2008 - 1 - Mountaineering in Kyrgyzstan

31 August 2008   Bishkek , Kyrgyzstan
After a long 10 month wait, I’m finally here in Kyrgyzstan – sitting in a luxury hotel in Bishkek.

I’ve signed up for an expedition to the “Unclimbed Peaks of the Tien Shan”. Organised by the International School of Mountaineering (ISM) the aim of the expedition is to explore the Western Kookshaal-Too region, which is on the Kyrgyzstan-China border.  This area has many mountains above 5,000 metres and there are still peaks that are unclimbed, including the mighty Grand Poopah at 5,697 metres.

The trip out here went smoothly – 1½ hours delay at Heathrow, 7 hours of tedium on the flight, but we arrived safe and well in Almaty, Kazakhstan at dawn. A tourist guide called Natasha picked us up in a minibus and we had a four hour drive to Bishkek – the capital city of Kyrgyzstan.

View of the mountains from the hotel in Bishkek

The border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was interesting. Everyone apart from the driver had to get out and walk across the border. There was a passport check exiting Kazakhstan where officious looking customs people spent 5 minutes checking all visas were in order. We then had a 400 metre walk across a bridge to the Kyrgyzstan border where we were each subjected to a further 5 minute check of passport and visas with lots of flamboyant stamping.

I had the pleasure of my first Kyrgyz toilet – very, very basic. The urinal was a sloping trough which was made from concrete and looked like it was hand moulded. The “long drop” toilets were two squats very close to each other with no partition. If two people were to use the facilities at the same time, it would be very “friendly” probably having to push against each other to make space.

The landscape is barren grassland (steppes), quite flat with strange little hillocks separated by channels. However, the mountains are a constant backdrop to this bleak landscape and my eye is constantly drawn to them.

Bishkek is pretty much as I imagined it – Soviet style road layout and buildings mixed in with tin roofed shacks.  As in all big cities, there is a mixture of affluence and poverty with gleaming German cars cruising past people who are literally squatting by the roadside. 

I must say that the heat has surprised me, 30 degrees centigrade in the middle of the day.  I’m starting to think that I’ve brought too many clothes. (I had spent ages back at home agonising about what to bring, but had still managed to exceed my 30 Kg baggage allowance by about 6 Kg).

We stopped off at a restaurant called “Fat Boys” for lunch and most of us had a “Full Monty” breakfast, which was pretty revolting – there’s an odd taste to the fat used for cooking, I dread to think what it's made from ...

We arrived at the Hotel Ak Keme just before midday – very nice 5 star hotel complete with huge swimming pool and casino. I went straight to bed and had 2½ hours kip before meeting everyone mid afternoon for a guided tour of Bishkek. 

It was Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, so the main square was heaving - a mixture of young people in designer clothes and older generations in traditional clothes. Natasha took us around, showing us statues and buildings, yawn...   More interesting was her views on Kyrgyzstan – she is Russian with Kyrgyzstan as her place of residence.  She said that her parents and grandparents thought that life was better under Soviet times – she didn't know either way, much too young to remember. Apparently, arranged marriages and kidnappings are still common and Natasha said that several of her friends have been kidnapped and forced into a marriage. 

In the evening, we went to a restaurant and met Vladimir who runs ITMC – the guiding company who have arranged all of the logistics for this expedition.  Several bottles of vodka appeared on the table starting off a series of toasts.  Some of the group were already in full swing having finished off a serious amount of schnapps earlier in the afternoon with Vladimir.  I managed to avoid most of the drinking and only had two of the seriously large tots. 

There are eight clients, two British guides, four Sherpas, one cook, two drivers and Vladimir going on the expedition. We’ll meet the Sherpa, cook and drivers tomorrow, but first impressions of the main party are good – there doesn't seem to be anyone who stands out as a pain.

Pat Littlejohn is the MD of ISM and has been running these expeditions for 15 years. Adrian is an ISM guide, lives in the Lakes and is about 40 years old – he’s been on eight previous expeditions. 

James Bruton is from the south-east and has been on four previous ISM expeditions, so he knows Pat, Adrian and Vladimir very well and knows the “crack”.  Leif is Danish and came on the ISM expedition last year.  Simon and Jackie are a couple from Wiltshire.  Jackie is not climbing but will be coming to Base Camp and doing some trekking.  Simon runs marathons, looks pretty fit and is quiet.  Stephen is an academic from Glasgow – a little difficult to understand when he's tipsy and talking fast. 

Gareth is from Oswestry and runs a paint ball centre - he's "chaotic good".  He put his rucksack into the aircraft as hold luggage complete with ice axes and walking poles on the outside – surprisingly, it all arrived safely without maiming a baggage handler.  At 22 years old, Anthony is the youngest member of the team and is a final year medical student.

Loading gear into one of the trucks

After dinner, we poured ourselves into two taxis and went back to the hotel.  Most people went down to the hotel casino to lose money. I popped down for 5 minutes and then went to bed.

1 September 2008  Bishkek to Naryn, Kyrgyzstan 
I woke just after six o'clock, got up and “faffed” about for 1½ hours until breakfast.  There were a lot of grim looking people sitting around looking sorry for themselves.  Most had stayed in the casino, lost money and drunk even more.

Gareth was sharing a room with James and he'd apparently got up at half past one and started to wash his clothes. He was adamant (despite James’ protests) that he needed to wash his waterproof jacket. Anthony was in a similar state and had woken up at two o'clock.  Thinking that it was morning, he had started to have a shower, fallen over and dragged down his shower curtain.  He had to call reception to get it sorted out. They didn't look good at all.  In fact, Pat had to go up to drag Anthony out of bed at quarter to nine...

At nine o'clock, we were loaded into a minibus and ferried around to ITMC.  it's a very interesting place – run-down buildings with a store shed with lots of ex-Soviet kit.  They have four off-road trucks in various states of repair with several partial trucks lying about presumably for spares. 

Pat and Adrian set about sorting out ropes and gear while the rest of us just hung about.  By ten o'clock it had all had been sorted out and we climbed into a 6-wheel truck and set off.  We were followed by a smaller 4-wheel truck which was carrying the Sherpas and a lot of our gear.

The truck is a lot more comfortable than I thought that it would be.  It has seats that appear to have come from a coach.  They are contoured (like bucket seats) which is a good job because the truck bounces around all over the place on the rough roads.

The road to Naryn is tarmac all the way but is broken up in places.  It was difficult to read a book because the truck was bouncing about so much.

We stopped off at a cafe/restaurant for lunch and had mutton soup followed by mutton and rice. Vladimir bought the customary bottle of vodka which was soon polished off.

We stopped for a pee in the middle of nowhere during the afternoon and someone noticed a loud hissing from one of the wheels.  A quick change of the massive tyre and we were on our way. Apparently, the inner tube will be repaired by tomorrow morning.

The journey wasn't too bad (in retrospect), time seemed to pass quickly.  The scenery was a little monotonous and we didn't pass through many villages.  However, there were lots of very small “settlements” of a few tents and “yurts” with flocks of sheep and goats.  Yurts are a collapsible circular tent of felt and skins stretched over a pole frame, originally used by Central Asian nomadic peoples and now used by the native Kyrgyz nomadic people.  They were very noticeable – quite Mongolian- looking faces mostly on horses or the odd donkey.  Interesting to see them wearing traditional felt hats – apparently the high hats hold a lot of air which keeps the wearer’s head warm in winter and cool in summer.

We arrived at the “English Guest House” in Naryn at five o'clock - it was just like an English Bed & Breakfast. The shower was in a strange “half” bath with no shower curtain - it was a bit uncomfortable having a shower while squatting in the bath, but I need to enjoy such luxuries while I can. We had an evening meal of salad, mutton soup and (gasp) chicken. Everyone was very quiet – a combination of seven hours of travel and hangovers. We were all in our beds at nine. 

2 September 2008    Naryn to Military Checkpoint, Kyrgyzstan  
We got up for breakfast at half past seven and were soon outside with our bags. Sasha (the driver) was just finishing the puncture, so we hung around chatting for ages while everything was sorted out.  Once we were on the move, we went into Naryn town centre, where Sasha managed to buy two second-hand tyres for the truck – which was amazing considering the size of the town.

Dinner contentedly browsing

We walked around the market, while Vladimir and his team went to buy provisions for the trip. The market consisted of lots of small stalls selling anything that you want. The food market was only selling basic vegetables and the meat market was stalls with lots of hacked up pieces of mutton and the inevitable flies.

After a couple of hours, we set off and travelled up a very rough track towards a high pass at 3200m.  The landscape consisted of lots of grassland with Yurts, herds of horses, flocks of sheep and the occasional herd of Yaks.

We stopped off at a nice grassy area by the side of a stream for a “picnic” lunch.  This was the first meal prepared by Olga (our cook), and very tasty it was too.  Vladimir had picked up a sheep in Naryn, which was let out of the small truck for a bit of grass.  The plan is apparently for the sheep to come to the Base Camp with us where it will be “dispatched” for our culinary enjoyment.

The area to which we were travelling is on the border with China and there are ongoing disputes with the Chinese.  As this remains a sensitive area, we had to pass through three Military checkpoints where passports, visas and special travel permits for the region were carefully checked.  There have been reports of difficulties at these checkpoints where officials have said that there are problems with documentation and only a bit of “baksheesh” will smooth the passage. 

Vladimir is well used to this and, apparently, melons have been popular in the past, but this year he had a better method – giving a lift to a Military officer and his wife.  Not surprisingly, our passage through the checkpoints was pretty smooth.

When we arrived at the first checkpoint, we hung about for about ¾ hour waiting for the smaller truck to catch us up.  During this wait, a car appeared from the Naryn direction and a couple got out with a bottle of vodka.  Vladimir immediately called for Pat and a few rounds of toasting took place. Once the bottle was empty, the couple got back in the car and headed back to Naryn. 

Eventually, Vladimir decided that we had better go back to find the small truck, so we all piled into the large truck and headed back down.  We found it about a mile away struggling up the steep track. The solution was to connect a cable to it and tow it up to the Military checkpoint.  It turned out that the truck was struggling was because it has a dodgy fuel pump (which had apparently been a problem for a “few trips”.  By this time, we had lost a couple of hours, so Pat was getting a little tetchy and had a word with Vladimir about perhaps fixing the fuel pump.  Vladimir simply shrugged and said that “it always has trouble getting up steep hills”.  (Later in the evening, Sasha changed the fuel pump).  This appears to be a common Kyrgyz attitude – “don’t fix it unless it’s completely broken”.

Staying at an Army Camp, Kyrgyzstan

At the second checkpoint, we were treated to the sight of some locals driving up who were completely paralytic on vodka.  Once cleared through the checkpoint, one guy insisted on wandering about shaking hands.  They then had a few more shots of vodka, before jumping back into the car and roaring off, weaving back down the road towards Naryn.

The plan was to go through a third Military checkpoint and then camp somewhere about an hour further on, but with the various delays, it was decided that we would stay at the Military camp by the checkpoint.  This was helped by the fact that we were giving a lift to the camp commander. 

Some people ended up pitching tents and some of us dossed down in two unused rooms in one of the buildings.  I managed to bag an old bed, which seemed a good idea at the time.  Unfortunately, it creaked loudly every time I moved. 

We were treated to our first taste of “Koumis” – the local drink made from fermented mare’s milk. This was delightfully presented in a 5 litre Shell motor oil canister. The drink is about 3% alcohol and has a very odd taste – quite bitter, a bit fizzy then an odd, ”peaty” after taste. I had a few sips, tried not to grimace and managed to pour the rest away when our “host” was not looking.

Olga managed to prepare a fine meal of mutton after which we retired to bed.

3 September 2008 Military Checkpoint to Base Camp, Kotur Glacier, Kyrgyzstan 
I slept well in my new sleeping bag.  We got up at half past six. Olga cooked a fantastic breakfast of omelette and pancakes.  I’m quite excited about the thought of getting to Base Camp after 3 days of travelling.

We left the army base at about half past eight and travelled along a dirt track alongside the mountains.  It was very bumpy along the track, but I was chatting to Pat about sailing and the time passed quickly.  The last hour was exciting as we finally went off road and up a river bed to arrive at Base Camp at half past twelve.  It is a nice flat area, below the moraine, about 1 kilometre from the Kotur Glacier, at an altitude of 3,900 metre and on the edge of the streams coming down from the glacier. VIEW LOCATION.

Western Kookshaal-Too region of Kyrgyzstan

We had lunch, then donned our mountain boots and went for a walk towards the glacier.  It was very loose moraine up to the glacier. Gareth and I went right up to the snout of the glacier and discovered a very fast wide stream running across the front of it.  Pat and Adrian reckon that the flow will be a much less in the mornings.

On the way back to Base Camp, Gareth and I came across an 8 to 10 metre diameter boulder that I thought would be good for bouldering.  When we got back to Base Camp, I mentioned it to Pat who immediately wanted to go and have a look.  Pat, Anthony and I grabbed our rock shoes and walked back up.  It was a bit further away than I thought and I was starting to have doubts about how good it would be.  Thank God that when we got there Pat thought that it was good.  We had an enjoyable hour bouldering with Pat showing us the way to go.  I only managed three out of Pat’s five routes - two of them had me panting for breath because they were a bit thin on holds.

Back at camp, we had a fantastic evening meal of lamb and rice with salad. We've started to get drinking water directly from the glacial streams – tastes good.

Tomorrow, we plan to walk for four hours up to Advance Base Camp 1 (ABC1) and set up tents there.  We'll then walk back down to Base Camp to acclimatise some more.  I'm in bed at nine o'clock.  This is my first night in my new tent and I've found that I've got so much stuff that there wouldn't be room for anyone, but me in here.