One of the great dilemmas for campers is whether or not to get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of Mother Nature. Do you break the seal on the cocoon of warm air you’ve created in your sleeping bag or not? At our age, this is increasingly no longer a debate. So, despite the fact that it’s noticeably colder tonight, I step outside the tent to do my thing and discover why the temperature has dropped—the blanket of clouds has been pulled back to reveal The Milky Way in all its glory surrounded by a pantheon of constellations. Sometimes age has its benefits!
Having recently visited the Vatican Observatory and heard how light pollution from Rome prevents astronomers from using the telescopes for research anymore, we can appreciate how truly precious the dark skies of eastern Kyrgyzstan are. If only we had set up our camera for some night time photography! Perhaps tomorrow night?
When we wake up we see and hear the milk truck, an old Soviet Jeep, making the rounds up and down the jailoo alerting folks of his arrival with his alarm-like horn. We spend some time packing up the tent before breakfast, which this morning is a fried egg with cheese on bread. Not bad!
It’s a bright sunny morning, and we’re eager to hit the trail. We are ready to go, but Adis and Urmat still have to pack up all the tents and gear and load up the horse, whom we’ve affectionately named Bob. So we grab our packs and stroll slowly up the trail in search of new birds.
We luck out and spot a pair of White-winged Grosbeaks munching on berries in the thick bushes. We do our best to capture a shot with the little telephoto lens we are carrying, but it’s not nearly as good as the telephoto lens we have back home for bird photography. Still, it’s exciting to see a new species.
Just a little further down the trail we see a golden eagle flying down the valley. He circles just above the yurt camp before flying on. We’re off to a good start today!
Soon our companions catch up to us, and we start hiking at a normal pace. Before long we turn the corner and say goodbye to this valley as we begin a steady climb up to Jyrgalan Pass, which is more of a saddle than an up-and-over.
We pause for a break at the 11,000 foot pass to take in the views in both directions. Urmat points out where our camp will be for tonight. First we will have to descend about 2000 feet to the Tyup River, cross it by horse bridge, and then climb most of the way back up to another green pasture.
There is still a little bit of snow up here. Apparently, there was a blizzard this year on May 28, which is unusually late for these parts. We are here in early July, and we seem to be really lucky with our timing. The wildflowers are out, but not all of the snow has melted on the peaks, making the scenery especially beautiful.
We head down another half hour, gawking at the expanse of green off to our right, before stopping for lunch in a beautiful flower-filled meadow overlooking the valley below. Lunch is simple and a bit repetitive—apple, nuts, and another Soviet energy bar. Folks here don’t really know what to make of a couple of crazy vegetarians, especially when they are surrounded by animals that produce meat for them. Alas, we came to Central Asia to hike, not to eat!
The scene is perfect for a long, lazy lunch. The boys are content to take it easy, so we do, too, taking a quick snoozer and snapping some pictures of the wildflowers with the mountains off in the distance.
Out of nowhere, a horseman rides up with a young boy and dog in tow. He is carrying a lasso and seems happy to see Urmat and Adis. After an animated conversation, Urmat climbs onto Bob, and they ride off. We aren’t sure what they are up to, but now we have even more time to enjoy our picnic lunch in this idyllic setting. This seems to be the general attitude in the mountains—why rush, since there’s plenty of time and not all that far to go. We are starting to catch on!
After lunch, Adis leads Bob along what appears to be an old road, while we set off through the meadow. Once we get below treeline, we follow a singe track that seems freshly created down to the river.
This is our second crossing that requires a horse bridge, but this time the river is wider and deep enough in sections to get our feet wet if we don’t pick them up. I draw the short straw and go first—it’s quick and exhilarating. Alison follows in round 2, and I manage to capture a quick video. Round 3 brings the boys, and we’re all safely across and ready to continue on.
Just as we are about to begin the big climb, another man rides up on a horse with a foal and four dogs following him. He exchanges greetings with a gentle handshake, hops off his horse and walks and talks with Urmat as Adis jumps on his horse and leads Bob uphill toward camp.
We climb steadily on a steep single-track trail through an ever impressive variety of wildflowers as our heart rate climbs, too. We see, in passing, a Lammergeier soaring high above, a kestrel hunting and a rose finch perched. The birds here in Kyrgyzstan are a fun distraction from the trail.
Before long, the trail evens out, and we are strolling through a meadow with a towering rock wall off to our right. The setting is stunning and reminds us of the mountains we saw in the High Sierras of California while doing the John Muir Trail. We crest one last hill and see our camp with the tents already set up. As we arrive we are greeted by a momma cow and her newborn calf, only seven days old with the umbilical cord still attached. So cute!
It’s only 5 pm, and it’s sunny for a change, so we decide to head to the stream to sponge off and soak our feet. The water is icy cold, but it’s refreshing and picks us up. The sun is so warm we can sit for awhile in short sleeves and air dry our feet.
As we are relaxing we first hear, then see our first marmot of the trip. He is alert and whistling warning calls from his perch across the river. Soon we see why. There is a golden eagle soaring and hunting and occasionally swooping quite low. At one point he even lands though we cannot see if he has caught anything.
Except for the sound of the rushing water and occasional neighing of a horse, it is utterly quiet. We note with some surprise that we have not heard or seen an airplane in at least three days!
When we get back to the tent, Adis comes up to tell us that we are having dinner in the shepherd’s hut which is a special treat for us, not just because we may get a chance to learn more about the nomadic lifestyle but also because it’s really warm in there. They use a small wood-fired stove to cook on in a big cast iron wok-shaped pan. Then, they put a metal plate on top and use it as a base to heat pots of water for tea.
We sit cross legged with our shoes off around a small table. We are guests of two shepherds from nearby Ak-Suu village. They are tending about 200 cows all by themselves. If there are women around, they must be at one of the yurts farther up the jailoo because this is definitely a Kyrgyzstani-style man cave.
The table is covered in huge hunks of homemade bread that are carefully arranged. Bread is considered holy here, and it is bad form to place it face down or waste it. Adis serves up big bowls of a tasty rice dish called plov with onions and carrots. This is a traditional dish that should have small bits of meat in it to add flavor. The boys were kind enough to prepare a vegetarian version for us. It clearly lacks the flavor they are used to, so they douse their servings with ketchup, using up nearly an entire bottle.
We do our best to make conversation over tea and coffee. We show them some pictures on our phone of our Colorado Trail and Gila Wilderness hikes to show what some of the landscape in the US is like. After a while, we excuse ourselves to go for our post-dinner mountain passegiata. Since the hut is also where they will all sleep tonight, we want to make sure we don’t overstay our welcome.
The sunset turns the clouds pink and vivifies the green grass adding to the tranquil feel of this quiet corner of the world. It is a new moon tonight, so the stars should be extra bright. We are eager to try our hand at some night photography. Maybe tonight will be the night!