If you’re not fussed about the prestige that comes with completing a famous trek, this little-known hike across Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains is a worthy contender for your bucket list.
Tell people that you’ve completed the Ak-Suu Traverse and you’re more likely to get blank looks than a pat on the back. But if you’re not fussed about the prestige that comes with completing a famous trek, this little-known hike across Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains is a worthy contender for your bucket list.
Why? Well, the unearthly beauty of the high ranges that march across north-eastern Kyrgyzstan is a good place to start. This route takes in their highlights over 7 to 10 days, lurching precipitously from verdant valleys up to high passes clothed in scree and snow, then back down again past glaciers and rocky outcrops to lakes that reflect the sky and the high peaks above.
Expect some serious solitude. The Ak-Suu Traverse is relatively new and largely unsung – you’ll struggle to find a friend who’s beaten you to it. With an average ascent of over 1,000m per day and a high point of 3,860m, it’s also tough enough to satisfy your thirst for a challenge.
Ak-Suu Traverse: the stats
Start: Jyrgalan | End: Jeti Oguz Resort | Length: 110km / 68 miles | Ascent: 7,155m | Season: June to September | Difficulty: Hard
“The walk is hard, there is no doubt about it,” says Bryony Retter, who hiked the route on a reunion trip with friends earlier this year. “There is nothing technically difficult, but nothing is done by halves with plenty of steep inclines and descents which is made even more fun when you add altitude into the mix. We went fairly early on in the season and I will admit to finding some of the river crossings quite frightening, so anyone planning on completing the traverse needs to be aware of river safety. They also need to know that these are mountains that don’t mess around and weather can change quickly.”
Despite the challenges, she rates the Ak-Suu Traverse as one of the top hiking experiences of her life.
“The area is beautiful, serene and vast. You feel very, very far away from the rest of the world. And the wildflowers, views and horses running free made this some of the most stunning hiking I have ever experienced. The hot springs at Altyn Arashan were absolutely heavenly at the mid-way point.”
Alongside altitude and fitness, the two major challenges that trekkers face on the Ak Suu Traverse are planning and navigation. Bryony used AllTrails and written guides as well as taking a paper map, but if you’re not confident in your navigational abilities then a guide is a good idea (there are no trail markings). Wild camping is the only option most nights and there’s nowhere to stock up on food other than Altyn Arashan at the midway point, so most trekkers hire a porter or arrange for food trips. All this enforced self-sufficiency makes it a trickier prospect than the famous treks here… but perhaps even more exciting.
Bryony Retter on more of her Ak-Suu Traverse
“My trip to Kyrgyzstan was a little reunion with some hiking friends I had made through the years – one from the USA when I hiked the Appalachian Trail and one from Australia when I hiked the Larapinta trail. We had been planning a trip to central Asia and were looking for a challenging walk that was roughly 7 days in length. Some Googling led us to the Ak Suu and the images we saw when doing research did not disappoint!
“The area is beautiful, serene and vast. You feel very, very far away from the rest of the world. Some elements were a little tricky to navigate as there is no obvious path. However, as people do the traverse with beasts of burden on more than a few occasions we asked ourselves “what would a horse do here?” Using Alltrails and written guides as well as taking a paper map was incredibly useful. We are experienced hikers, but there were more than a few times when we were absolutely puffed and questioned if we were any good at hiking!
“One day saw us putting on suncream and an hour later getting caught in thunderstorms with horizontal hail. We were very lucky that some shepherds saw us when we got a valley and generously gave us endless cups of tea so we could warm up. One day we got rained on but hikers a few days behind us got 20cm of snow dumped on them and had to bail so you definitely need to prepare for cold, bad weather. But the wildflowers, views and horses running free made this some of the most stunning hiking I have ever experienced.”
If you want to explore other international treks of a lifetime, check out these other bucket list treks and our expert advice on how to hike them – as well as their lesser trodden alternatives.