After a wonderful day of hiking up Kashka-Suu, I met with the Trekking Union again to make the journey out to Ala Archa National Park. Named for the juniper trees (archa in Kyrgyz) found throughout, it is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen.
Like the day before, we started early. After another short drive outside the city, we found ourselves at the entrance of the park. Two statues, one of an ibex and the other of a snow leopard, greeted us as we walked through the gate. Unlike the previous day, a blanket of clouds obscured the sun. Still, as we walked along a winding concrete path past empty picnic tables and campsites, spirits were high.
Suddenly, the gorge opened up before us. Even at the start of the hike, it was breathtaking. A massive riverbed of smooth stones stretched like a snake, juniper trees with leaves bleeding red lined the banks, and craggy peaks reached up from the valley floor to snow-covered heights.
“We cross here,” declared our guide, Sergei. He’d been the guide up to Kashka-Suu as well.
We all looked at each other.
“Shoes off!” Sergei gleefully declared, yanking his hiking boots off and wading across the stream.
Hesitantly, we all did the same. It was freezing.
After we all dried our feet and tried to scrub some feeling back into our toes, the hike continued. The further up the gorge we went, the more impressive the views got. Soon, a peak appeared in the distance: Svobodnaya Korea or Free Korea.
We had to cross the river once more; luckily, this time, there was a bridge.
I was lagging towards the back of the group, taking pictures and stopping here and there to gawk at the scenery. Sergei and two others were near me. Suddenly, Sergei shouted, “Aza!”
He scampered off the trail, into a patch of what looked like weeds and began picking through the leaves.
“Kostyanika!” He held a small cluster of berries up triumphantly, then plucked them off the stem and popped them in his mouth. All right! We all followed his lead and spent the next few minutes devouring what berries we could find. They reminded me a little of salmonberries, albeit a bit tarter.
Later on, we found some blackcurrants. Compared to the kostyanika (костяника) we’d just had, they just weren’t as nice.
We crossed the river yet again, this time on stones, and moved ever closer to Free Korea.
To either side, the sheer walls of the gorge rose to a sky just beginning to clear.
Soon, we came to our destination, a small valley near the base of Free Korea. We all found spots around a small spring and ate/slept for the good part of an hour. While I ate, I busied myself with watching the milky water from the glacier roaring through the valley, a murder of crows circle near one of the ridges, and the red leaves of the juniper trees rustle in the wind. Then, full and content, I passed out for a spell.
Sergei roused us from our rest and we started the long hike back to the bus. Heading back was like walking through an entirely different area. The sky was a brilliant blue, the undiminished sunlight bringing out the vibrant colors of fall which had been muted before.
I got a bit ahead of the group and decided to leave the main trail. I had no desire to repeat the frigid river crossing from before, so I walked along the river in search of a narrow segment. After passing several fishermen and some picnicking families, I finally found a spot–obscured by shrubs and trees–which would serve. I tried not to psych myself out and jumped, landing safely on the opposite shore. Success!
By then, the sun was just disappearing behind the ridge and the temperature was beginning to drop. I pulled on my hat and gloves and walked back to the bus to wait for the others. It was time to call it a day.