Some 60 years ago I tried to get on any hilltop in the neighborhood and later, with my college buddies, further on beyond my neighborhood into the world. Our beyond was limited by the thin wallets of student years and the impenetrable Iron Curtain era of Big Brother governments. This lethal combination pushed many of my hilltop climbing dreams into the memory files marked NTH (Never To Happen). Such was the unfortunate fate of my dream to trek the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, as the very un-friendly administrators of the now-defunct U.S.S.R. didn’t give us the necessary permits.
I was lucky that some of those NTH dreams were double filed in another drawer as well, the drawer called NTF (Never To Forget). It had been a long wait… but here I am with my travel buddy/adventure partner/wife re-hashing one of those NTF dreams, one of those never-to-die. You can see us arriving in the early morning hours in a cab from the last Uzbek railway outpost city of Andijan to the only open land crossing border post to Kyrgyzstan.
From Uzbekistan historical paradise with the fingers of its eastern arm tickling the flanks of the mystical Shangri-La of 20,000 plus foot high peaks, difficult to cross passes,
and breathtaking colorful lakes – the land of 40 tribes: Kyrgyzstan we walked into a teeming mass of people jostling for position in front of two grim immigration officers. “You are foreigners, you are our guests, please go before us.”
After another short cab drive, we are in the City of Osh. We have 24 hours before our guide with his Land Cruiser reaches us from the capital Bishkek. Looking at a map and consulting with our hotel staff we decide to hire a taxi for a ride to the nearest village towards the mountainous south.
Exciting first, yet soon disappointing. Because further south there beckon the ranges on Tajikistan and Chinese borders. A short bargaining session ensues over a greasy meal and a pot of tea in a local joint. Our side is full of fast, and extremely enticing US$ arithmetics (all in my rusty high-school Russian, mind you!) and the driver employs Oscar-nominated quality moaning over rising gasoline prices. In the end, we triple his scope of work and double the price. The driver has never been there and does not know the condition of the road, but once a local confirms it is asphalted, he caves in. The deal is made and without further ado we jump in the car and the driver presses the pedal to the metal.
“Go South, young man! Go South!”, and
“Push as close as possible to the border!” so we can see the highest peak in this area.
And after plowing through endless herds of sheep, goats, and the occasional horse going to the summer pastures and getting over the 11,650ft (3,550m) elevation mountain pass,
the plains below us finally opened up to the view we came to this country for.
OK, it was me; my wife came here mainly for horses, people, Golden Eagles, and yurt interiors.
The first sight of the second highest* summit in the Tien-Shan (=Heavenly) mountains, the massive Lenin Peak 23,405ft (7,134m) high, from the road leading to the Chinese Uyghur Province (another still impossible-to-get permit and visa required), was indeed– heavenly.
*The highest Tien-Shan mountain, Jengish Chokusu, formerly known since 1946 as Pik Pobedyi (Victory Peak), is 24,406ft (7,439m) high. Located in an inaccessible area of the Kyrgyzstan border with China.
You may now think: “Mission accomplished!” And on the first day, no less. But there was so much more to be seen and our fabulous guide/driver/fixer/soon-to-become-friend Begaly, who showed up on the dot the next morning, made sure to prove it afresh every day: another mountain range, another mountain lake, another mountain pass, another waterfall, valleys, canyons, rivers, yurts, horses, Golden Eagles. Just you wait!
From now on we were zig-zagging across this country as it was slowly waking up into the beautiful spring after a long cold winter and two-year nightmare of the COVID pandemonium.
The mountain lakes enchanted us with their beautiful colors and clear waters.
The shores ringed by wild apple trees in full bloom made us
jump with joy
over so much beauty, as flowers of all kinds and colors winked at us from fresh green grass..
I could not help but take a (skinny) dip, as it was customary in my younger years, in no matter how freezing any body of water.
With melting snow in the mountains, the waterfalls were gaining strength.
The weather in the higher altitudes could still be cold and not every day dawned with blue skies but pastures and meadows were exploding with colors.
Poppies mixed in on the edges and popped up at the sides of the roads.
Even where the land was barren on the lake shores, lake colorful water with the help of dramatic cloudy sky and sun delivered.
To make the landscape come alive there were horses to be seen everywhere.
It was Song Kul (Song=Last Kul=Lake), that was the tricky one. It is a high alpine lake situated at an altitude of 3016 meters in central Tien Shen Mountains. Till the last moment we were not sure if the mountain pass will be open and as it was we were only the second car to pass.
The windy steep road over the Thirty-Two Serpentine Pass (another 3,000 plus meters high) still held some sun
But on the other side things deteriorated quickly.
Ominous clouds with rain turning to snow rolled low.
Yet our every positive guide pressed on in hopes of sun breaking through at the lake.
It wasn’t quite sunny but for short moments the clouds lifted enough so we could see the lower layer of the ring of mountains even if the lake stayed steely gray. And the first herd of horses has made it up to their summer pastures, while summer crowds were still far back.
On the way down on a different road we could not miss the opportunity and visited a yailoo (= summer pasture) with two yurts and local shepherd family.
Husband, wife and young daughter were taking care of large herds of 1,200 sheep, 200 cows, four horses and a few dogs. Cordially invited for a cup of tea at five and a tour of
their two yurts, one perfect traditional hand made from felt and the other a now unfortunately common new plastic Chinese import.
Comfortably seated we were served many local snacks. Some of them I tried, while my wife bravely partook of all. Our conversation proceeded with help of hands, fingers and other bodily extremities, my rather laughable Russian and my wife’s, as per usual, magically discovered gift for the rudimentary version of the local dialect.
In a friendly atmosphere of mutual understanding, photos of other family members were presented.
In a few moments it was established that on our family side we still had one unmarried daughter. On their family side, the big family guy, clearly a successful herder with remarkable resources, indicated his younger brother was still lookingng for a suitable match for life. We were just a little taken aback when pater familias started without hesitation a serious negotiation on the size of the dowry. What amount was I keen to entertain as the father of a daughter of obvious beauty, fluent in English, with good education, decent cooking experience, and possibly willing to relocate to the groom’s homeland?
I could not convince him while he upped his bidding in numbers of sheep and cows that both my wife and I could not legally represent our sweet child in this contract. It came as a shock for the eager and well-meaning brother of the potential groom that our non-negotiable stance was that personal contact between the bride and the groom was a pre-requisite for further progress in this matter. In spite of his clear disappointment we parted on very friendly terms.
We took from this visit a very strong desire to try this traditional accommodation at the first possible opportunity. And it was served to us on a silver platter when we reached the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Here we discovered a number of yurt camps.
The yurt of our dreams, old farts that we are, had to have one important element: a rarely offered private bathroom. Lo and behold our all-knowing Begaly had heard about a newly opened establishment and there we drove as the sky darkened.
No matter the season hadn’t officially opened yet, no matter we were the only guests, they welcomed us with open arms. We were taken through a grove of apricot trees
and given a tour of a beautiful King size bed yurt villa exquisitely furnished with homemade elements. (Oh, please, no Chinese crap smuggled across the border two mountain ranges away!), with heating, latest 2G level internet,
and grand reveal of en-suite private bathroom with running cold and HOT water AND western FLUSHING toilet!!!
As it started sprinkling, my wife was offered a special blanket made of wolf pelts. A home made dinner was thrown in for good measure.
Not a chance to refuse such an offer!
Dinner and breakfast were served in a large yurt where I was kindly offered (to accommodate my spine’s limited flexibility) as a special favor a straight-backed chair reducing the necessity to criss-cross my legs according to the local custom of sitting at a low table. It was our dream come true scenario to be remembered for the rest of our traveling days!
So perhaps the title should be changed to See Kyrgyzstan and sleep in a yurt!
To be continued…