At first we were going to do the trek ourselves. Then we ran into a tourist who had tried it but had been unable to find the trail over the pass and eventually had to give up and turn back. Since neither of us are experienced trekkers, we decided to get a guide. At CBT we were told another couple was interested in the same trek so we could share costs. Later, we met with Sylvie and Florent from France, as well as our guide, Kasedin. We were then sold on a couple porters, since they said we'd have to each carry 10K of food along with our stuff, the pass was difficult, and tourists without porters walked too slow. Florent was a vegetarian and since we were all a bit burnt out on meat, we requested vegetarian meals to the dismay of the guide.
The next morning we were all there early. Shopping bags of food covered the table. I could see vegetables, fruit, bread, and lots of candy and chocolate. We met our porters, Nurik and Milan. The van showed up, and our packs as well as the bags of food were thrown in the back. We stopped at the Guides Association which was the company the guides and porters worked for. "I hope they are getting some hiking boots," I said, noting one of the porters was wearing flip flops. They came out with big backpacks but still in flip flops, loaded their bags in to the van and we drove out of town towards the mountains. It was a gray overcast day-- not the prettiest day to start a trek-- but at least we wouldn't be too hot.
The van dropped us off near a bridge. The food bags were piled on the ground along with the porter's bags. Kas told us we'd start and the porters would catch up.
The hike was a pretty walk along the valley floor. We'd noticed some of the leaves turning yellow as we drove through the valley. Although it was still early August, the gray and occasional drizzle made it seem like autumn. The river rushed along next to us. Even against the gray skies, the slopes of the mountains, with their rocky tops like teeth and smooth green cloaks of grass below looked impressive. The lower slopes were covered with orderly cone shaped fir trees looking like the caps of armies of gnomes descending upon the valley.
When the porters caught up, dressed in tennis shoes, Kas boiled water, they made a salad and set the spread for lunch. I guess to replace the meat food group they opted for the chocolate food group. The mat had a pile of colorfully wrapped candies, a big bar of white chocolate, and a container of chocolate hazelnut spread. They also had raisins, dried apricots and walnuts, bread pieces, frosted crackers, and iced cookies. The whole thing made me think of an office Christmas party. They added some melon slices and poured some tea. After lunch, we walked a bit further until we came to another bridge. We crossed the bridge and started hiking up the hill.
The first part was through pine forest. The earth was soft, made up of decomposed pine needles. Delicate flowers bloomed.
Up the slope, the trees thinned out and soon we were walking across crumbled pieces of rock, the fallen sheets of mountain. This was where the climbing to 3000 meters above sea level occurred. We climbed-- stopping occasionally to rest and admire the view of the valley and river winding off behind us.
Now especially, I was glad of the cloud cover. Towards evening, we reached a small blue-green lake. A little farther was the campsite.
Kas, Milan and Nurik prepared dinner while the rest of us were setting up our tents. Then we had tea and talked a bit.
Kas had grown up in the mountains and spent summers accompanying his father on hunting trips. He had started working as a guide at 16 and had completed the 3 year guide school program in Karakol, the only school of its kind in Kyrgyzstan. He said it was hard when he was 16 because people wouldn't take him seriously and didn't think he could know the route. At 20, he said, things were a lot better. Though still young looking, he had the look of experience in his eyes and a certain quality of hardness to his skin as if he had been weathered slightly.
Nurik, who also speaks English, is a bit over qualified for porter work. He has a degree in mining and a job that pays more than a guide makes. Kas tells him he should become a guide but Nurik insists his current job pays better and he just enjoys going to the mountains with Kas on his days off. He boxes so the physical activity of carrying heavy bags is part of his work out. He mentioned that he enjoyed being a porter for small groups because in large groups the porters eat separated from the tourists. He felt in large groups, the tourists acted like the porters were just donkeys and never talk to them. "Maybe it is because they don't think we know English." He explained when he works as a porter in a large group, he ends up talking to hikers from small groups he meets on the path. Milan is a wrestler and I think he really enjoys hauling heavy weights around, seeing it more as a challenge than work. Nurik was originally from Jalalabad and the guys made fun of him about it. He explained the N. Kyrgyz don't like the S. Kyrgyz and that the president is from the South and favors them by giving them more technology including computer gifts given to the whole country by Japan. He explained the South were more conservative.
I can't remember who brought up the idea that someday Kyrgyzstan would cease to exist and end up split between China and Kazakhstan. The North Kyrgyz like the South Kazakhs. I think it was Kas who said he hoped Kyrgyzstan would become part of Kazakhstan.
The campsite had a small hut with stove (K had said it was good to have access to it in case of rain.) There were several stumps and some trees with faces carved into them giving the area a strange pagan appearance, though trash left by other groups somewhat detracted from that.
The river roared and the trees were silent. I was glad to see our guide and porters were attentive to gathering our trash into a bag after each meal, not letting even a candy wrapper escape their attention.
After the day's hiking, I eagerly dived into the chocolate food group. Kas prepared delicious plov--even better when we added walnuts and raisins.
At dinner, Rowshan spotted some wildlife.
Later, Rowshan and one of the guys, started a fire. Florent and Rowshan gathered rocks to make benches but as soon as they got everything set up and comfortable, it started raining hard enough to force us to retire to our tents. The night was cold and we could hear first rain on our tent and then the sound of the water dripping from the tree branches.
Breakfast was hot soup-- a welcome hand-warmer to cut through the cold of the morning. We packed our tents and as we waited, the rain started in a cold drizzle squeezed from dishrag clouds. "The weather couldn't be worse for hiking," Rowshan said. "Yes it could," I replied. "It could be colder and be heavy sleet with an icy wind."
Kas and our group set out. We briefly walked through a forest glen and soon started climbing the rocky mountainside along the river. The rain continued and the air got colder as additional chilly gusts of wind whipped our rain gear drenching our light summer clothing underneath.
Hiking was far from pleasant so I let my mind wander to the book Fellowship of the Ring and thought about Frodo Baggins, Sam and Pippen hiking through the cold rain when they were used to comfort and 5 meals a day. "This isn't that bad," I told myself. "At least there are no Ring Wraiths after us." Of course, one can only find limited comfort when comparing oneself to characters in fantasy novels. We reached the lake, Ala Kol: a bright turquoise against gray mountains draped with scarves of rubble from previous rock slides.
As we walked along the mountainside, which rose from the waters of the lake, we could hear the occasional crash of rocks breaking and falling into it. It seemed like an ominous lake which was hiding something. The wind swirled the waters strangely. Due to the weather, we did not stay long, choosing instead to press on up the mountainside. Soon we would start the ascent up to the Ala-Kol Pass. The pass, at 3860 meters, had already begun to take on an air of dread: "The hardest part of the trek".
The rain continued. We looked up, noticing the rocky slopes had a light dusting of snow, perhaps from the night before. It was a hard climb made harder by the rain soaking the unstable slippery rocks.
As we ascended, the rain seemed to lighten. Soon we saw it had become snow--light spots melting into slush on the ground. Then they got heavier. Before we knew it huge clumps of snow were drifting from the sky. At first we welcomed the relief from the cold rain. At least the snow just drifted off our clothing--not drenching us.
By this time the porters had sped on ahead. At one point we saw them running up the path far ahead. The air continued to get colder and the snow heavier. It had also managed to start sticking and melting on our clothing. A bitter wind blew against the mountainside. The peaks we'd seen somehow disappeared and were replaced by white haze. We briefly could just make out the shapes of Nurik and Milan with their huge bags and someone else seeming to drop vertically, but in reality probably just climbing down a steep slope. Then they all disappeared.
We couldn't see the pass. We couldn't see the mountain tops. Cold and wet we just hurried after Kas, trying not to slip. Occasionally, one of us stumbled and landed, bracing ourselves, in the snow. It was during one of these moments I realized how cold my hands were. I began walking with my arms hugging my body, hands under my armpits, trying to get them to be warm. Thoughts of true life episodes from TV shows about naive tourists stuck on mountains, nearly frozen to death in freak snow storms began to cross my mind. I began to be grateful we had Kas who was experienced leading us. He was always ahead but would often turn to make sure we were all there. He was guiding us on the trail, I think, but even when I searched, I only was able to find one marker. All the others had been lost in a coat of snow.
Ala Kol Pass in August
My upper arms felt prickly like someone was rolling cactus pieces on them. I rubbed them and it made the prickly sensation lighted. I had been in much colder weather but I'd never been so terribly unprepared--summer pants, T-shirt, fleece, Gortex shell, rain poncho. We were all dressed like this.
Finally we reached the summit, marked by a pyramid of stones. I crouched behind it, slowly moving around it trying to position myself so it blocked the wind. The others joined me trying to crouch behind the insignificant amount of protection offered by the stone pyramid. Sylvie voiced our thoughts, "I'm so tired!"
Kas firmly answered, "We have to go on. We can't stop here. You are too cold." This was the first time Kas didn't let us take a break when we wanted to. This change in behavior seemed to hint we were in a dangerous place and he wanted us to be out of it. I asked him where the closest shelter was. He replied, "4 hours away. But Nurik and Milan have gone ahead and set up a tend with the stove inside so we can get warm there." He said we'd reach there in half an hour. Everyone got up and followed Kas along the ridge a little before he began breaking a trail through the snow down the opposite side of the pass. To our relief, the wind died down.
We quickly descended, sliding along the slippery mix of mud and snow. We were relieved to find the air warming a little though we were still desperately cold. But we knew the worst was over. We even joked about cutting the travel time in half by sliding down the mountain on our butts. As we continued descending, the snow dissipated. The sky seemed to become lighter and the layers of snow: thinner and thinner until we were walking on slushy mud.
Then we began to see blades of grass coated with melting snow and delicate purple flowers coated with ice and looking like the first flowers of spring.
The snow disappeared entirely and we were walking on green grass. We could look behind us at snow covered slopes and ahead to beautiful snow capped mountains and bare stone crests like teeth against the slowly clearing sky.
But we were far from them. We were on the still green slopes of springtime. Streams trickled by. Down a slope and over a small river, we came to the tent. Nurik and Milan had draped their jackets and outer clothing on the tent and rocks to dry. They invited us in the tent, warmed by the stove, where they made tea and brought us a bag of potato chips which tasted delicious. We had lunch in the tent, then sat outside trying to dry our socks and rain gear. The faintest trace of blue broke through the clouds above.
After lunch, Kass led us onwards while Nurik and Milan packed up the tent and food. We were amazed by the contrast in environment.
Walking down a steep hill, I suddenly heard a cry of pain behind me. I turned to see Sylvie on the ground grasping her ankle and moaning in pain. Kas rushed to her pulling a bandage and some salve from the top of his bag. He checked her ankle and established it wasn't broken but Sylvie was in extreme pain and thought it was probably sprained. Florent poured cold water on it and then Sylvie rubbed in the salve Kas had given her. Kas wrapped her ankle but we all knew there was no way she could walk. "Wait here. I'm going to get Nurik and Milan. I'll be right back." Kass set off running back up the hill. A little later, he returned and pulled out a rope and began coiling it around his foot and knee. Then he wrapped the coil around the middle and pulled the rope tight. He then wrapped a sleeping mat around the center and tied it in place. A short time later, Nurik and Milan showed up at a run with their huge bags. Kas explained that he and Nurik, who were about the same height, would carry Sylvie. Milan would take a lot of the heavy items from their bags and go on ahead with Rowshan and I. They began redistributing the weight from their bags. Florent took most of the contents of Sylvie's bag. Milan took a huge load of items from Nurik and Milan's bags as well as Sylvie's backpack. Rowshan took a small bag of canned food but they wouldn't give us anything else even when we begged them to. Milan set off and Rowshan and I followed. We turned back and saw Nurik and Kas placing Sylvie on the swing they'd made, each looping a coil of rope over one shoulder and holding her between.
We went along at a good pace.
Sometimes we saw reddish marmots sitting on rocks though more often we just heard them whistling. As we descended, we passed horses grazing on the mountains side.
Upon reaching the base of the valley, we crossed a wide but shallow river on stepping stones and proceeded along the valley floor following the river.
We somehow had reached a pastoral paradise. The valley sides were lush green. Brown and white sheep speckled the slopes.
Horses galloped across the pasture and down to the river. The harshness of the rocky slopes above seemed to be magically dissolved into green velvet.
We passed a shepherd riding a horse and knew we were getting closer to "civilization". We continued walking, sometimes by the river, sometimes through serene pine groves.
The sun shone through the clouds which eventually dissolved into blue. In the distance, perfect snow capped peaks nestled between layers of gray rocky mountains.
In the pine forested area we came upon a boy gathering wood on a horse. Milan eagerly told him about the day's events. He spoke in Kyrgyz but the meaning was obvious in his excited vocal emphasis. Rowshan pulled out the camera which had a video of the snow on it. The boy looked at it in amazement. Kas had said they don't have snow storms in August and judging from the boy's reaction, this was true.
We passed by another shepherd's household where their herd of goats were gleefully climbing a huge rock outcropping as if it were their own personal mountain.
Milan repeated the story and I showed the video to the woman who was sitting in front of the house.
It was getting to be towards sunset and the animals were being moved towards home. Although the landscape was beautiful, I was ready for dinner and sleep. Finally, Milan pointed out some small cottages ahead. I could see a field of tents next to one house. We'd reached Altyn Arashan, the "health resort" and home to the Altyn Arashan hot springs. In reality, it is just a few houses and a few small wooden buildings housing concrete pools where the sulfurous water is piped in.
We all decided to stay in the guest house-- a small wooden house, half of which was occupied by the family and the other 2 rooms were left for guests. The house had a wooden outhouse was out back and no electricity. But, we rejoiced at the idea of being warm behind a wall and under several blankets instead of in the camping area, exposed to a cold wind. A little after we arrived, we saw Nurik, Kas and Florent walking a little ways behind Sylvie mounted on a horse. The shepherd we had seen earlier was leading the horse. He was accompanied by the boy we'd seen gathering wood.
At dinner, I think it was Rowshan who asked the guys how they all got to know one another. Kas said Milan was from the same village as him but they didn't become friends until 5 years ago. Kas said his wife was in a class with a bunch of guys in a school in Karakol. He didn't say exactly what happened but I assume one insulted his wife or something. Kas said he had to go to Karakol to fight. Nurik was one of the guys in the class but insisted he hadn't been there that day. While Kas was headed to Karakol, he ran into Milan and told him he had to go fight. Milan, being a wrestler, was into the idea and said, "OK lets go!" Milan was friends with Nurik and said "Why are you going to fight with Kas?" He persuaded Nurik to join their side and the boxer, wrestler and Kas went off to fight in Karakol. They didn't say how the fight went but the important thing is from then on they all became friends. Kas said Karakol is a town of fights since so many people from different villages end up there.
It was hard to leave Arashan in the morning. The river was the color of lichen frosted with rapids. It ran through the valley with its soft hills climbing to jagged mountains. Crowning the valley is the dual peak of Palataka, the suitably named "Tent" mountain, which was completely white from the new snow and sparkled against the deep blue sky.
The valley begs for relaxation. The sun was gentle through the air was brisk. Sheep milled around the house. Shepherds carefully filled in the gaps, between the wood pieces making up the bridge, with stones. Then they herded the sheep onto the bridge, closing off the ends with gates to make a pen. They were vaccinating them.
Sylvie, Florent, and Kas took a car back to town while Nurik, Milan, Rowshan and I walked. Milan, bearing just a regular amount of weight in his backpack seemed to find his load almost too light. The sun was hot and I got a little sunburned. The path followed the river.
Purple, yellow, and orange flowers dotted the grass next to the path and butterflies flickered like flower petals tossed by a capricious breeze.
It was hard to believe that 24 hours before we'd been trekking through a snowstorm.