After a few days off of trekking in Kyrgyzstan, it’s finally time to get back on the trail today. We’ve traveled from Karakol along the southern shore of Issyk-Kol back to Bishkek where we met up with our favorite hiking buddies, Rob and Amy, from Durango. We first met Rob and Amy in Africa a few years back after summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. We struck up a friendship and have since trekked with them in Ladakh, India. Last summer, they joined us for a few days of hiking near the end of our Colorado Trail adventure, in addition to resupplying us with water and Swedish fish, meeting us at the finish line with a cold local brew and hosting us at their home as we recovered from the trail before heading back home. This year they are joining us for a 13 days of trekking in the Pamir and Alay Mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan. We are really excited to be back on the trail with our hiking buddies again.
We spend an evening strolling through the shady parks of Bishkek before going out for dinner and catching up on recent adventures. The next day we have a relaxing breakfast at the Southside B&B where we are staying as we sort out our gear. Later we introduce Rob and Amy to the wonders of ashlyan-fuu and peroshke before heading to the airport to catch our 45-minute flight to Osh.
It’s super hot in Bishkek, and our taxi to the airport takes forever–not just because the airport is fairly far out of town, but also because the many speed traps limit us to 50 kilometers per hour. Still, we get to the airport with plenty of time to check in. In no time, we are in the air and on our way to Osh.
We all catch a quick nap on the short flight to Osh. It seems that none of us are accustomed to the extreme heat of the big cities here in Kyrgyzstan. When we step off the plane, it’s like we are being blast by a furnace. It will feel good to escape this heat and get back to the mountains. We catch a taxi into town and head to Biy Ordo Hotel & Hostel and check in.
We meet with our tour rep, Azi, and guide, Timur, from Visit Alay, the CBT in Osh. Azi gives us a detailed briefing of our 13-day trek, explaining our route and accommodation for each evening. He patiently fields a million questions,and we set a plan for tomorrow. Then we are off to celebrate Alison’s birthday!
We grab a cold beer at Izyum, a multi-room, multi-level restaurant in a park and next to the river with a cool vibe to it. Unfortunately the menu is not too vegetarian friendly, so we move next door to Etno Cafe, but we are surprised to find their menu is no better despite assurances from a few sources. We decide to make do with this place, but live to regret this decision. After we are seated we seem to be forgotten by the waitstaff. Once we do manage to place an order, the service is terribly slow, and everything arrives backward–literally the food arrives, then the beer, then finally the utensils. All we can do is laugh about it!
The next morning we are up, packed and ready to go. We head to breakfast at the restaurant connected to our hotel. And wouldn’t you know, it takes FOREVER for food to arrive. We try not to be judgmental Western tourists, but the concept of service is still evolving here, clearly.
Timu meets us in the hotel lobby, and we take a short drive to the Visit Alay office to repack and meet our two porter/guides, Daniel and Zafar. All three guides are 19 years old, and all are friends from the same village, near where we will start trekking. All three are studying in universities in Osh: Timur is pursuing international relations, Dani is studying Chinese and knows many other regional languages, while Zafar is interested in ecology. All three speak relatively good English. This should be fun!
We all jump in a van and drive 60 kilometers to the start of our first 3-day trek. Over the next three days, we are doing three different treks, all strung together. Collectively we hope to see a representative sample of the stunning scenery in the Pamir-Alay Range, near the border of China and Tajikistan. We make a few pit stops along the way to pick up some last minute groceries and fresh fruit. It looks like we are going to be fed well on this trek.
It’s already 11:00 am by the time we start trekking from Chyyiyrchyck Pass. It’s much drier and hotter here in the south, and the trail has us ascending right from the start. The sun is beating down on us, and the sweat comes pouring out right away. Despite the heat, we are all in good spirits and eager to get this adventure started. We start the trek by visiting a local monument. The silver ribs of the yurt are attractive against the bright blue sky.
The trail starts off as a dirt road leading us past many shepherds’ camps, yurts and the farm animals that come with them. We notice that many people are out today enjoying a stroll in the jailoo, but they seem to be all men. Matt jokes and calls it the Million Man March. We wonder where all the women are.
We are pleasantly distracted as we walk by Timu, Dani and Zafar who each break up to chat with us as walk. They are interested in meeting us and practicing their English. In turn, we are able to ask questions about their lives and learn about the culture of this part of Kyrgyzstan. It’s a nice trade-off.
Before long, we reach a shepherd’s camp with a stone house, a yurt and a fenced-in vegetable plot. This is where we will have lunch, and we are hungry! We are invited inside the yurt, so we take off our shoes and sit down on the comfortable rug. Bread is set out along with bowls of chovogoro, a type of butter made from cow’s milk that tastes sweet and has the color of natural dried apricot. We also have almonds, cashews, fresh figs, dried apricots and a fresh salad with tomato, cucumber and fresh ginger. All is washed down with hot tea, of course.
After lunch, we immediately hit the steep ascent to Kum Bel Pass at 3150 meters. It’s a tough slog, especially during the heat of the mid-afternoon and just after lunch. We see a dozen white vultures sitting on the hillside, and I think they are coming for us if we don’t keep moving. Eventually they fly off, one by one, leaving us to the climb.
Once we reach the pass, of course, it’s all worth it. We find ourselves staring at a wall of granite dotted with snow and an expansive green valley in between, dotted with juniper trees. We all stop to catch our breath and take in the scene and drink some much-needed water.
Things alway seem to come together once we’ve reached the first pass of a multi-day trek. We see a golden eagle circling high above and a red kite fluttering its wings before swooping down in search of food. From here, it’s all downhill to Saryoi summer camp where will spend the night in a yurt.
We begin by contouring for a long time around the hill which appears terraced due to the many animal paths. After we crest a ridge, the trail turns sharply downhill. We alternate between following animal paths and off-roading through vegetation until we get below tree line. The only problem with this is that there are lots of spiny thistles that occasionally surprise us with their pricklers. Ouch!
As we make our way down to the yurt camp we stop to grab cold water from a fresh spring that bubbles out of the mountain. The cold water on our heads and necks is so refreshing! We descend the last few hundred meters past cows and horses grazing. There are three or four yurts scattered in the idyllic valley with the Akotor River running far below. The imposing wall of the mountain is much closer to us now, and, with the help of our guides, we spy an eagle’s nest in the rocks.
We pass lots of smiling children on the way to our yurt camp where we are greeted by Aiperi, a 33 year-old mother of five children. Aiperi’s place is styling! In addition to a cozy yurt, it also has a brand new shower and toilet with a stunning view. We take some time to clean up and dust off our feet.
We take pictures of the compound and of the children and try to involve them as well.
Then we are invited into the yurt for tea and snacks. Oh, what a spread it is! There is bread and borsok artfully arranged with fresh cream and raspberry jam, plates fully of candy and dried fruit, plus hot tea. We sit around and chat as we stuff ourselves with goodies.
Aiperi brings us fresh kymyz, and we all try a bowl full of the fermented mare’s milk. The boys explain that it is the custom to down the entire bowl in one continuous gulp, and they demonstrate this for us. We like it, but it’s a lot to take down all at once, so we sip ours slowly.
Aiperi’s yurt itself is simple, functional, and decorative as well. There is a real art to these nomadic domiciles. Aiperi explains that she has handmade the weaving contraption that holds half a dozen porcelain teapots and bowls suspended above the ground as well as the colorful horse bags. She also wove the brightly-colored textiles that decorate the interior of the yurt.
As she is serving us, she is also managing 5 children, all girls, ages 2 to 12 and taking care of a bewildering range of tasks, from making dinner to milking the cows, from making kymyz and fresh cream to making sure the animals are accounted for. She impresses us with her vitality and cheerful demeanor.
Timu takes us around to show us some of the activities that take place in these high mountain summer camps. We see a tandoor oven made of adobe which is used to bake bread. We witness the mares being milked and then the young foals getting their turn at feeding. And we see how kymyz is made in leather bags that are smoked to add a certain flavor to the drink.
As the sun goes down we make our way back to the yurt for more food. Dinner is more manageable: traditional rice and meat plov for everyone else, and vegetable soup for us, along with cucumber salad and tea. After dinner, we are treated to a musical performance by the 12-year old daughter, Aielita, who plays the komuz instrument. Then the 10-year old daughter, Myrzaiym, entertains us with two dances, one more traditional and one more modern. The entire evening is so homey and delightful.
Before long we are all yawning, tired from a full day of hiking. We exit the yurt to brush teeth and allow Aiperi to remove the table we use for meals and make up our bed rolls. The yurt is really an impressive, multi-use space. We are shown how you can cover the kyrk at the top of the yurt to keep both the heat in and rain out or remove it so we can view the stars. We opt to keep the heat on this cool night high up in the mountains, and soon lights are out. It’s a great end to our first day on the Ak-tor Pass Trek.