After a full rest day at the guesthouse yesterday, we are both eager to hit the trail again today. Urmat and Adis, our guide and horseporter/cook from the Keskenkiya Loop, are accompanying us for another five-day trek exploring the mountains and valleys to the southwest of Jyrgalan. They arrive at the guesthouse around 8:30 and begin the process of sorting and packing the gear. By 10, we are saying our goodbyes to the kind family that runs the guesthouse and walking out of the village for the final time.
It’s always so sad to leave a place where you feel so welcome and so at home. Gulmira and Emil, along with their daughter, Kima, have been so gracious. And Aipuri, their 14-year old granddaughter, was so helpful and friendly. Her English (and Russian!) is amazing and she’s ready to tackle the world. She hopes to study in the US or Canada for high school, and we wish her good fortune as we part ways.
On today’s hike we are once again accompanied by James, the British volunteer at Destination Jyrgalan, and by Lisa and Lena, two German women who are here on holiday and doing a 3-day hike that starts out the same as ours for the first day and a half.
Today we hike up the Jyrgalan Valley and then follow the Terim-Tor River to our camp. Tomorrow we will visit the Bulak-Ashuu Lakes together in the morning and then go our separate ways. James and the Germans will return to Jyrgalan, while we will head west over the Boz-Uchuk Ashuu Pass and eventually down the Jergez Valley where we will get picked up and taken on to our next destination in the town of Karakol.
The first few kilometers of this trek are the same as the Keskenkyia Loop, so James leads us up to a higher trail that gives us a slightly different view of the valley. We like this idea in theory, but the trail starts out with a pretty tough scramble over a badly eroded hillside that has us all huffing and puffing.
When we finally reach the top, we have a bird’s eye view of the village below. James points out the wooden platform and large tractor tires across the river. They are there for the town’s summer festival at the end of August, where they play kok boru the very popular Kyrgyz game played on horseback where two teams compete against each other to score goals with a dead goat body. The platform serves as the stage, while the tires are the goals. To these vegetarian animal-lovers, it sounds pretty gruesome, but James focuses on the great skill required by the players to play this rough, rugby-like game on horseback.
From there, we climb up towards the dirt road that takes us straight past the Tulpar-Tash Rock, one of Jyrgalan’s most famous sites. According to local legend, this is the place where the hero Manas took a stand against the invading Chinese. As the story goes, Manas rode his horse up the giant rock, scaring the Chinese away and saving the village. If you look closely, you can still see his horse’s footprints in the rock today.
We continue on the dirt road/trail until it joins up with the lower trail, and we meet up with Urmat, Adis and the Germans’ guide and horseporter. We stop for lunch just after the trail junction where the Keskenkyia Loop and Boz-Uchuk trails split. The sky is looking a little ominous, so James encourages us to get going as soon as we are done eating. We have a rocky section of trail ahead, and he wants to make sure that we get through it before any rain comes to make it more challenging.
We set off, hiking alongside the Terim-Tor River. It’s a steady climb up to the rocky ridge that James has warned us about. The sun has broken through the clouds making it a little warmer now, and I can feel the sweat dripping down my face as we climb in elevation. We cross a stream cascading down the hillside that is flowing a little higher than normal with all the rain we have been getting.
At the top, we make our way through a series of large boulders to where the river is pinched between the mountainside and a boulder field. The boulders are too difficult for the horses, so Adis and the other horse porter lead their horses across the river to where the footing will be a bit easier.
The horses are laden with gear, so Adis leads the way, fording the river by foot. Once he gets close enough to the opposite side, he suddenly picks up the pace, making a final leap to escape the freezing water. Seeing the painful expression on his face makes us all thankful that we get to continue our journey on this side of the river.
For the next half hour, we walk single-file, negotiating boulders and rocks as we make our way along the rushing river. Luckily, it’s not too challenging, except for one spot with difficult footing around a big boulder that requires a big stretch. Urmat is there waiting for us, taking our poles and pulling us up on to the rock. I nearly pull him over, but he is gracious and just laughs it off. He has an easier time with Matt, for sure.
At the end of the rock section, we come to a marshy meadow with heaps of yellow wildflowers and wild onion growing alongside the gentle, winding stream. There are no rocks in the river here, and you can see clear to the bottom. It is flat and peaceful, and, if we didn’t know any better, we would swear that we were walking along the JMT in Northern California. What a scene! We are all in awe.
A bit farther along, Urmat finds some ishkun growing on a hillside, breaks off a stalk, peels the outer layer off and offers me a piece. It looks a bit like celery and tastes like green apple. It must be something close to rhubarb, and it’s pretty tasty. It’s definitely the closest thing that we’ve had to a green vegetable out on the trail where carbs and starches seem to reign supreme. We pick some more and stash them in my backpack for eating later at camp.
As we get closer to camp, we see a large herd of horses spread out across the river. Urmat makes a loud whistling sound that catches the horse’s attention and draws them closer together. It’s impressive to watch.
From here, we can see camp set up in a small, flat meadow beside the winding river. The final stretch of trail traverses a hillside that is covered in wildflowers. Colorful blooms carpet the hill above and cascade down below us. It feels like we are walking in the middle of a hanging garden. So beautiful!
The setting for our camp tonight is stunning. We are at just over 10,000 feet, and there are snow-covered peaks just across the river. It’s a little cloudy when we first arrive, but, in the early evening, the sun finally breaks through, giving us the views of these spectacular peaks that we have been hoping for. The horses in the meadow across from us come down for a drink, just as the light begins to turn golden. We grab our cameras to take advantage of the light. I head toward the river, while Matt scrambles up the hillside to get a panoramic view.
The ground close to the river is boggy, so we head up on the hillside above our camp to get an aerial perspective and take it all in. Once the shadows creep across the valley floor, we head down and chat with James and the Germans while we wait for dinner.
We soon discover that the problem with this campsite is that it is very cold. It is set in a bowl, and the cold air starts sinking down on us as soon as the sunlight begins to fade. All of the small shrubby plants are wet with dew, making our feet wet and cold. We stand and shiver as we eat our dinner of hot noodle soup and tea.
As soon as we are done eating, everyone retreats to their tent for warmth. It is going to be a cold night. We are pretty well prepared with hats, gloves, down booties, puffy jackets and the like, but we hope that our hiking buddies will be able to keep warm in the night. Our fingers are getting chilled, so it’s time to snuggle into our sleeping bags to try to warm them up. It may be a long night. We are already looking forward to the morning.