The fall of 1995 Bob and I joined an REI adventure tour company based in Seattle Washington on an 18 day trek in the highest and most dramatic part of the central Tian Shan mountain range of south Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan Airways, flying in from New York, landed in Tashkent Uzbekistan where we visited a couple from our home town of Salem Oregon who happened to be there as volunteers for USAID. We had told our friends via email where we would be staying, but upon failure of the phone system, they simply slipped a note under our door, a local custom in lieu of telephones, letting us know where and when to meet them.
When we arrived at a restaurant parking lot to board the bus, to our dismay, we found several Uzbekis hovered over many and myriad motor parts lying on the ground. “Have some tea,” they said as they pointed toward a nearby tea house, “and we will be ready soon!” Riiight…we thought. To our relief, after watching them reassemble the inner workings of the motor for an hour, we were motioned back to the bus by Peter, our trip guide.
To reach the trekking area in Kyrgyzstan it was necessary to cross a small oddly carved out thumb of Tajikistan from Uzbekistan. However, the two countries don’t get along and when we arrived at the Tajik border the guard held up the bus…apparently wanting baksheesh to let us pass. Peter was adamant about not wanting to set a precedent of paying them off so there we sat in the hot sun, eating the best melon we have ever had in our lives to quench our thirst. Finally, Peter had the driver take a roundabout road across the Fergana Valley to reach our staging area in Kyrgyzstan where the driver had to pull some very crooked logs over a stream to get the bus across…we chose to wobble across on our feet.
The trek included walks up breath-taking beautiful stream-filled and flowered valleys and over high ridges to more valleys. Shepherds from their permanent homes in the lowlands summer their sheep and horses on the grassy mountain-sides. Sheer glossy Ak-Suu peak, one of the world’s best extreme rock-climbing destinations that had just before opened up to climbers since the fall of the Soviet Union glinted at the head of the glacial valleys. The first sobering day saw a climb team carry out a dead British compatriot that had fallen off the peak.
As we leisurely meandered up the trails, children of the local nomads would come running, sometimes with a kettle of tea or chay in their hands, yelling “pen!” “pen!” Have pen? Pens and paper are the most prized gifts, although Peter discouraged us from giving the kids anything…preferring to have them see us as friends rather than a rich Western source of material goods.
Peter’s favorite “gift” was to bring photos of the locals that he had taken on previous treks in the area. The amazed smiles and giggles of the nomads that had never seen themselves in a picture was tear-jerking.
Every couple days, locally hired shepherds carried our gear on horses over narrow mountain trails to succeeding camps…the trek trip just before ours losing a horse hundreds of yards to a river below. We would set up our own tents. The potty was a hole dug out behind some rocks. In the mornings chay (tea) was brought to our tents to get us awake. In the evenings, Victor, our Russian cook, would wok up a delicious dinner like stew of spicy laghman (noodles) with cabbage and lamb bought from the locals. Dumplings (chuchvara) fresh yogurt (ayran) and home-made bread with raspberry jam and butter (sary may) kept us filled up.
After dinner at night, Peter, in real life a young non-practicing attorney from Colorado, would regale us with his rock climbing and trekking stories. One day he stumbled across a friend on the trail, a professional climber from Idaho who was checking out the newly opened climb area. A motivational speaker in the states, he mezmerized us that evening with a story of an Annapurna climb in Nepal during which a Russian climbing partner became disoriented and insisted on going up the line instead of down during a storm. The Russian was never seen again. Right at the climax, before we could find out what happened to the poor climber, we saw a huge lingering flash of red hot color fill the western sky! Only later, reading an English language paper in Istanbul Turkey on our way home, did we find out that it was the Russian manned space flight returning to earth in Kyrgyzstan.