Winter in Kyrgyzstan: Snow Camping at Ala-Archa

winter in kyrgyzstan: snow camping in ala-archa
Posted by on February 18, 2015

Winter in Kyrgyzstan:
Snow Camping at Ala-Archa

The long frozen Bishkek winter takes it toll on my traditional pastimes. Growing up in Louisiana, deep in the US south, my love for the outdoors has always extended to camping and hiking and multi-day backpacking but given the locale usually only the warm-weather versions of those. The very idea of camping on top of snow, from a Louisianian perspective, is ridiculousness bordering on absurdity.

Ala Archa covered in snow.

I could think of no better way to challenge this notion and, frankly speaking, to overcome this fear of the unknown than by just going for it. Kyrgyzstan’s mountains stay frozen for a good half the year or so, after all, so at some point I either need to learn to love it or learn to leave town for the season. On a long mid-winter weekend, I packed my three warmest jackets and two warmest sleeping bags all into a bag and strapped a pair of snowshoes onto the outside – off to Ala-Archa!

Ala Archa Valley in the winter.

I’ve visited Ala-Archa before in the winter, at the tail end when snow still covered the higher elevations but left the lower reaches of the valley free from frost (if not from cold). This was my first time to knowingly head out for camping during winter in Kyrgyzstan, however, and my first real adventure in snow camping aside from one abortive trip to Issyk-Ata last year.

I looked at it as a bit of a learning experience, committed enough to be able to really get a feel but also short enough that even if it was entirely uncomfortable it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Through the weekend, which actually wasn’t all that rough, I came back with four major lessons.

Snow camp during winter in Kyrgyzstan.

  • Take Care of Your Feet: Hot Water Bottles Are Amazing. Frozen Boots Are Not.

My first night on the trail I made two rookie mistakes. The first was to not boil water and pour it into a Nalgene to keep the foot of my sleeping bag warm. The second was that I left my boots sitting outside in the vestibule of the tent. This meant that not only did my feet get super cold after a few hours, but once I got up the next day it took hours to warm my boots up enough that the solid chunk of ice melted off the toes. Both easily avoided, but neither easy to remedy once they’ve happened.

Snow camping selfie in Ala Archa.

  • SO much time for selfies.  

Despite the fact that I take an enormous number of photos every time I go hiking in Kyrgyzstan, very few of those actually include me. As it turns out, EVERYTHING takes longer while snow camping. Hiking in snowshoes takes longer, and (at least for me…) requires way more rest breaks. Water takes ages to boil, even if you’re lucky enough to pull it out of a running stream instead of having to melt snow. The upside of all that downtime? Plenty of opportunities to pose for ridiculous photos! Above is my favorite from the ‘Reading at Snow Camp’ series but I’m also a big fan of my ‘Hiking On The Snow Trail‘ set as well.  An unexpected benefit, to be sure, but one I enjoyed.

Winter in the Ala Archa gorge.

  • Distances come more slowly. 

I actually started this hike with the idea that I would somehow reach the old Ala-Archa ski base which, if you’re not familiar, is precisely too far. As far as you can go into the Ala Archa Gorge without crossing a pass and entering a different gorge. While it *maybe* would be reasonable mid-summer with an early enough start, I was kidding myself in winter on snowshoes with a heavy pack. I actually mentioned this to a hunter I passed on the way, the only person I saw after the Alplager, and he laughed at me and said it was impossible before asking me to be quiet and not to scare away the regulated ungulates he was trying to kill.

The lesson here, of course, is to be a lot more conservative in estimating daily distance. I hired a car from Bishkek so that I could get to Ala-Archa as early as possible, and still only made it about halfway to the ski base. Top Karagai is a nice campsite, though, and also requires significantly less walking with heavy stuff on your back!

Ice on the Ala Archa river

  • Winter Isn’t So Bad!

I mean yea, it’s cold, but put on a jacket and a beanie and gloves and another jacket and then constantly boil coffee and tea and soup! More importantly, it’s fantastic. Not only is the place nearly empty, a rarity in my visits to Ala-Archa, but the quiet is almost absolute. It’s not silence, but it’s that amazingly peaceful sort of quiet where you can hear the gurgle of every rock in a stream or listen to a bird chirping half a mile away. Part of the reason I spent so much time reading in the sun is because it was one of the most peaceful scenes I’d encountered for months. As a photographer, the cold and snow also present both challenges and potential rewards – neither of which can be explored as well on daytrips back and forth from the city.

Winter in Kyrgyzstan's Tian Shan Mountains

The final take away? I may as well learn to embrace it. After all, there’s still several months to go until the Alpinad Festival in May and the start of the main hiking season!

Still not convinced you’re ready to spend a night on the snow? The Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan arranges weekend trips to ski bases and light hiking even in winter, or Iron Horse Nomads can design a trip for you if you want to go solo. Conveniently, their offices are nearly next door to each other on Turusbekov between Kiev and Toktogul. 

If you’re in Bishkek as a tourist, the Hostel Inn on Chuy is probably the closest cheap accommodation to the TUK office. Check them out – they’re also one of the cheapest city center accommodation options I know of. If you’re looking more upmarket, the Hyatt is a bit further on Sovietskaya. Also be sure to check out my Bishkek Travel Guide for thoughts on other things to do in town while you’re not hiking!

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38 Responses to Winter in Kyrgyzstan: Snow Camping at Ala-Archa

  1. sarah

    I love camping but not sure about snow camping. It looks beautiful but I hate being cold. I suppose if you have the right gear it’s not so bad.

    • Stephen

      I was definitely a bit worried about it going in, but other than some frozen toes when I woke up after the first night it actually wasn’t terrible at all!

  2. Matthew Russell

    great use of language in the post, it in reality did
    help when i was reading

  3. Aileen

    I feel like I’m freezing just by looking at your photos! 😛 Great shots! Though I’m not sure if I can handle snow camping yet

  4. Nanette

    It’s such a beautiful winterscape, and you’re brave! I can’t imagine how much energy it takes to hike in the snow. Definitely different than Louisiana, hehehe…

    • Stephen

      I swear, those three days of snowshoeing were the best workout I’ve had in AGES. My family and friends back home though I was crazy, I’m pretty sure, but I figure better to embrace the cold than spend all winter bemoaning it?

  5. Andrea

    Wow! Absolutely beautiful. An incredibly tricky destination to get a visa to, but well worth it I’m sure!

    • Stephen

      Thanks, Andrea. Kyrgyzstan is actually the one country in the Central Asia region where visas are no problem… something I suppose I should write about one of these days!

  6. Casey O'Connell

    Ooooh, you’re a brave one! Looks beautiful though, and I bet it was really peaceful out there! I’ve never heard of putting hot water in a Nalgene at the bottom of a sleeping bag to keep your feet warm, but that is genius idea, and I’m totally doing that the next time I go camping in the cold! Happy hiking!

    • Stephen

      I was like magic. MAGIC. Just be super careful as you’re pouring the water, because waking up with some of it spilled in the bag is pretty much the opposite of what you want. Speaking from experience…

  7. Heather Cole

    Wow, this looks like my kind of trip, though I’d have to take extra thermals as even in summer I wear socks in bed! Bad luck about leaving the boots out to freeze…I usually bring mine inside the tent, not to keep warm, but to keep safe from spiders (or scorpians in some places) as I’m a right girl when it comes to creepy crawlies!

    • Stephen

      Kyrgyzstan isn’t too bad on the crawly stuff, so usually in summer a quick boot check in the mornings will do. The cold, though, isn’t going anywhere; definitely makes sure to pack three or four sets of warm socks to keep your feet warm!

  8. Elena

    There was snow even in September when i went from Osh to Bishkek…I can’t imagine how cold it is in the winter…especially in a country like Kyrgyzstan…as far as I remember the average altitude was above 200. .but it looks so doubt about that and if you are prepared for the cold, camping could be quite enjoyable!

    • Stephen

      I’ve started encouraging friends to think about coming in winter, actually. It’s cold, to be sure, but it’s a side of the country that few people get to appreciate and as long as you’re well prepared it isn’t soooo bad. You should visit again!

  9. Alli

    Oh my, this is actually both ridiculous and amazing to me. Love love love those photos. The air looks so clean and crisp and the landscape is so beautiful! I would just feel so chilly . . . too chilly . . . to be in the tent overnight but hat’s off to you for being such a pro!

  10. Anne Klien ( MeAnne)

    Wow camping in snow. … looks fantastic experience but im not sure if I can tolerate the cold

  11. Laura

    Woah stunning photos! You must have been well cold in the tent?

  12. Sean

    Brrrr…I’m cold just looking at the photos. But, as you said, you just have to make the most of the situation. Not sure I’m ready for snow camping, though!

    • Stephen

      It’s certainly a different experience from Playa del Carmen! I’m of the opinion that the extremes help balance each other out, though – much easier to enjoy the warm beaches when you’ve also spent nights in the snowy mountains.

  13. Kate

    How could you sleep with cold feet? That is my idea of a nightmare but the photos look incredible. Maybe I need to experience something like this to appreciate the beauty of such cold places. Or maybe I can just look at your photos! Great post and great tips for others who are brave enough

    • Stephen

      There was admittedly a lot of grumbling involved the first night, but on the second night when I tried the hot water bottle thing I was actually pretty cozy. It’s worth trying, at least for a night, just for a better understanding of what cold really is!

  14. Brian - Go for a Wander

    Some magnificent photos Stephen! I like your attitude that “winter isn’t so bad” and that you can dress up for the cold. A wise man once told me that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing!

    • Stephen

      Wise advice indeed. I’d add ‘and also bad food choices’ to that too when it comes to camping – I made a big pasta meal that required a lot of scrubbing to clean, and while delicious it ended up with the coldest hands of the whole trip!

  15. Andreja Jernejčič

    Great, I have a plan to visit all the ˝stans˝ some day and since those countries are not popular it is always great to read on some actual activites we can do in this part of the world. Would love to see a post how to obtain visa as well! Thank you in advance!

    • Stephen

      You might be surprised, actually, Kyrgyzstan is getting more popular with independent travelers and Uzbekistan has been on the package tour circuit for quite a while with a certain elderly European demographic. Visiting in winter, though, is the way to have it all to yourself – I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the cold is worth it!

  16. Megsy

    Snow camping. I’m not so sure about it. Great photos, by the way.

    • Stephen

      It would make a fabulous background for you guys to do a podcast, though! The quiet of nature punctuated by the occasional rockfall and bird call, I can hear it now: “$5 Traveler Live from the Frozen Edge of the World” edition.

      • Megsy

        Hahaha maybe! We will certainly keep it in mind for our next on location podcast! I really do hate the cold though lol I’m a BIG sook.

  17. Revati

    And one half of us has never seen snow! Wow. This is the place to see it!

    • Stephen

      I certainly can’t complain – I think I’d seen snow twice in Louisiana before I left the States and had never really spent much time out in it until I moved here. However, I think Ladakh might be a bit closer to home for you and it sounds awesome as well!

  18. Roaming Renegades

    Wow, breath taking stuff dude! Heard a lot about the climbing potential in this area of the world and central Asia is definitely fast becoming one of the areas we most want to travel through. I think after our current RTW plans this will be our next port of call. We love adventures and explorations like this. Wonderful photos.

  19. Sumit Surai

    Great shots! I am sure it was a great experience and also enriching.

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