May 28, 2013
As soon as I heard activity in the kitchen, I was out of my sunken bed and headed downstairs to claim my portion. The rest of the house rose shortly after and we were treated to the most bizarre breakfast ever imagined- bliny, plain rice wrapped in nori (a plain sushi roll, if you will), boiled barley, bread, and a sweet apple soup. We had a long day of hiking planned, so I ate everything, save some of the apple soup, which some left untouched. I am usually an indiscriminate eater, so I felt better knowing that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find it appetizing.
The plan was to hike to a glacier fed lake and get back in about 5 hours before heading back down the valley and eventually to Karakol by nightfall. Given that we had covered 14km in 4.5 hours the day before, 6-7km should be a piece of cake. We were told to follow river and streams up to the lake, but we were bored of river valleys. We wanted to gain elevation. We wanted a wonderful view. So, we started walking straight up.
Hiking in Central Asia means creating your own route unless there happens to be a road. So, you must have a good map and a willingness to experiment, and today was no exception. The map I purchase covered a lot of territory, so the tightly packed contour lines meant 40m each and a tough climb. What we didn’t expect was that the morning dew would make the 30+ degree slope very slick and technically demanding. I was kicking into the slope and trying to find tufts of grass to make sure every step up counted. It was so steep that rolling backwards would be difficult to stop. So, it wasn’t long until I needed a break from the unrelenting incline. We took pictures and tried to figure out how much more vertical we had. Once on the ridge, we expected to see exactly where we wanted to go and would drop down.
Seemed simple enough. What we found was rocky, sandy, loose, and even steeper. Thus it was just as tiring as going up. Down near the river, we happened upon a nomadic encampment. We didn’t want to intrude so we smiled and waved as we walked the perimeter of the camp. They waved back and invited us for tea. Excited to accept their hospitality, we approached the extended family gathered. As we got closer, we saw them were eagerly awaiting the mutton that was stewing. It smelled amazing and I was jealous that they would be enjoying it. I hoped that we would keep our visit short and not interrupt or delay their meal. After standing around for a bit, not sure what we were supposed to do, we were waved into their tent and reminded that the ‘pole’ in the middle of the tent was a stovepipe. That didn’t stop me from BRIEFLY grabbing it to balance myself as I got in the tent.
Right. The ‘tea’. Turns out that the family had every intention of feeding us. When they didn’t think that we had eaten enough of the freshly slaughtered mutton and potato stew, they encouraged us to eat more. There was also bread, fresh cream to dip it in, homemade butter…. It was easily one of the most memorable and delicious meals of the trip. We couldn’t talk to each other, but Sjoerd had a small album of photos, a gift from his loved ones, showing him, his girlfriend, and his life in the Netherlands. As you can see in the photos, they were absolutely enthralled with a world they probably couldn’t imagine. After seeing that reaction, I realized the brilliance of carrying 20 or so printed and bound photos. I will likely never travel without one again.
This inspired them to have their own photos and give Sjoerd their ‘address’ so that he could print and send them copies. Sjoerd’s battery was dead, so I took the photos that they hopefully possess now. Rather unprepared for such hospitality, we couldn’t offer money since it’s considered rude. Without a cigarette between us, sweets and cookies were the next best luxury items we could offer, so we gave all we could as thanks. We were warmly sent off and headed up to the two small lakes on the map that seemed accessible.
Accessible? Yes. Easy to find? Not so much. The stream that would have led us straight to the end of our hike was covered in scree, so there was lots of scrambling over piles of large rocks until we finally arrived. The time we spent debating the route had allowed clouds to obscure the sun. While I would have preferred to wait for the clouds to move, it was chilly and we needed to keep going, if we hoped to make Karakol by nightfall.
Again, with no trail to create consensus on which was the best way back to Altyn Arashan, I went my way and Julian and Sjoerd went the other. Turns out they were right. They got down to the stream and found a bridge to cross. I, however, spent way too much time fighting underbrush to get to the stream and looking for a fallen tree suitable for me to cross without getting wet.
When I did, I stopped halfway across, unsure if I would be able to leap far enough to avoid slipping into the stream. Just so you know. I am a good swimmer. I just didn’t want wet boots or camera equipment. So, in the span of what was probably 5 minutes or more. I froze, was too lazy to get off the log and find somewhere else to cross, lost all confidence in my abilities, got mad for doubting myself, stood up and leaped across without incident. Once on the road back to Altyn Arashan, I managed to piss of a shepherd because my presence scared one of his cows back down the road and he had to fetch him. I had no idea he belonged to anybody or that he had somewhere to go. I just thought that the cow was embarrassed by his diarrhea. Note to self, I will act like a boss and keep it movin’ along the next time I encounter a cow that tries to run from me. Who knew being a traveler in these countries carries such responsibility?! In any case, as I strolled into Altyn Arashan, this large herd of sheep were being moved up the valley and it’s timelessness struck me. I took out the video camera to capture what is a slowly dying way of life.
Valentin, the owner of Yak Tours Camp, didn’t have to try hard to convince us to stay one more night. One, getting down to Ak-Suu at that hour would likely mean a taxi since public transportation would be done for the day. Two, he was going to Karakol early the next morning and we could (for a fee) take a ride in his vehicle all the way there. Three, he was making yak (yes, the animal) plov. Four, we could relax in the hot springs and five, more beer had arrived that day. See how easy that was? It had to have been the quickest consensus achieved on the trip.
With a larger group of guys in the hot springs that late afternoon, it quickly turned into a contest of who could stay in the bone-chilling river the longest. I did a turn for a minute and let the youngin’s fight it out for top bragging rights.
Dinner was served shortly after sundown and we ate it like hibernation was upon us. Valentin then joined us for the rest of the evening. As we sat enjoying beer, Valentin wanted to make sure we fully appreciated it by pointing out that the ‘new guy’, a Russian roughly our age, had managed to bring what beer we had (about 10L) up on a bicycle from town. First of all, the road is crappy. It’s all uphill, and I just don’t know how you carry that much liquid without falling over a time or two. But he didn’t.
In case, we weren’t impressed with that physical feat, Valentin then spoke of a Russian porter that he knew that once scaled Pik Lenin (the world’s ‘easiest’ 7000m peak) twice in one week and is well known for offering to take weight off of other porters for 1 Euro/kg for extra money. It’s rumored that this porter carried 75kg up Pik Lenin once because the other porters were desperate to shed weight. That’s a person my size on his back…at altitude!
All of that talk of scaling dangerous peaks made me tired, so it was back to the same awful bed for another compromised night of sleep.