Up and Down in the Ak-Su Valley
'The weather may make things a bit difficult,' said Aigul the guide, sitting calmly on the sofa of a small house a few miles outside Karakol, while outside snow whirled down out of a leaden sky and locals staggered about in their warmest clothing. Beside her, Bakyt the driver sat cross-legged and eyes closed – meditating, according to Aigul. Based on our experience of the previous couple of days spent driving out here from the capital, I wouldn't have been surprised if his mantra was the lyrics to Queen's Greatest Hits II.
'Really,' I said. I had flown out to the Kyrgyz Republic at the end of August and found summer conditions to still be in full swing, lingering on throughout September. Now it was the middle of October and we finally had the chance to get out of the city and enjoy some of the scenery, and unseasonal blizzards and snowstorms had materialised seemingly out of nowhere.
'Yeah, we might have to rethink the horse-riding,' Aigul said, unflappably. Five years of living in Florida had left her with fluent English and a transatlantic accent.
'What about the hike?'
'Oh, we have to do the hike,' she said.
The plan had been to spend the afternoon hiking up from the village, at one end of the Ak Soo valley, to a guest house up in the connecting Altyn-Arashan valley. After spending the night there, we were then going to ride to Lake Ala-Kul the next day. But all this had been before the snows came.
'We have to do the hike?' Fifteen kilometres up the valley would probably have been a bit out of my comfort zone even under ideal conditions, and with what was going on outside I was having misgivings.
'Well, we're booked into the guest house for tonight, nowhere else to go, no other way to get there,' Aigul said.
I exchanged looks with Travelling Companion. 'Right,' I said.
One of Bakyt the driver's favourite jokes was to drop us off somewhere wild and rugged, shout 'See you tomorrow!' and then drive away at high speed ('See you tomorrow' was pretty much the extent of his English). This time it was for real. After a typical local lunch (lots of bread, and jam, and chunky soup) he drove us to the foot of the valley and let us out. At least the snow seemed to have stopped.
The valley itself did not look that imposing, but then most of it was hidden by the forested slopes of the hills on either side of it. It all looked quite beautiful, in a bleak and uncompromising sort of way. It was just after twelve thirty in the afternoon.
'The hike should take three or four hours,' Aigul had said confidently. 'Five at the most.' She had of course been thinking in terms of relatively normal conditions, without six inches of snow on the ground, and probably also in terms of people who were in considerably better physical shape than we were. But it seemed a bit late to worry about such things now. We hefted our hiking poles and started up the valley.
It took a while, but eventually I got into the rhythm of it. The poles were a godsend, meaning my thighs and calves weren't doing all the work, and (mostly) keeping me from falling over when the ground under the snow wasn't quite what I'd expected it to be. The snow had mostly stopped falling and there was that old sense of pleasure, which everyone surely carries with them from childhood, of being the first person to crunch a footprint into virgin snow.
For the first few hundred metres we were passing sheds and signs and a bridge, then civilisation petered out and we were making our way along a trail by the side of a fairly substantial river, a steep forest slope on the far side to our right, rocks and cliffs to the left. The uphill gradient was mild and less of an issue than the snow. This wasn't too bad. I was enjoying it, pretty much.
After a bit, in this sort of situation, your conscious mind starts to shut down and you just focus on the repetitive movements of your limbs to keep you moving forward, occasionally pausing if something of particular natural beauty comes into view. And so it was here, the river winding back and forth and the trail going with it, the mountains ahead still seemingly impenetrable.
Then a figure appeared coming down the trail before us. He was rangy, with reddish-fair hair, and he was pushing a bicycle laden with panniers through the snow. We greeted each other in the exaggeratedly friendly manner of complete strangers coming across each other somewhere slightly wild. He turned out to be from Edinburgh and was on his way down from the same guest house we were staying at.
'It was beautiful yesterday, before this lot came down,' said the Scottish cyclist, looking around and surveying the snowy vista with what seemed to me to be mild distaste.
'You came all the way down through this with the bike?' I asked.
'Well, they said there might be more snow coming, and I didn't want to get snowed in up there,' he said with a shrug.
This was a new possibility that Aigul had either not considered or neglected to mention to us. Visiting Altyn-Arashan had been on our itinerary; becoming residents, even temporarily, had not. While I was processing that the Scotsman bade us a cheery farewell and set off, looking confident in the manner that only someone who knows it's all downhill from this point can.
We pushed on, and eventually the river and the trail parted company. We passed through a typically rickety-looking gate, signifying we were now properly in a national park, and Aigul told us, encouragingly, that we were about half-way there and it was only another ninety minutes to the top.
Frankly, this came as a bit of a blow, as we had been hiking for nearly three hours at this point and were starting to feel it a bit. We were also starting to realise that the hardest part of the hike, with the steepest ascent, was the second half.
And so it proved. We crossed what I can only describe as an Alpine meadow, which would have been lovely if the sky had not been so grey, struggling to find a trail of any kind. Aigul didn't even seem to be struggling at all and had taken to walking off ahead of us until she was practically out of sight, then stopping until we appeared and then disappearing again. It felt like the guiding equivalent of very tough love. This was starting to feel less like a holiday and more like a death march.
I could tell the innermost of my several layers of clothing was soaked with sweat as we found the trail and pressed along it. The path was also used by the local herd of cows, who seemed somewhat startled by our presence and naturally recoiled from us as we approached. Aigul had to stop the cows from moving too far from where we'd found them, thus possibly saving us from a charge of unintentional cattle rustling.
Here and there the path descended and crossed one of the many small streams flowing down to the river – at one point we actually had to walk down a stream bed for a short distance. Aigul blithely skipped across the rocks like a snow leopard, making it all look very easy as usual, but I just had one more reason to be thankful for investing in a quality pair of waterproof walking boots on a previous visit to the country. I still ended up with chunks of ice the size of golf balls encrusting my bootlaces and trouser hems.
What little colour there was around us was beginning to fade and I realised it was getting dark. There was still no sign of an end in sight, and I think I was beginning to feel the altitude. But there was no alternative: we were more than halfway there, and the guest house was our destination for the evening. We slogged on, and it became a case of picking out a large rock or fallen tree somewhere ahead up the path, and focusing on getting to it, then picking out another feature and getting to that. The distances between our landmarks grew progressively shorter.
'Aigul, could you please wait and walk with us,' Travelling Companion said to our guide. They were some way up ahead, waiting for me to catch up. 'It's very difficult when we can never see you.'
'If I just stand around I get cold,' Aigul's voice drifted down the trail to me. The unspoken sentiment you guys should move faster, what the hell are you doing here if you can't even hike properly hung in the air, but professionalism and basic courtesy kept her from saying it.
On, and on, and on through the increasingly grey-blue gloom. Travelling Companion and I told each other that this was a positive experience, something to help us discover our true potential, something we would share forever – and also that we would never, ever do anything like this again without proper preparation and training. Every now and then we heard a cry from Aigul that it was only another ten or fifteen minutes to the end of the trail. Maybe in her world it was.
Night fell. We had been hiking for over five and a half hours. Aigul was forced to stick with us, as she had a headlamp and knew the way. Finally the trail levelled out and we were hiking over what seemed to be rolling hills, though it was hard to tell in the gloom. For the first time all day there was a big sky overhead. There was a faint glimmer off in the distance ahead of us.
'There it is! That's the place!' Aigul said. Walking was now a mechanical reflex. The light of the guest house winked in and out of sight as we stumbled up and down the intervening slopes. It felt like a cruel joke. Was it actually receding? I just ploughed on: the edges of my thought seemed to have withdrawn and focused just around that one thing.
And then we arrived. It was a small building, built by the owner out of hardboard panels, with only really the most basic facilities. But I have never been so grateful to arrive anywhere in my life. It had taken us just over six hours.
Of course, the next morning the weather was lovely, with a glorious blue sky, and while I was still feeling the effects of the previous day no particular parts of my body seemed to be suffering inordinately.
The question now, of course, was what to do next. The ride to the lake was off, due to the conditions, and the second option – riding back down the valley – was also not really viable due to the heavy snow. After the previous day's experience, the idea of repeating the hike in reverse filled me with a kind of dread. Aigul suggested we could probably get a ride back down in a car, always assuming they could reach us.
I went out for a walk late in the morning, then came back for lunch and a game of backgammon with Travelling Companion. (Coco was showing on the guest house's satellite TV, subtitled badly in Russian.) As we sat there an ancient grey van pulled up in front of the guest house and disgorged three large middle-aged Kyrgyz men who seemed very cheerful. It turned out that this was our ride, and – rather to Aigul's surprise – we were getting the door-to-door treatment.
Normally I would have had a few reservations about riding down a mountain in a vehicle which probably dated back to the Brezhnev era, had no seatbelts, and in which the seats all seemed to have come from other different vehicles. But in the circumstances…
We piled in. I was one side, up against the window, Aigul on the other, with Travelling Companion cushioned between us. The atmosphere in the van was undeniably jolly as we set off, initially using a slightly roundabout route to avoid going over the ridges we had hiked over the previous night. The Kyrgyz men were very, very friendly – quite unsettlingly so, to an English person – and seemed delighted to have us in their van.
I was quite delighted to be there myself, until the two non-drivers started hurling themselves about the inside of the van. This coincided with us starting down the trail proper and I realised they were trying to keep the van balanced and stop it from toppling over at some of the riskier points in the descent. Through the window to my left I could see the road stop and the slope begin, and I was very aware that we were dealing with safety margins measured in centimetres here. I clung on to my chosen grab handle and tried to enjoy the buffeting as the van rocked and swayed and jolted its way down the trail. (This trip genuinely left me bruised.)
Our new friends seemed to be impressed by our fortitude and from somewhere they produced a bottle of schnapps and a pear, which – in the great tradition of Kyrgyz hospitality – they insisted on sharing with us. (I was very glad to hear the driver was not partaking of the booze.) My usual approach to alcohol when around Kyrgyz men is to claim to be totally abstinent on medical grounds – the alternative too often leads to an apocalyptic drinking contest – but I felt I could hardly decline after Travelling Companion helped herself to a glass of the stuff. Things in the van became much more genial, if not much less turbulent.
We reached the point where the trail ran alongside the river and our hosts stopped the van to take the snow-chains off the tyres, so we did some photos and the odd declaration of eternal friendship. The schnapps came out again. This day was not going at all how I had expected.
With the snow-chains off and the slope behind us, it was much smoother going for the second half of the trip down. It is interesting how an experience like this can change your perspective – never before had an old cowshed and a rusting tractor come to represent civilisation in the manner that it did on our way back down to Karakol.
Soon enough we were being dropped off outside the house where we'd had lunch the previous day. Bakyt looked mildly surprised to see us back, though whether this was because we were early, or just still in one piece, we never discovered. Aigul later claimed she told him of our great non-hiker hiking exploits and he was deeply impressed by our resilience and determination, but I think she may just have been saying that to make us feel better.
We bade a fond farewell to the men in the van and they disappeared from our lives forever. Or so we thought, for we'd forgotten the hiking poles and they reappeared a few minutes later to give them back to us. Then the four of us were there in the sun, enjoying a pleasant day.
'So,' Travelling Companion said with a pleasant smile, 'What next?'