It’s not terribly cold when we wake up in the morning. All in all, it was a pretty good night of sleep considering that it was our first night in a tent in a good long while. I did my usual tossing and turning, and there was some kind of loud blast of an alarm that was pretty hard to figure out in the middle of the night. Other than that it was pretty uneventful overall.
There isn’t any sign of life from Urmat and Adis’ tent, so we grab the binoculars and the long lens and walk along the river in search of that pretty yellow and black bird with the long tail we saw yesterday. We get pretty close to the female this time before she flies off to the opposite bank where she attracts the attention of two males who attempt to mate with her.
We find a pretty spot to sit by the river and take in the scene for a bit. While we are there, a horseman and his young son ride up and cross the river right in front of us. It’s impressive what good horsemen the Kyrgyz are!
We head back to camp once we see that the boys are up, and we have time to filter some water from the river before breakfast is served. Breakfast is interesting. I figured we would be having some type of porridge and hopefully an egg, but boy did I guess wrong. Instead, we have a cabbage salad, cups of instant mashed potatoes and homemade bread with processed cheese slices. It’s a little unconventional, but it’s a step up from our typical backpacker breakfast, so we aren’t complaining.
After breakfast, we finish packing up our day packs. We are headed to Ailampa Lake for the day and then will return back to our camp for the evening. Adis is busy saddling up the horse. We figure that he is going to ride along with us, but we guess wrong once again. It turns out that we are going to have to ford the river, and that is going to happen right now!
Neither of us have much horseback riding experience, so this should be interesting. I let Matt go first, and I can already start to feel my adrenaline pumping as he climbs up onto the saddle. Urmat gets on behind him and is handed Matt’s pack by Adis who is, at the same time, trying to keep the horse still until they are all settled. Through the water they go, up easily to the other side. Urmat jumps off the horse with ease and then helps Matt off.
Now it’s my turn. Urmat comes back across the river, dismounts and then helps me up. It’s all I can do to stretch my foot up to the stirrup. I barely get it in, and Urmat tells me to jump. What do you mean jump? I think. I reach up for whatever I can grab hold of on the saddle and then will myself in an upward motion, using whatever upper arm strength I can muster.
To my surprise, I somehow manage to get up and swing my free leg over the saddle. The horse is a little jumpy, sensing my nerves no doubt, and Adis gets him to stand still by cooing a trilled errrr, which the horse immediately responds to. I am impressed.
Urmat jumps on, grabs my bag and guides the horse slowly across the river. The water is only shin high on the horse, and he takes the rapids with ease. Before I know it, we are safely on the other side. Urmat jumps off, and now it’s my turn to dismount. I swing my leg over and slowly lower myself until my foot finally finds the ground. Hallelujah!
It takes one final trip across the river to get our poles and to bring Adis over who will take the horse back to camp. Once we are all on the other side, Urmat is all smiles and says proudly in his broken English, “Horse bridge!,” giving us a big thumbs up.
For the first ten minutes of hiking I can still feel my adrenaline pumping from the horse ride, but, to tell you the truth, it sure beats fording a glacial-fed river on our own. Perhaps we are still a bit traumatized by our recent Gila Wilderness excursion where we nearly froze our toes off crossing the river? I’ll try to remind myself of that when we return from our hike this afternoon and have to do it all over again.
We are walking up the valley following Urmat as we pass yurt camp after yurt camp. Occasionally, we try to have a conversation, but that typically lasts for only a few questions. Do we have kids? No. Is he married? No. What do they use that huge pile of wood beside the yurt for? Cooking? Heating? Yes. No. We’re not really sure.
We do manage to get an answer about the loud noise in the middle of the night that sounded like a car alarm. The only thing we can imagine is that it came from one of the cars that is parked across the river from the yurt camp. Urmat nods yes but, a few minutes later, shows us his phone with “milk collection truck” displayed in Google Translate. This must be what James told us about the other day. Every morning a truck will go around to all the yurts in the jailoo collecting milk into one large vessel to sell down in the town of Karakol. We make a mental note to make sure we get up if we hear that again tomorrow morning. That’s something we need to see!
According to the map, the walk up the valley is about 7.5 kilometers, and there isn’t exactly a trail per se. We follow animal tracks and the path of least resistance as we do our best to avoid the wet, soggy areas and all the piles of dung left by the cows and horses we pass feeding in the long meadow. We keep the river to our left and occasionally have to cross small streams as we get closer and closer to the wall of a mountain standing guard at the end of the valley.
Urmat tells us that the lake is just at the base of the mountain, and it’s a sight to behold when we finally crest the last ridge hiding it from our view. There just below us is the sort of greenish-blue alpine lake that makes a hiker’s heart flutter. We sit down for a rest and a snack before grabbing the cameras and heading to the shore for some pictures. We rockhop across the outlet stream to get closer to some rocks that should make a nice foreground subject, but, within a few minutes, the gray clouds that have been accumulating since we set out finally betray us.
The rain starts off with just a sprinkle but slowly and surely gets heavier and heavier until we are forced to retreat back up to our packs to put away the cameras and suit up. Urmat is just sitting there in the rain, eyeing my pack cover and rain jacket with envy as I put them on. I ask if he has a rain coat, and he shakes his head no. I tell him that we know the way back and that he should go and try to beat the rain. He understands this, jumps up and takes off, bidding a heartfelt rakhmat as he runs back down the valley and out of sight.
Reasonably protected from the rain with our rain coats and rain pants, our plan is to wait it out, so we can explore the lake once the rain passes. Within minutes, it begins to graupel (that Colorado-style hail that I always seem to name incorrectly). We stand with our heads bowed and our hands tucked between our arms and sides for warmth.
Eventually, it lets up, and we eat some of the lunch that Urmat left us (yogurt, bananas, apples, a Russian energy bar called Zebra and two enormous bags of mixed nuts) before setting off around the lake. We follow a lakeside trail to the west and climb a ridge to a view above the lake. Along the way, we pass tons of enormous marmot holes, but we have yet to see a single one of them cavorting about anywhere in the meadows. We are keeping our eyes peeled.
When we get to the far edge, we climb a steep chute to a higher ledge above the lake and then skirt the shoulder of the mountain in hopes of getting a view down the valley beyond it. Matt keeps urging me to go farther, but once the ground gets a too shift and loose for my liking, I say I’m out. He goes a bit further and finally gets the view he was hoping for.
We climb back down and take a higher ridge above the lake back to our bags. It’s been raining on and off since lunch, but, by the time we start heading back, it’s coming down heavier than before. In addition to the grauple, we now hear a pretty constant rumble of thunder in the distance.
We retrace our steps back down the valley as best we can, sometimes finding ourselves slightly above or below the landmarks we remember from the route in. The rain doesn’t let up the entire time, and our shoes are soaked through, which makes avoiding the puddles that have developed everywhere less of an issue.
Nobody is outside of their yurts, and even the animals seem to have taken cover somewhere, though it’s hard to imagine where that could be. We continue on, hoping that the blue sky at the end of the valley will make its way toward us. As we get closer to camp, we can see small piles of grappel in the grass indicating that things were even worse down at this end.
When we finally get in sight of camp, Urmat and Adis appear outside of the tent and begin saddling up the horse in the rain. We know they have no rain gear, so we try to be as quick as we possibly can. I go first to cross the river and have a really tough time getting up in the saddle. My legs are tired after all the hiking we have done, and that stirrup isn’t getting any lower. It definitely isn’t pretty, but somehow I manage to claw my way up.
The water is deeper and runnng faster with all the rain, but the horse takes it like a champion and pushes through with no problem. When it’s Matt’s turn, he offers to hold his backpack in front, and Urmat sends him across the river on his own! He makes it across just fine, followed by the boys. We all run for the cover of our dry tents.
Matt and I push all of our dry stuff to one side of the tent and then strip out of our wet rain gear, socks and shoes. Almost the second we get settled, the rain stops, and the sun comes out. We wring out our wet gear and spread all of our stuff out around the tent to dry, but we have to be careful to avoid the minefield of animal dung that is all around the campsite.
Matt does this barefoot which is extra risky. We were tight on space coming from Chicago, so we didn’t bring any flip flops or Crocs, and now we are kicking ourselves because right now is when we really need them. Dumb move on our part!
After warming up over some hot tea, we relax while drying out in the tent. We are getting a little hungry, so I reach into my pack to find some lunch leftovers and notice that my left backpack strap is ripping away from the pack. It looks like I will have some repairing to do.
Around 7:00, Urmat and Adis use Google Translate to ask if they can use our water filter to get water for tea since the river is running dirty from the all the rain. Instead, we offer the rest of our filtered water from the day, which seems to suffice. This trip is feeling more and more like participatory backpacking than some of the other guided trips we have been on, but we remind ourselves that organized trekking is relatively new here in Kyrgyzstan. We have a fair amount of backpacking experience, and we are happy to pitch in where we can.
We have dinner again on the little mound above our campsite. It’s become a bit breezy, so we have to hold down our mat and sit pad. It’s not too much of an issue until a vivid rainbow appears, and we both want to jump up for photos.
The colors get even more intense just before another passing shower spoils our al fresco affair. We rush to get everything under the cover of the tent and finish dinner cramped inside our tiny space. Once the rain lets up, we make some tea and go for a short walk up the road to stretch our legs. All this time in the tent is really tough!
When we get back to camp, we do our best to reorganize our gear, and I use the last few rays of daylight to try to repair my backpack strap. I can’t remember the last time that I tried to sew anything, and my sewing skills prove to be rather atrocious. It isn’t pretty, but hopefully it will be enough to get us through this trip. If not, there’s always good old duct tape to the rescue.
As we climb into the tent for the final time of the day, the sky is lit up pink with the sun making its last call for the evening. The temperature is beginning to drop, and it will feel good to climb into our cozy sleeping bags for the night.