Showing posts with label trekking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label trekking. Show all posts

Monday, May 7, 2018

A quick update from Bali

Cycling Georgia back in 2009

Trundling along the Danube, 2015
Just a quick update from our little pocket of tropical island life here.  Most of you, my faithful readers, are already aware of big changes coming in my life, but for those of you not yet aware, our time here in Bali is rapidly drawing to a close.  Not forever, mind you; Terri is keeping her house here which has been such a great place to base ourselves over the past year.  I've loved living here, doing lots of diving and snorkelling in the ocean and running and cycling in the mountains, and writing.  I'm halfway through the second draft of my book on my Silk Road cycle trip, having written almost the entire first draft here in my writing eyrie perched high on a hill overlooking the waters and sailboats of the Bali Sea.  It has been the perfect spot to write, and I am frantically trying to get through the hard work of the second draft before I lose this base.  We will certainly be back here in the future, probably living here again in a few years' time.

Sailing in Finland with my friend JP, 2015

Atop another hair-raising climb on the GR20 in Corsica
In February, when I was at the northern tip of the North Island of New Zealand with Terri, I received an offer from an international high school in Tbilisi, Georgia to teach science and mathematics there.  It's been almost 3 years since I last taught, and I've enjoyed my "pretirement":  cycle trips along the Danube and through Scandinavia; hiking in the Pyrenees and Corsica; a cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula; cycling in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay; working on Terri's pre-school in Zambia; our year-long African odyssey in Stanley; diving here in Indonesia and qualifying as a PADI Open Water SCUBA Instructor; hiking in New Zealand.  Of course, there was also the less fun aspect of my father's death last July, although being free to help nurse him through his final months was an important part of saying goodbye to him.  

Happy in Antarctica
Terri and some of the staff and students of Olive Tree
Riding the Carretera Austral, Chile
At any rate, I have had an incredible time on the travel front with Terri, and there is so much more that I want to do:  drive Stanley all the way around Africa; hike the fabulous mountains of Central Asia; explore Central America, northern South America and Brazil.  However after 3 years on the road, the sad realities of economic life dictate that I need to earn some money, and while I would have liked teaching SCUBA diving, teaching high school is a much more lucrative profession, particularly on the international circuit, and Georgia is one of the few countries that I was willing to come out of pretirement for.  I cycled in Georgia in 2009 and 2011, and skied there in 2015, and every time I really enjoyed the feel of the country, the culture, the people and the amazing Caucasus Mountains.  I accepted the job, and so in August I will be moving to Tbilisi along with Terri to start a two-year commitment.  I am looking forward immensely to living in Georgia:  the food, the wine, the opportunities to hike and ski, the chance to polish up my Russian and learn some Georgian, and of course getting to try to inspire young minds to love mathematics and science.  I am very excited indeed.

Wild camping in Botswana
Before we go, however, we are heading back to Namibia to pick up Stanley and take him for a spin for the next 7 weeks.  He's been parked in Windhoek, and we want to do more exploring of Namibia, a country that we really enjoyed last year despite having to curtail our travels because of my father's illness.  The plan is to drive less and stay longer in the various spots that we visit, particularly in the northwestern deserts.  It will be wonderful to restart Stanley's Travels, if only briefly.  

I want to spend July in Ottawa, visiting my mother and working on my book under her eagle-eyed editorial supervision, before flying to Tbilisi at the end of the month.  I have to nip over to Switzerland to pick up my skis and other winter sports gear that I stored in Leysin back in 2015, and then I will have a little over a week of liberty before orientation for new staff begins at the school.  I would like to spend that week exploring some corner of the Caucasus on foot with Terri; I have done plenty of cycling but not nearly enough walking in Georgia, and it's time to remedy that.  I would like to explore a leg of the newly-developing Trans-Caucasian Trail system, perhaps linking Tusheti and Khevsureti, or maybe between Racha and Lentekhi.  There is so much stupendous mountain scenery to explore that I am sure we will be kept busy every weekend for the next couple of years.  

Damaraland, Namibia
The plan for next summer is to go to Kyrgyzstan, my other favourite Silk Road country, and do some serious trekking there:  Lake Sary-Chelek; the Inylchek Glacier; the Turkestan Range in Batken province.  I'd also like to have a couple of weeks left over for more Caucasus trekking as well.  Then in 2020, when my time in Georgia comes to an end, I want to go back to Africa to take Stanley on his longest trip yet, up the west side of Africa to Europe, and back down the east side to South Africa.  

Moremi, Botswana
So much to see, so little time!  I hope to see some of you, my faithful readers, in Georgia for some skiing, some cycling, some hiking or some wine-tasting over the next two years, and I hope you continue to follow my adventures here online.

Bali sunset

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

West Coast Finale, March-April 2018

Lipah, April 18th

For a Google map of this part of our trip, please click here.

Our very muddy launch onto the Whanganui 
The final leg of our trip around New Zealand's North Island began on March 15 when we drove north out of Upper Hutt, headed up the west coast.  Our first destination was Raetihi, a small tourist town north of Wanganui, a town where my sister Audie had once spent a year on a high school exchange. That first day we drove up the main highway to Wanganui, then turned up the scenic River Road to get to Pipiriki, followed by a stiff climb to Raetihi, up on the central volcanic plateau.  We stayed in a friendly AirBnB that night and had a look at weather forecasts.

Whanganui River
The plan was to spend three days paddling down the Whanganui River in canoes, but Mother Nature wasn't playing along.  March 16 was a complete washout, with rain all day.  We spent the day indoors reading and repacking gear for the river trip, then slept a second night at the AirBnB.  We had debated whether the $180 per person for canoe hire and transport was worth it, but in the end we were glad that we shelled out the cash for a fabulous experience.

March 17 dawned crisp and clear and we drove over to the canoe rental spot to park our car and be shuttled to our put-in point at Whangahoro.  There were two parties in the truck that morning:  ourselves and a Spanish-Belgian couple, Pieter and Veronica.  The boss of the rental agency, Trev, was a fount of local information, and told us that we were the first wave of canoeists to put in at Whangahoro since disastrous flash floods ten days before, during which the river level had risen 12 metres overnight.  The road leading to Whangahoro had been closed for repairs ever since, and had just reopened the previous day.  The launching site was under a thick, gooey layer of mud, and the river's course had shifted, resulting in an unexpectedly tough rapid about 10 metres after putting in.  Terri and I capsized here, hardly an auspicious start to the trip!

The Bridge to Nowhere
From that point on the river was much more placid in terms of rapids.  What it lacked in adrenaline, though, it made up for in scenery.  The Whanganui River is deeply incised into soft mudstone, resulting in sheer-sided cliffs.  This stretch of the river has no road access, and the early settlers in the area depended on river steamers to transport their sheep and wool to market.  It was a perilous existence in an unforgiving environment, and over the 25 years between the end of World War One and 1943 almost all of the farmers (who were allotted the land as returned veterans of WWI) ended up abandoning the struggle; the last three families were evicted by the government in 1943.  This has left a large swathe of land to return to native bush and provided a large nature reserve for tourists to paddle through.  We drifted and paddled along for much of the day, oohing and aahing over the landscape, before making camp at John Coull's campsite.  Despite being one of the last canoes to arrive (about 20 canoes from 6 different outfitters spent the night there), we got the best campsite.  We fried up delicious steaks, had a bottle of fine red wine and watched the rare native New Zealand bats (both the long-tailed and short-tailed) flying insect-catching sorties in the gloaming.  It was a perfect evening.
Layers of history that we were paddling through

Paddling bliss
The second day was more of the same, except even more fun.  It was another day of placid rapids and sheer cliffs, but enlivened by a midday walking excursion to see the Bridge To Nowhere, built to extend road access to the isolated farms in the late 1920s, but which was insufficient to save these economically unfeasible endeavours.  The road was abandoned because of persistent landslides--hardly surprising given the terrain and weather!--and now the bridge stands as a memory of a white elephant.  It's used now as part of a hiking and mountain biking track from Whakahoro to the Bridge To Nowhere river landing; this stretch is part of both the Te Araroa and New Zealand Cycle Trail routes that stretch the length of New Zealand.  Hikers and cyclists are usually picked up by jetboats that take them to Pipiriki, although they can also arrange to rent canoes to avoid using internal combustion engines.  Refreshed by this break, we rejoined the canoes and paddled to our campground at Tieke Kainga.  It was an idyllic setting and was also an active Maori marae, so we had a welcoming ceremony that risked being silly and touristy but instead was strangely moving.  There were only four canoes staying there that night (many others had camped across the river at another spot) and we sat around at supper (and at breakfast the next day) discussing travel, life, nature and possums.  The young son of the couple that run the marae went out with his father carrying a big stick to bash possums, but had no luck; a Spanish woman staying in our camp saw one later at night, but didn't have the heart to try to kill it, despite the fact that it is the most destructive predator on indigenous birds.
The steep cliffs enclosing the Whanganui River

A punga tree
Our last day of paddling, March 19th, was also the most action-packed in terms of rapids.  There were four rapids that we were warned gave us a reasonable chance of capsizing.  After a wonderful morning of paddling through the most vertical canyons yet, we fell in on the first major rapid, the aptly named Fifty-Fifty.  Luckily everything was in (mostly) waterproof barrels, as we were in the water for quite some time before being able to right ourselves.  This experience made us hyper-cautious on the next two, evading the main stream and its standing waves by slithering over rocky shallows.  We did manage to shoot the last rapid successfully, though, which gave us a sheen of respectability with the canoeists watching from the landing point just beyond.  Overall, the canoeing was a major highlight of our New Zealand adventures, especially as Terri had never done it before and we were both amazed at how utterly wild and remote it felt in the middle of the densely-settled North Island.

Headed up Tongariro

Our next port of call was the prosaically-named National Park, a small holiday town just west of Mt. Ruapehu and its ski fields.  Terri's friends Ross and Debbie have a small chalet there that they let us use, and we ended up sleeping there for three nights, glad to have a roof over our heads with cool nights and forecasts of more rain on its way.  The weather held good on the first day for our hike up Mt. Tongariro.  The Tongariro Crossing has become a mass tourism phenomenon, with thousands of hikers a day walking the trail, many inspired by the fact that parts of Lord of the Rings were filmed here.  We had heard of the crowds, the expense of catching shuttle buses and the restrictions on parking, so we decided to modify the classic route.  We parked at the Ketetahi trailhead at the north end of the crossing, the usual ending point, at 6:45 in the morning, and were amazed to find hundreds of cars already there.  Rather than following the hordes and catching a shuttle bus around to the other end of the trail, we set off to hike an out-and-back walk from where we were.
A New Zealand pipit

Steam rising from fumaroles at Te Maari, on Tongariro
The weather was perfect, with clear skies and cool temperatures, and we had the entire trail to ourselves.  We didn't meet another soul for the first three and a half hours as we climbed up through dense bush, then low scrub, and finally, at the top, alpine terrain.  One benefit of this was a series of encounters with birds, both the inquisitive, trusting fantail and the rarer endemic New Zealand pipit, both of whom followed us for long periods across the slopes.  To our left the steam vents of Te Maari puffed steadily; in 2012 they erupted and fired volcanic boulders onto the Ketetahi hut; we could see the damage, preserved for scientific purposes, in the structure as we walked past it.  Once we had crested the initial relentless climb, we peered out across a volcanic desert towards the craters near the summit of Tongariro, and to the symmetrical steep cone of Ngarahoe behind it.
Mount Ngarahoe, with a line of hikers crossing below it
We started to meet our first early-bird walkers as we crossed the plain towards the Emerald Lakes, and there we ran into Pieter and Veronica from our canoe trip, heading in the opposite direction.  We had one final steep grunt up a loose scree incline to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing, where we stopped to admire the spectacular views up to Ngarahoe, down to the Emerald Lakes and across to the dramatic vents of the Red Crater of Tongariro.  It was a wonderful payoff for four hours of brisk hiking to stand in the middle of such natural dramatic beauty.

At the high point of the Tongariro Crossing
The return journey to the car began with a descent of the scree.  I love scree running, as it's a lot like skiing powder.  The pebbles of volcanic debris slide and roll under your feet, making it easier to slide and run than to walk slowly.  We both raced past long lines of slow-moving hikers, some paralyzed by fear at the unsteady footing; one unfortunate Korean woman was wailing uncontrollably as her boyfriend tried to talk her down.  At the bottom of the scree we stopped to devour a cold roast chicken that was the perfect picnic lunch, seating ourselves on the shore of one of the Emerald Lakes.  From there we joined the long lines of walkers stretched across the landscape, marching down to our little Mazda Demio eight and a half hours after setting out.
The tourist hordes descending the scree agonizingly slowly
We drove back to National Park a bit tired and a bit footsore, but elated at having seen such an iconic landscape and at having (half-) escaped the crowds.  In high season, it's said that over 3000 hikers a day undertake the Crossing, and it seemed like an underestimate that day.  I fear that with the growth of tourism and the global middle class, areas of famed natural beauty like the Tongariro Crossing will drown in the vast crowds that they draw.  Venice, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Banff and Mount Fuji show the future awaiting many of the grand vistas of our planet.

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro

Terri and her first house, Taupo
We had planned to hike to the summit of Mt. Ruapehu the next morning from the top of the ski lifts at Whakapapa, but we awoke on March 21st to rain and low clouds, so that plan had to be scrapped.  Instead we drove to Taupo to see some of Terri's past life.  Our first port of call was the National Trout Centre, but we weren't there for the fish.  Instead, we had read that the Centre was helping in the conservation of the endangered endemic whio, or blue duck, and we wanted to see.  Whio are bred in captivity in several locations around New Zealand, but the chicks all end up at the Trout Centre for some survival training before they are released into the wild.  We were lucky; that was the last day that the chicks were in residence, and we watched them being captured by the staff to be shipped off to various rivers around the country.  We had looked in vain for whio during our canoe trip, so we were happy to see the 8 residents of the training program.  When we went for a short stroll along the river next to the Trout Centre, we were pleasantly surprised to see a wild whio swim by.  It was heartening to see this iconic species being preserved with the help of so many conservation-minded New Zealanders.

The town of Taupo is on the shores of the lake of the same name, and has become the epicentre of campervan tourism in the North Island.  The town is pleasant but not spectacular, and the crowds at sights such as Huka Falls left me unimpressed.  I did enjoy seeing the first house that Terri ever owned, along with the various houses (and a motel) that Terri's parents owned over the years.  I even saw the site of Terri's youthful thrill-seeking in swimming holes below a dam that would release water every afternoon with Terri and her friends in the pools.  There's a prominent "No Swimming" sign there now, probably as a result of her reckless exploits years ago.

A whio, or blue duck, on the Whakapapa River
March 22nd found us cleaning up the ski chalet and driving north to our next adventure, the Timber Trail, a mountain bike trail that we had heard a lot about.  We took a room in an AirBnB in the town of Manunui run by a Czech ski instructor and her Kiwi partner, a professional pianist, both of whom made for interesting conversations.  We spent the afternoon on a hike through the Owhango Reserve, a small patch of native bush beside the Whakepapa River.  The hiking was enjoyable, but the best part was seeing no fewer than 12 whio bobbing in the river, an encouraging sign for an endangered species with only a few thousand surviving individuals.  There were also other endemic species like the tomtit and the North Island robin present too, all testament to the efforts put in to rid the reserve of possums, stoats and rats; we saw many traps and poison bait stations beside the trail as part of this endeavour.

Riding the Timber Trail
Our ride along the Timber Trail was a lot of fun the next day.  We rented bikes from a South African family whose son drove us to the midpoint of the trail at Piropiro, telling us entertaining tall tales the whole way.  We had 45 km to cover to get back to the car, and it was slow going, with lots of climbing, mud puddles and narrow tracks to contend with.  Most of the trail ran along the route of a narrow-gauge railway built to carry logs out of the forest.  The bush has had numerous decades to regrow, and is now a dense tangle of native trees and plants.  It felt wonderful to be back in the saddle exploring a beautiful corner of the world, and I felt the call of the cycle touring world again; Terri and I hadn't toured in over two years, since our trip through Paraguay in January, 2016.  We got back to the car, muddy and elated, mid-afternoon and headed back to the AirBnB to recover.

March 24th found us driving east along the Forgotten World highway, a road connecting remote farms that history has more or less left behind, between Taumaranui and the Taranaki region.  These farms are near the farms abandoned along the Whanganui River, but were not quite as remote or as rugged and managed to survive as going concerns.  We drove along beautiful stretches of river (including the upper Whanganui), over steep "saddles", or passes, and through the quirky town of Whangamomona, a self-declared independent "republic".
Crossing one of the big suspension bridges on the Timber Trail
We stopped for a bite to eat at the Whangamomona Hotel and behind the gimmicky nature of the "republic", the deep roots of local history shown in serried ranks of photos on the wall of the pub bore testament to the spirit and determination of generations of settlers, loggers and farmers in this remote pocket of the country.  We made it to the other end of the Forgotten World and entered the prosperous farming territory on the slopes of the conical bulk of Mount Taranaki.  A lovely beach house renting out rooms on AirBnB was our home for the next two nights, and we walked along the wild black sand beaches of Oakura before returning home to eat and catch up with the American horse enthusiast running the place.

In the woods of Taranaki

My alien radio antenna, New Plymouth
I really liked the Taranaki region, perhaps more than any other corner of the North Island except for Northland.  We spent the next day poking about the regional centre, the city of New Plymouth, and I found it an appealing place, with an artsy feel to the downtown core and a well-engineered Coastal Walkway leading out of downtown along the ocean shore that provided a focus for strolling, running and cycling, while surfers and fishermen cavorted below us.  We stopped in at the local museum for a stunning display on life in the long-ago Permian period, and on local Maori history.  Around the corner from there, the Len Lye Museum highlighted the "kinetic sculpture" of a New Zealand-born artist of whom I had never heard, but who impressed me.  The focal point of downtown New Plymouth was another Len Lye design, the Wind Wand, a 48-metre-tall kinetic sculpture that flexes and rotates with the breeze.

Enjoying our Taranaki hike

Hiking Mt. Taranaki
Mount Taranaki provided our next outdoor pursuit, an overnight hike to a Department of Conservation hut.  We drove our car up to Dawson Falls Visitor Centre the next day, parked and took to our heels, carrying our packs full of wine and steak and other goodies.  We walked partway up the summit trail, having toyed with the idea of staying at the high Syme Hut for a summit attempt the next day, but swirling clouds and the number of people heading up ahead of us made us reconsider.  Instead we traversed the tussock grass for a while, getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and occasional glimpses of the summit, then dropped steadily downhill into dense native bush to Lake Dive Hut.  We had the entire hut to ourselves, although we had met a big school group who had told us they were planning to sleep at the hut too.  The views were magnificent, and we heard the distinctive call of a New Zealand falcon close to the hut, although we were unable to spot it.  It was an idyllic spot to spend the night, just Terri and I and the surrounding wilderness.
On the slopes of Mt. Taranaki

Terri moving through the tussocks on Taranaki
We took another, lower trail to return to Dawson Falls the next day and it was challenging, between the constant ups and downs across deep ravines, the washed-out sections of trail, the fallen trees and the general lack of maintenance of the path.  It was probably more tiring than the previous day's climb and descent, but also enjoyable for the isolation and for the flora of the forest.  When we got back to the car, we cooked up a big brunch of bacon and eggs before heading back to Oakura, this time to visit a Kiwi friend from our Leysin days who had returned to New Zealand to live.  She and her parents lived in a spectacular location atop the cliffs of Oakura, and I fell in love with the spot.  It was great to talk to her and to her mother and father about the area, about travel and living off the grid and fishing.  We had a fabulous dinner and slept well, despite heavy rain overnight.
Terri and the Marshalls, father and daughter

A flower on Taranaki
We paid the price for a late, lazy departure the next day when we arrived at our next destination, a funky off-the-grid hippy commune AirBnB named Hakea, in pitch blackness.  It was a deceptively long drive through miserable weather, but it proved to be worth it.  Hakea was a pretty place, inhabited by an interesting family, and provided lovely walks (between the rain showers) and a chance to read the best travel book I had read in a long time, Colin Thubron's magisterial To A Mountain In Tibet, which I devoured in a day.  We spent two nights there, resting and eating and relaxing.
Morning view of Taranaki's summit

Proud property owner:  Terri and her former house in Hamilton
Our next, and in some sense final, destination was the city of Hamilton, where Terri had lived during her university years.  We stayed with Ross and Debbie, this time in person at their house there, and spent a couple of days catching up with them, having last seen them in Bali last September.  The first afternoon we were there we explored more of Terri's past by visiting the campus of Waikato University and the house she used to own close by, then went to the stunning Hamilton Gardens with Ross and Debbie.  The gardens, subdivided into a dozen or more themed gardens, were wonderful, even with the hordes of Easter Weekend tourists overrunning the place.

Ross, Terri and Debbie
We started the next day with a hike/run up the Hakarimata hills outside Hamilton, and it was a challenging hill to try to run; I had to stop for breath about two thirds of the way up.  There were great views from the top as far as Ruapehu and Ngarahoe, and a fun atmosphere of dozens of other fitness enthusiasts running or powerwalking their way to the top.  After a lazy afternoon, we had a big barbecue with Ross and Debbie along with their daughter and her boyfriend.

With only two full days left until my flight out, we were almost out of time.  April 1st was spent driving back to Mt. Maunganui to pick up Terri's bicycle from storage at Jo Veale's place, with a pleasant hike around Lake Maclaren on the way home.  April 2nd we said goodbye to Ross and Debbie and drove north to Clevedon, where we visited Terri's friends Angela and Adam, three of their four young boys and their collection of vintage Land Rovers.  In their pre-child days, Angela and Adam had driven from the UK to Singapore, and we heard a few tales from the road and told a few of our own from Stanley's Travels.  That afternoon we met up with Terri's cousin Stewart and his wife Nicky for a brief hike in the Hunua Ranges, hearing about Stewart's participation in the Tour Aotearoa a few weeks before.  Then it was time to drive to Papakura and the only really dismal accommodation of the entire trip, a rather ratty AirBnB room.  The next morning, after a few brief errands, Terri dropped me off at Auckland Airport for my flight back to Bali.
Terri with Angela, Adam and three of their sons

Nicky, Stewart and Terri
Overall, I really enjoyed exploring the North Island in depth.  We managed to do quite a bit of hiking, with some paddling and cycling thrown in for good measure.  We saw lots of endemic bird species, plenty of stunning beaches and dramatic mountains, and plenty of native New Zealand bush.  We enjoyed lots of warm hospitality from Terri's friends and relatives (and my friend Eileen), and got a chance to get a feeling for New Zealand from the hours of conversation we had with people.  New Zealand is certainly a lot pricier than it was when I visited back in 1992 with my friend Hans, largely a result of the incredibly expensive real estate market.  Even staying as often as we did with friends and relations, we still spent a sobering amount of money, but we did have fun.  If I went back to the North Island, I would want to be on a bicycle, or hiking the Te Araroa, or maybe on a sailboat, as I feel that we saw almost everything we would want to see travelling as we did in a rental car.  Realistically, though, if we went back to New Zealand, it would be to see the wilds of the South Island next time.  Farewell, North Island, it was fun!

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!