Trekking in Kyrgyzstan

June - July, 2003

My friends Gerry and Bonnie and their children, Rachel and Joshua, had spent the academic year in China while Gerry taught courses on American law. On their way home they decided to visit me in Uzbekistan following a trek in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. We made arrangements with Dostuk Trekking to help us find our way.

We met in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek. Our guide, Vadim, gave us a tour of the city. We saw the statues of Lenin and Marx. We also went to the state museum where we saw model yurts and costumes of the nomadic Kyrgyz.


The next day we went for a warm-up hike in the Ala Archa Canyon just outside Bishkek. We crossed several streams on small bridges and walked steadily uphill into the canyon. There were few trees so we could admire the view the whole time we walked. We climbed steadily higher, stopped for lunch and were easily convinced by Vadim that since the time was getting late and there were a few raindrops in the air it would be prudent to turn around and head back down.

The next morning we piled into the back of a big truck with Vadim and two porters. We stopped at the clothing bazar selling inexpensive Chinese versions of famous brands to get some hiking gear and at the food bazar to stock up on food for our trek. Then we drove until dinner time when we arrived at a yurt camp managed by our trekking company on huge Lake Issyk-Kul. The yurts are made of heavy felt and decorated with carpets. They would have been cozy except for the leaks above a couple of our beds!

In Kyrgyz Issyk means fresh, and it was. It was also cold. The lake is surrounded by snow-capped peaks and in late June much of the water in the lake must have melted on those peaks very recently.

The next morning we piled back into the truck and headed for the mountains. Mechanical problems slowed our trip and we stopped for lunch in Karakol, the capital city of the region. We also picked up a local guide, Andrei and our permit for trekking in the border zone.

The pavement ended and our pace slowed. The road climbed into the mountains, winding through passes with snow on the side of the road.

It was very late in the afternoon before we arrived at the starting point of our trek. The sun was shining beautifully on the mountains but our guide asked us not to take pictures because we were next to the outpost of the Kyrgyz border patrol. China was on the other side of the mountains and this was the last control point on the Kyrgyz side. We walked a short distance from the truck and set up camp in a huge meadow at the bottom of the valley. By truck we had climbed to an elevation of several thousand feet.

The next morning our guides woke us up offering tea in our tents. After breakfast we started hiking up the valley. Sometimes there was evidence of a trail, other times we just walked through the low grass. The going was not steep and we followed the Tyuz River.

Gradually we gained elevation and the snow-capped peaks seemed to be getting closer.

Our packs were not heavy as our guides carried all the tents, food and cooking gear. Still, we were glad when Vadim announced that it was lunch time. It had been cold in the morning, probably just above freezing, but during the day we were comfortable in shorts and T-shirts.

Late in the afternoon we found a place just above where another stream joined the one we had been following so it wasn't so deep and we could wade across to our camp site. It had been a long day and we didn't complain that our guides did all the work of setting up the tents and cooling dinner!

In the morning we woke to find a bit of fresh snow on the grass. Fortunately by the time we drank the tea delivered to our tents and got moving, the sun had melted most of it. Vadim showed us small flowers poking through a patch of snow. He said it was very rare to see them bloom as it happened only once a year. Unfortunately I forget their name.

That morning our route followed a smaller stream that rose more rapidly into the mountains. We were still walking across grass, sometimes following a bit of a path, other times we just looked for a reasonable route. As we climbed the stream shrank and the grass became more sparse. Eventually we left the grass and started walking across a sea of small rocks.

The going got rougher and I slowed down significantly. Now our elevation was high enough that the air was noticeably thinner. And it was steep. Then we had to walk through a foot or more of wet snow. Though Vadim and the rest of his crew stamped a trail for us it was still hard work and the slope was steep enough that I worried about slipping and sliding a long way. I was nervous enough that I didn't take any pictures crossing the snow!

Finally we got to the top of the Tyuz Pass, 4001 meters (about 13,000 feet) above sea level. I was tired and ready for lunch! And glad that the sun shining from the other side of the ridge melted the snow and let us sit and eat our lunch comfortably.

Lunch lasted a long time, but we still had a long way to go -- all the way down to the bottom of the valley in front of us. My heart and lungs were happy to be going down, but my legs and knees did not enjoy the countinuous descent. Again there was no trail so sometimes I would zig-zag because that was easier on my legs.

Finally we got to the bottom and were discouraged to learn that we were not finished yet. Our guides were not being very communicative, often striking out ahead of us, and we did not know what our destination was. Apparently they were looking for a place to cross the river so we could camp on the other side. They didn't find one and eventually we arrived at a clering where we shared a camp site with three British trekkers.

Next to our camp site was a boulder inscribed with names opf climbers who died on a 1959 Georgian expedition. Unfortunately I don't remember their story. I only noted that they had written both the Georgian and Russian names for their country (Sakartvelo and Gruzia) using the Georgian and Russian alphabets. They also drew a pictuer of a bunch of grapes -- the Georgians love their wine!

Our next objective was to climb up to the glacier not far up the river from our camp site. The British group planned to go up on our side of the river and camp by Merzbacher Lake that filled every spring then emptied suddenly in the summer when the ice dam melted enough for the water to flow over the top and quickly wash it away. But our plan was to cross the river and climb to the far side of the Inylchek Glacier then head downstream.

Just below the glacier, the river was a bit like a reverse delta, with lots of small and medium size streams coming out of the glacier then eventually joining the main river. So we had many streams to wade through, some over our knees and flowing rapidly, others shallow and easier. But all icy cold! Joshua got a free ride on a couple, though I think he might have preferred to walk on his own.

The weather was less than perfect -- cold with occasional light rain. But we persevered and eventually found ourselves on top of the glacier, high above the valley floor. It was not at all what we had imagined. Instead of beautiful white snow and ice, we were on a field of boulders, gravel and debris with occasional holes showing the ice far below us. Nevertheless we were proud of our accomplishment.

The cool damp weather and the many kilometers we had yet to cover beckoned us on, so we reluctantly descended from the glacier and paralled the left bank of the river, heading downstream. It was cold and windy when we stopped for lunch.

Of course not everyone felt the need to huddle out of the wind!

After lunch we made good time, covering many kilometers on a gentle grade, slowed only by the many stream crossings.

We were happy to stop late in the afternoon. We did not complain when Vadim and his crew delivered our dinner to us inside our tents out of the rain.

The next morning the sun was shining brightly and we got a prompt start.

Before long we saw the first signs of anyone living in the region since we had left the truck. Some Kyrgyz still head into mountain valleys to graze their animals for the summer, returning to their villages for the winter.

Many streams we waded across, but for this one we had some help.

The scenery was beautiful but we were ready when we saw our truck waiting for us.

Before heading out of the mountains, we stopped at a hot spring for lunch. The bath was too hot for me, but as a shower it worked fine. It was great to be clean again.

It was a long, slow drive back to Lake Issyk-Kul. Neither the road nor the truck were designed for high speeds. I was glad not to be driving so I could relax and insist that we stop to admire the views.

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