Part One: The Hike
It’s an amazing and strange thing when a long standing plan comes to fruition. Expectations dissolve and the reality is something you never could have imagined; afterwards you are euphoric and a little sad.
It was about nine months ago when Roisin floated the idea of going on a trip together for our 30th birthdays. Originally — and I’m not entirely sure why this idea was scrapped — we were going to spend a week in Costa Rica, drinking rum and mooching around on a beach in celebration of our milestone. Somehow, the plan morphed into going to Kyrgyzstan to trek in the Northern Himalayas for a week and raising money for charity projects there. And I’m so glad it did. It was one heck of an experience.
In total, we raised over $51,000 for the projects in Karakol. We toured some of the projects that the donations will be going toward, and we were all so impressed and inspired. Next post, I’ll tell you all about the projects and the people.
Roisin gathered a group of incredible women for the trek. I only met them in Bishkek (the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic), three days before the trek started, but we all got on like a house on fire. Our group dynamic made all the difference when the going got tough, and I’m so grateful for such awesome trekking buddies.
Roisin’s aunt Florence and her friend Sue — a few years older than the rest of us, but they put us thirty-somethings to shame on the trail.
Kate, who works at Oxford colleges with Rois — a statuesque, Australian blonde with a crackling sense of humour.
Kris, who also works at Oxford — a gorgeous, hilarious New Zealander who kept us all motivated and in great spirits.
In what will shock absolutely no one who has heard stories of my
shenanigans travels, our original plans were immediately dashed when we arrived in Karakol. It was snowing in the mountains, and the first two passes we were supposed to cross were closed. So we had to change our route and start at the end, at a guest house and hot springs called Altyn Arashan (which we quickly nicknamed Azkaban).
NB: Florence says I’ve been playing fast and loose with the English language this whole trip, i.e., I keep using words like ‘guest house’, ‘road’ and ‘bathroom’.
Day One: Horror Journey to Altyn Arashan
2,500 metres above sea level.
Grim day. It was overcast and there was a light drizzle of rain when we were dropped off at the start of the ‘road’ that led up to Altyn Arashan. It could have been a lovely stroll along the rollicking Altynarashan river, if not for the steadily increasing rain. It fell and fell, harder and colder, as we hiked further up the mountain. Slowly, surely, all of our ‘water proof’ gear was soaked through. Jackets and trousers stuck to clammy skin; limbs went numb. There was a grimace on every face.
On a particularly steep and muddy section of the trail, Roisin fell and twisted her ankle, aggravating an ankle injury from adolescence. Thankfully, the Russian military jeep that trundled up and down the road, transporting supplies and people, overtook us shortly thereafter and Roisin was able to get a ride the rest of the way up. There was only room for one, however, so the rest of us had to keep trudging on until the jeep returned for us. The air thinned as we climbed higher, and we struggled between wanting to stop to catch our breath, and wanting to keep going to keep the blood flowing.
The road began to slope sharply upwards and the temperature dropped suddenly; the rain turned to snow. A bleak winter-scape descended. We were all ready to pack it in. The jeep finally returned for us, with only one and half kilometres left to go, and we gratefully clambered in, wet and miserable, like cats after a particularly harrowing bath. Kate took one look at the driver and nearly got right back out of the vehicle to take her chances in the snow — he was a cagey looking character with only one working eye. It was easily one of the scariest drives I’ve ever endured (the Bolivian death road only wins because of length). To his credit, the one-eyed kid was a helluva driver.
Camping was out of the question, so we were bundled into the ‘guest house’, which was owned by an eccentric, craggy faced man who wore army fatigues and constantly talked, in a booming Russian accent, about war and yetis. A fire was gradually coaxed from wet wood, clothes were strewn on every surface to dry and someone broke out the cognac. The hot springs were a godsend that first, awful night. A “hate spasm” would have been a considerable upgrade.
Day Two: Altercation with Donkey
Absolutely beautiful scenery: behemoth mountains dusted in snow, yurts squatting in the valley like mushrooms. Very nice from inside, but did not inspire much enthusiasm for more hiking. We loitered around the shack all morning, waiting to see what the weather would do. After lunch, we went on a day hike up to a small lake. Snow was ankle high. Herds of horses, cows and sheep scudded across the alpine fields. Vast improvement from the first day, but we were not sure how the rest of the week would pan out.
By dinner time, altitude sickness hit me like a bag of wet cement. I spent a long, freezing, horrendous night running outside to the ‘bathrooms’. The worst part was that someone had tied up a donkey outside the toilets and every time I approached, he turned his back and I thought he was fixing to kick me. I spent a great deal of time cursing that heinous donkey.
Day Three: Calling in Sick
I was out of commission for the whole day. Meanwhile, the others were sent on a sort of altitude acclimatization hike with our guide, Lida. They were gone for ten hours, and came back sunburnt and sore and exhausted. Lida, who was worth her weight in gold, took what she saw that day and planned a route for us for the next three days. While everyone was generally fit and prepared, the altitude made us all feel like morbidly lazy chain smokers trying to run a marathon. And since we started at the end of the hike, we were at the highest elevation level; there was no opportunity to acclimatize slowly and that made everything much harder.
Day Four: Up, Up, All the Time Up
3,700 metres above sea level
The sun shone brightly, the mountains changed their white sweaters for stark granite and moss. We packed for a three day, two night excursion up to Ara-Kul lake. I felt better enough to hike again, but unfortunately it was Kate’s turn for altitude sickness and she had to return to Karakol.
I asked Lida what the terrain would be like and she said, “up, up, all the time up”. And how.
We took it slow, and Roisin powered through in spite of her sore ankle. Camped underneath the pass we were to ascend the following day. Did not look like there was a way up; it appeared to be a 90 degree angle. Freezing night in the tent. Went out to relieve myself in the middle of the night while everyone was sleeping, and it looked like the milky way was exploding from one of the mountain peaks. I felt a great, heavy sense of how ancient the mountains are, and how indifferent.
Day Five: Ara-Kul Lake
3,800 metres above sea level
Today I learned that I’m afraid of heights. We climbed the ‘pass’ (another Kyrgyz euphemism), 100 metres straight up a slippery mess of gravel and mud, like a StairMaster from hell. Repeated to myself over and over: don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down. Last fifteen metres was snow and ice, and extremely slippery.
The top made it all worth it. We popped up onto a corridor that connected two peaks, just wide enough to walk on comfortably. And on the other side, cradled between two mountain ranges, was a shimmering, opalescent turquoise lake.
The descent was soul-curdling. Another night under the lee of the mountain; shared chocolate and a starlit campfire.
Day Six: Return to Karakol
Easy descent to Altyn Arashan. Another jarring jeep ride back to Karakol. Along the way, we recapped the horrendous hike up at the beginning of the week: there’s where Kate refused to go any further; there’s where Roisin fell on her ankle; there’s where Jamie was very nearly knocked off the mountainside by a vehicle. Divine evening of hot showers and chilled sparkling wine in Karakol.
All in all, it was quite the experience. At times, I wondered what in the world I was thinking agreeing to this mad idea (for our 31st birthdays, I think we’ll stick to Costa Rica!), but it was more than worth it in the end. The mountains were stunning, I gained four new, wonderful friends, and a new appreciation for this trekking business.
But most of all, it was worth it for all the money we raised for the amazing people of the Kyrgyz Republic. More on that in the next post.