(Or – “How I climbed a peak without realising it, learnt to ‘dirt ski’ and lived to tell the tale”)
On our trip so far we’ve been spoilt by being based in cities. So when we cross the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan (just a mere trip back to Tashkent, a hot, dusty taxi ride to Shymkent in Kazakhstan, then two marshrutka mini vans to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek) it’s time to change agendas and learn how to rough it.
Which makes me slightly nervous. My most recent experience of the outdoors is glamping in Sri Lanka and everyone knows I am about as athletic as a rag doll. So the below account may surprise yet mildly entertain you. Especially when you consider just how many milestone firsts this four day trip into the Tian Shan mountain range near the town of Karakol resulted in. First outdoor toilet activity (properly in the wilderness). First time not showering for four days. First time hiking for more than a day and with a backpack.
But what we are about to do is the classic trek everyone does when they come to Kyrgyzstan, so how hard can it be? What could go wrong?
Well here’s how I would like to sum up the before and after effect this trek has had on me, with this quote from the movie Fight Club: “A guy who came to Fight Club for the first time, his ass was a wad of cookie dough. After a few weeks, he was carved out of wood.”
(For the record, my ass is still a wad of cookie dough but you get the idea. And Phil loved every minute of this trek.)
It starts off rosy. After a hearty breakfast at the Askar Guest House in Karakol and being seen off by young Askar himself (pictured below), we meet our guide, two porters and cook at the Community Based Tourism office in Karakol. Our entourage if you will. Don’t judge. At a total of $US200 each for three of us, they are worth every penny (the cost also includes transfers to and from Karakol plus national park entry).
We drive to the trail head and the rain miraculously clears up as we begin a pacey but straightforward walk along a stream. Not two hours in we turn a corner to reveal a picnic laid out under some trees and we all comment on how lovely it all it is.
We rub our eyes in disbelief when just around the corner from here the mountain view opens itself up and we stumble across a herd of sleek horses of all sizes, leisurely grazing and drinking from the stream, as if a poster from the Kyrgysztan tourist board has just come to life.
Then we begin our ascent, the terrain becoming increasingly challenging and the air thinning out abruptly like the end of a roll of Sello Tape. As it gets tougher I keep looking back to see how high up we are to stay motivated. I conjure up a mental posse of cheerleaders to keep spirits up.
And one laborious step after another, with our guide Dustan, Phil, and our new friend Daniel waiting patiently for me, we miraculously arrive at our highest point at 2,900 metres and find the energy to bound down the last few hundred metres to the camp site. Our porters and cook have arrived way ahead of us and look like they barely broke a sweat. High fives all round and we settle in, three people in a two man tent, hot tea and laghman soup in our bellies, a toilet teepee at our disposal and roaring stream by our side that seems to get louder as the night grows darker.
We congratulate ourselves on the day’s work, theorising that surely the hard slog is behind us. But Dustan warns: “Tomorrow very hard day. 90 per cent stones. 80 per cent up.”
Day Two (otherwise known as ‘The day from hell never to be relived’)
Up hills. Up rock faces. Up streams. Up waterfalls. Today is all about climbing up to 4,000 metres and it is relentless. Breathing feels like the gassy slurps you make at the bottom of an empty milkshake when really you need to drink a full on.
Even with walking sticks, high grip shoes, abandoned backpack, forgotten gym sessions, the mountain makes a mockery of me and my feeble steps. The falling stones and rocky paths are intent on tripping me. The vertical ascents are sent to destroy my soul. The mountain is not my friend.
Lake Ala Kol appears like a shimmering blue green mirage, ice cracking across it like veins, ringed by the snow topped mountain we are part way through climbing. Lunch overlooking it is devoured breathily and gratefully, including the first of today’s two Snickers bars (which in normal life would be unthinkable).
From our rocky plane above the lake, we take in the rest of our ascent that may as well be an insurmountable stairway to heaven from where I’m sitting, muscles screaming, heart still racing. But it must be done.
Those final sandy steps are the worst, so close yet so far, the path so upright that each step up requires each muscle to engage and contribute. Even the cheerleaders are exhausted and cannot do their jobs. I think of my friend who is having twins at this moment and wonder if it would be better to trade places with her.
Then finally. High fives at the top. Numb brain and body. Shock and disbelief that we are nearly there.
But we are not.
To be continued….