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 The natural beauty of the landscape, the vastness of the high pastures, the stunning views of the mountains were superceded by our interaction with the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz herders.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.


Almost a month has passed since the arrival of my friend Ben Logan. A California native who has worked and climbed across the western U.S., he come to join me for three months in Kyrgyzstan. His presence as a friend and mountaineering partner here in Kyrgyzstan facilitates a much higher level of freedom and safety than I was ever able to experience as an individual.

From previous traveling experience, I often identify myself as a married women in foreign cultures. In Kyrgyzstan it has proved to be useful as I spent most of the winter traveling, working and living as a solo female- a difficult concept for local men to grasp. When Ben made his plans concrete in January, my imaginary husband was gifted a name. Our "marriage" here is highly functional, allowing us to stay with families together, travel without suspicion and be more socially accepted. Together we take great humor in answering the ubiquitous questions about our lack of children and future plans for procreation.

For our remaining two months, we are piecing together an itinerary for mountaineering objectives in the At-Bashy Range that will make the most of our time and limited resources. Despite a strong emphasis on efficiency, we also wish to allow for a degree of spontaneity within the project's framework. Simplicity is our mantra and we will be utilizing local means and approaching our mountain forays with minimalism and flexibility. Thank you the the American Alpine Club Nikwax Alpine Bellwether Grant and the American Alpine Club Research Grant for supporting the cost of Ben's participation.