07/19/21 – Over the Cliff’s Edge
At Bashy Jaïloo
There was no clear moment when At Bashy valley became At Bashy jaïloo, or grazing lands. As we marched east, the river became thinner, bluer, and the grass taller. The boring 4x4 road became less frequented. Yurts replaced soviet cabins and houses made from mud and straw. In the At Bashy high pastures large herds roam, and women leave the cool shade of the yurt every two hours to milk the mares. Quentin was reminded of ‘camping à la ferme,’ a popular tradition in France, which is just what it sounds like: going camping on a working farm. Only this one has no fenced in pastures: all the countryside was a farm.
The night of the full moon, Tian turned into a werewolf, whinnying across the steppe for no apparent reason until midnight. When Ashley left the tent to see what brought on his transformation, he put on a show, galloping around the 60m circle where he was staked for the night. She gave him a stern, ‘Knock it off!’ and he didn’t make another peep until morning. Highly intelligent and emotional, he still missed the humor of Ashley imitating his whinnies and galloping around him as he tried to sunbath the next morning.
The Unpassable Naryn River
When the 4x4 road stopped, so did the yurts. Modern Kyrgyz don’t lug their yurts around with horses or camels anymore; they use a truck to transport the yurt somewhere, or they don’t bother going there. We found ourselves alone, aside from a few herds of bulls and yaks left on their own. With our binoculars, we spotted three chamois on the ridges of the mountains to the south, a hare, and dozens of eagles.
25°C and full sun met us at Ulan pass, and we followed the orange river down. But soon we had to make a U-turn; the canyon was too narrow and steep to continue. By following a goat trail on the rocky ridges, we were able to weave our way down the valley floor and camp alongside the Ulan river. Knowing that the next day we’d have to cross the Naryn river, one of Kyrgyzstan’s largest, we tried to time our kilometers in the hopes of reaching the banks in the morning, when the water levels are usually at their lowest. But even in the morning light, one look at the speed of the current and the water, which had risen higher than some trees on the banks, convinced us we would not be crossing where we’d planned. On the Soviet maps, a crossing was marked a few kilometers away, so we continued west. At the crossing, Quentin and Fidel began to test the waters, but within a few strides they found the current very strong and the water higher than Fidel’s stomach. Not a promising sign A yurt camp sat on the other side of the water, and we caught the attention of someone puttering around outside. Grabbing his binoculars and sprinting down to the water’s edge, the shepherd signed to us that it was absolutely too dangerous to cross and we should continue along the trail west. This we did, until an angry thunderstorm forced us to stop. Zipping down the tent doors just as the rain began pelting us, we sprawled out, tired from the accumulation of days on the road, the heat, and the stress of adapting our route to the whims of a flooding river.
The Naryn Nature Zone
The next morning, we learned we were not allowed to camp where we were. A sympathetic park ranger explained to us that we were in Naryn nature reserve, a strictly protected area. He understood our plight of crossing the river, and told us we could find a mountain hut to sleep in. Also, he cautioned us against admitting to locals where we’d come from when we did eventually arrive in town. Then he poured us two shots of vodka, at 8am, and rode away.
Dutifully, we set out for the mountain hut. Forests of native XX trees coated the mountain and the grass, untouched by livestock, rose taller than our horse’s heads. It was difficult for them to resist snatching a bite here and there, and we admit we periodically let them graze in the sea of flowers. High on the beauty of the park where eagles soared, we didn’t notice that we took the wrong trail until we found ourselves on a the edge of a cliff. 100m below, no trees separated us from the roaring river. Tian tried to jump up the escarpment behind Ashley, but failed twice, landing on his knees. He panicked and shied away, pushing an unsuspecting Chai against a log holding up the trail. Despite Quentin’s pushing Tian forward and trying to hold Chai up, the log gave way, the pony slipped backwards and fell down the cliff. Luck saved him: the weight of his pack stayed level, and he did not flip over nor tumbling down the cliff into the water, which was the nightmarish scene flashing through both of our minds.
Instead, he landed mostly on his feet about 15m down, and looked up at us, quite surprised. Up until now he carried the confidence of a mountain goat and the idea that he might slide off a cliff had never crossed his mind. Carefully, we took Fidel and Tian back to a safe spot on the trail, and then Quentin scaled down the cliff to coax Chai back up. Returning to a prairie before the trail got bad, we let the horses graze while we waited for our hands to stop trembling. This was an immensely powerful reminders that we should always check a hairy trail before it gets too dangerous. The lesson has left a strong mark on us both and days later we still are in awe of how lucky we were. That evening, we arrived at the hut, took showers in the river and slept like logs, the stress finally dissipating from our bodies.
Leaving the park the next day, we were caught within a half-hour by a shepherd, who seeing where we’d come from, started off straight away to tattletale on us. He brought back a man who volunteers for the park; the shepherd clearly wanted to see us fined (he accused us first of being spies, then of being bandits). The volunteer ranger told us to report to the bureau in Naryn, some 60km in the opposite direction of our itinerary. Turn ourselves in? Forget about it. We refused; we suggested he call the office and tell them where we were heading and they could come find us if they so pleased; it’s not like two European tourists with three horses can easily hide from the law. So far no one has come hunting us down, but may we offer a word of advice? If you’d like to cross the Naryn river in late July, check that it’s crossable before you head out, otherwise you risk treacherous trails and riding illegally through a nature reserve.
The next 100km are on dirt roads, synonymous with boring. But some time on safe, predictable dirt roads is just what we need right now. By the time we get to Kyzyl Su, our next stop, we’ll be ready to take on the last leg of the adventure.