Marshrutka & Hitchhiking: Daytrip from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park for under 2 USD

Ala Archa National Park

What led me to Ala Archa National Park? In Chinese culture, the Tienshan mountain range is this mystical place where highly-skilled swordsmen live in seclusion. It’s also the site for magical cure-all “snow lotus” that’s supposed to cure all ills. Ala Archa National Park is part of the Tienshan mountain range, and about 30 min car ride from Bishkek. I didn’t find swordsmen or the elixir of life, but I did find heaven on earth.

There are some places on earth of exquisite beauty that you don’t believe exist, until you visit them for real. My little slice of heaven on earth is Kyrgyzstan’s Ala Archa National Park. Thankfully, it didn’t break the bank. It costs 115 KGS, or less than 2 USD.

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Total price: 115 som
25 som: Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park by Marshrutka
80 som: Ala Archa National Park Entrance fee
10 som: Oto Say to Bishkek

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Getting from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park

The easiest way obviously involves hiring a car or a taxi, or simply booking a tour from Bishkek. The above still won’t break the bank. Roundtrip prices start from about 30 USD. But I’m not about easy. I am about cheap – I took marshrutka 265 to get from Bishkek to Ala Archa National Park.

Marshrukta 265: Getting from Osh Bazaar to Ala Archa National Park

Marshrutka 265 leaves from Osh Bazaar. I’m not entirely sure about timing, but I’d say marshrutkas seem to leave every 20-30 mins or so. I got there around 10.30 am, and the marshrutka left at 11 am. The marshrutka actually doesn’t go all the way to Ala Archa National Park, it stops at Kashka Suu, but because several other passengers were headed that way (school kids, an older lady), the driver decided to drive there all the way. He didn’t charge extra, but charged the standard 25 som.

Where to find Marshrutka 265 at Osh Bazaar?

It is by the bus station on Toktogul Street by Osh Bazaar. You should be able to find it near the junction of B. Beyshenalieva Street and Toktogul Street. I pinned it on the map below (the Post Office pin). That is where the bus starts. Ala Archa National Park or Kashka Suu is its last stop.

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At Ala Archa National Park

Hitchhiking: First Entrance to Second Entrance
The bus dropped me off at the first entrance of Ala Archa National Park, where the entrance fee of 80 som was collected.

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From the first entrance to the second entrance, it’s still a good 8 km, uphill. There were taxis waiting there for the ride, but I decided to test out how easy it was to hitchhike. Having said that, I was prepared to walk the whole way, and budgeted the time for it.

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Hitchhiking wasn’t very hard, actually. For the trip up to the second gate, I got picked up in under 20 mins by a trio going up to the national park for a photo shoot.

Second Entrance
When you arrive at the second entrance, you’ll see an Alpine hut. Hiking at Ala Archa National Park can take as long, or as short as you want. There are people who go on long hikes and bring their camping gear for overnight camps. I wanted to do this as a day trip, and was mindful of the fact that I potentially had to walk all the way back to the first entrance to catch the marshrutka back to Bishkek.

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I took the River Trail (turn right), and slowly strolled for only 1 hr round trip. Although the hike was very short, the views were truly rewarding. The Ala Archa River has the most mesmerizing color. Fall is also upon Bishkek, so some of the leaves have turned yellow and orange.

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Long story short, do it. You’ll be happy you visited Ala Archa National Park.

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Getting back from Ala Archa National Park to Bishkek

At about 2 pm, I returned to the second entrance, and started walking down towards the first entrance. It took less than 20 mins before three young men stopped their car, and picked me up. They were on a trip to get some fish from Kashka Suu for their family. They dropped me off at Oto Say, where I grabbed a mashrutka for 10 som back to Bishkek Park.

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Some thoughts on Daytrip to Ala Archa National Park

If I were to do it again, I would probably hire a car so I have more time to hike at Ala Archa National Park. Unfortunately, the cost of a solo traveler hiring a car is prohibitive. If you have travel companions, I would suggest hiring a car, or at least the taxi from gate 1 to gate 2.

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I think locals are amazing in their generosity. It was actually the first time I ever hitchhiked, and it was very humbling to have to live off the generosity of others. Having said that, I wouldn’t advice people to continually tax locals by hitchhiking. It was a great experience, and I was very thankful to them for their generosity, but don’t abuse it.

Also, do bring a rain jacket. The weather changes rapidly in the mountains – it went from sunny to drizzle in a matter of minutes.

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USA: If Only We Could Control the Weather – Roadtrip to Seaside/Cannon Beach, OR, 07 May 2016

Cannon Beach OR

My good friend was in town for a week long visit. He was only 2 states short of visiting all 50 states – Alaska and Oregon. After seeing multiple photos my friends posted of Cannon Beach (damn you, social media!), and given there is a IHG promotion of 7000 points for making the first stay in May, I figured, why not?

We left Seattle at ~noon, and after four hours, we arrived at Seaside, OR. We drove down US101 S, which was a rather scenic drive. I enjoyed the view as we crossed the bridge that spanned Washington State and Oregon.

Crossing into Washington State

After checking in at our hotel, I was starving, so we walked around downtown Seaside, and stopped at the first place I was ok with – Dundee’s Bar & Grill. I had some amazing cod & chips, which was super fresh!

Seaside Oregon

Unfortunately, while we were eating, the weather turned crummy. We drove the ~20 min to Cannon Beach, but no sunset. It was a typical Pacific grey. The looming rock stacks at the sea are still very majestic, and my friend is a Goonies fan, so we still had a good time!

I wish I didn’t have driving anxiety – road trips are such an amazing way to see America!

Cannon Beach OR

Costa Rica: La Paz Waterfall Gardens, 22 March 2016

La Paz Waterfall Garden

Yesterday evening, we obtained some tour brochures from the travel desk at our hotel. I actually generally hate bus tours, but unfortunately, we wanted to check out the waterfalls near San Jose, and short of renting a car, it wasn’t exactly accessible. The tours offered by the hotel travel desk didn’t work for us, as they all started too early, and were way too long. We wanted something that didn’t pack in too much, didn’t take too long (~5 hrs), and didn’t start too early.

Enter Anywhere Costa Rica. After a quick google, we found a tour that fit our description. I booked it online at around 4 pm, and by 5 pm, we got an e-mail confirmation that we’re booked for a 6ish hr tour that sets off from our hotel at 10 am. I highly recommend them – we paid US 88 per person all-inclusive, and I thought it was good value.

10 15: Guide is there, right on time.

11 15: Brief pit stop for coffee at a plantation (tres generracion, if anyone cares), while others who haven’t prepaid for the tour cough out their fees. I got a cafe con leche – it was ok.

La Paz Waterfall Garden

12 30: We were ushered into the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which is a sort of nature theme park with a lodge. It’s a little tourist trap-ish, because basically, a tour operator built a hotel beside these gorgeous falls, and started an animal sanctuary. It was some sort of zoo/fall thing.

13 00: High carb buffet lunch was included. Nothing to report here. The bathroom sink tap was kinda cool.

Sink and tap at La Paz Waterfall Gardens

14 00: Lots of plants, animals, insects, and amphibians. The frog is pretty – and I don’t like frogs. Toucans are cute (if a little scary, when trying not to become a walking target of bird dodo)!

La Paz Waterfall Garden

15 00: Falls are dramatic. The falls alone are quite worth the trip.

La Paz Waterfall Garden

16 00: Back on the bus, and headed back to San Jose. Nap time! 18 00: Picking up bags from hotel #2 back to hotel #1, which is close to the airport, for our early flight out the next morning.

La Paz Waterfall Garden

Olympic National Park, USA: Camping at Lake Crescent, 17 – 18 July 2015

Some kind friends invited me on an overnight camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula, a UNESCO world heritage site because of its biodiversity. We left Seattle at around 7 am, and hopped on the 8.50 am ferry from Edmonds, for the 2 hr drive from Kingston to Lake Crescent, arriving at Fairholme Campground close to noon. Camp sites (88 total) are available on a first-come-first-served basis. Although the sign outside indicated that it was full, be sure to drive in and check, as it was not updated, as was our experience. When we drove in, we found some availability. You can check out the different camps and their facilities in the link above (Fairholme Campground).

How securing a campsite works at Fairholme Campground:

There are three ‘loops’ of campsites, and located near the wash facilities is a board where you can check for availability of campsites, and how long campsites are reserved for. A blank space indicates an available campsite. The board is not completely authoritative, so the best thing you can do is to walk/drive around, and see if a campsite is indeed reserved. After you choose a campsite, fill out a little slip, and pay the fee ($20 per night).

Campsites differed greatly in size. The larger ones were snapped up pretty early, and because there were four of us and two tents, we also needed a largish campsite. After driving/walking around for a bit, we found a sufficiently large campsite on Loop C. I highly recommend Loop C. Loop C is the furthest away from highway 101, and some of the campsites are actually beside Lake Crescent itself. The only downside to Loop C is that it is a walk-in site, so you cannot drive/park your car right beside your tent. As long as you do not have too much stuff or have enough muscle, that should not be a great challenge. The views from the campsites on Loop C are priceless, and really worth the extra walk/work.

The ones by the river are numbered 81-88, I think.

Lake CrescentAfter eating a sandwich lunch at our campsite table, we headed to Hurricane Ridge, which is some 1.5 hrs drive from Lake Crescent. Hurricane Ridge offers gorgeous mountain views, and sound views from the lookout, which is a short walk from the visitor’s center. There is also some wildlife to be spotted – we spotted a deer. After our short walk in the short loops at Hurricane Ridge (we had a lil two year old trekker), we drove back to the campground for a dinner by the fire pit. I tried to wake up before sunrise for a blue hour shot of Lake Crescent, but well, I slept through it. Oh well. Nevertheless, it was amazing to wake up to bird song, and a picture-perfect turquoise lake. Hurricane Ridge

Hurricane RidgeLake Crescent

Lake Crescent

After breakfast at the campgrounds, we decided to head down the Peninsula to check out some of those glorious beaches. We passed by the town of Forks, which is now famous for its association with Twilight and had brunch at a diner.

One of the more unique things about the Pacific Northwest Beaches are their driftwood and black sand. I have been to Kalaloch a number of times, but every time I do go there again, I get reminded of how beautiful it really is. We stopped for a bit, and let the little tyke have some fun digging in the sand. The sand has an awesome texture – fine grain. For some reason or other, there were lots of dead jellyfish and crabs, which washed ashore as well. As we neared late afternoon, we started our drive back, passing through the town of Aberdeen, which is the birth place of Kurt Cobain. I’ve never done it, but apparently you can do some sort of Kurt Cobain tour if you are in Aberdeen. We mostly stopped for food, because the little tyke wanted to be fed.

All-in-all, a nice little weekender! Kalaloch

Costs:

Edmonds to Kingston Ferry: $29.65 ($13.65 for vehicle & driver + $8 per adult passenger. Tip: I usually drive this route in reserve, because you do not have to pay passenger fares from Kingston to Edmonds – You just have to pay the vehicle fare, saving $8 per passenger)

Camping: $20

Gas: ~$30 (335 miles. cost depends on your gas mileage, but at 30mpg and $3 per gallon, works out to this sum)

Parks pass: $20 (though not all areas require a pass)

Views/experience: priceless

Total: ~ $100 

USA – Crystal Mountain WA, 17 September 2014

Crystal Mountain is a short 2hr drive away from Seattle. It’s usually visited in the winter, for some reliable skiing. I’ve not actually ski-ed there, but most of the more advanced skiers I know seem to prefer it. But, since I suck at skiing, I did something else – I went in summer.

What’s there to see/do on a ski mountain in summer? Well, if you’re into hiking, apparently it’s awesome, as is Mount Rainier national park. But well, I don’t really have friends who’re into hiking. Most are couch potatoes. So what did I end up doing? We took the scenic gondola ($22) on a half-cloudy day, and wound up doing some reading at a very scenic spot.

If you don’t want to climb anything for a viewpoint, but want a great view of Rainier, look no further. This is your thing! If you have some extra spare Andrew Jacksons, they also have a restaurant at the top of the gondola. We packed our own lunch up. Be obsessive about checking the weather forecast for a perfect day.

The view
Mount Rainier from Crystal

I worked!

View from work today

Australia – Phillip Island, 19 November 2012

We booked into a day tour with AAT Kings at the recommendation of our hotel concierge. The pickup was at 12 20, outside our hotel, and our day tour with a tea thrown in cost 135 AUD. It is slightly pricier than the regular one, because we opted for the Penguin Plus (more on that later). They also have a counter at the Museum of Moving Image, and offer a pickup there at 13 00. It is somewhat on the pricey side of things, and people who signed up for it tended to be older (like over 60), and does not include dinner. If you are thinking of cutting cost, if you can get a car at a good rental rate, you’d save money, even if you were just going solo, as the cheapest adult ticket for viewing penguins goes at 22 AUD.

Having said that, the trip is still worthwhile, as it is hassle-free. We got to survey quite a lot of animals unique to Australia (or this part of the world), and our knowledgeable guide, Carrie, certainly enhanced our experience.

First, along the way to Phillip Island (~2 hr self-drive), we stopped at one of the farms along the way, which have started domestic animal tourism, e.g. cow milking for children. The particular farm we stopped at has kangaroos, ostriches, llamas, peacocks, and wombats, in addition to other animals you’d normally expect at a farm, i.e. horses and cows. For someone like me who grew up in the city, and have not seen many animals since my last trip to the zoo, this was really quite a treat.

Our second stop was the Koala Conservation Center. This was my second time seeing koalas, as we went to one, when my mum brought us to Australia some 16 years ago. It is actually kinda nice to see these teddy-like animals, and it’s also nice to see that the rangers were there to prevent overly zealous tourists from disturbing them. I did certainly get some inspiration about sleeping positions in trees, considering their penchant for sleep! On a side note, if you don’t want to blow too much money on these visits, be sure to bring your own beverages and snacks, as a candy bar will set you back by 3.20 AUD, though I guess the money goes back to research for the animals.

As the penguins were not due to come in in the next few hours, our next stop was dinner. Our guide brought us to the largest town in Phillip Island – Cowes – so we could have more options, and less lines (there’s only one cafe at the penguin parade). Good choice. Cowes is like a seaside town, and on the main street leading to West Port Bay, there are plenty of dining options. Some are pricier than others, (~20 AUD per entree), but we ended up at a fish shack, and got some good fish and chips for 10 AUD.

Finally, the highlight of the trip – the little penguins. Phillip Island is home to the world’s smallest penguins, and around 30,000 of these penguins live on Phillip Island. The Penguin Parade is located at Summerland Beach, where at its peak (summer), around 2,000 penguins return from their day’s adventures to rest. On average, these penguins are about 33 cm tall, and weigh about 1 kg. The penguins only return after sunset, as they want to avoid their predators – the birds which circle the area. Apart from the cover of darkness, they also find strength in numbers. Despite being solo hunters at sea, they return to their homes after dusk in groups, as it makes them less vulnerable than going solo. It is really quite a sight to see groups some 30 over penguins waddle in, wave after wave. You can either do this through the general admission grand stand (first come first served), or at the Penguin Plus, which is a stand built at a separate area, where more penguins make their journey to their homes. It is not necessary to pay the extra, as the closest view you’ll get of the penguins is on the boardwalks which lead to the grandstands. No photos, though, as photography is strictly prohibited (didn’t stop some asses who think their pictures are more important than vulnerable wildlife).

Tip: Rumour has it that if you send a postcard from the penguin parade, they’ll use a unique penguin chop. Do try mailing a postcard to yourself! They sell stamps at the souvenir shops there.

Kangaroo

Kangaroo

Peacock

Peacock

West Port Bay

West Port Bay

Cowes

Town of Cowes

Phillip Island

Scanned in a postcard for people who want to see the penguins

Vietnam – Con Dao, 22 August 2011

I must have an affinity for prison islands. Anyway, just to spice up my library research trip, (and since the price was right) I decided to take a trip to Con Dao, which used to be known as Pulou Condore, and was famous for being a prison island during the French colonial era.

Con Dao is about 45 mins away from Ho Chi Minh City. It appears that getting there now is easier than in the past. Now, Vietnam Airlines offers almost daily flights (and sometimes, more than once a day) to Con Dao at reasonable prices (~100 usd, a little cheaper if you can score a deal), and so does Air Mekong . Both can be done online. I made my booking via Vietnam Airlines, and had no problems with the online booking system.

After the short flight from HCMC to the Con Dao airport, the reports on wikitravel about the difficulty of transportation was true. Most of the other passengers on the plane were staying either at Con Dao resort, ATC, or Six Senses, which sent their vans to pick up their hotel guests. Since I was staying at Con Dao Camping, and did not bother arranging for transportation beforehand, I was ever so slightly screwed. Thankfully, there were several xe om (motorbike taxis) hanging around, so I hopped onto one, and paid 50000 dong for the journey into town, which was about 12 km away from the airport.

The journey from the airport to town was amazingly picturesque. The island of Con Dao is rather hilly, and after the cliff, there’s the gorgeous blue-green sea. The road was ran along the coast, so I could see the contrast between the lush greenery, and the sea that beats relentlessly against the rocky cliffs.

Anyway, no drama getting to Con Dao Camping. Despite the misleading name of Con Dao Camping, this place actually consists of well-constructed bungalows built in the shape of tents. The bungalows are modern, comfortable, and have every amenity you would need: A/C, ensuite bathroom with hot water shower, cable-tv, and fridge. Prices range from 30 USD for a bungalow with two single beds, to 35 USD for a bungalow with a King bed. Be sure to send them an email to make your reservations. These simple, but comfortable bungalows face the sea, and in the compound, there is a well-kept lawn, complete with deck chairs, and a private beach just after the lawn. It is more tranquil compared to the stretch where ATC and Con Dao resort is located (where locals go swimming, too), and it is definitely cheaper than ATC and Con Dao resort (which range from 50 USD to above 100 USD). They also provide motorcycle rentals at the standard rate in Con Dao, and range from 20000 dong for 1 hr on a manual motorbike, to 130000 dong for a full day on an automatic motorbike. My only complaint is that the service is kinda slow. Also, go look for food elsewhere – they don’t really have a kitchen.

My first stop for the day was the prison camp. After working up my expectations for it, it was actually rather anti-climatic. It kinda looked like the one in displayed in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum. Architecturally, it was not exactly inspiring, unlike its British counterpart, the Circular Jail in Port Blair in the Andamans. Oh well, at least I can say I’ve been there now?

Anyways, I still enjoyed this trip. It is definitely a nice getaway from Vietnam, which is always so busy and bustling. Pace of life was definitely slower here, and people seem more laid back, and less rip-off-y. There were many beaches around, and an excellent people-to-beach ratio (i.e. very few people compared to the number of beaches). I have heard that the snorkelling, diving, and trekking was wonderful, but I guess I will have to explore that in a separate trip. But otherwise, just moped-ing around simply made my day!

Con Dao Camping

On Top the French Tiger Cages

Con Dao Coastline, and an Island beyond

Markers and Mirrors

A mysterious little isle, and fishing boats