As I lumbered my way along the dusty road towards the towering Mountains north of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan I queried what on earth was doing. I’d chosen an isolating and unfrequented track to climb up and over a 4000m mountain pass, the Archa Tor. This track from Kyzyl Suu to Jeti Oguz is an unpopular route: most people opt for the infamous Ala-Kol, but I chose it for that exact reason – that not many people walk it, so it was likely I’ll be alone and get the Mountains to myself – except for the Nomadic families and their grazing animals.
Since their new generous Visa regime, Kyrgyzstan has become known in the hiking World as a clear rival to Patagonia and the Himalayas. The Mountains here are beautiful and remote and the trails offer an authentic off the beaten track challenge for the true adventurer at heart.
However I am barely walking now. Cherry trees with bright red droplets of joy hanging from them and yellow balls of apricots dance waiting to be picked all along the road. My belly is full and my pack is even fuller.
I’ve hired a pack that smells of horse (just as well I like that smell) and is quite possibly older than me – and as Andrea’s trekking adventures in Central Asia go so far, I also have a melon stashed in there too.
Even though I want to do the trek, part of me is still undecided if I want to be trudging up and along exposed snowy Mountains by myself. Just lying in a field eating cherries and apricots all day does really sound better. My body is tired from 5 weeks cycling and hiking in Kazakhstan, but my mind is more so. I am completely torn between the push of the alluring Mountains and awaiting adventure and the pull of my weary body, the self induced fear I can’t push out of my head, and the fact my pannier rack on my bike is broken (bent and then later snapped as guys strapped my bike to their car to take me up the mountain.) So if I can’t ride, I might as well see if the Tian Shan Mountains are alive, right?
I’ve never been any higher than 3100m and that was only 2 weeks prior when I scaled Kumbel Peak south of Almaty in Kazakhstan. It was a spectacular day, the sky a vibrant blue void of any clouds and so warm I striped off naked to experience true exhilaration and freedom; but Archa Tor would be nothing like this. Raw, rugged and potentially ruthless, was I crazy to do this alone?
Even though part of me whole heartedly agreed, yes, the other part of me kept walking, ever so slowly towards the base of the Mountains.
However I didn’t need to walk long, multiple Men in their beat up, old Soviet workhorse cars would stop to offer me a ride. I jumped in a few and got taken up a few kms saving me the long, arduous, dry, dusty road towards the Chong-Kyzyl-Suu valley. When a bunch of guys in their 20’s flashed a mouth full of gold and silver teeth and red blood shot eyes and leering grins, I decided I’d stick to my feet.
I found a tent site for the night, metres away from the raging river surrounded by grazing cattle and horses with Nomadic bee farmers in the distance. The next morning I woke feeling spritely but I still couldn’t find my forward gear. It sure wasn’t helped by an old Kyrgyzi’s Man looking abhorrently at me and crossing his violently arms communicating no when he understood there was just me heading towards the Mountains
‘Raaa!’ I hissed back silently behind his back, ‘I’ll be fine!’ I lied to myself.
By now I’d convinced myself of all the things that could go wrong, talked myself into going back and fixing my bike and walking the Mountains another time. I cursed myself for not starting with the popular track which was still a huge 3900m climb to Ala Kol lake. I could’ve started with that and then continued onto Archa Tor Pass. So ok, I wasn’t going to climb the pass now, but still I kept waking….
Whilst sitting at a make shift picnic table alongside the river a family of 5 adults and 2 kids spilled out of a rusty red Fiat and enveloped me in their picnic lunch. Now full of food and gifted a bag of bread I continued to walk slowly towards the Mountains, just wanting to see what was around the next bend. I walked straight through freezing streams, over fallen logs, along winding rocky paths, dotted with pine trees occasionally opening up to rich green valleys of grazing horses, their foals and white Yurts.
I sat and read my book on my phone for hours and at 6pm I still was creeping towards the Mountains, despite my mind being made up.
Where was this pull coming from?
Unexpectedly I caught a glimpse of a Man ahead of me with a large pack. I had an upsurge of energy. If he was going up to the pass then that was the waving green light I needed. With excitement I managing to gain on him and as I walked swiftly I noticed he was tall and wiry with a sprinkling of grey hair. As I was within 100m of him he looked around him and unzipped his pants.
‘Oh god! Penis alert!’ I told myself as I tipped my head sharply to look at the ground.
Now either he hadn’t seen me and would get a shock or he had seen me and he was purposely trying to show me his package. Being alone up a Mountain with a flasher wasn’t what I was really hoping for.
After I was convinced he would see me I caught his back in the corner of my eye and breathed in relief. He’d seen me and turned around.
I approached him enthusiastically and he reminded me of a startled, hesitant Cow who reluctantly stood its ground, peering at me through thick rimes glasses and low draw eyes. He was from France, had been walking for 11 days, unkept and low on food. Having a spritely woman bound over to him pestering him with questions was probably a challenging culture shock to him. He was walking over the pass the next day and I realised he was what I had spent the past 24 hours waiting for. I wouldn’t walk with him, hell I could sense he wasn’t excited to see me, but he was my life line if something was to go wrong.
I was now walking up and over the pass tomorrow!
We spent the night our tents pitched 100m from each other although we never spoke a word.
I woke early, happy I hadn’t seen any movement from his tent and set off, the grass wet from the scattering of night rain.
The path weaved steadily up and opened up to a huge green valley, overrun by purple and yellow flowers, cradled by the towering Mountains and intrigued cows and horses.
I came off the track twice and found myself scrambling up the mountain face, my chest heaving and legs filling with a raging burn. I noticed the Man just behind me walking with purpose, the competitive part of me seething he’d managed to catch me so soon.
How could you let an older man walk faster than you Andrea?
I tried pushing it down. I wasn’t here to walk fast. Although I wouldn’t dawdle, hell I don’t even think compared to most people I had such a pace. I bet he was sticking to the track, his phone driven map was much more accurate than mine, and it showed. But I did want to keep him just in front of me. He was my, unknown to him, backstop. He could mop up my pieces and gather help if needed.
As I peered at the top of the looming pass I picked a route that had me to the left. He picked the right. I was scrambling along slippery scree on all fours. Chest heaving, my head feeling light and airy. Maybe I don’t do so well in altitude, I thought as I peered up at the top with still such a long way to go.
The Mountains issued their words of warning pummelling painful pellets sideways and swirling clouds gathered me in their arms. I frantically looked around for a stone formation that would be my bearing and keep me heading the right direction. In a mist of clouds it’s so easy to lose ones way.
The temperature plunged and the rain rattled. Still I kept climbing high. I could just make out the guy on the right, moving much faster than me.
The Frenchman bet me to the top and appeared to wait for me in the fierce wind as we proceeded to precariously itch our way down the other side. The luminous peak of the snow clad Mountain stood in its glory. Proud yet Sinister. It was biting cold and warmth waited down in the hazy valley below.
Clambering across boulders, through breath taking cold streams, rocky paths and looking out to the lush rolling hills with startled horses, I descended below. It was spectacular scenery. The further down I walked, pine trees enveloped the countryside and the rain settled in. Dirt paths turned into slippery slopes and I could hear the raging river below.
Back down in Nomadic country, there were Yurts scattered with solemn looking cows grazing, saddled up horses tied waiting patiently and the odd Farmer in their strong overcoat. I walked with the angry river on my right through swampy, bumpy land in the rain until the hills forced me to take the faint animal tracks along the riverside. Trudging through thick mud, clambering over fallen tree stumps and pushing my way through prickly plants I etched my way slowly, oh so slowly through the thick overgrowth. I had missed the opportunity to be taken across the river by horse and now had no choice but to make my way alongside the river, a clear, wide track taunting me on the other side. There was no way I could get across. My map indicated there was some type of crossing 2 km up the toad which took me well over an hour.
I came across two older Men sitting outside a Yurt pulling apart fried bread and a brightly clad Woman thrust a piece of bread in my hand as she pointed me to the make shift bridge across the river. I was now walking free and as 7pm encroached I knew I needed to find a camping spot to dry my wet tent in the last of the sunlight in preparation for the potential cold night ahead.
The next morning after a pained sleep, my calves and feet sore from the toll it took walking across uneven and steep terrain for 11 hours, I walked into the small village of Jeti Ourtz. I brought a sweet melon from a friendly shop owner trying to get me to stay in his guest house the night. It was 11am. I’d already walked around the old deserted Soviet resort with the red, looming cliffs and decided there was certainly no reason to stay.
Then I spotted that startled, unsure, awkward look from the Frenchman and with excitement waved him over, and then immediately regretted I had. As I sat eating my melon he tended to his half rotting feet, popping a blister and dressing his raw skin. He’d been invited to stay in a Yurt last night and rode a horse across the river this morning. I felt happy I’d woken up in a sheltered spot alongside the river in my tent, the stench from his body had me wondering if the Nomads had regretted their decision, despite the few dollars he gave them.
As I walked out of the dusty village, the sun high in the sky and it piercing my view, I felt alive and grateful to have summited a mountain pass in the beautiful Tian Shan mountain range. Giving thanks to my strong body, Mother Nature and the awkward Frenchman, I strolled along with a big smile wondering where my adventures would take me next.