Crossing the Creases of Wild Kyrgyzstan
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

Going off the grid in the mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan means saying goodbye to creature comforts, connectivity, and humans to find unspoiled nature in its primal form.

hiking in Kyrgyzstan

As I get out of the warm sleeping bag and quickly put on my layers, I notice that there’s frost on the inside of the tent from my breath. It’ll be a couple hours before the sun makes it over the high ridges to us. We’ve got 22 kilometers of walking ahead of us, over a mountain and down a steep river valley, and this is our sixth day of it. My body has no choice but to suck it up and forge on.

trekking through a valley

What possessed me to make the hardest hike of my life in my 50s instead of my 20s? Probably because when I was young and felt invincible, I was broke and trying to establish a career. Just as a woman’s body is in the best shape to have kids at the age when she can least afford to pay for them, when I could have gone up and down mountains the easiest I was barely making enough to pay rent. Travels then were modest and close—places I could get to in my beat-up Ford Maverick with no air conditioning.

Now I travel internationally for a living and have help to keep the virtual business humming while I’m gone. It’s a good thing since we would have no electricity, no internet, and no cell phone signal for a week while we trekked through Kyrgyzstan. Otherwise we don’t really know what to expect. We just have some packing tips, like “temperatures may exceed 80F degrees in the day and drop below freezing at night.” Three of us pepper the organizer and guide with questions before we even take a step, trying to get some inkling of an itinerary. We find that we will be trekking over one or two mountain passes a day between 3,500 and 4,000 meters, deep in the countryside of northern Kyrgyzstan. Just how intense that’s going to be, we can’t really imagine until we’re in the thick of it.

festival dancers

If you look at a satellite map of Kyrgyzstan, squeezed between China and Kazakhstan, it resembles the skin of a very old lizard, with lots of creases and folds. The Tian Shan Mountains fill most of that space, with a few small flat spots and giant Issyk-Kul Lake providing the only breaks. Much of the country is a series of parallel valleys, with a village at the mouth, a river running through, and mighty peaks rising where the valley narrows.

Before we start, it’s festival time in one of those villages. The Jyrgalan J-fest is our intro to Kyrgyz culture and a photographer’s dream. Funny hats! Goat carcass polo! Horse wrestling! That would be enough, but it’s all accompanied by dried yogurt balls, fermented mare’s milk, singing, and a local wedding. With traditional food served in a yurt, it’s hard to imagine getting more of Central Asia crammed into one day.

Although this festival is for the locals more than the visitors, it feels like a last overload of our senses before we head into the wild. We spend the evening finishing e-mail, downloading podcasts, and charging up all possible camera batteries during what may be our last blast from an electric grid for a week.

Into Thinner Air

The first day we walk about ten miles (17 kms), going gradually uphill in the Boz-Uchuk Valley, and I’m already feeling winded. I’ve come from sea level, so two nights in Jyrgalan haven’t prepared me for sleeping in a tent at more than 11,000 feet in altitude (3,460 meters). This is basically like sleeping at the summit of Vail or Aspen ski resorts in Colorado. On the first night.

My companions pass around a bottle of local cognac as a cold wind starts blowing but I take one sip and decline the rest. I can hear them laughing by the lake as the contents disappear and they take night sky photos. I only seem to sleep in 15-minute increments in the thinner air.

I bow to peer pressure at sunrise and join the others for a hike to a higher lake above our camp before breakfast. After chowing down on eggs and an array of cheese and sliced sausage when we return, we start what’s to be the hardest day of the trek. The plan is to cross two passes and three valleys, going a couple thousand meters of elevation up and down. The views are spectacular with every turn, with snowy peaks and the occasional glacier revealing themselves when we crest a high pass and take a break from the huffing and puffing.

trekking around a lake

Very little of the terrain is easy. There are no marked trails and in some areas the effort to label anything a “trail” would be futile anyway. How do you mark where to go across a half kilometer of landslide boulders? Which cow path of five going across a steep hillside is the least precarious? Where’s the best spot to slide down a hillside of shale?

trekking over a supposed trail

It turns out this is going to be the norm when going over the passes, not an exception. In the valleys we often walk for a couple miles in a flat section, but that’s typically just a breather between steep ascents or descents on routes that look impossible from the bottom. “We’re going up where?” is our most frequent morning question after packing up camp.

trekking on shale

This long day of tough hiking feels like a classical music symphony. Just when you think it’s ending, it keeps going and going. After climbing down the second pass, clouds cover the ridges and a drizzling rain starts pattering on our jackets and packs. An hour later it’s pouring and a distant peak rising like Mordor looks especially spooky. We trudge on for another hour still, eventually crossing a log bridge across a now-raging river.

The porters have sprinted ahead and set up camp though, so we’ve got dry tents waiting. I strip off my wet clothes, put on dry ones, and unpack the sleeping pad. Within five minutes of laying down I’m napping until dinner. The warm besh barmak meat soup with noodles tastes wonderful as we sit on mats in the group tent, dry together out of the continuing rain. We find nature’s toilets, brush our teeth in the rain, and I have vivid dreams about beach bungalows and hammocks.

One Night With Seats and a Mattress

“Today will be much easier,” our guide tells us at breakfast.

“And they might have beer where we spend the night,” our local organizer adds. “Plus hot springs.”

All three possibilities help offset the steep climb we start soon after, on a steep route that requires careful foot placement to avoid slipping and falling. We had wrestled with guilt at the beginning to learn that porters, not horses would be carrying the gear. On a climb like this though, it’s easy to see why two-legged creatures have it easier.

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Read this article online at: Crossing the Creases of Wild Kyrgyzstan

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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