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Published: July 21st 2008
The previous night's queasy cocktail of menace & vodka turned uneasily in my stomach when I woke, but I felt myself very quickly invigorated by the thought of what lay ahead... Three days up in the Tian Shan
, (Mandarin for 'Celestial Mountains'), a mountain range which LP claims "comprises perhaps the finest trekking territory in Central Asia". I'd decided to explore it for myself rather than hiring a guide; both for financial reasons and also because I knew it would be more of an adventure on my own. Which it certainly was - probably the highlight of the trip so far! =) Day One: Jeti-Oghuz to the mouth of the Teleti Pass
I'm travelling fairly light this time - a 42L Osprey Stratos
about two-thirds full - so I decided to just take everything with me, as well as stuffing in enough food for three days, and strapping a rented tent in under the pack's hood. One of the myriad advantages to travelling light is that it doesn't take long to pack up, and in five minutes I was downstairs to settle my bill, (in the 'Accounts' room, which contained the biggest working abacus I've ever seen =P). And then, finally,
I was out on the gravel road that stretches enticingly south out of Jeti-Oghuz... It was an amazing feeling tramping along that picturesque little canyon, equipped with everything I'd need for the next few days; the warm sun on my face, a stream gurgling happily over grey-green rocks next to my feet, cooled by a light breeze that whispered secretively in the silent trees along the valley's edge...
Rain-dark clouds - harried quickly past by an increasingly cold wind - made empty threats as I walked up out of the narrow Jeti-Oghuz canyon and into the expansive Svetov Dolina
, (the Valley of Flowers). Imagine postcard-perfect rolling green fields spread all around you, hemmed in by forested Swiss mountains, and enlivened by the occasional herd of inquisitive horses and a few isolated yurt
camps, (nomadic tents). I hiked up through this wide valley for the next few hours, settling into a rhythm, keeping an eye out for the topographical features loosely suggested by my fairly inadequate map, trying to be sure I didn't miss the path up to the Teleti Pass, (3800m).
The higher I hiked up along my route, the more indistinct the track became, soon petering out
into a very faint bridle-path, crossing back & forth over dozens of rocky streams. Some were narrow or stony enough to simply jump across, but I was forced to take my shoes off and wade cautiously through the freezing mountain water with increasing frequency, stopping to rub life back into my feet each time. This continued for what felt like a long, long time, but in fact it was only three in the afternoon when I reached - as far as I could tell - the point at which I'd decided to camp that night. There are no camp-sites along this route, you simply free-camp on whatever suitable ground you can find. I chose a relatively flat area directly opposite the pass I'd be taking the next day, and set up camp as quickly as possible. The ill-tempered storm that had been threatening all day was now moving stealthily in, a light drizzle that grew heavier with every passing minute, quickly soaking the grassy hills around me. As soon as the tent was up, I pushed all my stuff inside, wrung out my icy socks and then curled up in my sleeping-bag - completely exhausted! - and went straight to
I was woken a few hours later by the full force of the storm; icy winds that screamed around my frail little tent, buckling tent-poles & snatching hungrily at any loose flaps, resentfully bombarding the tent with a prickly barrage of hail-stones and - as I would discover the next day - laying down a thick blanket of heavy snow in the pass above me. Freezing cold by now, I ate dinner in my sleeping-bag - a Snickers bar & two small apples - and then tried to get back to sleep, struggling to find a comfortable position on the cold hard ground, and constantly checking to make sure the tent wasn't leaking too badly. Day Two: Crossing the Teleti Pass
Deep sleep proved elusive though; without any kind of mattress - a stupid omission! - to insulate me from the cold, wet ground I could literally feel my body's heat being greedily & insatiably sucked away into the dark earth beneath me. I slept badly, waking fully at around five or so, but remaining in my sleeping-bag for a few more hours, waiting until the sun's warmth had begun to spill over the jagged mountain rim
into the cold, dark valley. Which was an incredibly beautiful sight, and one which will be impossible to fully convey! I'll definitely never forget crawling from my tent that morning, taking care not to brush against the dew-wet flaps, and then simply gazing all around me in wonder - a lush green valley, pristinely clean after the night's storm, the wet grass shining in the sun, with a silent army of pine trees standing guard along the edges and a rocky river winding effervescently past below me, and then all the dark, impassive peaks rising jaggedly up around me, many of them suitably crowned with majestic, blinding-white snow... And best of all - making it infinitely more special - the fact that I truly had it all to myself. I knew the closest other people were probably at least half a day away, and there was literally nothing artificial, no evidence of man at all, as far as the eye could see. It was as if this perfect little valley had somehow managed to escape the notice of man until this point - as if I was somehow the very first to look upon it. Paradoxically, I was both dwarfed
into significance by the grand scale of this landscape, whilst simultaneously owning it - sole lord & master of all I surveyed. A ridiculous feeling, but one that's proving completely unforgettable & itchingly-addictive. =P
Once I'd managed to pick my jaw off the floor, I packed quickly, warming up as I moved around, preparing to set out on what would end up being one of the most exhausting days of my life. I'd entertained the vague (& extremely optimistic) hope that someone else might come along, with whom I could confirm my route, (I was roughly 80% sure myself). But noone did, and when I'd finished packing the tent away I had to set out immediately - fording the glacier-fed river barefoot, my trousers rolled up above my knees, and then beginning to clamber up the steep green slope into the Teleti Pass. A relatively good path snaked up through thick scrubby vegetation, surrounded by countless marmot burrows - although the animals themselves usually remained conspicuously absent but for the occasional high-pitched yelp. ("Whee whee whee!") Pausing to listen to them once, I became aware of a new sound, a series of distant, cracking pops that I initially supposed
to be a rock-slide. But then I noticed the other noise that accompanied it - the glassy squeak of ice grinding against ice - an avalanche! It was on the other side of the mountain behind me, so I never saw anything, but I sat & listened in wonder until it subsided.
The higher I climbed, the less vegetation there was, gradually replaced by patches of old slushy snow that obscured the wet & slippery rocks beneath. As I neared the top of the pass, the stark beauty of this landscape was distilled more & more - just pure white snow on jagged, wet-black rock. It's a sight I'm not at all used to, and it struck me as devastatingly beautiful, (as you can no doubt tell from the way I gush on & on in the video I'll attach to this post =P). A harsh, unforgiving kind of beauty, in the scheme of which my own irrelevance became all too apparent. Humbling but also strangely liberating.
Possibly the only disadvantage to travelling light is that it's impossible to be fully prepared for every climate and terrain you might encounter. I'd been advised not to attempt this particular
pass without a guide, alpine hiking boots and even - if it snowed - crampons. Typically under-equipped, I was wearing business socks & a pair of fairly sturdy sandals. These had been more than adequate up until this point, despite getting very wet & cold, but I could see that the snow thickened considerably as I neared the top of the pass. I knew I wouldn't be able to get through like this, so I stopped, wrung out my icy socks one last time and then put them back on, followed by a plastic bag on each foot, tied as high up the ankle as possible, and then my sandals. Snow-proof! Sort of... =P
The final slog up to the pass was well rewarded with amazing views down into the valleys on either side, (the second video I'll attach here). I couldn't take long to savour them though - one of the darkest storms I'd ever seen was advancing ominously through the valley before me and I definitely didn't want to be caught too high up - with nowhere to take shelter or pitch my tent - when it struck. Getting down proved a little tricky though; the most
obvious route was thick with heavy snow that reached up to my waist, and I was forced instead to scramble around the rocky ridges & cliffs along the valley's edges. The next few hours were spent in this way; leaning back into the mountain, hands scrabbling for holds in the icy rocks, slowly picking my way down a jagged scree of loose, snow-slippery stones, praying I wouldn't twist an ankle this high up.
Luckily, the further I went the easier it got, and just a few hours later I was striding along an ever-widening path, the last crunchy smears of old snow fading impotently behind me. I walked faster & faster as the path improved, soon passing the tree-line, and reached the foot of the Karakol Valley a few hours after that. I'd heard about a well-equipped campsite somewhere along this valley, and the vague promise of a hot meal and possibly even a shower drew me on with irresistible force. Constantly convinced that it must be just around the next bend, or just beyond this last dark clump of secretive trees, I kept pushing on & on. I was forced to admit defeat by 9pm though; it was
getting very dark and I was totally exhausted by then, having hiked for about 11 hours that day. Day Three: Karakol Valley
I set up camp by torch-light and went straight to sleep, (not nearly as cold down in the valley, thankfully!), waking early the next morning to build a fire and prepare a hot meal. A can of tuna, with some water & two-minute noodles mixed in, pushed into the coals for a few minutes... Best meal I'd had in weeks! =P Thus reinforced - and with my socks finally fully dry - I set out on the road back to Karakol. It turned out that I'd somehow passed the campsite the night before, reaching much much further along the valley than I'd supposed. In just a couple of hours I'd reached the first village, and was able to hitch a smooth ride straight back into Karakol town. It was an abrupt & somewhat jarring end to my hike - to be thrust so effortlessly & suddenly back into an urban setting - but I have to admit, I didn't mind too much. After savouring every mouthful of a steaming hot laghman
, I limped - stiffening up already
- back to my guesthouse, indulged in a long shower and then sank down into my soft, warm bed with a long, heartfelt sigh of appreciation. Drifting off to sleep, I tried to remember if "the best things in life are earned" is a commonly used saying. It should be. =P
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