Tuesday, October 19, 2010


A recently published article by David Trilling of EurasiaNet.org.
 Kyrgyzstan: Melting Glaciers Threaten Central Asia’s Ecological and Energy Future 
....No one doubts the crisis, which will likely touch even the remote highlands, where nomads and herders have lived alongside the glaciers for generations.

 “Satellite imagery presents a unanimous view of glacial wastage across the Tien Shan” Mountains, says Ann Piersall, a research geographer who recently spent a year in Kyrgyzstan’s headwater At-Bashy Region studying the effects of glacial melt on herding and farming communities. Piersall found that “in the At-Bashy region, half of interviewed subjects had observed a visible decrease in the extent of glaciated area in their lifetime” and blame glacial retreat for an increase in extreme weather....

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Preliminary Findings

At the end of September after 11 months abroad, I have returned to the United States to embark on on a coast to coast tour to visit family and friends. I was fortunate to present my preliminary findings at the University of Central Asia prior to departing Kyrgyzstan. In the coming months I will be preparing formal papers for submission for publication. Until then, this is just a short summary of my work to date...

While overwhelming evidence of glacial wastage is present, uncertainty still exists over projected human impacts.  Within the At Bashy Range, glacial are has receded 12% from 1970-2000 and an additional 4% from 2000-2007 (Narama, 2010). Historic temperature records indicate that temperatures have risen over the past 80 years, while precipitation records do not show any significant trends.

Despite the heightened awareness of climate change in Central Asia, there is an absence of qualitative research addressing local people’s observations and perceptions of changes and impacts.  Over the past year, my research focused on integrating existing quantitative research with field based qualitative social research that was missing from the discussion.

Results of my case study are from interviews, focus groups and informal conversations conducted in Kyrgyz with the help of a local field assistant. Extended periods of observation in remote mountain pastures and rural villages were essential to my research. In formal interviews, study participants were asked open-ended questions about the importance of the glaciers and mountains.  Additionally they were asked about long-term visible changes in glaciers, land and water and the impacts those changes were having on their lives and communities.

I was able to complete 76 formal interviews that ranged from half and hour to four hours in length. Conversations revealed that although local people in the At Bashy unanimous recognize the importance of mountains and glaciers as a source of cultural identity and a physical resource, there is a wide range of opinions and observations detailing environmental change.

It does not appear that residents in At Bashy are facing any increased stress from current reductions in glacial area, although seasonal water scarcity remains a future concern for many. To date dramatic historical, social and political instabilities have strongly shaped local perspectives on change. People still identify the environment as the most important resource. Potentially future climatic changes, such as warmer temperatures and increases in precipitation, could result in positive impacts for herding livelihoods. Small reductions in runoff will not dramatically affect residents of the At Bashy Range due to their advantageous location at the head of the watershed. However, these same small reductions would have great downstream implications for agriculture, irrigation and energy generation.

Repeat Photography

Repeat photography can complement recent investigations based on remote sensing and computer modeling. It can provide a strong tool that visually represents changes. In my first months in Kyrgyzstan I can across photographs of glaciers taken in the At-Bashy Range in the 1960s that were incorporated into the USSR Catalog of Glaciers. Only a few photographs were suitable to document changes in glacial cover because in many of the photographs it was difficult to distinguish between seasonal snow coverage and glacial area. This summer I returned to two locations in the At Bashy Range on several occasions. In both cases even after repeat visits I was unable to return to the exact location of the original photograph. It appears that one of the photographs was possibly taken from aircraft. In addition to the difficulty of relocation efforts, the summer weather was less than ideal. The At- Bashy Range receives the majority of its precipitation in the summer, including snow at high elevations. This past winter was a record snow year and the mountains remained blanketed in seasonal snow for most of the summer.

In my attempts the resulting photographs do not offer much scientific value. They do highlight that retreat is not extreme and offer an interesting glance into the past.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

At Bashy Mountaineering Part II

The relationships I have cultivated with local people in Kyrgyzstan have provided numerous direct benefits crucial to my individual well being as well as my research goals. At unexpected times the relationships have had unexpected benefits. As Ben and I planned our final mountaineering trip into the At-Bashy Range we selected the Oshairak drainage in the center of the range for its aesthetic qualities on the map: the impressive size of the upper basin, the heavy concentration of large glaciers, and the presence of several of the range’s tallest peaks.
Ben and I with our Kyrgyz family, Asyl and Nurbek and four of their five girls: Aijarken, Aliza, Malika, Aijan

After tracing the Oshairak river back out to the At- Bashy valley, I was surprised when I realized that the grandparents of the Kyrgyz family I reside with in At-Bashy village live just a few kilometers from the entrance to our chosen drainage. With a few phones calls we had a place to stay, horses to carry our bags partway, and relatives that knew the way into the drainage. Instantly relieved of the major logistical and language complications, I was thrilled for the sudden unexpected convenience of relatives. In Kyrgyzstan climbing is the easy part, or at least relatively speaking. Just getting to the mountains is often the most difficult component of independent mountaineering here and despite my conversational Kyrgyz it remains the case even after almost a year. Although it is easy to find a taxi it is often difficult for local people in At Bashy to understand exactly why we are going into the mountains. Numerous times, taxi drivers or hired horsemen think that just anywhere in the mountains will be good enough. Conveying that we really truly want to go to this specific spot can often be confusing.

We hired a small old Russian Lada in At Bashy. After a dusty hour taxi ride south we were dropped off in a recently cut hayfield on the side of the dirt road leading south from the village of At Bashy to the much smaller village of Kazlybek. Grass season is in full swing in the At Bashy region, with all of valley’s lowland hay being cut for winter fodder for animals.

The parents of my “adopted” Kyrgyz family greeted us in true Kyrgyz fashion: chai, bread and lots of food. In customary Kyrgyz style, the parent’s youngest son Atilet (my “uncle”) lives there with his wife and newborn child. This tradition of the youngest son remaining with his parents is one of the many instances that illustrate the importance of family in Kyrgyz culture. It is unheard of for aging family members not to be taken care of and rural household units often consist of extended family. In addition to the immediate household, we were not the only guests staying that night. It was a cozy sleeping arrangement as nine of us slept spread across the floors in their tiny two room house.
The Oshairak Drainage. We attempted the peak on the left the following day

With Adielet and three horses we departed the following day, able to travel on horse a majority of the way up the drainage. The horses returned with Adielet and we walked several additional kilometers to the base of the largest glacier in the drainage to camp for the night. As dusk was settling Ben spotted a horseman with three horses descending a steep scree slope from a rocky 4000 meter pass that paralleled the glacier. After crossing the foot of the glacier he rode into our camp and it appeared that he was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him.
The yak herder
 As he smoked a cigarette he informed us he was a yak herder looking for lost animals and asked if we had seen any recently. Just a few hours prior we had seen two wander by our camp. He looked neither relieved nor impressed and just kept smoking. In my time here I had heard of herders ascending above the mountain valley pasture but had never witnessed it. Given my research interests in local perspectives of glacial retreat I was thrilled to speak (in very basic Kyrgyz conversation) after watching him cross the tongue of a glacier. We watched him depart admiring his horses’ ability to walk across the moraines and huge boulder fields.


At the head of the valley, we ascended the largest glacier in the Oshairak drainage. Several hours were spent negotiating a heavily crevassed section that required placing protection to cross delicate ice bridges. Upon reaching the upper section of the glacier we chose a camping location on a lateral moraine. The upper basin was encircled with a multitude of summits, and we identified and admired numerous alpine ice and snow routes.

The following day we attempted a prominent peak on the north side of the drainage. Directly from camp we climbed a snow gully that lead to a steep, icy and exposed ridge on the upper edge of a glacier which required careful climbing to reach a small shoulder. From here we walked a long snow ridge, before traversing a chossy section of fourth class rock. 30 meters from the summit we decided not continue as the final pyramid steepened considerably without opportunities for protection. With a storm rolling into the cirque, we descended an alternative snow coliour that fanned out onto the upper glacier. Looking back at the summit it appeared that approaching from the south would allow easier climbing to the summit. Regardless we were pleased with the quality of our climbing and the spectacular views.
Final Snow Ridge
Hmmm... the final chossy rock pyramid

Overnight the storm blanketed the area with a dusting of snow, but the skies did not clear. We decided we were not interested in returning to our first peak just to climb the final few meters, so we moved our attention elsewhere. We packed up camp and crossed the glacier to the south with hopes of climbing a very beautiful rock peak and exploring a rocky needle we had spotted. As we ascended the ridge we started looking for shelter as the storm gathered strength. High on the ridge, around 4300 meters, we found a small nook and set camp for the evening.

Winds shifted direction after dinner and picked up speed. We spent a sleepless night listening to the violent and continual rattling of the tent. The following morning as we attempted to melt snow we found neither of our lighters worked and there was only one match left. Unwilling to risk our last chance for coffee in the strong winds, we packed up camp and climbed a small scree peak just above camp before descending into the Chet Keltebek drainage. After a long scree descent of almost 1000 meters we found a sheltered area to boil water and rehydrate. After our considerable descent and with no reliable source of flame, we decided to head out two days earlier than anticipated slightly let down.

We walked out via the Chet Keltebek drainage stopping to admire an immense herd of yaks that probably belonged to the herder we had met on our first night. Above the green pastures the drainage bifurcated into several basins with glaciers pouring over their upper reaches. Many impressive mountains with great potential for alpine routes loomed in the distance.

The Chet Keltebek drainage converges with the Oshairak drainage several kilometers from the At Bashy Valley. In the foothills, just a few kilometers from reaching the dirt road, we camped for the night. Having not planned a taxi pick up, the following day we walked for several hours through several small village to reach the main road. After several warm beers and some lunch at a small cafĂ© we hitchhiked back to the village of At Bashy. The Kyrgyz family we live with ensured that before we returned to Bishkek Ben was well fed with meals such as laghman (noodles and mutton) and beshbemak (a whole sheep boiled with a few noodles). My Kyrgyz mother told me once, “A well fed man is a happy man”.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ak Tash

My imagination was spurred in June during a trip to Tash Rabat, located in the southern portion of the At Bashy Range, for the climbing potential of the area. Tash Rabat is an ancient stone structure dated to the 15th century that was used during the height of the Silk Road. Today, local and international tourists travel to the area to visit the stone structure with its beautiful dome that still remain tucked safely in the mountains.

Ben and I traveled to the area following our mountaineering trip in the northern portion of the range looking for rock climbing, rest and relaxation. The impressive overthrusts of the limestone cliffs are incredible aesthetic and from a distance it appeared that climbing and exploration would be abundant. Dozen of eagles continually soared above us riding summer thermals only disappearing when returning to their nests in the cliffs.The area we were in is know as Ak-Tash which means white rock. However in three days of exploring we were unable to find routes with protection opportunities with traditional climbing gear. We also struggled to find any top roping locations. The climbing potential is incredible and many walls looked like they could hold dozen of sport routes. However I would hesitate to promote bolting in the area given the remote location of the area and the abundant eagle nesting.

As our original intentions changes we started spending more time with my local friends from a previous visit who run on of the yurt camps in the valley for tourists coming to Tash Rabat. Sabyrbek and his family allowed us to live in one of their yurts and I took to helping them cook, clean and do chores. The few tourists that filtered through during the week seemed to think it strange that an American was "working" in such a remote place. I have found that helping is the quickest way to peoples hearts and the best way to understand the life and intricacies of a culture.

Our week ended on not the best notes as Ben succumbed once again to intestinal issues. We retreated to At Bashy and then to Bishkek. A week of rest and calorie recompensation for Ben has us feeling strong and eager to return. Today we head back to At Bashy for our last three weeks exploring, climbing and sharing life with local people.


This post is intended to provide a more detailed background of the social and physical features of the At-Bashy area...

The At Bashy Mountain Range is located within the Naryn Oblast, one of the seven oblasts that constitute Kyrgyzstan. Although the Naryn oblast covers ¼ of the country’s land area, it only hold 5% of the country’s population (271,280 people) making it the most sparsely populated oblast in Kyrgyzstan. The majority of the oblast’s  residents live in rural villages. The economic and cultural ties to the landscape are reflected by a strong cultural pride. The Naryn oblast is often considered the most “Kyrgyz” in terms of ethnicity and is considered by many to be the Kyrgyz cultural heartland.  READ MORE....

Located just north of the Chinese border within the country of Kyrgyzstan, the At-Bashy Mountain Range stretches for 160 km (100miles) with peaks in elevation up to 4800 meters (about 15,500 ft).There are over 190 glaciers in the At-Bashy region. In the At-Bashy Range, maximum precipitation and glacier accumulation occurs in the spring and summer when the weakened Siberian high allows for moisture to arrive from the west and north coinciding with maximum glacier melt rates. READ MORE.....

Tradition of Nomadic Pastoralism: The Kyrgyz Herder

The practice of semi-nomadic pastoralism is strongly rooted in Kyrgyz cultural identity as the practice extends regionally back thousands of years. Despite drastic political transformations over the past two centuries, livestock has remained the most important component of rural livelihoods in Kyrgyzstan. Today, pastoralism continues to be the main livelihood for many rural Kyrgyz as topographic and climatic constraints limit crop cultivation. READ MORE....

Saturday, August 7, 2010

First Ascents

The earliest descriptions of mountains and glaciers in the Tien Shan were from travelers of the Silk Road, such as the seventh century Chinese monk Xuan Zang who wrote of snow transformed into ice rocks that never melt. The first detailed recordings did not occur until the 19th century, lead first by European explorer Piotr Semenov in 1858. Other early explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries climbed a few summits, but remote ranges were not fully explored until the Soviet began training mountaineers in the 1950’s. Soviet alpinism in Kyrgyzstan was focused on the highest summits and training occurred near Issyk Kul lake and Bishkek, leaving a majority of peaks in the Tien Shan unclimbed. Despite an absence of records, select peaks throughout the At-Bashy and other ranges were climbed for surveying purposes to generate Soviet maps. Many of these peaks still bear survey posts which contradict recent claims by Western climbers that these ranges are unexplored and their peaks unclimbed. Additionally in the At Bashy range local Kyrgyz have been utilizing mountain pastures for grazing and have travelled across high altitute passes for hundreds of centuries. Although many peaks still remain unclimbed, assertions that the At-Bashy was unexplored until recently should be considered disingenuous.

Given its political history, Kyrgyzstan has only recently become an international mountaineering and climbing destination. The past fifteen years has brought an increasing number of climbing expeditions to Kyrgyzstan, many in search of remote and unclimbed areas. Despite the plethora of unclimbed peaks, it can often be difficult to determine what has been climbed, as historic and local information is often difficult to find. However, the commercial appeal of virgin summits is strong for independent and guided expeditions and continues to drive mountaineering in the Tien Shan. The Kyrgyz Mountaineering Federation, a semblance of an organization, is attempting to work with the American Alpine Club to document expeditions throughout Kyrgyzstan. However it still can be a questionable exercise to claim a first ascent, especially on lower elevation peaks, such as those in the At-Bashy.

Pat Littlejohn and the International School of Mountaineering claim the first expedition into the At-Bashy range in 2003. Several other expeditions have occurred since then, including a repeat visit from Littlejohn. These expeditions have been recorded in the American Alpine Journal and shared via other online and printed publications. Littlejohn will be returning with two expeditions this summer to climb in the At-Bashy. Despite first ascent fever and the relative ease of claiming first ascents in the At-Bashy, we are hesitant to jump on the bandwagon given the presence of surveyor posts in the range and the lack of written Soviet exploration records. We look forward to returning to Bishkek in September and further inquiring about Soviet cartographic expeditions to expand what we know and have observed in the At-Bashy Range.
Ben and a Soviet era survey post on the summit of an unnamed peak in the At-Bashy Range

In our mountaineering trips in the At Bashy, potentially some of our ascents are firsts and likely others are not. A surveyor post or a summit carin is a clear indication of a prior ascent, but the lack thereof does not eliminate the possibility of a previous ascent. Despite the appeal of a first ascent to any climber, the semantics of defining our ascents as first or seconds is not a main motivating factor. The remoteness of the range, the unknown nature of our routes, the beauty of the landscape, our interactions with locals, the humor in dealing with local logistics- these are the things that motivate and inspire us.

At Bashy Mountaineering Part I : THE NORTH

A map is a visual gateway, a landscape written on paper that comes alive in the mind of a keen reader. Our first mountaineering trip into the At-Bashy Range was inspired by nothing more than pouring over maps. Historic Soviet maps served as the first reference, with satellite imagery, digital elevation models and Google Maps providing us more accurate and detailed information. We were inspired by a unique looking cirque with three +4400 meter peaks on the south end. While still in Bishkek we sketched out a rough route to explore the area over seven days, gathering navigation coordinates and elevations to aid our trip.

After Ben’s recovery from a multitude of ailments, we left Bishkek via shared taxi, a seven hour drive to At-Bashy. As a majority of people in Kyrgyzstan do not own vehicles, a multitude of transportation options exist including buses, minibuses and taxis. Shared taxis, most often small sedans, are private vehicles whose seats are filled by paying occupants. Given the rough roads and long distances, taxis are the quickest and most popular form of transportation. We filled the entire trunk of our tiny shared taxi with mountaineering and camping gear. Of all our undertakings, our greatest exposure to danger occurs on the roads here, as our driver sped in typical fashion the entire way aggressively passing on blind corners, rattling over potholes and blasting loud pop music the entire way.

After arriving in At-Bashy and spending half a day with the Kyrygz family we live with there, we headed north to the tiny village of Ak Muz, which translates from Kyrgyz to English as White Ice. I had made advanced arrangements through a friend, Kymbat-eje, who lives there to hire a horse to carry our gear part of the way into the mountains. In Ak Muz, while drinking endless cups of tea we discussed the feasibility of using horses to access the Taldy-Suu drainage. Kymbat’s 18 year of son, Chingiz, was going to accompany us. He affirmed us that it should only take four or five horse to travel up the drainage with horses towards the pass over into the Ak-Say valley.

DAY 1: Humor and Horses
After spending a windy night camped in Kymbat’s yard, we departed early in morning with Chingiz. Our initial transportation logistics did not manifest as we had imagined as Kymbat-eje had different ideas about which there was no discussion to be had. Instead of us being on foot, with our bags on one horse and Chingiz on the other, Ben and I ended up on one horse together while our bags and Chingiz loaded down on the other.

We left Ak Muz in the wrong direction despite our plan to head straight across the river as discussed the previous day and confirmed by consulting the map. Chingiz took us on an hour detour to travel upstream to cross the At- Bashy River before retracing our progress on the opposite bank. We finally arrived at the tiny village of Taldy-Suu at the base of the drainage we wished to travel up. We provoked a great deal of curiosity and it seemed every man in the village had input for our route, with unanimous directives to a different drainage that apparently offered easier passage. Only with persistence were we able to clarify that we did not just want to go anywhere in the mountains, but that we had a specific destination up the Taldy Suu drainage. Four hours after leaving Ak Muz and only having traveled four air kilometers we remained humored, but our patience was beginning to give way to frustration. After a complete tour of the village and numerous route changes, we set up the right drainage into the mountains. Ben and I rode a few hundred meters up, then dismounted and moved our backpacks onto our horse. In the pouring rain, we walked several more kilometers to a point were the horses could no longer easily travel before sending Chingiz and the horses back to Ak Muz. We camped at our drop off location, spending the afternoon doing some reconnaissance towards the pass.

DAY 2: Geographical Gaffe
Awaking to zero visibility, completely enshrouded in mist, we headed towards the Taldy-Suu pass. Although our reconnaissance the previous day helped us find our way initially, the snow, steep moraines, and limited visibility made navigation complicated. Reaching a small saddle, a strange basin lay before us. It looked nothing like the pass we had expected. Without stopping to reassess, we continued in the thick clouds, finally reaching a semblance of a pass as the mist began to clear. Befuddled, we pulled out the compass and the GPS. It was immediately clear we were not at our intended destination, so where were we? A few moments later, we made the embarrassing realization that we were looking down the valley we had just camped in…we had walked in an ascending semicircle through the moraines.

With a bearing for the correct col, we corrected our route, ascending to the 4000 meter Taldy-Suu pass in the early afternoon. Just below us lay the Beyyt Kashka-Suu drainage and our destination cirque. The entire basin was snow filled. Glaciers clung to the higher peaks, with the green pastures of the Ak-Say valley visible in the distance. We descended 50 meters and set up our tent on a small exposed mossy ridge. With the dedication of trail laborers, we built a small windbreak for our tent from rocks. Given we had only brought the tent fly and ground cloth, our construction proved useful as nightfall brought strong winds and snow.

Peering out of the tent prompted no rush for an alpine start given the ten centimeters of new snow blanketing the basin. Clearing weather came in the late morning, which we took advantage of to climb a small peak just west of camp. We ascended snow to the base of an arĂȘte leading to the summit, before enjoying moderate (Class III/IV+) climbing to the summit (4390m). Given the thin coating of ice across the rocks on the ridge, we descended from the summit down a large scree field to a glacier before walking back to camp. The afternoon brought more snow, wind and below freezing temperatures.

The storm cleared overnight, giving us the weather window we had been hoping for. Early in the morning, we set out with intentions to climb the three highest summits in the area, all linked along the south side of the cirque by high ridges. We ascended via a glacier to a col between the west and middle peak. Despite the clear skies, a strong wind persisted and temperatures remained cold. At the col, tanding in blowing spindrift, we watched two wolves cross moraines and disappear into the valley below us. Kyrgyz people had often questioned us if were afraid of wolves when we traveled into the mountains, but we were unsure if a wolf population even existed in the At-Bashy. A general dislike and fear of wolves persists here, similar to the sentiment that existed in the western U.S. in the 20th century. Given that we harbor no hatred or fear, it was a special treat for us to watch the wolves travel through the rugged landscape below.

From the col we first climbed the western peak via a rocky ridge that lead to steep snow which required the use of crampons and ice axes. The snow dome summit (4561m) provided incredible views of the heavily glaciated central portion of the range.

We retraced our footsteps to the col to ascend the mellow ridge to the middle summit (4535m) which had been previously climbed as indicated by the presence of a geographical survey post at the top. We continued east, descending a steep, exposed and double corniced ridge. Both sides of the ridge were +50 degrees, with one side bulletproof and the other wind loaded. The new snow and strong solar radiation made us hesitant. Unable to easily protect our descent, we carefully down climbed the ridge to a steep slope and eventually to the col below. The ascent of the last peak in the enchainment was the most involved.

Although the climbing was only moderate (Class III/IV), it demanded attention given the exposure on both sides of the ridge. The climbing eased, but the upper third required ascent of a steep a snow ridge to the final upper slopes and summit pyramid (4546m).

With still blue bird skies, we enjoyed panoramic views of the entire Ak-Say valley which we had walked the length of two weeks prior. We descended via the same route to the col, before down climbing into a new glacier basin. Avoiding exposed glacial ice, we had a single 30 meter rappel through a cliff band that brought us to the base of the peak. Our final few kilometers of the day took around a small glacial lake, across old moraines and a final plod though soft snowfields to camp.

We took a rest day doing absolutely nothing but sleeping, talking B.S., laying in the sun and eating the copious amount of food we packed in.

Feeling we had explored the basin to our satisfaction, we packed up camp and ascended out of the basin to the west with full packs. We dropped our backpacks at a col, climbing the final peak in the cirque (approximately 4400m- forgot to take the GPS). We then descended into the Djol-Bozoshty drainage, which holds the Bozoshty Pass and a horse trail that herders use to cross the At Bashy Range. This was the drainage that Chingiz and the men of Taldy-Suu initially wanted to take us into, as it is one of only two easily crossable passes in the entire At-Bashy Range. A long scree descent brought us to lush green pastures filled with horses. We encountered several men on horseback traveling between the Ak-Say and the At Bashy valley. We shared our lunch with a lone herder. He generously shared his kymys (traditional Kyrgyz drink made of fermented mare’s milk) which was just as delicious as we remembered after several weeks without. We camped near the base of the drainage near a small forest enjoying the warmer weather and lower altitude. Kyrgyzstan is a vastly treeless landscape (50% of the country’s forest has been cut down in the last 30 years) and seeing a forested skyline made me think of Montana and my impending departure this fall from Kyrgyzstan.

We hiked out the remainder of the drainage to the village of Myy, from which without any hassle or unnecessary haggling we found a man with a car who took us back to At-Bashy to enjoy warm temperature, feasting on watermelon with our Kyrgyz family, and a washing in the public bathhouse.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bishkek Lassitude

On the Glacier beneath Chok Tal
We are headed back to At-Bashy, this time headed into the mountains as opposed to around them. After our circumnavigation of the Range two weeks ago Ben and I journey to Issyk Kul Region to lay on the beach and attempt Chok Tal, the tallest peak in the Kungey Ala-Too. The warm weather proved fruitful for our sunburns but in the end prevented us from reaching the summit due to soft snow conditions. Returning to Bishkek, Ben succumbed to a various amalgamation of illness. After a week of rest, he is mostly recovered and we are ready to get away from the hot smoggy streets of Bishkek. We will be spending the next month mountaineering and exploring in the At-Bashy Range. Until then!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Circumnavigation of the At-Bashy Range

To commencement the beginning of our summer exploring the At-Bashy Range, Ben and I recently traveled through the extent of my study area, circling the entire At-Bashy Mountain Range. We walked the extent of the range from north to south walking over 180 km from the At-Bashy valley over into the Ak-Say Valley, south to the shores of Chatyr-Kul, before reaching Torugart Pass on the Chinese border and hitchhiking back to At-Bashy. This journey has been one I have wanted to make since the inception of my time here in Kyrgyzstan.
Although it was physical journey, covering significant mileage and completing a defined geographic path, the trip proved to be more of a social journey more than anything. The natural beauty of the landscape, the vastness of the high pastures, the stunning views of the mountains were superceded by our interaction with the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz herders.

As we walked from the gorgeous wooded valley of Bosogo and then across the wide open pastures of the Ak-Say Valley, we would frequently pass yurts next to glacial fed streams tucked into hillsides. Incredible hospitality was extended to us in almost every interaction we had with these herders and their families. At the least, we were always invited in for kymys (fermented mare’s milk), chay (tea), nan (bread) and kaimuk (fresh cream). Many people offered much more…. a meal, the slaughtering of a sheep and a place to sleep in their yurt. Or perhaps we need a donkey or even better a horse for the rest of our journey? Most often we did not accept the extent of people’s hospitality. Although we never declined the plethora of kymys or chay that existed at every yurt, we usually turned down offers of food and a place to stay due to our desire to minimize our impact as well as to cover decent distances of ground each day. It also often seemed the most elaborate offers came early in the morning, when we had traveled very short distances from our previous night’s camp.

Peoples’ perceptions of our journey varied greatly. One old man told us it would take over a month to walk to our intended destination. Most clearly had no envy of our undertaking, but still took great interest in us. Most people were surprised we had no horse, no car nearby, and no yurt. Where did we sleep? What did we eat? Children in particular took great interest in our tent and our backpacks.

Recollecting my observations and the interactions we enjoyed seems superficial at best, but I hope this narrative of our journey provides a portrait of life on pasture.

July 4th- Day 1- After taking in the mal bazaar (animal market) of At Bashy we headed north with my Kyrgyz family in their rusty Volkswagen van along the bumpy track to the northern tip of the range. After several stops for picnicking and flower picking, we were dropped off and to the great doubt of my family headed west. A short distance brought us to the yurt of Taliabek, an old herder whom I had met and interviewed previously in the spring. He was thrilled to receive us as guests and even more thrilled to receive photos of him and his family that I had brought.
We pitched our tent between his two yurts, spending the evening observing livestock, cutting logs with a crosscut and playing soccer with his grandchildren (U.S. vs Kyrgyzstan, World Cup match of Bosogo). We fell asleep surrounded heavy breathing of cattle, our sleep only interrupted by the sloppy tongues of cows against the tent.

July 5th- Day 2- After joining the family for tea and bread, we set off against Taliabek’s advice for us to continue along the dirt track used by vehicles, instead opting to follow horse trails that passed over to the Ak-Say Valley. Our trail immediately led us to a yurt where we began our frequent consumption of kymys, fermented mare’s milk.

Foals are kept tied to a line in the front yard of yurts, keeping mares at close range for frequent milking. Once milk is gently extracted from the horses’ teats it is transferred into a large wooden barrel that had been smoked with pine cones and native wood. Here it is frequently churned with a large wooden stick, called a bishkek. Fermentation occurs during churning producing within several hours, kymys: a thick, fizzy, slightly sour, delicious liquid that is prided by all Kyrgyz and redeemed for its health benefits.

Walking up to the headwaters of the At-Bashy River and making several creek crossing we began our ascent of the pass into the Ak-Say Valley. We bypassed herders fishing the creeks and joined several for kymys spread across a saddle blanket. Crossing the divide, we were tucked against the northern most peaks of the At-Bashy Range and were granted incredible views. Upon descending into the Ak-Say Valley, we set up camp in a short break of weather between incoming afternoon thunderstorms that are generated every afternoon along the At-Bashy range. Some of the herders we met earlier in the day passed our tent at nightfall and invited us to join them at their yurt for the night. The downpour kept us in place unwilling to dismantle our tent in the wet and darkness. Skies cleared at sunset, presenting an incredible sunset.

July 6th- Day 3-We awoke to be invited up to the yurt of a family living upstream from our camp. Although each families’ yurt has its own decorations most are set up in similar manner with shyrdaks (felt rugs) spread across the floor and a small table or dosktun in the center of the yurt. Yurts are made locally and consist of a felt covering spread across a wooden frame. Cooking and heating is provided by the burning of dung in a small stove that is near the entrance to the yurt. At night, tushooks (large mats of fabric or wool) are laid out across the floor of the yurt for sleeping. Personal belongings are sparse, almost everything present is functional for cooking and herding. People subsist primarily on bread, the milk products of horse, cow and yak (kymys, milk, cream, butter, and yogurt) and meat. Most meals we observed consisted of bread, kymys and chay.
While the men of the family that invited us in had departed for their daily herding duties, we joined the women and children in drinking kymys and several bowls of hot foamy cow’s milk before starting walking for the day. We could not find the yurt of the fishing herders we had met the previous day and headed southeast into the heart of the Ak-Say Valley. We chose to stay off the dirt track that intersects the center of the valley, instead walking on horse trails and more often than not just across the grasslands. Walking was easy as we passed large herds of livestock in river bottoms. In the afternoon we intercepted a single rider on horseback, who invited us to his yurt. Approaching the yurt, children came running on foot to greet us. Joining the entire family with the ritual kymys and chay, the ritual questions followed. Why do Ben and I not have horses with us? And more importantly why do we not have children?
Observing the simple existence of the family it was easy to romanticize about life on pasture. Despite the hard work of herding and living off the land, it was apparent that they were genuinely happy and despite their simple material objects, content.
We continued onward that evening, walking well into the evening before setting up camp amidst a collection of strange rock piles. A short discussion and a consultation with my old soviet map of the area proved our suspicions, we had set up camp in the middle of an old cemetery. For our own peace of mind and out of respect, we moved camp to the opposite river bank.

July 7th- Day 4 -Waking and walking, it was not long before we walked into the front yard of a yurt. The women were hard at work separating yak kaimuk (cream) and making sarymyy (butter, literal translation yellow fat). After watching the mares be milk and two dead yaks be hauled in we continued our walk in the scorching afternoon sun.The expanse of open space of the high altitude pasture is incredible. Gazing out across the horizon, we literally stumbled onto a yurt. After kymys our host, Aldenbek and his wife Nazgul, invited us to stay for a meal and to spend the night. Feeling good about the terrain we had traveled, we decided to stay, feasting on ibex, riding horses, and enjoying the company of the children and the slightly strange aunt. Nightfall brought a hoard of visiting neighbors, fried fish and a bottle of vodka. The Kyrgyz do not take drinking or toasting lightly, I opted out but Ben was wrangled into finishing the bottle and listening, but not really understanding, the tall tales of herding. We stayed up well into the night with the men, drinking tea by candlelight while the children sat silently in the backdrop of darkness around us.

July 8th- Day 5-After a great deal of thanks and boding farewell to Aldenbek, we headed out ready to cover some good distance. Just a few minutes brought us to the yurt of our previous night’s visitors and mandatory tea and kymys. Declining food and the slaughtering of a sheep, we headed out only to run into a string of yurts of other men we had met the night before. Unwilling to displease our friends, we partook in a incredible routine of kymys, chay and nan at each yurt. Each family seemed so proud to host us. Quite quickly we consumed several liters of kymys a piece, but somehow were able to continue our consumption from yurt to yurt. One family had captured a small wolf pup which was chained in the front yard.
Across the river at another yurt, we watched the shearing of sheep. Ben was challenged playfully by a young herder to a wrestling match, in which Kyrgyzstan was victorious (you can’t let the host country lose on their own turf, can you?). After an entire morning of feasting and chatting, we were concerned about how little progress we had made. One of the herders offered to take us some distance by horseback and we negotiated a price. After a lengthy roundup and more tea, we were finally off, each with our own horse, accompanied by three mounted Kyrgyz men. It was not long, before we stopped once again for kymys and nan at a neighboring yurt. Only an hour after our start, it became apparent that the price was up for negotiation. Unwilling to pay more, we departed a bit frustrated from our guides on foot. That afternoon, feeling motivated, we covered around 25 miles. The landscape was increasingly drier and the yurts sparse. We had entered the heart of the Ak-say, one of the most remote valleys in Kyrgyzstan. Finally finding water, we camped for the night almost reaching the divide between Ak-Say and Chatyr-Kul basins.

July 9th- Day 6-Waking early, we headed south intercepting the dirt track that follows the Chinese border. We had a brief encounter with a brigade of soldiers on foot patrolling the triple barbed wire fence of the border. They had difficulty understanding how we came to be where we were, as it seems by traveling through the high pastures we had bypassed several checkpoints located along the road. Fortunately we produced our necessary border permit and identifications and proceeded without trouble.
We crossed the divide into the Chatyr Kul Basin, now walking above 3600 meters (11,880 feet). We were beckoned over and invited up to a yurt set against several abandoned houses along the track. The Soviets built several settlements in the area to support collective livestock herding operations that have long been vacant for the past two decades. One man and his family were working to remodel one of these houses for their use in the summer.

After a brief visit, we continued on the road, bypassing another checkpoint, before walking the long, long last miles to Torugart Pass and the main road, arriving just before dusk. One of two main roads in Kyrgyzstan, the road over Torugart Pass is the main route of transport for goods from China. We stayed at a tiny truck stop which was nothing more than a dilapidated collection of Soviet trailers, rough looking men drinking vodka, various trucks, and several small families.
Ben promptly became sick after eating eggs and bread. In the trailer of a woman we befriended, we had a poor night’s sleep on the floor as border soldier’s barged in at 4 a.m. looking for more vodka and snacks.
July 10th-Day 7 -A long morning wait, with entertainment from local children, finally brought a fleet of trucks across the Chinese border, from which we were able to hitch a ride with a Russian driver headed to Bishkek with a convoy of several other semi-trucks. Squeezed in the front seat, the drive back to At-Bashy was rough and bumpy, slow, and long, taking the entire day. Just a few kilometers outside of At-Bashy the fleet stopped for a flat tire. With darkness closing in on us we were impatient at the proximity of home, so we hopped out and were promptly picked up by a bypassing car. We covered the last miles of our circumnavigation with two drunken Kyrgyz men before returning home to hot food and my Kyrgyz family to relive the tales of our kymys drinking over the following days.