We were all ready and excited to begin our road trip on this day. Little did we know that fate had other plans in store for us. Rather than moving ahead with our planned itinerary, we ended up traveling from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park. This was not part of our initial plans and was decided due to unforeseen circumstances.
We had to meet Marat at 10:00 am sharp at the Evi Auto Center to pick up our rental car. Zoya, our hostess, had prepared an exquisite breakfast, one of the most satisfying of the trip. Maybe it was the aroma of that fresh coffee or maybe it was just her warmth that made that breakfast lovely.
Journey So Far:
- Planning & Preparation for a Trip to Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan – Part 1
- Planning & Preparation for a Trip to Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan – Part 2
- Delhi to Almaty & Sightseeing in Almaty – Day 1 & 2
- Almaty to Charyn Canyon – Day 3
- Big Almaty Lake – Ile Alatau National Park – Day 4
- Almaty to Bishkek – Day 5
While Aarti was busy enjoying her breakfast, I was getting anxiety attacks. I was honestly as nervous as I had been the last time, I was renting a vehicle outside India. While I was jumping around like Jeetendra, Aarti was calm as a cucumber.
The fear of driving a vehicle as wide as a Land Cruiser in the wild traffic of Bishkek on the wrong side of the road (wrong for us!) was getting to me. Despite this, the excitement of actually beginning our road trip was palpable.
Day 6: Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park
We promised Zoya to be back before noon to check out. We were at the auto center bang on time and quickly got the formalities done. It included signing the contract agreement, which was thankfully in English, paying the full amount upfront, and a $1000 security deposit.
We went down to pick up the car and the head mechanic started giving me instructions on operating the car in Russian! Thankfully, Marat was there to translate and I understood most of the things he was trying to tell. It included a quick overview of the control panel, the toolbox, the puncture kit, and the spare tire.
Land Cruiser Tutorial
Since it was automatic, I asked him to patiently explain its functioning, especially the 4×4 part. The mechanic was trying to explain in Russian but Marat could not translate properly. This resulted in a slight miscommunication which led me to an incorrect conclusion that the vehicle was a part-time 4WD.
The vehicle had two gear levers – one was a normal shift for any automatic car, having P, N, R, D, 2, L marked on it; and another lever which had H, N, L marked on it. Although I could not understand what 2 and L were for, I could make out what P, N, R, D meant (Park, Neutral, Reverse, Drive).
The other shift was also clear, H should have been 4 High, N for 2WD & L for 4 Low. There were also some strange buttons on the console, one which seemed to engage the central differential manually, another had ‘PW St’ written on it, one more button mentioned something called ‘O/D’, another by the name of ‘2nd’, and a separate lever for cruise control.
It was all just too perplexing, and to make matters worse, they did not have any manual which I could refer to.
An intense training session is given in Russian translated by Marat (the man in red)
While driving back to Zoya’s place, I noticed that the vehicle was engaged in 4H mode and immediately pulled over to shift to N as keeping it in 4H mode would have wound up the transmission, or so I thought. However, the vehicle would not budge. I drove on to the guest house in the 4H mode, praying all the way.
In the meanwhile, I made desperate calls to Tanveer & Harjeev – the first being a general expert in all things to do with vehicles, the other the only person I knew who owned a Land Cruiser.
I connected with Harjeev in time to find out that he had limited knowledge about automatic transmission. But he promised to connect me with a friend of his, Sanjay Madan. Anyone who is active on forums or has a passion for the road would have heard this name before, the Sanjay Madan of the Nano expedition fame.
Back at the guest house with internet connectivity, it was easy to find an English owner’s manual of the car and hence I got some theoretical clarity on the vehicle’s operations. I was relieved to know that the vehicle was a full-time 4WD and hence the N mode on the lever must have been for Neutral.
The world made more sense now. A couple of hours later, Sanjay also called up and explained at length how to optimally use the controls in various off-the-road and on-the-road situations.
This helped me a lot with my confidence to take the off-roads of Kyrgyzstan head-on. Thanks a ton, to all you guys, especially Sanjay. Without your consultancy, it would have been an extremely difficult journey.
With the car sorted out, we planned to head back to the city to grab some lunch, pick up our passports and begin the much-awaited ride out into the countryside. Lunch was at a food court in some nondescript mall as the restaurant we wanted to go to was closed for renovation.
We also took out time to get a local SIM card, get some currency exchanged assuming that the interiors would have an expensive exchange rate, and stocked on some supplies like snacks, ready-to-cook items, and bottled drinking water. It made sense to stock up on cheaper 5L bottles than to buy expensive 1L ones.
A Sudden Change of Plans
A bolt came from the blue when Marat called up to inform us that he would not be able to give our passports back that day. He mentioned that there had been some unexpected delays at the immigration office and we would be getting our passports back only the next day post-lunch.
This was a bummer! We were left with no choice but to stay back at or near Bishkek. It took us a couple of minutes to re-plan our itinerary. After some discussion, we decided to head towards the Ala Archa National Park in the Ala-Too range south of Bishkek.
The park is situated at a stone’s throw distance from the city and is a trekker’s paradise. One can easily reach towering peaks and huge glaciers by hiking just a day into this lovely park. The park also boasts of the highest peak in this region. The peaks here are snow-covered for most of the year and one can find snow deposits at lower altitudes as well.
If we were to stay near Bishkek, it made sense to try our luck at the only hotel inside the national park and stay in the mountains rather than the city.
Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park
The road to Ala Archa moves south from Bishkek. As soon as out of the city, one is in wide-open fields with mountains looming ahead. The park entrance is probably 25 km from the center of the city. You need to pay about 500 SOM to take a vehicle inside plus 20 SOM per person.
The hotel itself is right at the end of the road about 15 km deep inside the park, next to the Ala Archa river. There were many locals out for a picnic but everyone left as the sun went down. After I got over my anxiety about driving the massive car, Aarti also tried her hands and got comfortable driving it outside the city.
It was her first experience driving on the other side of the road and in fact, fared much better than me as she did it without the anxiety attack.
This was all we found in the name of an Indian restaurant, and it was deserted
The drive out of Bishkek
And towards Ala Archa
The colorful fields
The entrance to the park
The road narrows inside the park but remains tarred
The Ala Archa river meanders below
A-frame lodge, as the guidebooks describe was the only hotel inside Ala Archa National Park. We had a tough time communicating with the lady at the reception. Despite this, we managed to bargain and got a room at 2000 SOM (2400 INR) for the night. The room was not spectacularly clean, nor was the view that great, but the location was fantastic.
We went out for a stroll in the evening till the end of the track. Although it was a motorable road, vehicles are not allowed beyond the hotel. In fact, the track goes much deeper for about 16 odd kms and turns into a 4×4 track. Of course, that too is not allowed.
Our short evening hike took us about 3 kms inside the park. We stopped at a shack and had a nice cup of apricot tea. We then strolled back before the weather turned for the worse. The locals were out having fun, and there were two gentlemen who were skinny-dipping in the freezing river below.
A Walk in the Park
The hike begins
Very unlike Kyrgyzstan, the trails were properly marked and that too in English. The clouds kissed the ground
The river was quite fast
At the end of the hike, a 4×4 track runs parallel to the river to the glacier from where it begins
The tea shack at the end of the hike
Tea was served with what kind only be called a ‘poori’
The A-frame lodge where we were put up
Dinner was simple and consisted of bread and mutton soup which was delicious for a carnivore like me but Aarti was not too amused. We crashed as soon as the sun went down hoping to begin our road trip tomorrow.
- Journey Ahead: Bishkek to Issyk Kul Lake
Thankfully, it did and we also got a preview of what off-roading in Kyrgyzstan means early the next morning. Please click on the link above to continue reading the next part of the travelogue.
Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park – Conclusion
I hope the travelogue, pictures, and information above on traveling from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park were of help. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments section below or at our Community Forum, and I will be happy to answer. You can also follow me on Instagram and chat with me live there or subscribe to my YouTube channel and ask a question there.