07/06/21 – Family Reunion on the Steppe
Into the Deep
“Another hour to the top?” Quentin’s cousin Bruno was having a rough time on his first day hiking with us. Two days of nonstop travel to reach us, combined with the altitude and the weight of his backpack, laden down with ten days of food, did not make his introduction to Kyrgyz mountains easy. But forty minutes later the top was reached. We held the horses back and waited for the hikers to arrive; the eight of us arrived at the pass together. Our herd had yet again expanded: now along with our three horses Tian, Fidel and Chai, we traveled with Bruno, Julie and Céline.
Ten days of autonomy in the Kyrgyzstan wilderness had been enough to entice our cousins to book tickets to join us. The reality of it was more difficult. The 4x4 road leading to Arpa valley unfurled below, and the mountains stretched on forever. For us, we saw adventure, but those first days we think our cousins saw the endless miles they’d have to walk before making camp. Because they were on foot, the distance we covered daily was cut by half our usual milage. In the evenings, we tried find cozy spots with great views, and inducted our guests into our nightly tradition: a small glass of vodka paired with the smoky, salty and chewy local cheese known as checel.
Fidel and Tian took turns toting the cousins, giving them a chance to experience the freedom of riding in an unknown land. Their backpacks rehomed onto the shoulders of Ashley and Quentin, who watched with pride as their stallions took great care of their precious cargo. Céline called back to Ashley, joy radiating off her in every direction, “This is just total fullness! There is nothing more!”
And just as a rhythm began settle over the group, the world around us changed again.
Where the Kyrgyz Mountains Meet
With each passing shepherd we met we’d ask, “Is this Arpa?” They solemnly pointed southeast. “No, this is Kargai Tor,” or, “This is Ak Tala jaïloo.” Arpa eluded us. Finally, after four days, we climbed out of a valley to a long line of hills. Thundering hooves crested the ridge ahead of us, and an enormous herd of horses came racing down towards us. Their shepherds followed and galloped up alongside Quentin to shake his hand. “Arpa?” asked Quentin. “Oova,” said the shepherd in affirmation. He followed up, “Where the did you come from?” Before answering, a big grin broke out on Quentin’s face and he shouted back to the rest of us, “We’re in Arpa!”
Arpa valley is remarkable for its cartography; one of the largest steppes in Kyrgyzstan, it stretches 60km by 32km and is surrounded by mountains. The steppe signifies the meeting point of several mountain ranges: Fergana, Torugart, Atbashi, Ortok-Too and Jaman-Too all end and begin here. Glaciers to the south, rocky mountains to the north & unending steppe to the east, we found ourselves enveloped in a fragrant dream of adventure. Peaks towering more than 5000m surrounded us and the surrealness of it all struck us silent.
Remote yes, but empty Arpa is not. Yurts dot the south side of the valley, where streams fed by snow melt flow even in the middle of July. Seeing the murky river water we’d collected, Batyrbek and his wife erupted into giggles, led us to their clear stream to fill up our gourds and then plunked us down in their yurt for tea. Later while we set up our tents nearby, their five children giggled without stopping as they fooled around with our cousins hiking poles.
Without mountains to block the sun, at 5:40 it woke us up. The horses understood that with the hikers, we rarely leave before 9:30am. As soon as they see us awake and moving, they let down their guard for the night. A funny habit of stallions is to masturbate to relax, and so their morning ritual became to whinny ‘good morning’ to us, masturbate, and then take a nap in the sun. Self-care in stallion form.
On the morning of the 9th day, we crawled from our tents. The night before a local shepherd whose wife was away had gotten us so drunk on possibly poisonous vodka that we only managed to wobble 300m from his yurt before throwing up (camp) and trying to sleep it off. A sweet twist of irony was that the shepherd had a car and that morning Céline and Bruno didn’t have to try hard to convince him to drive all three of the cousins into the nearest town, some two hours away. There they bought everything in sight and the shepherd dropped them off lake Chatyr Kul, where we met them with the horses. That night, bags bulging with all the junk food, sweets, and essentials (more vodka), the shores of lake Chatyr Kul were our home. A brackish lake located at 3400m altitude it represents a desolate stretch of steppe between Kyrgyzstan and China. Without a yurt in sight, and after traversing a trail dotted with crumbling Soviet bunkers and trenches, we felt like we’d reached the end of world.
Chatyr Kul and the End of the World
“Tomorrow c’est bronzette!” Julie’s desire to tan by the lake was laughably optimistic as we took cover from the roaring wind and bid each other goodnight on the shores of lake Chatyr Kul. In the morning, a heavy grey sky with intermittent cold rain welcomed us. Bronzette was out of the question; our day off at the lake had been foiled by the weather gods. The Garmin satellite weather updates were not encouraging: the wind was set to strengthen later in the day. While we were debating our plan of action, a pair of ruddy shelducks, tadorna ferruginea, took off from the muddy edge of the lake, their chestnut crowns almost pink from their diet of marine plants. We followed suit.
By dusk, the sour humor that hung over our party was the only thing the wind hadn’t blown away. The remedy was close at hand: arriving at a yurt camp we were led to fresh water, a spot to place our tents, and a lamb was slaughtered in celebration of our arrival. Nevermind our hosts had yet to learn our names. The horses grazing, we settled in with the family eating lamb and drinking kumis until our stomachs distended.
A bleary sun awoke us the next morning; Panda Pass was our objective of the day. The last pass with our cousins and the first pass we’ve crossed at more than 4000m, it leads to the green pastures and pristine valley of Tash Rabat, home to the 15th century caravanserai. A rock formation resembling a crooked honeycomb towered over the last valley before the climb began in earnest. A blue soviet cabin and a yurt stood watch over the two-hundred odd yaks grazing in the valley. Though we’d believed yaks to be an ornament of northern Kyrgyzstan, we were surprised to find the herd here, so far from anywhere. A pair of bulls bellowed and launched into a violent fight; the rocks thrown by the shepherd did nothing to break it up. Grunting, the larger bull flung the smaller yak into the air, and drove him away from the naks, or female yaks.
Grunting ourselves, we arrived an hour later at the 4020m pass. The last 100m of the climb, Bruno had tucked down his head and powered up the trail. After struggling to finish the climbs at the beginning of his stay, on one of our last days together he beat the rest of us to the top. Once we’d all arrived, we huddled around our last bottle of vodka, and made ceremonious toasts, in good Kyrgyz tradition. We offered a taste to the horses, but our celebration was snobbed by the equine members of the team. Still, the humans toasted to family, pushing past your limits, kumis, Kyrgyzstan and the 160km we shared together.