We set the alarm for midnight and reluctantly climb out of our sleeping bags in hopes of photographing the stars. It’s definitely hard to get up, but we intentionally didn’t go to the bathroom just before bed, so that we would have the extra motivation of relieving our bladders as insurance. It’s cold, so we layer up as best we can: pants over long johns, rain coat over down jacket, hats, gloves, the works…
It is remarkably quiet, and the stars are shining brightly. I see a small light shining and moving about 50 feet away from us. At first, I think it must be one of the shepherds smoking a cigarette, but, as my eyes adjust, I can see the silhouette of a horse. It’s just light reflecting from Bob’s eye. He doesn’t seem phased at all by our presence. Even at this hour, he is still standing and munching the grass. When does he sleep?
We walk to the spot we scouted out a few hours earlier and set up our tripod at what we think is about 15 feet from a group of rocks that we will use to focus on. I shine my headlamp on the rocks, so that Matt can focus and compose the shot. This is the first time that we have ever used our mirrorless cameras to photograph the stars, so it’s a little trial and error, but the principle should be the same: high ISO, low depth of field, and no longer than a 30 second exposure to capture star points. The mirrorless proves a little fussy, but eventually we get it to work and are able to examine the results and readjust. Our foreground rocks don’t register at all, but the Milky Way arcs across the night sky, satisfying us for a first attempt.
Next, we try the classic illuminated tent shot. I am quite happy to climb back into our shelter and handle the lighting. Ideally, we would have a soft light that would illuminate the tent evenly, but we have to make do with my headlamp and a water bottle.
I lay down in the tent, dim my headlamp and shine it through the water hoping to diffuse the light. Matt sets up the shot like before lowering the exposure time to compensate for the extra light in the scene. After a few shots, he climbs back into the tent, and we get back into our sleeping bags to examine the results. The tent looks a little overexposed, so we’ll have to figure out a way to get even softer light next time. Still, the image conveys that sense of being one small part in a vast universe and the grandeur of the cosmos.
I was a little cold sleeping last night, so I have decided to adjust tonight by adding socks beneath my down booties and sleeping in my down coat. The extra layers are effective, and I am able to drift back asleep. As usual, I toss and turn throughout the night. At one point, I wake up and open my eyes enough to notice it is already daylight. I am curious how early the sun comes up in case we want to get some pre-dawn shots in the future. It is only 5:00 am. If we want to see some alpenglow on this trip, we are going to have to get up mighty early. Yikes!
By the time the alarm goes off at 7 am, the tent is cooking, and we can’t unzip our sleeping bags fast enough to take off all the layers we have slept in. We pack up all of our belongings inside the tent and then step out to another morning of crisp blue skies to use the bathroom and brush our teeth.
Around 8, Urmat appears outside of the shepherd’s hut and waves us over for breakfast. It’s another round of instant mashed potatoes and bread for us, while the four of them eat huge bowls filled with leftovers of last night’s rice. Urmat asks if we would like some, but I can see that they have added some meat to their plov. Does it have meat? I ask. Only a little he answers. We take a pass. They don’t seem to mind.
We mention that we are teachers, and the quieter of the two shepherds takes an interest. He asks what we teach and if we have any students from Kyrgyzstan. I tell him that I do, and he seems pleased. When we tell him that there is even a Kyrgyz restaurant in Chicago, he gets a big grin on his face and says that he wants to come to Chicago so he can eat there.
After breakfast, we rustle up a quick game of horseshoes, and Matt learns some Kyrgyz numbers while keeping score. He beats Urmat 10-7, and fun is had by all.
It’s almost 10:30 by the time we hit the trail today. The shepherd who met us at the river yesterday uses his horse to lead Bob, loaded down with all of our gear, a couple of kilometers down the trail, where Adis, traveling on foot, will meet him. We follow behind Urmat, and, by the time we catch up to them, the hand off has already been made. The shepherd rides past us through the flower-filled meadow with the foal and his dogs running behind, waving goodbye as he disappears quickly out of sight. It is cool to see how cooperative these folks are with each other. The sense of community is noteworthy.
Once we all meet up, we take a short break before tackling our first big pass of the day. Urmat says it will be a little difficult, and, from where we are standing, it is hard to make out the trail.
Once we set off, we pick up various animal tracks and make our way down into a bowl, where we can see the long sweep of the trail that will take us to the top. I guess that it is about 300 feet to the top, but Matt checks the altimeter on his phone once we crest the wide ridge and can see over to the other side. It says the climb was nearly twice that.
We rest here and have a snack break (we’ll never finish those nuts!), while Matt pulls out the map to see where we are headed next. The second pass of the day isn’t too far from where we are sitting, and neither is the border of Kazakhstan. Based on the scale of the map, it appears to be no more than 10 kilometers away. That’s another place we hope to get to some day.
From the pass, we head down into a bowl and then climb up onto a ridge with the jailoo sprawling out as far as we can see in all directions. It reminds us a bit of Snow Mesa on our hike out of Creede on the Colorado Trail last year. There, too, it was difficult to capture in a photograph what it feels like to be in such a vast open space, especially when you come from a densely-populated place like Chicago. It’s a humbling experience for us both.
Just before the next pass, we stop for a quick lunch. It looks like there isn’t much greenery up there, and Bob needs his sustenance, too. Before long, we pack up and make our way up to the top at 10,600 feet. Adis and Bob take off, leaving Urmat to guide us alone the rest of the way.
There are a couple of snow patches still at the top, but they are the last we will see as Urmat tells us that we are going down, down, down the rest of the day. Indeed, after a short ridge walk, we step off the trail and go cross country, cutting across the meadow and losing elevation rapidly as we descend. The ground is uneven and rocky, so we have to pick our steps carefully. At one point, Matt loses his footing and takes a little tumble, but he pops up and walks it off without Urmat ever noticing.
Eventually, we pick up some animal trails and make our way down to a stream in a tight valley. The temperature is climbing as we drop elevation, and we take advantage of the opportunity to splash ourselves off with a little cool water before rockhopping across. On the other side, the trail is overgrown with small bushy plants, making it difficult to see the rocks, marmot holes and ankle-twisting depressions underneath. There’s no trail to follow, and it’s easy to imagine that not too many people have walked here before this season.
There’s a little climb out of the valley, and it is lined with the yew-like shrubs that seem to attract birds like magnets. We spot two new species: the Himalayan Ruby Throat with its bright ruby red throat patch and the beautiful Red-mantled Rose Finch that stops us in our tracks with its rich purple hue. We debate snapping on the long lens to try to get a photo, but we fear we are wearing out our guide’s good graces and press on.
When we catch up to Urmat, he tells us that we are now on Mount Kensenkyia, and it feels like we are on new terrain. The trail here is that super dry, slippery rock that slows me down to grandma pace, especially on a downhill. I try to just accept it, but I can’t help but wish the trail would suddenly transform into something more manageable and to my liking.
When that doesn’t work, I try to keep my focus on the gorgeous landscape surrounding us. Across the valley from us is a spectacular mountain-scape presiding over a river that winds like a silver ribbon in the valley far below.
We turn a corner, and, all of a sudden, we are walking in the shade of a large evergreen tree. There are trees here! And we suddenly realize that we have been above treeline for the past three days. We know we are making progress when the landscape changes that dramatically.
We continue on, slowly picking our way down the trail, and we chat about how it feels like we could be in one of our own national parks. This is the first time that the trail feels permanent and established, and the terrain is reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. The most notable difference is the utter lack of people. We haven’t seen anyone since we left the shepherd’s camp this morning. Amazing!
The sun is blazing hot this afternoon, and when we finally reach the river we understand why. Since the second pass, we have been headed downhill all day. Our camp is at 7600 feet, and we have dropped over 3600 feet from our highest point. Suddenly, the temperature feels like July!
Adis is still setting up the tents when we arrive. We drop our packs and head down to the river’s edge where we soak our feet and filter water for tomorrow. The water is cold and instantly drops our body temperature while also providing some relief for our feet which are sore from the constant pounding of today’s steep descent.
We chill out for a while, taking in the details of this classic alpine scene at the tight bend in the Tyup River where we are camped for the night. Masked Wagtails make their death-defying stunt dives while hunting bugs from their rocky perches up and down the river’s edge. The horses from the neighboring shepherd’s camp come down for a drink, just as the sunlight glowing on the peaks in the background begins to soften and saturate the colors of the evergreen trees.
When we’ve finally had our fill, we grab our phones and spend a little time catching up on our trail notes and editing photos. Urmat asks us if we would like some beer for tonight. Apparently the little shepherd’s hut down the way serves as the jailoo convenience store, and Adis is about to make a run. We give him 200 som ($3.50), and he comes back with two huge plastic bottles of room temperature piva that we drop in the river to chill down for later.
Matt has been carrying the kurut (dried sour yogurt balls) he bought on the drive to Jyrgalan this whole time. We were told that they were best with beer. So when the piva is chilled, we offer some to the boys. They aren’t all that excited about the beer, but their eyes light up when they see the kurut. We have a winner!
Dinner tonight is quite an improvement from last night. The boys have made a nice salad with tomato, cucumber and some kind of bean that is a mixture between a pea and a chickpea. We also have a big bowl of noodle, bean and potato soup and fresh bread. Maybe they bought some more groceries at the jailoo minimart?
After dinner, we pour one last cup of cold beer and enjoy standing and talking outside of the tent for a while before heading to bed. The temperature is much warmer at this lower campsite and more conducive to hanging out. The boys have a special treat for us on this last night of the Keskenkyia Loop. Matt has been asking to try kymyz, fermented mare’s milk, that is a local specialty, and they have picked up a bottle. It is slightly alcoholic (2%) and tastes somewhat like liquid smoked cheese–definitely an acquired taste. It’s only made in the spring and early summer when the mares are foaling.
On this beautiful night, it’s definitely cheers to another fun and challenging day on the trail in Kyrgyzstan!