Tag Archives: nomads

Yak. It’s what’s for dinner.

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.

Me with the map and Julian's tightening his dew soaked laces.

Me with the map and Julian’s tightening his dew soaked laces.

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.

It was worth the strenuous hike for this view!

It was worth the strenuous hike for this view!

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.

The nomadic encampment

The nomadic encampment

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.

The very fresh mutton being cooked.

The very fresh mutton being cooked.

The gorgeous meal served for us.

The gorgeous meal served for us.

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.

Fascination with Sjoerd mini photo book.

Fascination with Sjoerd mini photo book.

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.

Family photo and two white guys.

Family photo and two white guys.

Just the kids. Awwwww..... :)

Just the kids. Awwwww….. 🙂

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.

Finally! This tiny ass lake. Complete with layer of ice.

Finally! This tiny ass lake. Complete with layer of ice.

On the way back from the glacial lake.

On the way back from the glacial lake.

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.

This poor horse flopped on its belly because (presumably) it was too tired to eat standing.

This poor horse flopped on its belly because (presumably) it was too tired to eat standing.

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.

Waiting for dinner

Waiting for dinner

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.

Advertisements

When the wheels come off

May 16, 2013

Hitchhiking is best done alone. Despite the challenge of doing so with four men, we all wanted a testosterone laced episode because Max’s stories of improvised overland border crossings were so seductive that you couldn’t help but begin to compose the story of the journey. Well, at least it was true for me. Sjoerd was keen to avoid taxi drivers and save some money, as a consequence. Max craved a trip defining challenge that would add to his collection of stories. Takayuki agreed with us, but his motives were tucked behind that charming smile of his.

As we waited, this shepherd brought his flock into town.

As we waited, this shepherd brought his flock into town.

Takayuki in photo mode.

Takayuki in photo mode.

The novelty hadn't worn off, yet.

The novelty hadn’t worn off, yet.

Just as before, success would depend on an early start and lots of luck and like the day before, I was the only one up at 6AM. My rustling and movement in and out of the room weren’t enough to move anyone else, including the owner of the house. Once I woke the rest of the group, our host woke up and started to cook breakfast. Much like dinner the night before, the preparation was agonizingly slow and we didn’t get out of the house until just before 8AM. I’m getting nervous about our chances of getting rides, and we nearly came to our senses and hired a vehicle that would take us to the border, but solidarity got in the way. Sjoerd wouldn’t participate and we talked ourselves out of it saying that it wasn’t good value for the money. So, we finished the walk to the highway and sat. A few vehicles passed us, but either they were full or weren’t going to the border. So, we entertained ourselves by reading and taking pictures for a while, then we got our first vehicle to stop. It was an old Russian UAZ 4X4 and they claimed they could fit all 4 of us in the vehicle AND get us all the way to Osh for the unbelievably good price of $20. There was clearly only room for one. Anyone else would have to wedge in and roll themselves into a ball for hours. Takayuki had picked up on the fragile group dynamic and couldn’t afford to be delayed, with the end of his trip nearest. So when it was agreed he take the only seat available, he didn’t hesitate. He told us where he planned to stay in Osh and he disappeared into the distance.

If there was grass to watch grow, I would have done so.

If there was grass to watch grow, I would have done so.

Green with envy, we waited in silence. At 11AM we all agreed that if we didn’t have a ride, then we would go crawling back to the driver in town and ask if he would honor his original price. He did, but with one less person to split the cost, the price effectively went up. Without papers to enter Kyrgyzstan, he would have to drop us at the Tajikistani side of the border.

At this point, I am near furious. I am in no mood to talk to either Sjoerd or Max. Sjoerd because of his penny-wise/pound-poor approach to transportation, and Max because he sold all of us on the idea, but showed no leadership in getting up early and pressing to get out to the road earlier. I was also mad at myself because I had seen all of this coming, did nothing about it, and went over the cliff like a lemming. At the border, I shot out of the car to be the first to be processed and start walking through 20km of no-man’s-land between the two border posts. I didn’t want to sleep rough in the cold, high altitude night and I figured that I would arrive at the Kyrgyz border post near sundown. I had to get going.

It was really this futile.

It was really this futile.

After having our belongings and documents inspected, Max asked us if we were going to hitchhike from there. I knew there was little chance anyone would come from the west and even less chance there would be room for us, so I said I would walk. It was the only bit of control I had left on the day and I was going to exercise it. Sjoerd must have reached a similar conclusion because he was going to walk, as well. So, we went together.

Before we could get out of the checkpoint, we were stopped again. Being in the fine mood I was in, I was did not take kindly to being asked for my papers again by someone in plain clothes. I had just done that and I wasn’t going to pay a bribe. However, the message was clear. We were not going to be allowed to leave. After sharing my finest English and being escorted to another office, it was clear that we hadn’t had our passports stamped. Hehe. Oops. By this time, Max was present again and all three of us sat awkwardly in that small, two bunk-bedded room as we were served tea and watched the soldier record our information in a log before he stamped our passports. Before Sjoerd and I walked off, I briefly explained to Max that I was walking because I didn’t want to get stuck sleeping rough at 12,000+ft, but that he may have the last laugh, anyway, and we were gone.

Sjoerd seemed to enjoy the freedom away from Max’s specific needs as much as I did, and we chatted a bit while walking. Sjoerd, who had been trying to photograph a marmot for some time, was thrilled with the abundance and relative nonchalance of those around us and got pictures that satisfied him. We were nearly to the long downhill portion of the road to the border of Kyrgyzstan when a red Lada passed us heading toward Kyrgyzstan. I had seen the car minutes earlier heading the opposite direction, so I knew Max was in that car. The question was whether he would stop for either of us. Time slowed down as I watched for brake lights. They went on and the car came to a stop about 50 yards ahead. Sjoerd was ahead because I wanted to photograph the moment, but I didn’t rush. If Max wanted to leave me behind, that was his prerogative. I had it coming, anyway.

At the top of Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sjoerd walks towards the stopped Lada.

At the top of Kyzyl-Art Pass. Sjoerd walks towards the stopped Lada.

At the car, Max explained that he had convinced the driver (by paying him, of course) to turn around and drive to the Kyrgyz border post. It was our choice to get in and split the cost or not. I’m sure Sjoerd was seething at the thought of spending more money, but the situation had made him a realist and we both got in the car. There wasn’t much to say, but in a dysfunctional way, we were glad to be together and to have another piece of the journey sorted out. The journey down the switchbacks from the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282m or 14,130 ft) was peaceful, but like almost all car journeys, there was an unexpected break. The driver lives in the this no-man-land and owns some yaks. So, we were treated to tea, bread, and yak butter. Yaks, being the hairy, mountain cows that they are, produce wonderfully flavored butter, and we delighted at breaking off chunks and smashing them on our bread.

The ride through no-man's-land

The ride through no-man’s-land

At the border, we noticed the only vehicles were those owned by guards, who were all to eager to charge us an obscene price to get to Sary Tash. We tried to negotiate with the guards to have our driver take us, but he didn’t have the papers needed. We eventually got a guard to agree to the price our driver would have charged, and we had another 35-40km piece of the journey figured out. As we left the border post, the landscape got greener by the mile and we all felt as if we had been transported to the oasis we sorely needed. There was grass! There were trees! It was as if we had forgotten they existed. The mountains, too, were completely different on the other side. Here, in Kyrgyzstan, all of the mountains had a thick sugar crusted appearance, not just those 6000m or more. We had all been looking forward to getting back to civilization, but this was beyond our expectations!

Ahhhh.... Sary Tash!

Ahhhh…. Sary Tash! The view from our hitching spot.

Sary Tash sits at the crossroads where Chinese truck drivers either go north to Biskek, Almaty, and beyond, or west to Dushanbe, Uzbekistan, Iran, etc. This makes it an ideal place to hitchhike. While Max was content to stay overnight in Sary Tash, I decided to join Sjoerd, who had made a sign displaying our destination. We hadn’t stood out there for more than 5 minutes when a 20+ year old Mercedes cargo van pulled up and agreed to take us. Sjoerd and I joined the driver in the front seat, but behind were two rows of seat filled with two Kyrgyz families. One was extended and numbered 8 or so. They were a nomadic family traveling to their summer house, and we stopped there to unload their belongings from the cargo hold before continuing on to Osh.

Unloading their belonging at the summer house.

Unloading their belonging at the summer house.

As we wound our way through the lush green rolling hills that were golf-course-perfectly grazed by horses, cows, sheep, and goats, our smiles grew larger. This was gorgeous like Alpine Switzerland is gorgeous. What was really surprising was the quality of the road we were on. The Kyrgyz government, was smart enough to have the Chinese construct their roads, and what a difference that makes! Sjoerd was so pleased with our ride, that despite not asking for any money, we both gave the driver $10.

We found the Osh Guesthouse, chose beds, and then Takayuki appeared! It was as if we hadn’t seen him in years! Despite our journey being completely disjointed, Takayuki had only arrived an hour or so before us. His 4×4 overheated multiple times, but he knew he had transportation for the whole journey and spent about 1/2 what we did.

It was time for a meal and drinks to celebrate the return to civilization! We went to a BYOB restaurant and treated ourselves to local beer and a king’s meal of kebabs, lagman, and manti. What a day!