Light starts to filter into the door of our yurt around 5:00 am. Shortly after that, I can hear Aiperi and her older girls up and about already getting a start on all of the chores that need to be done around the yurt camp. By the time that we finally get up, the two oldest girls have already left to take the cows out to pasture. Amy is pitching in and helping make fresh cream from milk that was freshly drawn just this morning. It’s a cool little machine that needs someone to hand crank it, and Aiperi and the girls usually spend about 45 minutes doing this every morning.
As soon as we are all up and moving, they clear the sleeping pads and blankets that we used last night and replace the table and seat cushions to get ready for breakfast. Aiperi goes to the magic little chest on the side and begins bringing out her homemade round loaves of bread and fried borsok, small bread pockets that are so good with homemade jam. Plates filled with cookies and candies, Nutella and peanut butter, fried eggs, coffee and hot tea, and even kymyz all make an appearance. Matt and I share a small cup of the fermented mare’s milk, but the boys guzzle an entire bowl in one gulp. Apparently, that’s the proper way to drink it. We are going to need to be in Kyrgyzstan for a long time before we acquire that skill.
After breakfast, we pack up our things and begin saying goodbye to this super sweet family who have been so very kind and hospitable to us. Aiperi is curious to see how heavy my pack is, and she even takes it for a quick test drive, putting it on and buckling herself in. Now, I am the tourist, she says jokingly. I give her a pair of trekking poles to make the look complete. Matt suggests she come along with us and leave me here to take care of things around the yurt. Her littlest one starts to cry when she sees her mama looking so strange, and we all have a good laugh.
The boys have to porter all of the gear today, and they appear with their 100-liter packs stuffed to the gills. We all feel incredibly guilty, but they insist that kymyz makes them strong and that they are used to carrying so much gear. The packs are tall and thin and stick up way above their heads, much more top heavy than we are accustomed to. As soon as they put them on, we get going, not wanting to make them wait around at all with all that weight.
We follow a lower path through Saryoi yurt camp down towards the river. We pass the oldest daughter and her friend as we walk through the farm fields. Many of the yurts are quiet already this morning. The shepherds are already out tending their flocks.
The sun is shining, and it is already hot this morning. We cross the river and start climbing up the walls of the gorge. We will follow the river to our camp just below Akotor Pass today, and the vegetation here looks much different than yesterday. We pass large juniper trees as we contour in and out of the canyon high up above the water for now. It’s very dry and arid, and some of the steeper climbs up and down to the water are on that crumbly, gravel-type dirt that I pretend doesn’t make me crazy.
The boys are working hard today, and they stop for a break nearly every hour. (We would too if we were carrying that much weight!) We don’t mind though. They pick nice spots in the shade or places with pretty views that we can go explore for a bit with the camera. At one point, Timu brings out a bunch of bananas for us all to eat. They are a bit green, but we all take one. If we can help lighten the load by eating, count us in!
Just around noon, the boys pull over near a bend in the river with a big rock wall providing shade and tell us it is time for lunch. They need some time to prepare, so we leave our packs and follow the river for a bit, looking for good vantage points to capture the rushing water with the gray peaks towering above. We take our shoes off and walk in the water to numb our tired feet. The water is so cold, I can barely take it for more than five seconds at a time. It’s refreshing, to say the least.
For lunch, we are served a delicious salad of chopped boiled eggs, potatoes and beets, dressed with oil and a generous dash of salt. This is accompanied by nuts, dried fruits, hot tea, cookies and chocolate. The boys have whipped this up here in the field, which is impressive (especially for 19 year-olds!), but we get a good look at the backcountry kitchen that they are carrying with them. They have a glass bottle of olive oil, full-size knives, a cutting board, plastic food prep gloves, toothpicks for us to clean our teeth, plates, cups, the works… And to top it all off, they are mixing the salad up in a sizable cast iron pot. It is clear that no weight has been spared to give us a great experience, but this is too much! Some simple picnic staples would do.
After lunch, we cross the river on a makeshift bridge and continue our march up the canyon, weaving in and out of drainages and cresting high river banks that we go up and over rather than around, which adds a fair bit of elevation gain and loss to the day. Clouds begin to form in the afternoon, and there’s a darkness to them that looks all too familiar. What is up with Day 2 of our treks here in Kyrgyzstan? It always seems to rain on this day!
The gorge pinches in here and begins to look especially green and lush. Matt and I are bringing up the rear, and we stop often for photos. We can hear thunder off in the distance, but I try to convince myself that it is just rocks being tumbled down the river by the powerful current. No such luck.
Eventually, we come to our one true river crossing of the day. Here we have to ford the fast-moving water, and there are a couple of different strategies playing out in our group. Rob and the porters are all going barefoot, which looks extremely painful and highly undesirable to me. Amy has Keen river sandals and is headed across in those. Matt is going to use his new slides that he picked up in Karakol. I’m a little nervous about how they’ll do on the rocky river bottom with the rushing water, so I roll up my pants, remove my socks and go in my shoes.
This makes Zafar nervous, and so he calls Timu back over the river. He offers to carry me on his back as he makes his way back across the river barefoot for the third time. Obviously, he has no idea how much I weigh, and I tell him to lead me across and I’ll be just fine. Man, these guys are eager to please!
The water isn’t as cold or as deep as I feared, and I have no problem getting across. Matt does fine in his slides, and we all regroup and reconvene on the opposite bank once we have our shoes back on and are ready to go. This is when the thunder really starts to pick up. The air temperature suddenly drops, and the wind starts blowing strongly, letting us know that a storm of some sort is pretty much inevitable.
We make it about half an hour before we feel the first raindrops. We all stop to get our rain coats and pack covers on. The rain is light at first, but eventually we stop under a tree to put on the rain pants, too. Not far beyond, the boys have found a not-so-flat spot near the river where we can make camp for the night. They throw up a tent for us to get in that is on a terrible incline. Amy and I huddle in and can barely keep ourselves from sliding down into the corner.
Once the rain lets up, they find some flatter sites for the evening and do a little bit of rearranging. We dry out and warm up inside the tent, catching up on our trail notes and snoozing for a bit. Matt is using our spare air mattress that Rob and Amy brought him from Durango (thanks Chris and Stephanie for sending it along!), and we are crossing our fingers that it will hold air for him after the last one failed on our first night in Jyrgalan. So far, so good!
Everyone starts to emerge from their tents around 6. The boys have gathered some firewood for cooking dinner, and they want to dry out my shoes and socks for me. They are so thoughtful. I am lured out of the tent with a Snickers bar and then some hot 3-n-1 coffee, which is my new favorite warm beverage. It’s like a coffee-flavored hot chocolate, and it tastes delicious out here in the jailoo.
Our camp is right on the Akotor River, and we have gorgeous mountain peaks bookending the views both up and down the valley. We spend some time photographing the mountains using the river as a nice foreground element when the boys come down to ask if they can have their portraits taken. Timu is very specific about exactly how he wants his. Perhaps he is thinking he may need a good photo for a passport application, or maybe it is for Kyrgyz Tinder instead. Matt and Rob oblige, and the boys seem really grateful.
Dinner is served in the boys’ sleeping tent. They have made a yummy noodle, potato and pepper dish for us with a tomato and cucumber salad. We have to keep reminding ourselves that they are just 19 years old. They are doing such a fantastic job leading a bunch of strangers who are old enough to be their parents through the backcountry of Kyrgyzstan. We are impressed!
We spend the last few hours of daylight chatting by the river, filtering water and brushing our teeth. As a bonus after a rainy afternoon we are graced with a beautiful sunset. We have an early wake up call tomorrow to tackle the big pass, which will start with a 4000 foot elevation gain, so we are all eager to get a good night’s sleep. Sweet dreams.