Introducing Altyn Arashan
Probably the most popular destination from Karakol is a spartan hot spring development called Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa), set in a postcard-perfect alpine valley at 3000m, with 4260m Pik Palatka looming at its southern end.
Much of the area is a botanical research area called the Arashan State Nature Reserve and is home to about 20 snow leopards and a handful of bears, although the only animals you’re likely to see are the horses and sheep belonging to local families.
During Soviet times it is rumoured that 25 snow leopards were trapped here and shipped to zoos around the world until Moscow cancelled all collecting and hunting permits in 1975.
Altyn Arashan has several small hot-spring developments (US$1-$2). Natural hot water flows into a series of concrete pools enclosed by wooden sheds. The pools reek of sulphur but there is a translated certificate pinned to the door extolling the curative properties of these waters and listing, in exhaustive detail, the diseases they will cure.
Each shed is lockable and you can get the key from the house closest to whichever shed you select. It is a great way to relax and it’s almost mandatory to run, screaming, into the icy river afterwards.
Across the stream is a little log house and museum with stuffed animals of the region. From the springs it’s about a five hour walk on foot to the snout of the Palatka Glacier, wrapped around Pik Palatka.