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Published: October 16th 2007
Chiyim Tash Pass
Camp under a waterfall at the base of the Chiyim Tash Pass
The original idea for this trip came from my friend and co-worker Amy McGoldrick. She is the director of ACCELS, an NGO that along with administering the FLEX Program, (which I have taught for the past two summers) which takes Turkmenistan high school students and places them in American High Schools, but it also oversees the work of the American Corners throughout the country.
I had planned on spending my last vacation as a Peace Corps Volunteer of Turkmenistan in Northwestern India. However, when I realized that the option to get to Kyrgyzstan was relatively cheap and that I had the opportunity to get back to the mountains, something I had done only once in 12 years since leaving Colorado, I jumped at the opportunity.
The hard part about traveling in Kyrgyzstan is not the actual travel itself but picking the few spots you have time to go to rather than seeing it all. When I first told people that I was going to Kyrgyzstan there immediate question was, “Are you going to Lake Issyk Kul?” Lake Issyk Kul is the second highest fresh water lake in the world and its northern shore attracts tourists from all over the world
Lake Sary Chelek
Sary Chelek, named Yellow Basket for the way the afternoon sun hits the mountains walls, is one of the most pristine clear water lakes in Central Asia
to swim in its cool and clear turquoise blue water. And to tell the truth initially I too wanted to navigate those clear blue waters.
During the planning stages of this trip Amy came upon the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Network website. This organization doesn’t use outside travel agencies but rather offers trips into the Kyrgyz countryside and mountain ranges that have until very recently been hard to navigate places for tourists. We sent an email describing what we were interested in doing and for how many days and the national coordinator, a man named Azabek based out of Bishkek, sent us back a choice of five different packages all over the country. The one that caught our eye was the nine day trek through Lake Sary Chelek, not only because of the amount of time that we would be in the nature, but because it looked challenging and neither one of us had ever done any trekking longer than three days. The challenge was what excited us, the timing was the problem. In order for me to make my plane back to Turkmenistan leaving out of Almaty I would have to be on the road back to Bishkek
Kashka Suu Pass
Kashka Suu Pass, Horse Face Pass, rises over 12,000 feet and for a majority of the ascent rises at a 60 degree grade.
on the very early morning of the ninth day. For some travel agencies not sticking to the proposed itinerary is unacceptable, but Azabek was not only flexible he was prompt in responding to our queries and constant changes of schedules. Add to that the fact that using the whole network was actually cheaper than if we would have tried to find transport for ourselves to get out to Talas and back and you have all of the makings for a great trip.
Now that I have completed this hike, which took me through some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen on Earth I am not disappointed at all that I did not get to see Lake Issyk Kul. In fact, I would bet that the tourists waging a price war for the last room of a yurt around Issyk Kul would be quite jealous of our journey. Amy and I, apart from the Dutch couple that spent the first two days with us, were the only tourists that we saw the entire time we were on the trek and that in itself is a pleasure.
The following pages are a telling of what happened during
The graffiti ridden abandoned karavanserai used to be a playground for members of the politburo, but now its only customers are those who scratch their namesake into the walls, tumbleweeds, and dust.
those eight days. It was for me the perfect mixture between challenge (125 miles of hiking in seven days over passes of 2400, 3600, 3400, and 3601 meters above sea level) and the sense of being at home again in the mountains, only the ones I found myself in were literally halfway around the world from the place I was born.
Day 1- Bishkek to Arkit village, September 1, 2007
We arrived in Bishkek last night on the eve of Kyrgyzstan's Independence Day celebration. The streets were crowded with young people and families toting their toddlers with balloons tied to their wrists. We were taken on a tour of the city from some local Turkmen students that are studying at American University of Central Asia. Despite its being the capitol of the country, Bishkek has a small town feel to it. The awe inspiring buildings of white marble and blue glass windows are hidden behind towering elms and oaks. The first difference I noticed was the sheer amount of garbage on the streets; every gutter, curb, and alley was littered with bottles, cigarette packs, and various other amounts of trash. Yet in New York City where the
Alone on the M38
My traveling companion at a rest stop along the highway.
graffiti and trash on the streets adds to the spice and life of the city here in Bishkek it seems that people are lackadaisical about the refuse.
After a dinner at a local ex-pat restaurant called the Metro Bar we started to head back to our friends apartment. On the street we saw a sign that noted an exchange window that would take 75 currencies from around the world in any condition. Singed, mouse-eaten, or wrinkled didn't matter, they would take them. For those of you that have never traveled in the former Soviet Union this is quite a bold statement, generally American dollars are treated like baseball cards they have to be in mint condition otherwise they are worth less. So in a joking I leaned over to Ahmed (whose family in Mary has adopted me as one of its sons) and said, "Let's see if they will take manat."
I climbed the steps and took out of my money belt ten 10,000 manat bills and handed them through the window. The teller behind the bulletproof glass took one look at the Turkmen manat and handed them back.
"Why not?" asked Ahmed.
"That's not money," he responded.
"Yes it is. It's from Turkmenistan. Look it has Turkmenbashy's picture on it," I piped in.
"That's worthless. I wouldn't even wipe my ass with that stuff," the teller said looking indignant and slamming his window shut on us.
We bounded down the steps to join the rest of the group with laughs and headed back to Ahmed's apartment.
When we arrived we found that in addition to Ahmed and his two roommates there were also two other Turkmen girl students living in the small three room apartment. Housing or finding decent and affordable housing is the largest problem that faces Turkmen students on scholarship in Bishkek. The housing market has ballooned close to 50 percent over the past four months. A three room, one bedroom apartment that used to cost $150 a month has ballooned to $250 a month. For Americans that would be no big deal, but for these students who get a housing stipend of $80 a month it makes it very difficult to live in an apartment by themselves or even with just one roommate. What ends up happening in many cases is that students live three, four, or even five to an apartment to share cost, with students rotating who sleeps on the floor and who gets a couch.
I woke this morning feeling refreshed from downing so much orange juice and my head cold easing away. I left the apartment as quietly as I could, not wanting to wake the Turkmen students from their dozing. I was headed back up Gogol Street to meet Amy at her hotel Asia Mountain Resort. Despite it being the day after a major holiday there were quite a few people on the streets. Kyrgyz mothers fussed with their son's ties, a pack of teenage boys red-eyed muttered secrets while crouching on the curb, and everywhere magazines were opening up for the day. The most ironic and purely soviet thing that I saw was a middle aged street sweeper. He swept away the leaves and dust from the road, but a pile of garbage as high as my waist sat on the curb un-bagged. He had a diligence to him that told me his only responsibility was to sweep that street, not the curb. I guess the curb was not in his job description, so it's someone else's fault if it is dirty.
I stopped at a corner cigarette stand and bought a pack of Camel Lights. When I asked the woman how much it was she smiled blankly at me. I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together and she held up both of her hands twice…20 soms or about 75 cents.
Suddenly, I heard screaming coming from the corner opposite me. I looked and there on the corner was a man wearing a soiled brown t-shirt sitting on a crate while two women screamed at him. One of the women armed with a broom was swinging water from the trash filled gutter at him with her broom while the other, dressed in an oversized worn black leather jacket was grabbing his collar and throwing punches at his face. While this went on a scattered crowd stood back doing nothing, just watching. The man just sat there taking it. I crossed the street and as I neared I could see the man had a blank look on his face while the mayhem happened around him. One could assume that the man was wasted, but even if that were the case what would make him so complacent as to take such a beating. I didn't stop to ask, but kept walking past the scene not watching the fight but rather the bored look on the spectators' faces. I wondered why no one was stepping in and stopping this, but then I thought back to a similar occurrence I had seen in Turkmenistan where a crowd of Turkmen sat with the same complacency. It seemed that even though the concept of family is large in Central Asia the desire to step into to remedy a situation is blank. When I asked one of my students about this he turned to me clicked his tongue and said, "It's not me or my friends." My guess would be that the spectators were watching not because the fight was unique or even interesting, but because it was something that was happening.
All over Turkmenistan today kids are putting on their freshly ironed suits, girls are curling their hair and putting silver puff ball braid holders in, mothers are holding hands of their seven year olds as they escort them to school for their very first day, and PCVs are trying to figure out with their counterparts what grades they will be teaching while listening to the opening ceremonies. Today is Knowledge Day in Turkmenistan the start of a new school year, but there is only one thing missing, me. Currently I am about 500 miles away in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in a cab waiting patiently for our driver Azamat to return with his granddaughter from breakfast so Amy and I can head off for seven days of trekking in the Sary Chelek Nature Reserve.
After waiting for a half an hour our driver and his granddaughter returned and we got on the road. We were headed out of Bishkek on Route 39 toward the western border with our final destination being Arkit village just south of the Sary Chelek Nature Reserve.
It took us an hour before we were out of the surrounding suburbs of Bishkek. We crossed a hill and there before us laid a valley that one would imagine only in Central Asia. It was the type of expansiveness that I had imagined Mongolia to be, pasture stretched everywhere with the only signs of habitation being the road and yurts off in the distance while packs of horses grazed lazily on the grass. We stopped halfway into the valley next to two yurts lining the road with a sign saying "The Best Kismis for You." Kismis is fermented horse milk and is a staple of the Kyrgyz diet, or perhaps only to our drivers because he bought five gallons of the stuff and put it into the trunk saying, "There is no better kismis in all of Kyrgyzstan. Do you want to try it?" Remembering the gagging bitterness of fermented camel's milk from Turkmenistan, I shook my head.
We passed through the valley and then road started to switchback through the first range of mountains. After the first hill our car clunked to a stop at the side of the road. Our driver got out and opened the hood with a pop of his fist to see the radiator overheating. He pointed to a nearby stream and asked me to go fill up the empty Pepsi bottles in his trunk with some. I did as he asked, climbing the divider. I plunged my hand into the stream and shivers instantly shot up my spine. I was cold!!! Now for most, sticking their hand in a cold water mountain stream would be refreshing, but for me it was almost ecstasy. I had spent the last three months in a place where the average temperature was above 115 degrees. I returned the bottles to the driver and he sprayed down the front of the radiator and added some water to the coolant tank.
Over the course of the next three hours we had to stop six times to cool down the engine. Despite all of the breakdowns, I found myself in a very amiable mood. I was not upset at the car trouble nor was our driver. Every time the car clunked to a stop he would shrug his shoulders give us a smile and set about cooling off the radiator. It was just something that happened and the fact that we didn't have to be in Arkit at any specific time was a relief. Each stop gave us a chance to get a closer look at the surrounding scenery.
The last stop however was a bit different, instead of the smoke coming from the engine we noticed that it was coming from the trunk. The driver stopped and we opened the trunk trying to find what was burning. I pulled my bag off the floor and noticed that the plastic cover for my sleeping bag had a quarter-sized hole melted off of it. I looked into the trunk and noticed that hot oil had sprayed up from a rusted hole in the base of it. The driver apologized and then set to work unhooking the muffler to get a better look at what had happened. While we waited a very drunk Kyrgyz elderly man wearing a blue and white polo shirt, track pants and plastic slippers came walking up to us holding a screwdriver. The intoxicated grandpa crouched next to our driver who had his under the car and started talking to him about what happened. It seemed that we had hit a rock and the rock had put a whole in the undercarriage that was leaking hot oil. Our driver after a couple of clicks and wiping the sweat off his brow proceeded to wander around the off road. He picked up a tin can and a bit of wire and came huffing back to the car. He punched two holes on opposite sides of the tin can's top, and then he wove the wire through it creating a patch. He looped the wire around the muffler with the tin can top over the hole and then wound the wire the shut. Then he replaced the screws of the muffler, steadying it with his knee while he fastened it. I thought how nice it was that we had the Kyrgyz version of McIver as a driver for the day. The whole process took less than half an hour and we were back on the road.
The last leg of the journey took us off the highway and onto a non grated village road that wound around and along a stream. We swerved around potholes, puddles, donkeys, and Kyrgyz kids who took the momentary light of the headlights to race each other up in front of us until the driver honked his horn. We crossed a bridge made only of lumber and pulled to a stop outside of a metal gate. We got out, took our packs from the car and headed inside. We were met by a plump middle aged Kyrgyz man with a smile on his face.
"Are you the Americans?" he asked. We nodded and he continued, "We thought you already came..." He pointed over his shoulder and there seated inside was a couple dressed in boots, long pants, and camping jackets. "They're European," he said with a smile.
I introduced myself to the couple. They were from Holland and had arrived about an hour before us with the intention of going on a three day horseback ride. We traded pleasantries and they waved good-bye as a local youth waited for them to take them to another nearby house to spend the night.
After we washed up, we were treated to a dish called lachjun which was a vegetable stew with noodles of eggplant, potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, green peppers, cabbage, and spices. The meal was refreshing and filling after our eleven hours on the road. I collapsed on my bed to the sound of the stream coming from the window and fell fast asleep.
Day 2, Arkit to Kara Suu Lake, September 2nd, 2007
I awoke to the sounds of turkeys clucking outside my window and a teapot boiling on a stove. We ate a quick breakfast of coffee and Kyrgyz nan, which was quite softer than Turkmen bread, and brought our packs outside. We met our guides who were already busy strapping supplies to two pack horses.
Tursun, a middle aged short but powerfully built Kyrgyz man wearing sweats, galoshes, and a blue thread born sweater two sizes two big for him greeted us with a smile that made the corners of his sun tanned face that showed crows feet and a jagged toothed smile. He had an efficiency about him that looked like he had done our trek many times in his life and that no matter the pace that we set he would be able to keep up.
Umit was a smiling 21 year-old wearing a sweatshirt and a Kyrgyz bulik, a brown and white skull cap that looked like a mini cloth yurt on his head. He was studying at the Turkish Language Institute in Bishkek to become an English teacher. Instead of being present for the first week of classes he had decided, on invitation of his uncle, to join us for the trek as a birthday present to himself.
We set off from Arkit village at around 9:00 am up a well worn hill. Our valley had clear sky while in the surrounding mountains black clouds loomed and I could hear distant thunder echoing around us.
We walked for an hour up the hill through an elm forest while a pair of Kyrgyz boys on horseback, one of which was carrying a goat cross saddle, drove a small herd of donkeys up the hill in front of us. Then the sprinkling of rain that had given the forest a crisp smell and feel opened up into a full downpour. I cursed the fact that I had not borrowed a fellow PCVs rain jacket and zipped up my wind break to limit the amount of cold rain dripping down my back. We waited under a tree for about forty five minutes until the rain went from pouring to a slow but steady drizzle. Once we found the horses again, who were lazily grazing in a clover patch about 200 yards from where we had left them, we started up the hill again. Shortly thereafter there rose a fence out of the middle of nowhere in the forest to our right.
Tursun led the horses through and told us, "Welcome to Sary Chelek." We rounded a bend and came to a clearing where the grass glistened with the recent rainstorm and stopped for lunch. As I pulled off my wet socks, I could already feel a blister forming on my left heel and asked Amy if she had brought anything for the occasion. She went to her bag and pulled out a gallon sized Ziploc bag filled with a cornucopia of orthopedic remedies; Dr. Scholl's blister pads, moleskin, Glide stick, Ace bandage, Band-Aids, hydrocortisone cream, and athletic tape. I took the Dr.Scholl's blister pad thankful that she had planned so well ahead.
We were about done of our lunch of chickpeas from a can, bread, sausages and cheese when the Dutch couple came trotting into the clearing accompanied by a smiling mid-thirties guide wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap and a lanky and sullen looking Kyrgyz teenage boy.
They joined us on our horse blankets and we learned that they had been traveling for the past ten months. Jozefine was a nurse and had her blonde hair tucked into ponytail through a baseball hat. Eric, a sound technician for a club in Holland wore a stocking cap, a fleece jacket and Carhard brown pants. They had quite their respective jobs at decided to tour Asia. They had started in Indonesia, then moved onto Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and then spent three months in China gradually moving their way west until they passed though Xingjian before coming to Kyrgyzstan. They planned after their horseback ride in Sary Chelek to head to Uzbekistan then on through the Caucuses to Turkey and then take a train to get to Paris by Christmas and then back to Rotterdam. I was jealous instantly of their ability to just pack up everything and head out traveling for a year, what was even more amazing was that this was not the first time they had done this. They had taken a year off and traveled all through South America eight years ago.
We finished our lunch and packed up the horses telling Jozefine and Eric that hopefully we would see them tonight, and set back on the trail. We wound our way down a willowed forest and then into an open pasture of cows and the first direct sunlight of the day. I peeled off my windbreaker and tied it around my waist thankful for the warmth the sunlight brought. The path after the pasture veered up into rocky cliffs with sage brush lining the trail grabbing at our ankles and calves. A bit winded after the first initial climb we paused in another clearing where haystacks lined the road in seven foot high piles. I heard a distant rumbling coming from behind us and stepped to the side of the trail as an old soviet truck so laden with hay that you could hardly see the driver at all could pass. The whole sight was a bit like a giant moving afro of hay that in the back looked to be smoking a giant cigarette, as the hay was so low that the exhaust fumes had to trace their way through the hay to escape.
We walked for another half an hour and came to the crest of a hill that revealed a valley that for me, living in the flat featureless desert for the past seven months, seemed as close to heavenly as one can expect. Packs of unattended horses grazed in green rolling hills whose tops revealed mountainous cliffs dotted with golden and red rock strains while off to the west I could see a football field sized lake that was so clear that it was hard to determine from the clouds reflection on the water which sky was the real one. This was Iryk Kul Lake and got its name from the crooked finger shape that it takes. My strides widened and my mood lifted the chill of the morning rain now gone. Even if the rest of this trip doesn't happen for one reason or another I could go back to Turkmenistan and feel completely satisfied, I thought to myself.
The trail descended in the meadow and after a grove of trees there came another lake into view. On the opposite bank a herd of horses grazed lazily in the afternoon sun. We set up our tent and were shortly joined by Eric and Jozefine who game galloping into camp. I hung my wet clothes up to dry on a nearby tree branch and put on my swimsuit to take a dip in the lake. Lake Kara Suu despite it being directly in the sun light was just above freezing temperature. I lasted about five minutes before scrambling back onto shore and wrapping my towel around me. As the sunset a swirling wind came into the valley and took the meal tent that Jozefine and Eric's guides had set up with it. The tent was similar in shape to a yurt but without the side supports the wind took it and made it float in the air like a UFO. The guides struggled to find rocks and heavy equipment to keep the sides down.
In jest Juma (Jozefine and Eric's guide) stood laughing saying, "It's a parachute."
"Yeah, but where's the plane?" I retorted.
We finished our dinner of plov with tomatoes lakeside a piece of driftwood acting as our stool. While we were sipping on watered down green tea I noticed a falcon that seemed to be hovering in place. Then all of a sudden it dove 100 feet toward the ground and took off again in a flash, a mouse in its claws.
As the sunset we chatted with Juma. He had been Physical Education teacher at a nearby school for twenty years before being asked to be the parks Head Ranger. The largest problem that he had were villagers coming in the spring and shooting all of the elk that call the reserve home. He noted that they use Russian rifles but with Bulgarian bullets and silencers from the Czech Republic making it very hard to catch them in the act. He said that the heard that used to be close to 200 has now dwindled down to around 50 every spring.
The wind seemed to die just as the last shoots of the sun disappeared over the mountains taking with it the chill of the night air. I felt something that I had not felt in a very long time. It was a feeling of invigoration, exhaustion and at the same time nostalgic. I was born in Colorado and spent summers tramping around the foothills and mountains with my cousins, friends, and parents. This was the first time that I had spent any extended time outdoors in the mountains in over a decade, and it felt like I was saying hello to that little boy that I had left in the Rockies when my family moved to Minnesota. Despite the long span of time, the zestiness and alive feeling that comes with being in the mountains welcomed me back along with my childhood memory.
Day 3 Tour of Sary Chelek and Kotormo Pass, September 3, 2007
I awoke at 6:30 to the sounds of clattering tin plates and whispered conversation and footsteps outside out tent. I had a restless sleep and every hour I woke and tried to find a position that was comfortable. At one point during the early morning I got out of the tent and went to the bathroom. I exited the tent and was momentarily blinded the white light. The moon was full and its light reflected off of the white of the birch trees outside our tent the stars millions more than I had ever seen before even when camping amidst the ruins of Ancient Merv in Turkmenistan.
After a breakfast of porridge and eggs we set off the way we came for a tour of the seven lakes within the Sary Chelek Nature Reserve. We passed one of the hay trucks we had seen yesterday afternoon its wheels were stuck up to the rims in mud. Our walk was leisurely we took our time chatting with two local farmers carrying a 12 foot long over their shoulders. They were jovial and smile quite a bit. Even there asking Amy and I about if we could take them to American seemed as a private quaint joke rather than the demands of Turkmen taxi cab drivers.
Along Kara Lake, was a team of Kyrgyz young farmers busy stacking another truck full of hay. Our first stop of the morning was at Grand Sary Chelek Lake. The lake runs for eight kilometers away from its banks and is absolutely awe inspiring. The water is so clear that it looks as if you are looking at a perfect mirrored illusion, but perhaps the most amazing thing was the silence. It was as everything stood in awe of how untouched and pristine this place was. There was a revered silence amongst Tursun, Amy and I (Umit had taken the horses to meet us at the place for lunch). The Golden Pail Lake is one that makes the 11,000 lakes look like ponds in Minnesota.
I wandered along the banks and noticed a tiny house where I noticed that a calf, a school of turkeys, and a goat grazed lazily at the grass at its fence. When I approached I noticed that Juma and Tursun were already talking to the owner of the house. Tursun was trying out an empty crossbow while Juma chatted jovially about all of the travelers that had been through this season. This house was the only place in the entire Reserve that you could drive up to and we had come just a week after the official season. He noted that this year they had seen tourists from Uzbekistan, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Spain, Great Britain, Australia, the US, but we were the first from Turkmenistan.
After a half an hour rest and Lake Sary Chelek our walk took us through the rolling plains of wheat, thistles, and wildflowers. I dragged my hands through the grasses in sheer delight picking off a stem of wheat and chewing on it until it got damp. Tursun and I were waiting for Amy to come back from a trip to mother nature when he pointed to a yellow tree three quarters up the mountain ridge towering before us. "That's where we are eating lunch," he said.
We walked for about forty-five minutes when Tursun turned to us and asked, "Will it bother you?" He was pointing to a thicket up ahead and our uncovered lower legs.
"No, it won't bother us at all," Amy and I said together. I had been fooled at the beautiful morning temperature to even think about wearing pants. Ten minutes into the thicket our legs looked like we had been put in a padded room with fifty cats and our legs were smeared with catnip. Everything it seemed to reach out and grab at our open skin, wild rose bushes, thistles, bushes, and tiny trees, all of them adding their mark to our exposed lower legs. We traversed the thicket in about 20 minutes and then started a steady climb up the hill toward the yellow tree. Tursun set a slow pace for Amy to keep up and after following for about ten minutes I got impatient and took a break from the switchbacks and headed straight up the mountain. Sweat glistened on my brow as I put one foot in front of another straight up and then...I found myself alone with nothing but rock slides all around me. I had lost the trail in my determination to just go straight up.
"Tursun!" I yelled. "Where are you?" I was stuck and seeing no one I thought it best to yell.
I soon saw Tursun come bounding over the rock slides with the sure-footedness of a Billy goat. He smiled when he got to me and I am certain that even if my face were not red from the effort I certainly would be blushing from embarrassment of getting caught in trying to be the tough guy. He guided me where to put each step until I was firmly back on the trail. I looked up and Amy was smiling down at me.
The last fifty feet of the trail up to the yellow tree we had to traverse hand over foot to get up to a tiny plateau where Jozefine and Eric were already resting on their horse blankets in the shade sipping tea. While I caught my breath I looked out into the valley and just barely on the horizon you could make out the glen of trees by Kara Suu Lake that we had camped the night before.
After a lunch of sausages, cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers with tea we set off back up the mountain ahead of the horses. In about fifteen minutes we were at the top of Kotormo Pass. There in front of us was a gleaming white rock mountain. We started our decent into the valley past rock formations that looked like they were transported from the Scottish Highlands while cows stopped chewing their cud to stare at us.
We descended for two hours and I began to hear the roar of a river below. The trail flattened out to a farm house and a rock filled meadow. We crossed a bridge of logs and crushed rock and my feet were aching in pain.
I asked Tursun when we were going to stop for the night and he said, "Only another hour." Faced with this fact I just thought of just putting one foot in front of the other and thankful that our course was flat. We had come to the base of the valley and the river crisscrossed the meadow floor so that from about it looked like a quilt of green patches stitched together with a silver thread of creek-side rocks.
During our walk through the valley Jozefine and Eric caught up to us and passed us in a trot with Juma close at their heels. We stopped at a small farmhouse with a meadow enclosure that had thirty bee houses collecting honey.
"This is my friend's house," said Tursun with a smile, his breath even and slow. "Our president last year said on national television that 'All our land is our home. So rest and relax, we will sleep here tonight."
We spent the rest of the night eating dinner and Eric and I sharing a bottle of vodka while we discussed American and Dutch politics and healthcare systems as well as the places that they had seen since they started on their journey across Asia.
Day 4-- Kotormo Valley through Kashka Suu Pass September 4, 2007
I awoke at 7:00 am to the sounds of hoofs outside of our tent. I put on my glasses and my shoes and opened the front flap of our tent and was face to face with the grey pack horse that Umit had guiding for the pass two days. The horse looked at me and then moved to the side to enjoy a patch of clover.
After breakfast we said good-bye to Jozefine and Eric, trading emails and promising to pass along pictures when we had access to a computer. They promised that were we ever in Rotterdam to look them up and I said the same should they come to the US.
We started to head North through the Ak Sakat river valley. The first hour of our morning trek we traipsed around the river, trying our best to not get our feet wet. We passed by numerous herds of cattle pushed on by Kyrgyz herders with whistles and shouts of, "Osh, Osh." They were adorned with traditional Kyrgyz hats which on the head of a foreigner would look as ridiculous as a middle aged obese man wearing Mickey Mouse ears, but on these herders the hats looked majestic, like a crown of a life lived in the outdoors. They would always stop and the elders would stop and shake our hands and ask from where we had come.
About an hour and half into our morning walk we turned Easy and followed one of the tributaries of the river. The river was a constant hum of activity and every few feet splashed white as it roared over rocks creating rapids. The hills and the trail gradually more steep crisscrossing the river every 1000 feet or so. My legs which had felt like lead pipes when I woke up had started to loosen up to a dull ache.
After one rather tricky river crossing where Amy ended up with one leg in the river up to her knee we passed through a village of five families. The women would stop their laundry to stare as children peeked out from being their legs. Tursun would greet the husbands of the family and stop for a quick conversation before pulling his horse on. We continued on for another thirty minutes before stopping for a break by a calmer section of the river.
I pulled out a cigarette and gave one to Tursun. He took a long deep drag and then pointed over my left shoulder, "That's what we will be climbing today."
"Seriously?" I asked, it looked as if the Kashka Suu Pass might as well have been a stairway to the clouds; it loomed intimidating and huge down here in the valley. We finished our smokes, loaded up our water bottles with water, and after crossing the river one more time started our ascent up the hills.
At times, the trail was little more than patches of grass and dust hanging from the side of the mountain, making it quite difficult to find good footing anywhere. The trick I found was find anything green that was sticking out and put your foot there. The dust turned back into the hill and we were faced with another obstacle the cow pies. Every step you had to look down to see that you wouldn't step in a refuse puddle. After making our way uphill for another hour we stopped at a yurt perched precariously 700 feet about the river on a ridge for lunch. I checked out my feet and noticed that while the Dr.Scholl's had worked on my left heel I now had two more blisters on my right foot, one of the big toe and the other on the outside part of the heel.
Out lunch was a delectable assortment of Kyrgyz fresh made food, save the sausage and cheese everything that was put in front of us was delicious. We ate gaymak, fresh yogurt, fish from the river, and freshly made honey butter in a yurt of a goli family. This family spent their summers up here on this hill their cattle grazing on the hills below, and then they would pack up everything for the winter and move into the valley. The members of the family that were there when we arrived were two women that looked like sisters. One of them busied herself preparing dough for cooking in a tandoor while the other was busy hanging up pieces of chicken on a twig to dry. Their children both of their heads shaved snoozed under horse blankets while we ate.
"Ready?" asked Tursun as we pulled our shoes back on after a rather quick lunch in the yurt. Kashka Suu Pass leered 12,000 feet above us, the trail crisscrossing from one rock formation to another to the final two rocky cliffs the whole thing looking like a horse's face hence its name Horse Face Mark Pass. A herd of horses looked down on us as we started making our slow but steady way up the pass. I knew that hiking up a grade of this magnitude is in no way a race but the pace set by Amy made my legs ache more than I could bare. I passed her and started to lengthen my strides each one feeling as though it were stretching me out from lunch. After the first half an hour my legs felt like they were going to spontaneously combust. Tursun stopped and I came heaving up beside him with my hands on my hips. I looked over at him and though he was wearing a thermal stocking cap he wasn't even sweating. My breathing slowed to normal as Amy came up the hill breathing heavily almost to the point of wheezing.
We pushed on up the hill for another half an hour reaching the first of four rocky formations. I collapsed onto my back thinking that my lungs might implode for lack of oxygen and the change in altitude. I sat up after a minute and there crouched behind me on the hillside was Tursun smoking a hand rolled cigarette!
"What, do you want one?" he asked me smiling. I could only shake my head and take another deep breathe trying to calm my heart beat down from throbbing in my head to a dull roar. "Here, look at this," he said throwing me a clump of tiny white flowers that he had picked from the base of a nearby rock, "That flower never dies. In the winter when we have to make this pass you can find it under a meter of snow. We use it for tea. If it can live so can you. Come on only one more hour and we will be at the top."
The last part of the ascent was the by far the hardest. Not only did my lungs feel like they were going to pop out of my chest, but I started to get a tad dizzy. I had to start counting my steps and every fifty pause for a second to make certain that I took some deep breathes. I know that during this last hour I cursed the fact that Amy had convinced me to go on the seven day trek rather than the four day one around Lake Issyk Kul when neither one of us had done any climbing at all except for one 90 minute speed hike up the Walk of Health outside of Ashgabat a couple of weeks before.
Then as though I thought I might just have to sleep on the side of this mountain on a 60 degree grade, Tursun and the trail disappeared off to the right and flatten out. The summit of the mountain was marked by a wooden cross with a base of stones that had had the numbers 3,601 (meters above sea level) carved into it and a 35 mile an hour wind that dropped the temperature instantly by 20 degrees.
"Aren't you cold?" I asked him seeing that he was wearing just a red Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism T-shirt.
He took a deep breathe and then to the mountains across the valley from which we came he pounded his fist on his chest and shouted, "This is my wind! This is my air! This is my warmth!" I could only feign a smile as I zipped on my windbreaker and tried to catch my breath.
The difference between the two sides of the pass could not have been more different. The pass we had just ascended was green with grass the occasional bush, the river far below looked like a capillary, but everywhere you could see life flourishing. On the side that we now began to descend was marked with loose black rock and the remnants of glaciers. Amy and my spirit were instantly lifted with the concept of being able to go down after five and half hours of going up. I could have almost hugged Tursun when he said, "We have another couple of hours, let's go."
The black shale loose rock changed into a meadow of lichen with yellow and white flowers to a short grass rocky pasture. We had been moving at a pretty steady pace for the past hour and a half when I heard the barking of two dogs rise up to greet us. I saw a lone shepherd standing on a hillside below us leaning on his walking stick as his dogs circled around him barking at us as we approached. I put the horse in between me and the snarling barking dogs and then there was silence. The shepherd had raised his staff and said, "Chepe!" The dogs silently laid down at his feet. We rested for five minutes while Tursun and the shepherd talked amiably.
Then we started down again crossing over a hill and then making a u-turn we passed through head high grasses along a ridge that dropped fifty feet to a river below. We crossed over a fallen tree and then walked another couple hundred yards to where the meadow grass had been pushed down in a twenty foot wide clearing. With a nod from Tursun I knew that this is where we would sleep. Relieved as I was to be able to stop for the day I knew that I couldn't rest yet. A front of grey blue clouds was making its way over the ridge that we crossed and I knew that the rain was coming. I grabbed our tent from the pack horse just as Amy and Umit came into the clearing. In just five minutes the last stake of the tent was in the ground, our stuff safely stored in the tent when the sky opened up and with a crash of thunder the rain came pouring down. I felt completely relaxed as the rain roared on the top of the tent, my legs wrapped comfortably in my sleeping bag as I wrote in my journal. After an hour the rain lightened up and I heard Umit say from outside of our tent, "Tuk Tuk (the Russian way of saying knock-knock)," he handed use plates of tomatoes and cucumber with a dab of mayonnaise, a plastic plate of raisins, and a teapot full of hot tea. This meager meal tasted as good as any four star restaurant in Manhattan to me. I was exhausted and soon thereafter fell deep asleep the gentle tap tapping of the end of the rainstorm on our tent.
Day 5 Kashka Suu Valley along the Umaral River to Kara-Kuldzha Pass September 5, 2007
I poked my head out of the tent at 7:00 this morning to find Tursun already had a cup of coffee waiting for me. Amy sat shivering in her sleeping bag until breakfast was ready refusing to come out of the tent even though she complained about having to go to the bathroom.
We packed up camp at around 9:00 and started our descent from the cliff face that our tents had laid the previous night. The first obstacle of the day was a wide bubbling span of the Umaral River that had no clear way to get across on foot. Tursun took his horse across the river, riding atop the food packs. Once across he unloaded the food bags and came back across. I hopped into the saddle and Tursun hopped on the back taking the reigns through my arms. He repeated the same for Amy and soon we were across and moving through head high reeds and dense undergrowth that were still soaked from last night's rain amidst poplars and aspen looking trees. At one point, Amy disappeared in front of me. She had not seen a rather large rock and had biffed it head over heels into the trail in front of her. She quickly picked herself up, brushed herself off and with a smile back to me kept moving.
Fifteen minutes after Amy's spill we came to a river crossing again. This time the river was not as deep as this morning's cross but still had no sure foot stones for us to cross. Umit asked us to take off our shoes and socks and make our way across. We crossed the river five more times that morning in the same way, each time pausing for five minutes for our feet to dry before pressing on. This morning I felt completely different than I had the previous mornings. The stiffness and ache in my legs and feet were gone and in their place was a gentle warmth that came as we made our way through the valley.
"How many people live in this region?" I asked Tursun during one of our breaks.
"About 2,000," he answered and he seemed to know everyone of them and all of them seemed to be out of cigarettes. Each time we saw someone he would stop offer them cigarettes and talk amiably about whom we were and where we were headed.
At about mid day we came to a river crossing where 50 feet down river were solid sheets of ice that had never melted in the summer sun. Amy had her second spill of the day as we tried to cross the river, she slipped on a rock and landed butt first in the icy cold river. We pushed on Amy's insistence and soon we rounded a bend and saw a herd of hundreds of sheep grazing on a hillside. As we came closer we saw a tent with another shepherd and two men on horseback sat talking while two dogs that looked like crosses between coyotes and Corgis barked emphatically at us. We waved hello and then started to make our way up a hill. Tursun pulled us to a stop halfway up the hill and nodded over his left shoulder, "After lunch we will climb the Kara Kuldzha." I must admit that I was a bit perturbed as to why we were stopping since I was not even breathing hard, but I knew that Tursun knew what he was doing so I sat and smoked a cigarette while Amy pulled out her book and started to read.
Kara Kuldzha Pass did not look quite as intimidating as Kashka Suu the day before. The hill ascending toward the top was about a twenty five grade rather than the 60 degree grade of Kashka Suu. We started the hill after spending a lazy hour for lunch. After five minutes Amy was breathing so hard behind me I thought she was going to hyperventilate. "You okay back there?" I asked; my breath slow and calm due to what I assumed was the slow pace that Tursun was setting.
"Fine!" She hissed back.
I thought to myself, well I guess we can only go as fast as the slowest person, but after ten minutes of listening to Amy's heaving and having Tursun's horse continually farting in my face I had had enough. I passed Tursun on a plateau of the pass. Once out in front my pace began to quicken and my strides got longer. It felt for the first time all day that I was able to stretch out my legs. Soon along with beads of sweat pouring down my forehead I had left everybody else behind me only this time the trail was clearly visible ahead and I had not pretensions about going straight up. I kept up a steady pace and when it got to where I could hear my heartbeat in my ears I started to concentrate on my breath; taking 10 deep breathes through my nose every 50 steps.
I reached the top of the 11,000+ foot pass and noted that I was not even winded. There laid out before me lay a valley of golden grass stretching into the horizon as it was bordered by gently slopping foothills dotted with evergreen bushes.
We crossed the river once more and came around a bend to see a patched tent and two Kyrgyz shepherds crouching smoking cigarettes by the entrance. We approached and the elder of the two wearing a traditional Kyrgyz hat shook my hand and then immediately started to kiss Amy’s cheeks and took her by the arm leading her toward the entrance of the tent. I interrupted the escort and asked if we could take their picture instead. I snapped the picture and lightly steered away from the over friendly shepherd.
“I’m sorry about that,” whispered Umit to me. “He has not seen a woman in three months.”
“Don’t be,” said Amy “It’s not every day I am accosted by a Kyrgyz shepherd.”
“Yeah he probably has not seen a woman in two months,” I noted.
“No, three months,” corrected Umit, “But he is relatively lucky some of them in these hills go six months without seeing their wives.”
I didn’t want to know how they spent their time up in the hills so I didn’t ask any further and kept on walking. We walked for another fifteen minutes before Tursun pulled up his horse. We had stopped in a stretch of valley that was sunken about five feet from the rest of the valley. I put up the tent and while doing so I noticed a pair of herding dogs go to work on a few straggling sheep to get them back into the pack while Tursun prepared a hearty Kyrgyz soup called ragu that consisted of noodles, eggplant, spices, cabbage, peppers and tomatoes all served over a bed of rice.
While Amy read in the tent I spent the remainder of the afternoon and early part of the evening snapping pictures of the valley and talking jovially with Umit and Tursun.
“So what are we going to do tomorrow? I asked Tursun
“Tomorrow we will do apat,” he answered.
“Five passes!? Seriously?”
“It means again,” piped in Umit with the proper translation. “We will do another pass tomorrow.”
The Russian word for five is pe-aht while apat is again. We all laughed at my mistake and then Umit started to tell me about Manas, the great Kyrgyz warrior of the past that was over eight feet tall and had kept out the Chinese from encroaching on their borders. I smiled at his telling of the tale, thinking that when I was in Turkmenistan and heard stories of Oguzhan I had to stifle a laugh. Anything regarding Turkmen history and its proven fact is doubtful, but then I thought about the fact that we do the same with Davy Crockett, Lewis & Clark, and even Christopher Columbus in our History classes.
The temperature dropped about twenty five degrees after the sun had set and I huddled by the fire with Umit and Tursun until the stars were out then I wished them a good night and headed into the tent. I tried to get to sleep, but a very curious marmot (basically a rodent that looks like a prairie dog but is the size of a bulldog kept scratching at our tent wall next to my head. I rolled back and forth finally falling asleep after an hour of tossing and turning.
Day 6 Kara Kuldzha Valley through the Tian Shans and through Chiyim Tash Pass September 6, 2007
I woke to the sounds of Amy shuffling about the tent in her sleeping bag and absolutely freezing. Despite the fact that I was wearing long underwear, jeans, two layers of wool socks, two t-shirts, a long sleeve Under Armor shirt and two jackets I was still shivering inside my sleeping bag. I emerged from the tent at around quarter past seven and my breath froze in the air as I tried to brush the frost off the front flap of tent.
As I wanted for the coffee to get ready I looked down the valley to find a pack of twenty horses of colors from jet black to a starling silver mare grazing by the riverbank about 40 yards downstream of our camp. The largest horse of the pack a chestnut stud with a black mane and fore hoofs stood about twenty yards closer to our camp staring at us not twitching a muscle as if he were surprised to find us in his valley.
I took the cup of warm coffee greatly into my hands amidst Amy’s complaints of how cold it was and how sore she was yesterday’s venture. I didn’t want to completely ignore the complaint but didn’t want to give her the opportunity to continue the stream of negativity so I shrugged and started in on a plate of hot scrambled eggs. Breakfast over I helped Tursun with the dishes while I noticed Umit about thirty yards away from the pack of horses his hand out. He took very small steps toward a cherry brown colt next to the silver mare. He didn’t break his gaze from the colt and I could hear him whisper. Every few seconds he would take another couple of slow tiny steps forward. He got to just within touching distance of the colt and paused, then with a final whisper he took a final step and started to stroke the colt’s mane. He petted it a couple of times before it moved further downstream due to a nudge of the nose from the mare. Umit came bounding back toward camp a wide smile on his face. I had no idea that he was an actual Horse Whisperer and when he came to camp I asked, “Where did you learn to do that?”
“My father taught me. Ever since I was a little baby I have seen something and I wanted to ride it. When I was a baby it was our dogs then when I was three I was put on a horse for the first time.”
Our camp packed up I started to mentally prepare for the last, tallest, and most difficult of the perovals or passes that we would cross on our journey, Chiyim-Tash, looming 3,700 meters above sea level. The pass got its name from the hieroglyphics that travelers throughout the centuries had carved on the rocks leading up to the summit. According to Tursun the most impressive collection of the hieroglyphs was carved over 400 years ago by Chinese travelers and covered an entire rock face.
We walked for an hour down the valley keeping the river to our right and passing herds of horses and sheep that would stop their grazing to watch us pass, I could see that we were such a spectacle that literally some of them watched us mouth agape. Then at a hill that looked just the same as all of the others that we had passed Tursun took and right and started to switchback up the hill. I saw a mountain rise above the hill with the unmistakable zigzag scars of a trail descending from it. Yet, despite the immensity of the obstacle ever getting closer and larger I was light hearted due to the ease with which I had made the pass just 300 meters shorter the day before.
“Where’s the water?” asked Tursun rhetorically as we descended a hill to a dry river bed at the foot of the pass. “It was here last month.” While he searched for the first signs of water in the river bed I sat down on a boulder to take a break. Moments later about 100 yards downstream Tursun whistled and beckoned us to come to him. I stood up and began to follow the rest of the group toward our lunch site. I got about halfway to the meeting point when I froze, I had lost my hat. My gray Jacob Leinenkugel’s hat that I had had for eight years and had been to every place on the planet that I had ever been was gone. I had looped the hat around the loose part of my belt thinking it would be better to have it handy due to the sun rather than having to go digging through my pack on the horse. I walked back through the steps I had made, but finding a grey hat amidst in a river bed filled with grey stones was like finding a diamond in the Karakum Desert. I was soon joined by Amy and Umit. Amy asking the incredibly annoying question of, “Are you sure you had it with you?” I resisted retorting, No I left it in Tibet the last time I was there. We searched for fifteen minutes and I began to think that the hat had chosen quite a remarkable burial place under the Tian Shan mountains overshadowed by Chiyim Tash Pass. I swore a couple of times in frustration and noticed that Tursun stuck his head up from lighting the camp stove and started toward us. He walked directly to the boulder that I had sat on reached down and picked the hat from a crack in the stones about five feet away. I thanked him profusely and put the hat back on my head where at least I would know if it fell again.
The first ten minutes of the ascent went well enough and I made sure to leave plenty of airing room between me and Tursun’s horse’s butt in front of me. The trail then steeped to a 60 degree grade and my eyes went away from the pass above me and concentrated on the next foothold. I concentrated on putting just one foot in front of the other and keeping my breathing under control. After fifteen minutes my calves were burning and I glanced up to see Tursun pull his horse to a stop above me. He turned and asked over his shoulder and asked me, “Chris, do they have donkeys in Turkmenistan?” I looked up and in between gasps of breath responded affirmatively. Satisfied with my answer he nodded his head and then continued his steady well trained pace up the steep path. I was too busy concentrating on getting air into my lungs to be concerned about the randomness of this question. Another couple of minutes passed and Tursun sat down on his haunches just above his horse. I assumed that we were pausing to let Amy catch up, who through her steady small stepped pace was making her way up the mountain about a hundred feet below us. However, when Amy arrived Tursun told us to sit down and listen. From the mountain top gave jovial shouts, whistles, and the sound of mini rock slides. A group of four Kyrgyz horse riders were making their way down from the top of the pass. Now for those of you that are concerned with what the politically correct way to let someone pass you on a Kyrgyz mountain trail from above the answer is you just sit down in the middle of the trail and let them pass you. It was a bit unnerving to see these four horsemen veer from the path and start to go straight down the hill ignoring the gradualness, however slight it may be, of the switchbacks. We pressed on for another twenty minutes and the trail gradually flattened out and seemed to be nearing a flat rocky top. I shouted back over my shoulder, “Almost there Amy.” Yet, when I arrived at the rock formation Tursun was neither crouched waiting for us nor was he pounding his chest in triumph he was still moving up. The rock formation was the halfway point of the pass. “Never mind,” I shouted back down the hill thinking that I heard a groan coming from below as I started again up and up, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out, look for Tursun, left foot, right foot, breathe…
I paused with the summit in sight but about 100 yards ahead of me to see how far we had come in just that day. The river down below looked like a vein in a leaf of a nearby tree and off in the distance I saw the snow capped tops of what the local calls the Five Breast Ridge due to the rounded tops of the mountains. The top of the summit revealed a valley whose descent looked much more treacherous than the 60 degree grade loose rock trail that we had made on the ascent. I could see nothing but black shale and snow! It looked like a scene that could have been filmed for Lord of the Rings when the Hobbits reach the gates of Mordoor. It was the type of place that no living thing could survive for long but is stunningly beautiful in its harshness. I realized, inching closer to the edge, that after a short trip down a steep grade of loose shale we were going to have to go down a glacier. At the base of the rock trail I could see a shepherd leaning on a wooden walking stick resting. We passed him by, Tursun giving him two cigarettes, and then stepped out onto the glacier. The snow was wet but the ice did not budge one inch when I put my full weight on it. The texture of the glacier was far from smooth glass that they appear in pictures the entire glacier was a series of moguls that made it feel like we were on a giant golf ball. I slid from hole to hole enjoying myself thoroughly while Umit tried to gingerly lead Amy onto the glacier without her slipping. As soon as he let go she slipped and fell right on her backside, but laughed as she got up and started shuffling her way from hole to hole down the hillside. The snow was the perfect consistency for snowballs, a little wet yet still solid enough to hold together. I couldn’t resist. I picked up a handful of snow and then lobbed one back up the mountain. It caught Amy right in the stomach with a puff. She looked down at me in surprise and then balled up one of her own and chucked it back at me, missing over my head. I mean how many opportunities do you have in life to have a snowball fight in the middle of the summer on top of a glacier?
We carefully made our way down through the loose black shale, sliding more than walking and the ache in my calves was now replaced but a creaking pain from the outside of my knees after every step. I hopped down from a boulder drop and there about 200 yards below me were two crystal clear lakes about the size of rugby fields. The lakes looked like a pair of glasses with the trail crossing directly in between them both. They were from the glacier run off that we had just passed and marked the beginning of the Umaral River. As we came closer I noticed that the water was not blue but an azure turquoise so clear that standing on its banks I could see the bottom of the lake 30 feet from shore. On the shore there were names in Cyrillic carved into the boulders with dates of passage, not of passing this pass but of their lives. I imagined that Tursun after a long life would like to be buried here amongst his peers, but when I asked him he said with a smile, “No, it’s too crowded.”
We continued past the lakes and the black shale turned into grassy pasture with rocks that were all covered by names, some in Cyrillic others were prayers written in Arabic, but perhaps the most impressive of all of these hieroglyphs was the 15 foot tall rock wall that had indecipherable Chinese markings. You could tell that it was not the work of many travelers each adding their own bit, but an entire mural. My guess would be that this served as a border marking, but then again I am not an archeologist.
We continued on for another hour and came over a particularly loose rock trail from a cliff into a green mountain pasture that seemed to have just as many cow paddies as it did rocks. Tursun pointed over my left shoulder and I spun around to see a 50 foot waterfall crashing between the cliffs that we had just traversed and in the distance on the horizon was the glacier and the top of Chiyim Tash from where we had just come. This was to be our campsite for the night. We set up the tent and I climbed up to the waterfall to get a closer look and snap a couple of pictures before the sun completely set behind the canyon. When I returned to camp I noticed that Amy was sitting on a rock in the distant sunshine on the other side of the valley. I looked again a couple of minutes later and noticed that she was higher up on the wall. She had moved to stay in the sun. She repeated the action three more times before giving up and coming back to camp and zipping herself in her sleeping bag.
There was a silence amidst the campfire that night with Umit and Tursun. I thought to myself that despite the pain coming from my knees that I had done it. The last of the passes had been traversed and now for the first time since I had left Bishkek, I thought about life going on back in Turkmenistan. I thought about Albina and Bahar running the American Corner, classes and clubs going on without me there, my family’s upcoming visit, what my friends and family would think about the pictures that I have taken during the trip, but mostly I thought of endings. I thought about the end of this trip and how I would have to return to the world of conversation, complaints, and convoluted tasks. I thought about the Close of Service conference, our last as Peace Corps Volunteers upcoming when I got back. I thought about me actually leaving Turkmenistan now only three short months away. It is inherent with the ending of anything that you always think about what will come next, for you cannot have one without the other, but more than anything I was left with a desire to stay where I was. It was peaceful in these canyons, alongside crystal clear rivers, and never ending golden meadow valley. It was simple and I wished that I could take it with me when I left, no matter how long it would be till I step foot in mountains again. I wished I could put the world on pause.
Day 7 Chiyim Tash Valley to Umaral River Gorge
“I couldn’t sleep at all last night. I woke up at two, four and six,” complained Amy the next morning waking me from a deep comfortable sleep. Not “Good morning” or “How did you sleep?” but a complaint.
I know looking back on my journals from Turkmenistan that I have woken up in similar moods and hated everything about where I was, but when you are in a place as beautiful as the Tian Shan mountains how could you possibly wake up hating where you were. I wanted to shout at her, “LOOK WHERE YOU ARE!” but resisted and instead without a word put on my shoes and exited the tent to help Tursun prepare the morning breakfast. I know that she had probably been up for quite some time before she had tried her sunny morning greeting, waiting for me to show any signs of life so that she would have something to talk about, but I didn’t want to deal with it. I was tired of the complaints they certainly did not help things when I heard them from PCVs in Turkmenistan and they certainly were not going to help heal the blisters on my feet or numb the aching coming from my knees.
The morning was cold in the valley. There was plenty of light, but I could tell that the direct sunshine was still about an hour away from crossing the valley. We shared breakfast with a long silver haired Kyrgyz shepherd, who had one eye completely clouded over with glaucoma and carried a pair of binoculars around his neck. We set off just as the sun was crossing the river and into our campsite. I had not spoken to Amy more than to tell her that breakfast was ready that morning.
We set off down the valley and through a rocky meadow that reminded me of all of the pictures of my Dad and his trip to Scotland. The ache in my knees had grown worse overnight so I decided to wrap them with the ace bandage that I had brought along. It helped a bit, but after an hour of heading downhill we stopped by a river crossing and I collapsed in a heap. I had not felt this much pain in my knees since I tore my MCL in my right knee when I was in junior high school.
Tursun saw my discomfort and shouted to Umit to bring the kitchen knife. He then went after the closest sapling and snapped off a branch about five feet high and a quarter thick. He started shave pieces of one side of the branch into a point. He tugged at the branch knife and in a moment I saw the blade fly from the handle and fly into the river. Tursun looking a bit amazed looked at the empty handle in his hand.
“It went into the river,” I noted. He smiled at me and with a shrug through the handle in too. He asked Umit to bring another knife from the sacks and within five minutes had carved a hand hold done and handed it to me. I now had a walking stick.
I made my way gingerly across the wooden bridge and then set the walking stick down in front of me. It took me some time to get used to the motion of swinging the stick in front of me every third step and taking the weight off of my knee. I must admit that I felt a bit old, but soon the trail had flattened out. We passed through a pine forest and came to rest at clearing with a stream on our left and in the distance there seemed to be only one mountain left in the valley. I checked the time with Amy and it was not even noon.
“Why are we stopping here?” I asked “Shouldn’t we keep going?”
“No, we are stopping for the horses because further on there is no place for them to eat.”
I nodded and limped my way over to a flat rock and collapsed. I was exhausted and glad to have the full rest of the day to have my knees heal and rest up for our final day of hiking.
After lunch I sat on a stone washing my socks in the cold river water with a bar of soap. I looked up and saw that Umit was taking a nap on a nearby log while just behind him Amy sat reading her book and Tursun busied himself with his tent. In that moment of looking up, the suds filled sock slipped out of my hand and went underneath a rock into the current. I laughed as Amy commented, “First your hat, now your sock, if we’re not careful you may leave you head here on this rock.”
I finished up my laundry, hanging the sodden socks on a nearby tree branch to dry and lay back on a smooth boulder. I looked up and for the first time in a long time I watched the clouds. While gazing happily at their white puffy unique shapes it occurred to me how much appreciation I have for those who lived in the Wild West of American History. Even here in Kyrgyzstan one can see lonely riders, red faced from a life spent in the sun, clicking away on the trail their destination in mind but they will get there when they get there and not a moment sooner. While we call ourselves civilized and advanced and watch open ranges on the movie screen with a sense of nostalgia or even boredom in some cases, it is only here in the Tian Shans for the past seven days that I have felt a sense of rest and relaxation. The only thing in front of me has been the trail and my traveling companions the river, Amy, Umit, and Tursun. Everything else seems so undignified, uncivilized, and even downright silly when compared with the majesty and splendor of this place.
The campfire burned low and the sun had long since passed the canyon walls. Tursun stood atop a 10 foot boulder where those centuries before have made their mark, surveying the canyon around us, his arms crossed in front of him. Despite his short frame he looks regal staring off into the canyons as if he were listening to the answer to a question that only he could hear. I wondered how long you would have to spend in these mountains to be able to hear that answer. I have heard whispers of it bubbling along the rivers or in the wind at the top of the passes, that subtle feeling that disappears as fast as it comes that tells you nothing else matters except you and the moment you are in…now.
Day 8 Umaral River Gorge to Talas
We knew that we had to get up early in order to make it to our planned destination, Mediyanet Village, on time. So when I woke up at 6:15 it was as if a switch had gone off. I had slept in my clothes for the next day so all I had to do was to slip on my socks and shoes and I was out of the tent ready to go. The valley we had camped in looked the same as at it had at dusk the previous night, a rose colored glow emanating from the rocks while the white of the birch trees and orange glow about them.
We ate our final breakfast of porridge and packed up the tent with a sluggish fluidity. It was as if we were packing up a part of our lives for the last time and that even though the times had been amazing and challenging they were already in the past whether we wanted them to be or not. For the past seven days we had walked an average of 25 miles a day through scenes of beauty, passes that too every ounce of our strength to just put one foot in front of the other, two nights of shivering sleeplessly while marmots scratched outside our tent, yet we had to leave this paradise of isolation and awe to return to the rest of the world.
The horses were packed by 8:00 am and we set off. My knees still aching I leaned heavily on the walking stick for the first hour as we made our way down the rocky ridged canyon with Amy and Tursun in the lead and me trailing thirty yards behind. I kept hoping as we rounded each bend that it would flatten out so I could throw the walking stick away, but every bend brought another small rocky hill that had to be traversed. We were silent the only sounds were clap of the horses hooves on the rocks, our breathing, and the steady click of my walking stick against the rocks.
We stopped next to a glen of trees and a dry riverbed. Umit then jumped on his horse, tying the rope of the other pack horse to the back of his saddle and veered off to the left through the white foaming river.
“There is too much water that way,” noted Tursun. “We are going this way,” he said pointing up another rocky cliff to our right. My knees did fine on the way going up the hills, but each time we picked our way down every step felt like a sledgehammer descending on my kneecap. Then to our right the canyon walls switched from a loose rock filled cliffs of lifelessness to sheet and layers of orange sandstone. The canyon which according to Tursun was not named could easily have been named Thousand Secrets Canyon due to the layers of the rock looking like faces with the lips open as if their secret had been told long before and we say its aftermath. The rocks looked like frozen faces in the midst of desire to tell someone their secret. Perhaps the only ones that could hear it were people like Tursun, those that had lived their lives amidst their calls.
We rejoined Umit about fifteen minutes later and then the trail flattened and broadened out into a crushed gravel road that we would take for the remainder of our journey. The road was not paved but you could tell that many a machine had treaded it flat. My knees liked this changed immediately and Amy and I picked up the pace. We were basically power-walking and soon Tursun and Umit faded behind a corner. We came to a stop after about 20 minutes where the Arkit met with the main tributaries of the mountain and became the swiftly flowing rapid filled Umaral River. We chatted with a Kyrgyz construction worker in a non running bulldozer while we waited for Umit and Tursun to catch up. When they came around the bend five minutes later Umit once again hopped on his silver pack horse leading Tursun’s horse and crossed the rushing rapid water of the Umaral like a professional. It was like watching a scene out of a Western. We met him on the other side by using a bridge of rebar and then set off again. We soon came to an iron gate that marked the edge of the Talas district. We saw a Niva (a soviet 4x4 that looks like a Yugo with a suspension upgrade) roll past up to us and as they did I noticed rifle barrels sticking up from the laps of two portly Kyrgyz men dressed in fatigue pants and NIKE by Tommy t-shirts. I kept walking hoping that they were going hunting rather than some other purpose.
Once past the gate, the scenery changed from the calm shaded pine forest to the desert taiga that one can find in the mountains of Arizona. Crag filled mountains with splotches of color from wildflowers dotted the hillsides while our road turned from crushed gravel to dust that rose in puffs with every footstep. The only other person that we saw on our way was a small Kyrgyz boy on horseback who could be no older than seven leading a team of four black dairy cows along the road. He stopped when he came to us, put the apple he had been eating in his left hand and leaned down to shake my hand revealing a snaggle toothed grin set off after his cows. I wondered how different American neighborhoods would be if we told our kids to say hi rather than run away from those we didn’t know.
A few minutes later we came upon the first signs of civilization apart from shepherd tents we had seen since entering Sary Chelek Nature Reserve six days ago. It was an abandoned caravanserai built for Soviet officials that would come to the park for game hunting. The stables stood completely empty there only tenants tumbleweeds and dust. The white stucco walls were completely covered in scratched graffiti, giving it a unique and haunting appearance. Each name scratched in its walls had taken with it a bit of the mystery of the caravanserai until it looked as a scar filled corpse of a building of what it once was.
We went on for another half an hour stopping in a glen of high white barked trees called perek that looked and sounded like cylindrical aspens, a fence and an antiquated farmhouse that had plastic as its front windows.
Tursun soon followed us into the glen and with a smile and a deep breath Tursun said, “That’s it. We’ve come.”
“Seriously?” I pondered, “I thought we had to walk another four hours today?”
“No you must not have understood. We only had to walk four hours total today.”
“Then why did we have to get up early?”
“Because of your knees. I thought we would be late for your ride.”
It was over. I felt that I had had the energy to walk all the way to Talas, another 50km down the road from Mediyanet Village but instead we sat down on a bench outside of the house and smoked a cigarette. Shortly thereafter we had our final meal recalling all of the funny moments that had happened along then way.
“So what will you do now Tursun? Rest for a day or so?” I asked.
“No after you leave, I will start back. If I am lucky it should take me about two and half days to get back.”
“You never get tired do you?” I teased him.
“What for? Every step I take is just the same as the one I just made.”
I shook my head thinking that despite his non talkative nature the words that he did say seemed to explain everything about the man. Each day he work and did what he needed to do until sunset, then he woke and did the next days deeds. He just went on and on like the tributaries of the Umaral they are always moving yet never in the same place.
We exchanged addresses and promises of emails and pictures to be sent via the local coordinator network and hugs just before a red Niva pulled up at the gate and a man with a salt and pepper mustache and a beige baseball hat stepped out. He introduced himself as Turdulbek. We would be staying in a yurt at his house that night on the outskirts of Talas.
Talas is a sleepy little town of 34,000 people that is not given more than 20 words of description in the Central Asia Lonely Planet. However, from what we gathered on the ride there Talas was the center of the Maras’s legend including a museum devoted to his life story.
Turdulbek had become the local Talas coordinator two years ago, after the insistence of his daughter (a former FLEX student who now works as a translator in Northern Afghanistan and was home for the summer) that he and his wife attend a development seminar. The seminar conducted by a Swiss NGO had planned routes that he could take and funding to turn his house into a guesthouse suited for international travelers. This summer he had had visitors about four times a week mostly Europeans but also some Chinese anthropologists as well. In his yard along with a well cushioned and pillowed top john he also had a yurt that had been in his family for five generations. This was to be our sleeping quarters for our final night of our trip.
The entire place had the perfect blend of a comfort and tradition and the double stuffed dusheks that we slept on were as comfortable to us as any Hyatt Wonder Bed could have been. After a hearty dinner of chicken over a potato, eggplant, carrot, and rice pilaf I pulled the covers up to my chin and fell fast asleep.
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