Showing posts with label Tien Shan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tien Shan. Show all posts

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Retrospective (July, 2012): Footloose in the Kyrgyz Mountains

Thunder Bay, May 11th

After my disappointing result on Peak Lenin back in July, 2012, I arrived back in Bishkek on July 18th to meet up with my partner on the upcoming Muztagh Ata climb, Eric.  He had arrived from Europe the day before and we met at the Asia Mountains Guesthouse, where we were installed in a comfortable room.  It was good to see him, and to look forward to new mountains and (we hoped) more success than I had had on Peak Lenin.

Kyrgyz life is all about horses and mountains 
July 18th and 19th passed in delightful sloth in Bishkek, buying supplies, eating and drinking well and planning our next move. We were leaving with the rest of our Muztagh Ata expedition on July 30th, which left us with 10 days or so of freedom to do some exploring.  Eric had just arrived from sea level, so we wanted to get some altitude into his blood, and some hiking into his legs.  We tossed around various ideas, including the Inylchek Glacier, one of the world's largest glaciers outside the polar regions, but logistics and timing were tough for the Inylchek, so we decided to go hiking on our own in the Terskey Ala-Tau mountains south of Lake Issyk Kul.  I had cycled along the north shore of the lake back in 2004, but hadn't gone to the south shore or stopped to do any hiking, and our guidebook made it sound like a great place to explore.  We stored our skis and heavy mountaineering gear in the storage room at Asia Mountains and set our alarm clocks for early in the morning of July 20th.

It was just as well that we got up at 6 am, as it took a while to get to the mashrutka stand and get going.  We inadventently took the long way to our destination, the town of Kyzyl Suu; we went first around the north side of the lake to the large regional centre of Karakol (the old Przhevalsk) and then took another marshrutka to Kyzyl Suu, rather than taking a direct marshrutka to Kyzyl Suu along the south shore of the lake.  This was, perhaps, a foreshadowing of route-finding to come!  It was a long ride in the minibus, although the scenery was pretty in places.  We were retracing my 2004 cycling route in reverse, and I remembered highlights like the ruins of the old Blue Turk capital of Balasagun (now called the Burana Tower near the dismal town of Tokmok).  The views across the lake were stunning, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains (our ultimate destination) rising over the deep blue water.  We drove past the town of Cholpon Ata, where I had explored the ancient petroglyphs on the outskirts of town back in 2004, and stayed with a friendly Kyrgyz cyclist and his wife.

With a stop for food at a little roadside cafe at the northwest corner of Lake Issyk Kul, it took six and a half hours to get to Karakol. Once there we visited the rather unhelpful tourist office to try to figure out how to get to our hiking trailhead, and stopped to buy necessary supplies like bread, beer and gasoline for my MSR stove.  Eventually we caught another marshrutka for another hour to Kyzyl Suu, and then found a taxi driver to take us to Dzhyluu Suu, where we would start hiking.  We negotiated a price, threw our bags in the trunk of the Lada and set off.  As we drove, I thought "this isn't the road shown on the map!" and talked with the driver, but he insisted that we were headed to Dzhyluu Suu.  I was dubious, and when we got out of the car after a long drive, beside the entrance to a Soviet-era hotspring complex, I questioned some locals as to whether this was Dzhyluu Suu.  Only when we were reassured that it was did we get our packs out and set off up the valley.  It was already 5:30 pm and we only walked 15 minutes up a narrow valley beside a rushing river to the first decent camping spot we could find.  We erected my tent and cooked up some eggs, bread and sausage for dinner and then lazed beside a fire that was tough to light, as dry wood was in short supply.  It felt good to be out on our own, free to walk wherever we wanted, out in beautiful mountains and soul-restoring conifer forests.  

Camping in another idyllic meadow
We slept well, lulled to sleep by the burbling water of the river.  By 8:00 we were up, gobbling down some muesli, yoghurt, tea and delicious fresh peaches.  A group of local Kyrgyz herders wandered by to say hello; although it was only 9:30 am, they were wobbly with vodka, and it was a bizarre, disjointed conversation.  Like so many post-Soviet states, serious drunkenness is a problem in Kyrgyzstan, despite most of the population being nominally Muslim.  By 10:00 we had packed up and were hiking upstream, headed towards a pass marked on our map.  We followed the path as it climbed away from the river up some fairly steep slopes and then petered out in a meadow full of beautiful wildflowers.  We were puzzled; our map showed this as a major hiking route, used also by local herders, and yet there were only vague suggestions of tracks and some trampled grass that looked as though it had been done by grazing herds.  We kept pushing onwards as the grass and bushes got deeper and denser, and within a couple of hours we were utterly flummoxed.  Where the hell was the path?  The slope of the meadows kept getting steeper and steeper, and the footing grew ever more precarious.  We kept hoping that at any moment we might stumble upon the proper trail that we assumed we had lost.

Lovely scenery; pity it was the wrong valley!

Eric in the lovely but trackless Suruu Valley
As we continued to flounder, Eric got more and more annoyed, and his mood was not improved when he slipped on wet grass and twisted his ankle pretty severely.  Moving at a hobbling pace, we eventually decided that we needed local knowledge, so we made our way downhill and across the river on a small footbridge, then up the other side of the valley to where we had seen several women walking around a couple of yurts in the middle of their jailoo (summer high-altitude pasture).  Almost everyone in Kyrgyzstan, and particularly older people, speak Russian, and my Russian is good enough to get by, but I didn't understand what our interlocutor, a middle-aged Kyrgyz matron, was saying.  It didn't seem to make any sense.  We showed our map and asked which of the two possible notches on the skyline was the pass we were looking for.  She frowned at the name of the pass (the Taleti), and said that the valley we were in led to a pass that was really fit only for mountaineers with ropes, and that she had never heard of the pass we named. We kept asking, and after much head-scratching and miscommunication, suddenly the light went on in her eyes.  She asked what village we thought we would reach across the Taleti Pass, and then cackled with merriment.  WE WERE IN THE WRONG VALLEY!  My initial misgivings about the taxi driver's direction had been right.  But how had this happened?  Wasn't this Dzhyluu Suu?  The woman looked at me pityingly.  "Don't you know what Dzhyluu Suu means in Kyrgyz?  Hot Springs.  There are hot springs in almost every valley; there are at least three near Kyzyl Suu,"  The taxi driver had taken us to a different Hot Springs than the one we wanted, and we had been floundering around up a dead end valley, the Suruu, that ended in cliffs.  We hadn't found a path because there wasn't one; the local herders drove their animals up to graze where we had been flailing, and we had been following animal tracks for hours.  "Why didn't you tell us we were heading the wrong way?" I asked, rather lamely; she had been watching us for quite some time, and could easily have signalled across to us.  "I thought you were looking for mushrooms," she replied.  "The only reason anyone other than us ever goes up there is to look for mushrooms."  

Cute Kyrgyz girl on cheese-making duties in the mountains
There was nothing for us to do but to cut our losses and retreat the way we had come, muttering imprecations about our own stupidity and about the taxi driver.  We were two valleys west of where we should have been (the Jety Oguz valley), and the Suruu valley (the one we were in) really didn't lead anywhere.  Eric's ankle was swelling and painful, and we needed to get to a real trail that was on our maps.  It was hardly an auspicious start to our hiking adventure, but at least we knew what had gone wrong.  We bought some fresh bread and some fresh ayran (a salted yoghurt drink) and headed slowly back down the valley until we found a promising meadow to camp in.  We cooked up a nice dinner and sat around a campfire, shaking our heads at how we had managed to delude ourselves for so many hours that our reality corresponded to where we thought we were on our map.  It was funny now, but it hadn't been so amusing when we were completely lost and mystified.


Filling the valley with our campfire smoke
We slept deeply again that night, and woke up to beautiful weather.  We breakfasted on muesli and ayran, and had a visit from the lady from the jailoo.  Having talked that evening with her husband about the crazy foreigners, she was concerned that we would try to climb the treacherous pass at the end of the valley, and was relieved when we assured her that we were headed downhill instead.  She brought us more ayran for free (Kyrgyz hospitality in the mountains is legendary) and we put it into the side pocket of my backpack.  We traipsed down the valley for an hour and a half, including a rather cold river crossing, to the hot springs where we had started our little misadventure.  A local taxi driver agreed to drive us back to Kyzyl Suu for 600 som (a bit over US$ 10), and off we went.  We stopped in town just long enough for Eric to buy 2 kg of amazing raspberries, then caught another 600 som taxi to the Jety Oguz sanatorium, where we thought we had been two days earlier. This was a much bigger, grander hot spring development than where we had just been, and we walked along the road upstream with dozens of Ladas passing us in both directions, stuffed full of families and groups of friends.  Eventually we got tired of the traffic and flagged down a lift with a group of drunk Kyrgyz men (the driver was only slightly less sloshed than the others) in a minivan.  We got dropped off in a huge meadow full of yurts and tents that wasn't even slightly appealing as a place to camp, then hiked upstream along the river to the final bridge before our valley, the Taleti, branched off.  The scenery was grand and sweeping and beautiful all along the valley, much more so than the previous day, and we actually knew where we were!  We passed a series of meadows and pine glades before settling on a quiet, secluded spot in a long, narrow riverside meadow.  We set up camp and relaxed around a roaring but smoky fire.

Eric climbing painfully up the Teleti Pass
The next day, July 23rd, we finally got our planned hike underway.  We slept as soundly as ever and woke up at 7:40 to cloudy skies that presaged a change in the weather.  We finished off our our ayran supply on our muesli, then packed up our tent and headed off.  We passed the tent of Petr and Adam, two Czech backpackers whom we had met briefly the day before.  They were headed the same way we were and we checked in with them to see if we were going the right way; we had lost confidence in our route-finding ability during our debacle of the previous two days.  Having confirmed our route, we hiked uphill for an hour until the Teleti valley branched off.  We turned into our valley and continued uphill, stopping in at a yurt for some fresh cream and cheesy nibblies before continuing uphill.  At 2700 metres' altitude we entered a lovely open, flattish landscape.   Our path led through a marshy area, and despite our best efforts to stay dry, we both broke through the mat of vegetation on the surface to mid-thigh (Eric once, me twice).  We were very soggy when we met Petr and Adam again, leapfrogging each other at snack stops.  We had another river crossing (more cold water soaking the boots, as it was too rocky for either of us to want to take off our boots) and then climbed steeply and sharply uphill towards the crest of the Teleti Pass.

Eric started to lag behind badly, suffering both from altitude (we were up at 3350 metres) and his increasingly painful sprained ankle. I had lots of time to wait for him and to look around at our surroundings.  They were magnificent, with grey stone spires rising into view as we escaped the steep valley walls that had imprisoned our lines of sight.  Big patches of snow still lingered here deep into July, but below the rocky peaks there was a luminescent green of fresh grass and fir trees, speckled by millions of blooming wildflowers.  It was something out of an 19th century romantic painting, and I realized that this, rather than the harsh high altitude deserts of Peak Lenin, was what I liked most in the mountains.  Rather than being just a warm-up for Muztagh Ata, maybe this was the main course?

Campsite with a view below the Teleti Pass
The skies continued to darken, and I decided to move ahead to arrange some shelter in case it started to rain.  I found a flat patch to pitch the tent (no easy task in this very vertical world) and had everything set up when Eric finally wobbled into camp, clearly suffering from the pain in his ankle. We had a huge feast of pasta, tuna and tomato sauce and then lounged around on the grass watching the afternoon light fade on the peaks.





The wildflowers were everywhere, and burrows and droppings indicated that there must be animals as well, but they stayed out of sight.  I imagined that there were probably marmots and foxes, and perhaps wolves too, although I hoped that the wolves would keep their distance from us.  As we lay there in the grass, Eric smoking his daily hand-rolled after-dinner cigarette, it all seemed impossibly idyllic.

Eric reclining on the grass, a touch of Italian elegance around his neck

The next morning, July 24th, we were up at 7:00 am, our earliest morning yet on the trail.  For breakfast we finished the last of the raspberries from Kyzyl Suu (just before they fermented) atop our muesli and yoghurt.  Petr and Adam stopped by, having camped below us the night before but being earlier risers than us, and continued on their way towards to the summit of the pass, some 400 metres above us at 3760 m.  We packed up and got ready to go, but when Eric went to the nearby stream to get water, his ankle failed him and he fell in, soaking himself.  He was not amused, and it was a sign of things to come, as his ankle was in bad shape.  We left at the leisurely hour of 9:20 and took a little over 2 hours of easy climbing to reach the top of the pass, passing through a riot of wildflowers and butterflies before entering a world of rocky scree just below the pass.

Descending from the Teleti Pass
As it turned out, the climb was the easy part.  The descent from the pass down into the Karakol Valley was long, steep in places, treacherous in many spots and absolute hell for a man with a bum ankle.  In addition to the ankle itself, Eric's new, very stiff mountain boots were giving him horrible blisters, and he was hobbling downhill.  The last 400 vertical metres into the main valley were nearly vertical, and our well-defined path disappeared into a tangle of indistinct indentations in the grass.  Footing was tough, as water was seeping out of the ground making everything slick, and we both went down heavily a few times, luckily without further injury to Eric.  Eric was convinced that we must be going the wrong way, down the wrong side of the river, but there were no signs either way, and once we were committed, the river was almost impossible to cross.  We soldiered on, and eventually came out on flattish ground down in the Karakol Valley just as it started to rain.  We were a dispirited pair as we trudged to the nearest possible camping spot and put up our tent.  Supper was an affair of instant noodles, and Eric was in serious doubt about whether he would even be able to walk the next day.  Given that Muztagh Ata was our main objective, it seemed best for us to curtail our walk and head as soon as possible to a roadhead to catch vehicular transport somewhere where he could rest his leg.

Our kind-hearted saviour in the Suruu Valley
Re-reading my diary now, I realize that I'd forgotten what I was reading those long evenings in the tent on Peak Lenin, and now in the Terkey Ala-Tau.  My Kindle was stocked with lengthy, worthy literature that I might not have the patience to wade through in other settings.  That evening I finished off Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (which I had been inspired to read by William Irvine's recent book A Guide To The Good Life) and settled into Michel de Montaigne's Essays (which in turn I had been inspired to read by How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell).  I had been hard at work (and it was hard work!) on Remembrance of Things Past (or, as the new translation I was reading had it, In Search of Lost Time), Marcel Proust's epic doorstopper, the longest novel every published, but I was taking a well-earned break after spending all of my Ladakh evenings with him.  I had always tried to bring at least one tome with me on long summer expeditions; previous trips had found me with the complete works of Shakespeare, Thomas Musil's great pre-WWI Viennese novel The Man Without Qualities, and both War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  It was always good to feel that I had improved my cultural education when I came back from a long hike or bike trip.

July 25th found us slow to wake up, as there was no sunshine to wake us up, and we were both pretty tired after a long day the day before.  We cooked up some oatmeal, finished off our yoghurt supplies and then slowly wandered down to the tourist yurt camp at the mouth of our valley, where we bought some overpriced bread.  We continued downhill in the main valley for a couple of hours on a track that was deteriorating.  It was spitting rain, but we paused under a sheltering tree beside the track for a delicious salad and cheese lunch.  We then hobbled further down the valley to the beginning of the road, past yurts and small houses.  The scenery continued to be beautiful, despite the grey skies, and I wished that we could continue our footloose odyssey for a few more days, but Eric desperately needed to be off his leg as soon as possible.  At the roadhead we tore a taxi driver away from his vodka and cards and had him drive us to Karakol, where he found us a cheapish room (800 som, or US$ 16) in a dismal hotel/brothel.  It didn't matter to us; there was a roof over our heads, and good takeout shashlik to eat just down the street.  We had showers (which felt good after 5 days of hiking), called our respective partners (it was the first phone signal we had seen in days) and went to bed.

July 26th found the skies clearing and us keen to get somewhere on the shore of the lake.  We ended up bargaining a good price with the driver of a Mercedes to get dropped off in Cholpon Ata, and found ourselves on the main strip of the highway.  Issyk Kul is a very popular summer lakeside resort for Kyrgyz and (especially) Kazakhs, and it's a clone of many of the resort towns I had stayed in in Russia and Ukraine on the Black Sea coast the summer before.  We found a cheap room in a small anonymous hotel and settled in for two days of people watching, good food and relaxation.

The water was frigid, but it didn't deter hardy Kyrgyz holidaymakers.  Eric thought it reminded him of Italian beach resorts on the Adriatic in his youth, and there really was a feel of the 1950s or 1960s to it.  The town had once been a massive sanatorium, and the ruins of the old complex still dominate the foreshore, with small bits dolled up as smaller hotels or privatized sanatoria.  We visited a slightly weird museum, the Ruh Ordo, all grandiose national pride and slightly pompous modern architecture, dedicated to Kyrgyzstan's greatest modern writer, Chingiz Aitmatov, to get our cultural fix.  Mostly, though, we sat on the beach or walked, unencumbered by big backpacks, along the sand.  It was fun to spend a couple of days on the beach and a couple of nights reclining in chaikhanas, eating delicious lamb shashlik and sipping green tea and cold beer, but it was a poor substitute for hiking in the transcendent mountains of the Tien Shan.

I really enjoyed cycling through Kyrgyzstan back in 2004, and I really enjoyed our brief hiking journey in 2012.  If I were to recommend one area of the world for some really wonderful off-the-beaten-track adventures, either on foot or on bicycle, Kyrgyzstan would be near the top of the list.  I would love to go back again for more adventures, or even work in Bishkek and explore the country on weekends and holidays.  The fact that an almost unknown minor mountain range like the Terskey Ala Tau contains peaks higher than any in the Alps tells you how much exploring there is to be done in the mountains of this Central Asian Switzerland.

We walked past so many wonderful wildflowers
July 28th found us in a marshrutka, heading back to Bishkek.  Asia Mountains' main hotel was full, but they put us up in their overflow complex, Asia Mountains II.  The Olympics had started in London, and we spent a lot of time watching the early events.  As well, since most of the climbers I had met on Peak Lenin had been employing the services of Asia Mountains, I met a few climbers whom I had last seen moving up the mountain while I was retreating.  Tim, one of the northern English climbers I had met at Camp One, was back and had summitted, one of the very few successful summitteers during that period.  Alex Goldfarb was back as well, and had a harrowing tale to tell.  He and his guide Dasha had pushed towards the summit in horrible winds (go figure!) and had made it to within 100 vertical metres of the summit, but they had been moving slowly and when they finally made the decision to turn around, they ran out of daylight before finding their way back to Camp Three.  They had wandered around lost, with Alex convinced that they would freeze to death out in the open, for hours until Dasha finally found the tent around midnight.  They had made it down, but barely.  I was starting to feel a lot more confident that I had made the right decision in turning back.  Branko and his fellow Slovenians were back as well, having made it to the top of Razdelnaya Peak (the 6148 m bump on the ridge behind Camp Two) but no further.  It certainly seemed as though this summer was a particularly tough one for success on the 7000-metre peaks of Central Asia, the so-called Snow Leopard Peaks, and I had been unfortunate in terms of choosing 2012 as my mountaineering summer.

I also had a run-in with Turkish Airlines while I was in Bishkek.  I wanted to know how much it would cost to change my flight back to Geneva if our expedition were delayed in China (I had no margin of error, being scheduled to depart less than 24 hours after our scheduled return), but Turkish said that if I wanted to change anything, I would have to buy a new ticket.  I was surprised, and not a little annoyed, but there it was.

And then, suddenly, it was July 30th and Eric and I were loading our skis, our mountaineering gear and everything else into a hellaciously overloaded minivan for the 2-day drive to Kashgar.  Eric's ankle and feet had healed, and we were ready for the last leg of my 2012 summer adventure:  Muztagh Ata!