Day 499 – The Shady Ala-Too Mountains
Karadzhorga, Karagoman, Tosor Pass, Alash Too, Dungerom Pass; our tongues are finally adapting to the pronunciation of the Terksey Ala-Too mountains. The air at 3000m flows in and out of our lungs effortlessly; we’ve been riding at high altitude for months now and we feel totally in our element here. Just on the other side of these immense peaks lies lake Issyk-Kul, our final destination. But we aren’t ready to cross the mountains yet.
Riding through the gorges of Eki-Naryn, and then the steppe leading to the Bolgart river, the 4x4 road lifted us of any need to think about navigation. For three days, we were able to turn off our minds and let our eyes absorb the present moment. The track is famous for Tosor pass, and we met at least six tourists, half of them on bicycles. Mountains, rivers, and glaciers drifted past, like a slow motion film set to the rhythm of a horse’s walk.
When we left the Bolgart river and began to follow the Jil-Su north, the fabled Ala-Too mountains finally came into view. Despite their name meaning the Shady Mountains, we found ourselves quite close to the pounding rays of the sun. A new habit emerged: reapplying sunscreen to ourselves, and Tian’s pink nose, several times each day. Surrounded by glaciers, we tucked into bed but not before snatching one final peek at the massive white blocks of ice keeping watch over the valley.
Nomad Valley Trail. For the first time since we began the trek, we found ourselves on a trail with a name designed for tourists. We crossed three yurts and zero tourists. But the designers of the trail were right to scope this place out for tourism. The green valleys dotted with fir trees, the rocky mountainsides and the glacier covered peaks represent some of the most idyllic and anticipated landscapes of the journey.
Dungurome Pass, at 3800m represents the last high-altitude pass of our journey. Reading the elevation lines on the map, we decided to camp below the pass and save the steep hike up for the next morning. The horses were rightly disappointed by the quality of grass, but we were elated by the view. Each glacier has its own aura, its own immenseness, and when entoured by such natural power, it is difficult not to have stars in your eyes.
The pass was simpler than we’d hoped, and we reached the other side by midday. Had we known that the grass would be rich on the east side of the pass we’d have climbed the night before. As it was, we took a long lunch break and let the horses loose to eat. Their grazing at the speed of lawnmowers inspired us to stay a little longer, which suited us just fine.
A Small, Serendipitous World
Our paths often run alongside rivers. The Djuuku river became larger and larger as we approached Kyzyl Su. Another anticipated sight appeared; first the snowcapped peaks of Kazakhstan, and then below, the long stretch of blue that is Issyk Kul lake. The second largest high-altitude lake in the world, a warm, humid breeze sent Ashley’s hat flying. With whoops and hollers, we rode on, knowing that the lake also almost signifies the end of our trek.
In what seemed like an instant but was only a few kilometers, all the grass disappeared from the land. A red and tawny desert appeared. The sun beat down on us and the horses moved extra sluggishly as we rode into Kyzyl Su. The town had one guest house marked on the map and it would be a lie to say we weren’t looking forward to staying there: it had been more than 400km since we’d had a European style shower. But a pile of rubble sat where the guest house once stood, and we felt deflated.
Inquiring to a man walking down the road, he confirmed our fears that the guest house was no more. And promptly invited us to follow him. At the gate of an official looking building he invited us inside. “Over there are the dorms for the researchers. Come to the stables.” And that is how we became the guests of the Tian Shan Glacier Research Center. The last 100km of our itinerary have been curated by Daniyar and his team, and we’ll continue enjoying their hospitality and knowledge as we ride to the Chong Kyzyl Su Meteological station, and then to the glacier monitoring station a thousand meters higher up. They have given us the gift of a calm, shady place to rest, and a plan for a fabulous last leg with the horses; we’ll be doing what we love most in Kyrgyzstan: gorging our eyes with glaciers while the boys gorge their stomachs with fresh grass.