Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Joy of Treks

We have walked for a day up a good track climbing up a narrow valley and reached a turquoise lake, at 3000 metres, surrounded by peaks. It's mid-afternoon, we have pitched our tent at the far end of the lake with a view of snowy peaks in the upper valley behind us and the lake in front of us. It is perfect and worth the sweat and toil. There is no-one around, just cows and horses grazing on the grassy slopes around the lake shore. We have walked past several yurts and herders' huts lower down, and met lots of boys and young men riding to and from the town of Kochkor in the main valley below. The tea is brewing and we're enjoying the view when we notice someone walking along the lake towards us. As they get closer we guess it's another foreigner, a woman, and then we think about the other tent we saw at the head of the lake and realise just before she arrives that it's Evi, the Austrian we met in Arslanbob. Small country, Kyrgyzstan.

We catch up on news and the next day we head further up the valley looking for either a pass over to the next valley or a glacial lake, whichever looks the likeliest - none of us has a map. Eventually we return to the lake, having failed to reach either objective, but the scenery is lovely and very peaceful. Before tea it rains and snows. When the clouds finally lift the landscape has completely changed - the slopes and mountains around us now wrapped up in a quilt of fresh snow. As the sun sets the peaks glow orange. Good stuff this. We retrace our steps to Kochkor the next day and return to our homestay, making the most of the sauna on offer to steam ourselves and give our clothes a good scrub at the same time.

Kyrgyzstan has a network of community based tourism offices dotted around the country. They provide tourists with homestays (or yurtstays in the mountain pastures), horse treks, guides, transport etc. The principal idea is to increase income for local people and it's a great idea. This is our second homestay. We have a room decorated with shyrdaks (felt rugs) with bedding on the floor. The family ply us with tea and yoghurt, fresh salad and there is always a supply of fantastic homemade raspberry jam on the table. The sauna is a bonus. There's no shower and it's a simple concrete room with an open tank of hot water heated by a wood fire, plenty of buckets and a cold tap. Basic but priceless after three days walking.

We decide to leave some things here and trek over the mountains in the north and down to the big valley where Bishkek lies. There's a pass of 3500 metres to cross. Evi comes up with a cunning plan to get us to the trailhead at Shamshy. We know it costs about 60 som each in a shared taxi, but that if a taxi driver sees three foreigners the fare will reach a ludicrous 1000 som. So Evi goes off in search and negotiates a decent price for the whole car alone. When she calls us over the taxi driver looks a bit miffed, and his friends all laugh at him. It's a rare day when you feel you've got one over on a taxi driver in these parts.

We set off up a track that climbs onto a jailoo - the summer pasture for grazing the animals. It's here that the herders and their families move to for the summer months May to September. The tradition is to put up a yurt or two, a circular tent made from a wooden frame and covered in felt. The yurt has a hole at the centre of the roof for light and to allow smoke from the stove to escape, the wood frame arches across it. This hole has become the emblem of the Kyrgyz flag (although it still looks like a cricket ball to me). We walk up to the highest yurt. We know that one or two of them take tourists in, but we don't know which and we want a good start for the next day's hike. It turns out that the family we talk to are happy to have us even though they're not set up for tourists. They have family from Bishkek visiting, but they are extremely welcoming and the young mother takes it in her stride. We are fed well and she bakes fresh bread for the evening and morning meals, in between milking the horses. (We never see the cows being milked, so we think they are just kept for the meat.) There are lots of young children around and Evi turns into entertainer, organising games around the table during a rain shower. Finally the visitors say goodbye, the table is taken out, and the bedrolls and quilts are laid out over the floor for us all to sleep. The sheep are brought back to the pen, and the horses and cows huddle close by. Just before we nod off the father takes his shotgun outside and fires off a couple of rounds. That'll keep the wolves at bay........

Next day is perfect - clear skies and bright sun. We set off along a good track and up a narrow valley, finally reaching a barren pass of stone shale at lunchtime. The way onwards looks long but interesting, and Evi, like any good Austrian, leads us running down the scree slopes below the few remaining snow fields. The wild flowers are coming out and the path cuts through swathes of forget-me-nots, buttercups and cowslips, yellow poppies and more, as we follow the river down. At a pretty little spot at the junction with another river we pitch our tents and rest our weary legs. The next day takes us down through the twisting valley and out to pastures where animals are grazing. We have to wade the river three times, and huddle inside the tent occasionally when thunderstorms pass over, but find a hidden camping spot on the riverbank for the night. On our fourth day we reach a village with a bus stop, and eventually get a ride into a nearby town where we can pick up a taxi to Bishkek.

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