Last night was the coldest night we’ve experienced while camping in a long time. When I turn over and look at Alison in her sleeping bag next to me, all I see is a tiny air hole in the hood of her bag that she has cinched tight around her head. As the sun comes up, I see a hand come out and toss a hat out. She must finally be too warm.
We want to get an earlier start to our hiking today, so when the alarm goes off at 6 am, we start moving right away despite the chilly temperature. We’re excited because the focal point of our day will be a hike up to the Bulak-Ashuu Lakes, two glacier-fed gems hidden high up in the Terim-Tor Valley above 11,000 feet.
When we exit our tent we are not surprised to see frost on the ground. We knew the conditions were perfect for this. Now our challenge will be to stay warm enough until the sun crests the ridge of the mountains and bathes the valley in warm, golden light. Especially because within minutes of walking around we have wet, soggy feet from all the accumulated moisture on the ground. We stomp our feet and do our best.
Soon everyone else begins to emerge from their tents one by one. Everyone looks a little worse for the wear after surviving the night. Breakfast is served, and the hot coffee and warm oatmeal go a long way toward restoring our spirits. We watch as the line of sun creeps steadily toward us. Once the sun reaches our campsite, we feel instantly warmer.
Lisa and Lena, the German women, trade war stories with us about surviving the night. They each slept in, not one, but two sleeping bags, one inside the other, and they were still freezing! They did, however, peek out of their tents for five minutes last night, as James had suggested, to see the stars, and they were not disappointed.
Everyone’s eager to get going and generate some body heat, so off we go as a group of six, including our guide Urmat. Once we get moving, it’s amazing how fast the temperature can go from freezing to quite warm. Soon we are all shedding layers and hiking in T-shirts, sweat starting to bead up on our foreheads.
We walk up the long valley following the Terim-Tor River as it meanders down from the snow-covered mountains that have been the backdrop ever since we entered the valley. We walk for a long time, past the turn off to the Boz-Uchuk Pass which most people take on this route, and still the mountains do not seem to get any closer. We find it so hard to judge distances in these giant jailoos.
We see a Lesser whistling duck calling loudly as it flies back and forth up and down the river as if looking for its mate. And we are in awe of the endless purple flowers that carpet the valley. It’s fun to pass the time chatting with our temporary trail companions about places they’ve traveled and places they hope to see some day. James is very good about explaining what the trail ahead will be like.
Eventually we come to the point where we need to climb up to a moraine. This involves a bit of boulder hopping as we make our way past a series of small waterfalls that descend from these mysterious lakes we are looking for. We stop halfway up to catch our breath and eat a snack, and we’re glad we did, as the climb requires a bit of balance and a lot of attention to where we place our feet.
Before long, we crest the moraine and get a glimpse of the first lake. We are in luck! The air is still, and the reflection is quite good. The others have already moved on to the second lake, so we are free to snap pictures to our heart’s content, which we do, trying different angles and playing with the composition from a variety of spots along the shore.
That is, until James comes wandering back in our direction to tell us that the second lake is even more blue and offers more reflection shots. And he’s right!
The second lake has a thin sheet of ice covering half of it still, but the rest is a striking shade of blue. We drop our packs, grab the cameras, and set off in search of more great shots. We live for this kind of opportunity. There’s something so satisfying about having to hike to a scenic destination, and then enjoying it, virtually all to ourselves.
Very few foreign trekkers come this way because it takes more time than most are willing to spend, so this beautiful destination feels even more special. We work our way down to the water’s edge and play with different angles to capture a great reflection. Then we go up higher which intensifies the blue color even more. When we can tear our attention away from the lake, we notice that there are beautiful wildflowers in bloom everywhere.
Unfortunately, it’s time today farewell to James, Lisa and Lena. They need to make their way back down the valley and go over another pass as they are returning to Jyrgalan via a different route tomorrow. We have enjoyed their company and truly benefited from James’ advice about trekking. We hope to stay in touch and perhaps see them some time in Chicago.
Now that it’s just the three of us, we take a look at our remaining route on the map and decide to have lunch on a boulder overlooking the lake with its wall of rock and bowl of snow rising impressively behind it. We could stay here for hours soaking up the scene and relaxing, but, as luck would have it, lightning strikes twice!
Just like on the second day of our Keskenkyia Loop trek, when we reached Ailampa Lake and the rain started, so, too, here. It sounds like there’s another storm brewing. What bad luck! We can here the distant rumble of thunder and see ominous grey clouds forming behind the tallest peaks. We realize we are at the highest point of our day and that this is definitely not the place to be during a storm, so we quickly pack up and start making our way back around the lakes.
We have to cross a more significant field of boulders as we make our way up to Bulak-Ashuu Pass. Luckily, the rock is fairly grippy on our shoes, and the surfaces are relatively flat. Still, crossing the boulders is like playing chess and having to always think three moves ahead. If we choose the wrong move, we have to back track to find our way over or around some of the larger boulders, so we are careful to pick our steps. And all the while the thunder is getting louder!
Eventually we clear the boulder field, crest the pass and start heading down into the next valley. Now the thunder is louder and occurring more frequently. We can feel the dark grey clouds looming over our shoulders. It feels a bit like we are being herded down the mountain, much like the sheep, cows and horses that we see herded by the Kyrgyz horsemen that spend their summers up here. We have a newfound sympathy for how those animals must sometimes feel!
We are trying to hike as fast as we can, but, not more than a half mile down, the rain starts. We scramble to put on our rain gear, stow our cameras and put on our pack covers. We do so just in time!
The rain starts to come down steadily, the thunder is all around us, and now there are even frequent flashes of lightning. All we can do is continue to hike lower as we are far from treeline, and there is nowhere to shelter. A few of the lightning strikes are a little close for comfort. Visions of afternoon thunderstorms in the Colorado Rockies make this scene a little too familiar.
At one point we pass an enormous rock that has been split in two. It must be the size of a small house. Perhaps, we think, it was split by a huge bolt of lightning. Or maybe the Kyrgyz hero, Manas, himself, split the rock into two halves with his mighty sword. Everything is on such a grand scale out here that it’s clearly beginning to influence our imagination!
We entertain the idea of taking shelter in some of the small spaces beneath the overhanging rock, but we remember reading that standing in the mouth of a cave during a lightning storm is a bad idea. We must pick our poison in this case, and we choose to continue hiking towards lower ground.
Fortunately, this storm passes more quickly than the last. The rain stops, and we see a bit of blue sky peeking through. Just in time, too. We come upon a viewpoint with a commanding view down the valley to the river below, across to a verdant jailoo ascending on the opposite side up to a wall of green-carpeted mountains. So, out come the cameras once again!
From here the trail is better defined, and we follow it to a point where we cross a small river. Then we turn downhill and follow a much steeper trail. If the muscles on the front side were feeling left out after our morning climb, the next hour or so balances the equation.
We descend below treeline winding our way around taller and taller spruce trees through intermittent waves of light rain. We can see the river below which we must cross with our horse bridge. We also see a road and many summer yurt camps. Finally we exit the forested section of the hillside and wander out into the vast expanse of the valley. We have descended nearly 2500 feet from the lakes where we had lunch!
There are sheep and horses and cows grazing in all directions as far as they eye can see. We turn right and traverse the meadow as we head down toward a fast-flowing river that is pale blue with glacial till.
To our surprise, Adis has set up the tents on the near side of the river. It looks like we will cross the river tomorrow instead. As we settle into our tent and rest our tired feet, the sun comes out and gives us a chance to dry our gear a bit.
It’s time to relax and take in the sights and sounds of the jailoo. Snow covered mountains anchor one end of the valley. There’s a road going through, but only one or two cars pass by. Herds of sheep move past on the opposite side of the river. And we spot two new birds along the shores—a sanderling and a white ibis. It’s time for tea and biscuits.
As we are relaxing, we hear a horseman shout and ride quickly past on the opposite side of the river. He is chasing a runaway cow who leads him across the river and back and then up one side and down the other before finally being subdued and brought back to the herd. It was quite an action-packed little scene that we witnessed from the cozy confines of our tent!
Unfortunately, soon after we arrive and get settled, it starts to rain lightly, so we grab all the wet socks and rain gear that we set out to dry and haul it beneath the tiny vestibule of our tent. The rain starts around 4 pm and rarely lets up all afternoon.
At first, that’s OK. We rest a bit, read a bit, write a bit and work on photos a bit. But it’s a lot of time stuck in a tent that barely fits the two of us. It’s so small that it’d difficult even to sit upright for very long.
After a few hours, we begin to feel like prisoners in our own tent. Even dinner is served to us in the tent with a knock on the rain fly and the food slipped beneath without ever seeing our server’s face. We simply say thanks and take the food. A little while later we hear the headless voice ask More food? Tea or coffee?
Thankfully around dusk (some five hours later) the rain lets up long enough to let us stretch our legs and brush our teeth. At least it’s not too cold here in the valley. Hopefully, the rain will pass overnight!