Early in the morning, one of our guides for the week, Kas(idin), picked us up from the airport in Bishkek. He’s a young, bright and amiable fellow – we got on immediately.
Six-hour journey to Karakol: we slept almost the whole way. When we woke up, we found ourselves surrounded by huge mountains, and later on, the stunning shores of lake Issyk Kul. It didn’t snow quite as much as we thought it would, but we were already getting a bit worried.
We went for an afternoon stroll through Karakol and got a taste for Kyrgyzstani cuisine, having dinner with Ryan and Ptor, our guides.
Met up with our legendary driver “Schumacher” (we don’t actually know his real name!) and his just as legendary UAZ… Pretty much scrap from a German point of view, so that should be exciting! J We squeezed ourselves and our mountain of bags into the minibus.
We headed off in the direction of Altyn Arashan to our mountain hut and the eagerly anticipated hot springs there, which would hopefully not turn out to be just lukewarm…
We had barely turned off the main street before we had to attach chains to all four wheels! After an adventurous journey on a very snowy mountain path, our first test of courage awaited us.
Suddenly we found our path blocked by a river whose course had been blocked and frozen into a huge sheet of sloping ice. We could never have gone any further in the car, but after “Schumacher” let us all get out for a bit, he took out his Soviet-era plastic chainsaw, slipped on his trainers, walked onto the ice and sawed – half to our horror and half to our general amazement – a track in the ice. We could easily imagine our driver losing a leg. But a few minutes later, the UAZ – loud, threatening and tilting dangerously – was able to cut a path through the ice and wall of snow. Onwards and upwards!
We definitely needed our fur coats for the final climb up to Valentin’s hut, as well as some much-needed motivational support from Kas. At the hut, we were introduced to our fourth guide and expert chef Anarbek. A fantastic team – we were looking forward to our time together. Our first day as a team was spent in front of a cosy fireplace drinking plenty of chai.
Our first ski tour in Kyrgyzstan also marked the first time this as yet unnamed peak had been accessed. Because of the small amount of snow and the fact that not many people go on ski tours in Kyrgyzstan, our guide was fairly sure that we were the first people ever to come here. We were happy with our ski run and were looking forward to the rewards for our exertions in getting there – the hot springs! As we were at an altitude of 3,200 m, we decided it was as good a place as any to rest up for the next day.
Five small cabins on the banks of the river, surprisingly clean and really WARM – the perfect contrast to the cold Kyrgyzstani winter nights: we really hadn’t counted on such luxury. Nevertheless, we’re all aware of the importance of our thick feather down jackets and trousers for the way home – it’s incredibly cold here!
Due to reports of a huge snowstorm which would make the return journey even more challenging, we hastily packed up our stuff and went with “Schumacher” to our host families in a nearby village. Our climb to the yurt (a type of round, Russian-style tent) would have to take place the following day.
Nurbek, Arjerkym and their three girls Jasmin, Kanykai and Indira as well as the grandmother (affectionately called Babushka by everyone) made us feel very welcome. We sat in the kitchen for the whole morning drinking tea whilst we waited for the packhorses to be prepared. As Nurbek was also heading in the same direction to pick up wood in his truck, we had the opportunity to ride a section of the journey on horseback before skiing on through the snowstorm. Although the snow made the long climb very challenging, we were really looking forward to fresh snow for our days in the yurt.
We arrived at the yurt tired from our exertions, although Anarbek and Kas had already heated the tent up nicely. We were impressed with our cosy home for the next few days and were treated to a wonderful meal from Anarbek. We rounded off the evening playing yahtzee and with an obligatory shot of vodka. Outside, it was still snowing and we went to sleep full of anticipation in the cosy surroundings of the yurt.
Oooof. Whilst it’s lovely and warm in the sleeping bag and we all slept better than expected, the drinking water had frozen. When we got out of our sleeping bags we all realised that it’s pretty cold in Kyrgyzstan! Thankfully, Kas lit a fire straight away and the view from the yurt meant we had a quick breakfast: bright-blue skies and 30 cm of fresh snow. Before we set off, however, we made sure we did an extensive safety and avalanche check with Ptor and Ryan. It has to be done thoroughly, which takes time, because we are so far away from any sort of medical care or rescue services. The avalanche situation is difficult: a lot of snow fell overnight on top of the weak snow cover and we therefore decided together with Ptor to stay on flatter ground on the first day. Nevertheless, we set out with a slight feeling of unease. After three hard hours of climbing, we reached our first summit and found out the why it had been named “Don’t tell your mum”: we had a daunting view of the avalanche-prone slopes all around us.
We waited impatiently and a little nervously for our first turns in this special place and discovered that the snow here was completely different to the stuff we were familiar with in the Alps. Luckily, we didn’t loosen any snow slabs and managed to get back to the yurt after a lovely little descent. This gave us renewed confidence so we could really look forward to the next day!
Sun again, yeah! Because the avalanche situation was still a bit risky, we did a snow profile and a slip block test with Ptor. The insights we gained, however, did not give us a great deal of confidence, so we decided to go on the defensive again. After all, we didn’t want to end up under an avalanche. Our goal was Tyshk Tamark, or, in English: ‘Picnic Point’. Our efforts were rewarded with a stunning descent in exceptionally fine powder snow. We were absolutely delighted. We were also learning to trust our guides ever more, since they were the ones who guided us safely through the area in spite of the tough avalanche situation and presented us with the opportunity to experience some brilliant descents.
A long day: Our destination was Alpay Tur, a peak at over 3,600 m above sea level. It was a long and tough climb, which took a lot out of us. The air became thinner and thinner, and the difficult terrain became increasingly wind-blasted, which made the going tough. The view from the summit made up for all our exertions however: from the summit ridge, we had a phenomenal panorama over the surrounding peaks. However, the wind was strong and cold, so we decided to make our way down shortly afterwards. The strong wind had also increased the danger of avalanches so to start with we had to stay on the wind-blasted side. Soon, however, we reached an incredible powder slope and tired legs were instantly forgotten: long turns in exceptionally fine powder snow took us back towards the yurt.
It’s difficult to believe that it’s actually our last evening here already. We spent our last hours together around the campfire. It became clear once again that we were a truly unique team – we all got along well, although this was probably because we were all cooped up in the yurt for 24 hours a day.
Straight after breakfast we loaded our stuff onto the packhorses, which had arrived shortly before. We decided to go for a short climb, so that we could enjoy the longer descent properly. In the village there was a happy reunion with the host families and whilst we waited for “Schumacher” we had a lovely cup of tea to say goodbye. “Schumacher” then took us back to Karakol – where we were able to enjoy our first shower in days: warm water and a large bed were truly welcome luxuries.
Freshly washed, we met up in a cosy little restaurant specialising in Kyrgyzstani cuisine and celebrated with the whole team. A fitting end to a wonderful week.
In the morning, we visited the animal market, which takes place every Sunday in Karakol. A colourful hotchpotch of animals, food stands and people, who travel from the surrounding villages to trade sheep, cows and horses. The animals are carted off in highly creative fashions, often even in the boot of taxis. Meanwhile however, the weather had clouded over slightly and we strolled lazily through Karakol: to the flea market, to the museum and the beautiful old house where Ryan and Ptor live. There was a lovely surprise awaiting us here: to thank us for the Jack Wolfskin jackets we had given to Kas and Anarbek, they dropped by one last time and gave each one of us a great hand-made, Kyrgyzstani-crafted present and Katha was given Kas’s much-admired cap. We also met up with “Schumacher” one lastl time: we had given him a pair of shoes to make his chainsaw work on ice a little safer. In return, he presented us with a 3-D picture of wolves, saying “You gave me Wolfskin – I give you wolf skin”. With heavy hearts, we said goodbye to Karakol and to our new friends.
The six-hour trip to Bishkek was a bit more hectic than we would have liked. Whilst walking through Bishkek, we were forced to give our passports to three men in uniform as part of a spot check on the street. We then had to follow them into a little side street, feeling very uneasy. One of the men disappeared with Gaudenz into a little bar, but after leaving a little “European present” there, we were all allowed to continue together with our passports. That wasn’t the end of the drama though: there was no sign of either our luggage or our driver when we needed to set off for the airport at 4 a.m. After half an hour, he finally showed up. Our check-in turned into a mad dash through countless security checks. Considering the stressful and hectic nature of the big city, we definitely felt more at home outdoors.
On the flight home we had more than enough time to go over the last ten days. We all agreed that we had an amazing time in Kyrgyzstan. In spite of the critical avalanche situation and days on end without washing, we experienced and saw so much that we had one of the best trips ever. Of course, trips like this are defined by the people you travel with. For this reason, I’d like to say a huge thank-you to Ryan, Ptor, Anarbek and Kas from “40 Tribes Backcountry”, who took care of our safety, our physical well-being and, last but not least, for all sorts of fun and a great atmosphere on the trip! Thanks guys, you rock! J