trek.
We warmed up for our hike with a couple of day walks around the village. On day one we walked up to the small waterfall which is a 5K round trip from the village center. The next day we hiked up to the big waterfall which is a 8K round trip along the river. It was extremely hot in Arslanbob area the entire time we were there. The typical weather pattern was to experience clear mornings. Clouds would billow up around the mountains by lunchtime and dissipate around sunset.
Day One (Arslanbob-Holy Rock-Ridge above Holy Rock)
Start time 9am. Lunch was 1.5 hours. End time was 6pm. We gained 1600m in altitude. Final camp was at 3200m
This was a long hot and dusty day’s walking. Thankfully, the CBT includes a horse and horseman to haul bags up to the first night’s camp. The first 3-4K you head North through the village past the old Soviet Turbaza (Summer Holiday resort). The Turbaza has some terrifying looking fairground rides and a dirty, though popular, swimming pool. Sadly, the cheesy techno blasting from the Turbaza accompanied us up the trail for the first part of the day. The trail bears left after the Turbaza and the way is fairly obvious for the most part. The main point of reference for the day’s walk is the distinctive cuboid Holy Rock, which can be seen on a hill top above the town.
We had lunch in a shady spot by the river in pasture lands. The cook prepared a delicious stew (dimlama) and we had melon for dessert. It was a real luxury to have freshly cooked food on a trek, but the time it took to light a fire, cook the meal, eat it, and clean up added a lot of time to each day’s walk. There was plenty of water from springs and streams on the lower part of the trek.
We were warned that there was no water at the camp so we should stock up at a spring near the Holy Rock, which was an hour from camp. However, the spring was a tiny trickle when we got there and although we eventually filled our bottles you might feel a little grossed out by the cow shit and slobber around the spring. The cows were well aware that this was the only water up here and they were protective over their supply. It is possible that the spring will run it late season so my advice would be to keep filling bottles as you head up to the rock.
Quick gear recommendation: bring a USB Steripen on your travels and hikes. The Steripen uses UV light to ‘sterilize’ water. A fully charged Steripen will be good for 50 litres, which is ample for two people hiking at altitude for 5 days. The guide drank the water directly from the stream and was a little sick the next day.
The Holy Rock was nothing particularly special but the views down Valley were quite pleasant. The walk up to the campsite was steep in parts, crossing rolling green pasture and angling up slopes of wildflowers. The trail in this section was our first encounter with the standard trail conditions on the trek. There is no defined trail for much of the way except for dozens of crisscrossing cow paths climbing steeply along tussocky slopes. A guide is needed to know which cow path to follow. Finding a foothold was sometimes difficult and this terrain would be a muddy, slippery nightmare in wet weather.
Our camp was on a ridge below the Friendship Pass, which is the high point of the trail. We shared the space with cows who live up here in the summer. As we were setting up our tent, a cow got into the food supply! Zia chased it away but we were one potato short after that. The views of the Babash Ata massif were spectacular. A nice end to a sweaty day of trekking. Dinner was again delicious and we rolled into bed around 9pm for an early start the next day.
Day Two (Camp One-Friendship Pass-Holy Lakes)
Start time 7.30am. End time 3.30pm. Lunch break was 1 hour.
It was imperative to get an early start on Day Two. In the evening, the conversation turned to the weather and conditions for day two. The guide informed us that if it was raining in the morning we might have to wait a day for the bad weather to clear. Once we got on to the slope below the pass we understood why. The trail would be treacherous in poor weather.
Thankfully, the weather was clear but the guide informed us that we should aim to get up to the pass by 10am since the weather often turns by late morning. If it started to rain before the pass we would have to play safe and head back down. The backside of the pass is covered in snowpack so it is advisable to cross the pass early before the snow starts to melt and makes the walk down a little more treacherous. We don’t have photos of this section as it was too treacherous to take the camera out of the pack!
We dropped down around 200m from the ridge to meet up with the obvious trail going left to right on the scree below the pass. The trail conditions were particularly rough as we headed up the slope. The scree was fairly unstable and it sat on top of a thin layer of dry and loose soil. On steep sections, the scree and soil crumbled underfoot. It was rather frustratingly one step forward two steps back at times! At times, we were scrambling up using both hands and feet and needed the guide and porter to help us up. A couple of times, we inadvertently caused small rock falls as we scrambled up, which was dangerous for anyone walking below.
We hit a small patch of snow above the scree, which added to the fun! The snow patch was steep and was above a couple of patches of exposure. A slip up here could have been fatal. We headed over the snow without too much hassle and made it to the pass at 10.30.
The backside of the pass was snowbound at the top and loose scree lower down. The snow was considerably more pleasant to walk on than the scree.
Lunch was on an overhang underneath some cliffs on the right side of the path down. It reminded us of the cliff where Gollum threw away Frodo and Sam’s lembas bread in Lord of the Rings! We pulled up some tasty wild onions to add some flavor to the salad.
After lunch, we hiked up a grassy slope to our right on an obvious trail. The view from the grassy ridge was spectacular. Fine views back up to the pass and at an overlook a little further on we got our first view of the Holy Lakes.
The trail conditions deteriorated once more and we really wished we had walking sticks since our knees and ankles were taking a battering. The last twenty minutes gave us some respite from the scree but added in the annoyance of slipping continually on the wild onion stalks! However, the onions gave us a good handhold as we headed on down.
The Holy Lake has a bunch of pilgrim’s huts for local villagers who come to make goat and sheep sacrifices at the Lake. Aside from the restrictions on swimming and washing in the lake, the pilgrimage site was fairly relaxed. We were invited into the camp to drink tea and eat bread (we passed on the offer of mutton) and then set up camp for the night.
A group of local teenagers were having their summer camp out on the lake, entertaining themselves with endless hours of volleyball and Kyrgyz games which included variations on hide and seek and piggy in the middle.
Sunset over the lake was beautiful and up valley reminded us a little of Yosemite. One of the joys of the trek was the variety of landscapes over the four days.
Since a lot of sheep are slaughtered at the Lake there is an abundance of mutton about and the locals are keen to share. Despite eating almost no red meat at home, we decided to be more flexible about this in Central Asia. However, we maxed out at the Holy Lake. I could just about cope with fat chunks of mutton for dinner, although Laura was less keen. However, breakfast the next morning was the Central Asian national dish known as Plov. This is a mutton laden pilaf smeared in sheep buttock fat. Apparently, it is considered an aphrodisiac in Central Asia. I don’t know about getting turned on eating it since it turned me off life!
The best place to get clean water is from the lake outlet to right of the pilgrim huts. The water is fast flowing and has less detritus floating it than the lake. Oh, and the toilets were a bit grim at the lake. It seems that some people are not so good with their aim!
A word of warning: although everyone was super friendly at the lake our guide warned us to make sure everything was packed into our tent at night including boots. Apparently, the occasional theft happens from tents.
Day three (Holy Lakes-Ontama)
Start time 8.30am. End time 6.45pm. Lunch stop 1.5 hours.
Day three starts with a gentle descent through pastures covered in wildflowers. You follow the stream that outflows from the upper Holy Lake (Mazar Kol) to the lower lake (Paynav Kol). The lower lake varies in color from emerald-green to sapphire blue depending on the light conditions.
Just beyond the lake, you will be accosted by a shepherd in a yurt camp. For reasons unknown, the man insisted on obtaining our names and addresses.
The trail bears left after the shepherd’s yurt on a well-defined horse path. The trail swiftly turns steep up a narrow canyon and the underfoot conditions deteriorated once more. Oh, how we rued the decision to leave our walking sticks at home! It was hot at times in the gorge but a babbling brook runs aside the trail the whole way.
The gorge tops out at a green pasture after an hour or so. We followed an obvious trail up through pasture land to the top of a green hill, where we could see back the way we came towards the Holy Lake.
Looking back at the first part of Day 2’s route. Kol Mazar is barely visible as a sliver of blue at the head of the valley in the background. The small lake (Paynav Kol) is visible in the middle ground.
The views back to the massif reminded us of the wild views of the Olympic mountains in Washington state.
The views in the other direction were a profusion of rolling pasture in every imaginable shade of green.
After a Snickers bar stop we headed left across a rare flat section of pasture. After an hour or so, we stopped for lunch at a small stream, which gave us the energy to march the next section of the trail. The trail descended down a steep slope towards an area known as the White Rocks. Beyond this giant outcrop of white granite, we saw the path ahead. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The next section had switchbacks! The first we encountered on the whole trail! It would seem that the typical Kyrgyz attitude to trail building is draw a line between two points and build a trail along the line. This made the trail gruelling and particularly unfriendly toward knees.
We marched up the switchbacks and at the top took the trail to the left of the ridge. The mountains on the other side of the valley were beautiful in the late afternoon light and we were particularly looking forward to the sunset from the camp on the ridge. We saw yak grazing up on the high pasture above the valley. We briefly descended into the valley along animal trails before heading up to the saddle to camp.
Except we couldn’t camp at this spot. We found out later that a local shepherd had decided to set up for the night at this spot with 400 sheep! Our guide didn’t initially mention this and marched on beyond the camp without saying anything. We were confused about where we were going and how far we had to go. At one point he dropped off the trail and headed down the side of the hill. After a long day, another section of steep off trail slope was definitely not appreciated!
Eventually, we stopped at a small flat outcropping to set up camp and Abdul explained why we descended from the sunset spot. One of the occasional frustrations with Kyrgyz guides is that they seem to be reluctant to keep you updated on changes to the itinerary, problems, or time to camp.
Anyways, we were bummed to miss out on what would have been a fabulous sunset but after a long day we were soothed by another delicious dinner and tea.
Day Four (Unknown campsite to Arslanbob)
Start time 9am. Finish 2-3pm. Lunch 1.5 hours.
The morning began with an off trail descent in search of the proper trail. This section was pretty crappy underfoot but once we got the main trail it was pretty easy going all the way back to Arslanbob. The trail is mostly through Jailoo (pasture) and after a couple of hours Arslanbob comes into view. The latter part of the trail is along a 4 wheel drive track linking outlying farms to the main village. There was very little traffic on the road so our enjoyment was only rarely disturbed by traffic noise and dust. We stopped for lunch at a pretty stream about an hour outside of the village. It was extremely hot so lunch in the shade and a chance to wash in the cold stream was most welcome.
The last hour of the trek was through the shady walnut groves that Arslanbob is famed for. After a strenuous first hike of the year, the tea, bread, and hot shower at Mashurbek’s house was wonderful.
We rested overnight at Mashurbek’s house then took a shared taxi north to the capital city Bishkek. The drive took 10 hours and took us through jailoos and high mountain passes.
The Holy Lakes trek takes you through quite varied landscapes. The dominant features were the snow-tipped peaks of the Babash Ata massif, the rolling green pasture lands (jailoos) typical of much of Kyrgyzstan, and the blue-green alpine Holy Lakes. You won’t see massive mountains and glaciers. For this type of scenery head to the Alay ranges South of Osh or the Central Tien Shan in the East. Even though you will feel like you are deep in the wilds at certain points the region is hardly remote. Twenty thousand pilgrims visit the lakes annually and villagers head up to the high pastures to graze their livestock throughout the summer.
Cultural Interest 6/10
The holy lakes are a major pilgrimage spot for local villagers so there is a fair amount of activity on the shore. However, beyond the occasional slaughtering of sheep it is difficult to ascertain any real religious ritual occurring. To be honest, it felt more like a local picnic spot than a site of great religiosity. Shepherding seemed to be the most important activity in the region.
The Holy Lakes trek was more grueling than we expected. There were a few personal factors that played into this. We were definitely out of shape,the hike was our first of the year, we were not acclimatized to the altitude, and we did not have walking sticks to help us on the steep slopes. However, even if the reverse was true it would have still been a tough hike. The trail conditions were not great, the temperatures were in the high thirties Celsius, and there were a few scary moments heading up Friendship Pass. Most of the route consists of extremely steep ascents and descents, with no switchbacks, on loose rock or crumbly dirt where it would be easy to twist an ankle. If you have a fear of heights or are not comfortable with scrambling on loose steep scree then do yourself a favor and hike elsewhere.