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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Spa Simple and Superb

For MT
Altyn-Arashan is a small settlement about five hours' drive plus five hours' walk from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It is halfway along a stony path leading to the 7,439-meter Jengish Chokusu -- also known as Pik Pobedy, or Victory Peak -- and the last inhabited part of the Commonwealth of Independent States that you would cross before reaching China. Inhabited year-round by just one man, it comprises four huts and a dormitory where trekkers en route to the peaks can break their journey, rest and take the waters.

I always wanted to go to a real Roman bath, but the nearest I've been was a trip to see the excavated ruins in Bath. Europe abounds with imitations of these, with their complex sunbed protocols, sauna rules and the inevitable, extortionate, smoothie bar. But here, halfway up the highest peak in Central Asia, is a spa with no such pretensions.

A local child outside a yurt, Song Kol.
If it's a little ambitious to refer to a collection of remote mountain hot springs covered by wooden huts as a "spa," how many commercial versions can compete with such beautiful wilderness, views of snow-capped peaks and eagles flying overhead? (And how badly did we want a soak after a long, hot tramp up a mountain to get there?)

Kyrgyzstan's trekking season lasts from late May to September, and although in Bishkek the temperatures often reach the high 30s degrees Celsius, in the mountains it is likely to remain refreshingly breezy -- and gets cold at night -- so you need to take layers.

We were the first tourists of the season in April, when the higher mountain paths were still closed and we had the whole of Altyn-Arashan to ourselves -- apart from the Kyrgyz president's son, of all people, who turned up in his SUV for some shooting followed by a bath. For serious climbers, there is Jengish Chokusu as well as the 7,010-meter Khan Tengri; for amateurs there are plenty of walking routes to choose from, although many of those are at surprisingly high altitude too.

Women celebrating Independence Day in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
After a night's stay in a rather uncomfortable dormitory bed, our guides took us closer to the base of Khan Tengri. Hiking through meadows full of buttercups and edelweiss and fuelling ourselves with fresh water from the mountain streams, we spotted marmots and warren-loads of hares. Our endlessly willing guides dragged some horses from their out-of-season graze so we could ride and appreciate their famed agility.

Kyrgyzstan attracts mostly Swiss and Norwegian visitors, whose governments and NGOs also associate themselves with Kyrgyzstan through ecotourism and development projects. Climbers and trekkers come to see the stunning mountain scenery, which resembles at once the Alps and the Himalayas, sometimes even the Grand Canyon, depending which side of a single mountain range you are on. It is possible to take a three-day trek starting on the steppe, climb into lush Alpine mountains, and descend on the other side through rocky gorges into arid plains.

Riders on the steppe at sunset near the almost-uninhabited Song Kol Lake, a remote spot best reached by four-wheel drive.
All this walking left us more than ready for a afternoon tea (served with milk) with home-churned clotted cream or ***kaimak*** and jam smothered onto lavash bread from the little stove in a family yurt. There are several yurt camps in the most popular tourist areas such as Lake Issyk Kul where you can stay the night, although if you're really looking for privacy, go for a homestay at the almost uninhabited Song Kol Lake, which at 3,013-meters above sea level makes for a memorable, if freezing dip. This lake should be approached by four-wheel drive and not in a Zhiguli, unless you are happy to get out and push it over the mountain passes.

If real luxury isn't found in a sterile spa but in breathtaking wilderness with hardly a soul in sight, a trek in the Kyrgyz mountains beats a week at the Hamptons, hands down.

Getting There

Aeroflot flies to Bishkek once to twice a day at varying prices that can be as low as 199 euros return during their discount offers.


A five-day tour including a three-day trek with Novinomad costs $384 per person, including full board (except alcohol) and transport within Kyrgyzstan,

Horse riding tours with luxury yurt accommodation from Alexandra Tolstoy cost 2,050 pounds ($4,060) per person for a two-week ride, full-board, excluding flights, insurance and visas.


Asia Mountains Hotel, Bishkek, costs $50 a night for a double room, including breakfast.

NGOs and voluntary work


Service Civile International,