By Stephen Sexton
The Tien Shan ("Heavenly") mountains of Central Asia are, as their name suggests, one of the most divine mountain ranges in the world. Only slightly smaller than the main Himalayan range further to the south, they are more beautiful and less polluted than the mountains of Nepal and India. The tallest peak is Jengish Chokusu in Kyrgyzstan at 7439m and some parts of the range are green and heavily forested, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Technically the mountain range is part of the same Himalayan Orogenic Belt anyway, formed by the tectonic collision between the Indian and Eurasian plates.
I’d arrived into the small town of Karakol in Kyrgyzstan the previous night after an exhausting multi-leg flight to Almaty in Kazakhstan and then a shared taxi ride across the border. Travelling on a crowded mashrutka (minibus) to Ak-Suu the following morning, I was deposited at the junction to a dirt road beginning up the valley, heading deep into the beckoning mountains beyond. It had been a long trip to get here, but here I was, happily setting out on a journey into these mystical mountains in an exotic land.
The road was a gentle but relentless rise, climbing 800 metres in altitude over 15km. It was a 4WD track and I began passing people coming in the other direction, about a dozen over the course of the day. They had come from Ala-Kol lake, doing the trip in the opposite direction to me. I hit them up with many questions, mainly because I was nervous about the prospect of hiking solo into mountains I knew to be covered in snow, at high altitude and without a tent. For some reason I am especially prone to altitude sickness and knew that anywhere over 2500m can bring it on. I also had forgotten to activate my Garmin satellite communication device, a way of providing some comfort that I may be rescued if I found myself in a situation I couldn't get out of. The advice I was getting was about 50/50. Some people said it would be fine, others insisted I shouldn't attempt it. Having done enough hiking in the past to develop some confidence, I decided I had to attempt it, but would turn back if conditions proved too tough. The reports of thigh deep snow were a little disconcerting though.
I eventually made it to the Altyn Arashan yurt camp, the setting straight out of a fairytale. It was in a big green meadow in a broad valley surrounded by huge mountains, their flanks heavily forested with fir trees and a bubbling river snaking its way along at the edge. At the far end of the long valley was a huge white peak standing sentinel - Pik Palatka, elevation 5020m. About 20 yurts dotted the area and horses were everywhere, both captive and wild. I arrived in the soft light of late afternoon and made my way into the yurt camp with a French/Japanese couple I'd caught up to, both of them having met while travelling in Australia.
I walked up to the biggest yurt with people around and asked about the one I had booked with the previous evening back in Karakol. They told me it was closed, the tough language barrier making it hard to get the real story. I told them I had paid for it and needed a place to stay so could they please enquire on my behalf. They told me to wait while they asked around, eventually telling me that Talgat the host was away but due back in a little while. I used the time to explore the area, being told there were hot springs a couple of hundred metres up the valley. One of the yurt camps had created enclosed rooms around the hot springs where people could bathe together but I chose to bathe in the river where the hot spring water mixed with the cold glacial water. It was only lukewarm of course, but good enough to get clean again.
Back at the other camp, Talgat had returned so I was shown my bed for the night. He was a friendly host, possessing a warm smile amidst a rugged face. I would be sharing with a Polish couple from Krakow who I had passed on horseback while walking up the valley earlier - Joanna and Bartek. In the middle of the living space was a wood furnace blasting out tremendous heat against the late September chill and the inside was now a toasty temperature with mattresses laid out on the floor and big thick duvets rolled up on top. Just outside the entrance were horses with their front two feet hobbled together with rope, a technique for keeping horses nearby without tying them up. It allows them to move about over short distances only and they have to hop about like kangaroos in order to move. It is a funny sight to see such large creatures hop and the first time I'd seen a hobbled horse, even though I'd grown up around horses.
We went to a neighbouring yurt which served as a dinner hall, and the three of us were served hot soup and another exotic meat dish, accompanied by hot chai tea and the always present dried apricots and raisins. Kyrgyzstan is a tough country to be vegetarian, that's for sure. The three of us got along very well and talked about all manner of travelling and trekking topics. A typically good looking Polish couple, Joanna worked for Lufthansa in Krakow and this allowed her and Bartek to travel on standby for almost no cost. They often had cabin bags packed ready to fly to anywhere they could go and hence they had travelled far and wide. On those weekends where they didn't fly somewhere they would go trekking in the nearby Tatry mountains of southern Poland, where I myself had been only a few months ago. They were an interesting and fun couple and we bought a bottle of Georgian red wine to finish the night.
Nearby in the big yurt that had helped me when I first arrived, a big party raged. Solid electronic dance music pumped at full volume and some seriously intoxicated people were yelling and laughing through it all. It sounded wild and I was tempted to poke my head inside to take a look but I knew if I was sighted I'd be sucked in to the vortex, never to be let out again. So I only let my imagination wonder instead. The French/Japanese couple I had arrived with were staying in that yurt camp and I felt sorry for them if they were stuck in the middle of that with no escape.
As I brushed my teeth outside, a big moon shone overhead and with the party still raging and hobbled horses still hopping around, I had to pinch myself at how good this was. It was the real thing. I went to bed with the party dying down and with my earplugs pushed firmly in, sleep eventually came. However I was constantly awakened throughout the night by dogs barking viciously at some imminent threat. My mind came up with all sorts of possibilities, including snow leopards and bears which apparently inhabited the area.
I had arranged with Talgat to have breakfast an hour earlier than normal, at 7am, in order to get an early start on what I knew would be one of the hardest days of hiking of my life. Joanna and Bartek were going to continue on their horse trek and were in no rush to get up so I didn't get to say goodbye. Talgat served me chicken broth soup and I gorged on the bread, other side dishes and chai tea to load up on energy before making my way in the soft morning light alone up the valley to where I would soon turn up a side valley and begin a serious ascent of about 1400 metres towards Ala-Kol lake, the elevation topping out at around 3900m.
Not having GPS nor reading any trail notes and having literally no route markers to go by, I was once again nervous at the prospect of getting lost amongst the labyrinth of horse tracks meandering around. I had studied the map and knew I had to turn up this particular side valley so just started up it, certain I was not on the official trail, if there even was one. It was open terrain though and soon I rose above the treeline and knew that there was no getting lost when the direction was so clear. Wild horses were everywhere, numerous foals amongst the pack. They would all take a good look at me as I passed and throughout the whole morning I was the only person in the whole valley, not coming across a single other person. It was great hiking and while snow was sprinkled across the mountain tops around me, it certainly didn't look too bad. The climb was relentless, though not too steep, but after several hours I was drenched in sweat from the exertion. I finally sighted the last section I would have to climb and my heart sank - it was very steep and covered in deep snow. I hoped it would look easier from a closer distance but instead found the opposite.
I began the final push towards the summit ridgeline, the snow now getting deeper with every step. While I had quietly mocked those people who had been so conservative with their advice about snow the day before, now I was at least able to acknowledge they had a point. It was deep, though not thigh deep. More worrying was how the trail made by others through the snow was now so firmly bootpacked that it was actually slippery and given the extreme steepness a careless slip would mean a fall of about 100 metres. It wouldn't be a free fall, just a totally out of control slide towards rocks. I used a curious technique of scrambling on all fours, my hands getting frozen from gripping the snow to prevent a slip. I had to do it in bursts of several metres at a time so exhausting was the climb. No doubt the lack of oxygen played a big part. While far from being in the 'death zone' like on Everest, it was still significantly less oxygen than at sea level and my breathing was laboured.
The first people I came across the entire day was on this slope and we exchanged terrified small talk as we shuffled past each other on the narrow ledge, not daring to look down. Someone at the summit was flying a drone all the while and a loud overhead whirring sound could be heard as I moved up the final section towards the summit ridgeline. Finally making it, I stumbled out of the snow and onto the rocky, snow-free ridgeline to find a Japanese man standing right there in front me, the lake behind him. I was overwhelmed from the exertion, the unbelievable beauty of Ala-Kol lake in front of me and the fact that this man was suddenly standing right there only a few feet from me. I finally found the breath to talk to him and he congratulated me on making it, explaining that the entire descent into the next valley was snow-free given the sun shone all day on this angle.
About a dozen people were scattered along the summit ridgeline overlooking the lake, eating snacks and just taking the view in. Huge 5400m peaks rose up in the background, while the foreground was of course dominated by the turquoise blue magnificence of Ala-Kol lake. It was huge for an alpine lake and the glacier feeding its milky-blue waters could be seen off to the left. I didn't stay too long myself, the cold chill from the strong wind making me want to begin the descent into the next long valley which would take me all the way back to Karakol.
It was a long and steep descent across scree fields and other rocky terrain and far from being the easy part, this was the descent from hell. The effects of altitude had already taken a hold of me, the most prominent being complete exhaustion and a bit of a grumpy attitude. I was surrounded by such beauty but all I could think about was the end. I just wanted to lie down and rest from the constant slipping and sliding on the loose rocky path. More than once I came unstuck and took a tumble, though thankfully nothing too serious.
I passed a beautiful waterfall on the side of the mountain where I had a rest, and then a camping area that people who approached from the opposite direction used as a base camp. By now I had run out of water and was reluctant to use the running streams everywhere to fill back up, the memories of a severe bout of Giardia in Colombia still fresh in my mind. Eventually making it to the bottom of the valley after several hours, I approached the yurt camp I had spied on the way down. Crossing a few creeks to get to it, it was smaller than the Altyn Arashan camp, possessing only a couple of yurts, a big mess tent, and a few Soviet style caravans set on top of big tyres and high suspension.
An old Russian lady called Larissa approached me and once more I had to use Google Translate to tell her "I need a bed, dinner and lots of water". She told me the costs, very reasonable, and then showed me my bed in the yellow Soviet caravan. The camp was once again in a beautiful setting, with distant white peaks, lush green forests and bubbling blue creeks surrounding it. A resident dog who was angry at my arrival only a few minutes ago, was now my best friend. Larissa asked me in very halting English "You see black dog?" I didn't know what she was talking about, but eventually the point came across that her other dog had walked off with some other hikers only a few hours ago. I would've noticed passing a dog on the way down, so had to tell her no. She went on to explain that a few years ago the same dog had done the same thing, to be lost for 2 whole years. While back in Karakol, Larissa had spotted the dog living with an old man, and was joyfully reunited. Sadly it appeared the dog had not learnt its lesson.
I was served dinner in the big canvas mess tent, dining alone. However in walked Lena, a Russian girl of about my age who spoke good English. She had just returned from a hike in the area and was also staying here. She was from Saint Petersburg, and worked in IT. She could work off a laptop from anywhere and was travelling the world this way. We talked for over an hour about all the exotic trekking locations in this world, before I announced my need for sleep, realising that she was also going to be sharing the incredibly small sleeping area in the caravan.
The following morning I was up early to begin the walk down the long and beautiful valley back towards Karakol, more than 25km away. It was a nice easy walk down a slowly descending 4wd track again, though some sections were completely covered in large rocks and I wondered at how Larissa got the caravans and other trucks through such sections. I collapsed into my bed back at a guesthouse in Karakol that night, completely shattered from a very physical but unique trekking experience. My first taste of adventure in these Silk Road countries had been a good one and only served to whet my appetite for further exploration of this exotic corner of the world.
To read more of Stephen's articles and books visit his blog at www.stephensexton.com.