Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Natural Way (mostly)

When I applied for this fellowship, I wrote about how I have had many opportunities in the past to travel completely solo in the wilderness, but that this would be a new challenge as solo travel within a society. Over the past two and a half months, I have striven to spend time with locals, meet people, watch people and experience the social side of Central Asia as much as I can. Other travelers that I have met have joined groups of like-minded foreigners to go on treks to the deserts or mountains or lakes and fields of the countries we have passed through, talking only amongst themselves or perhaps with a guide or homestay along the way. I've eschewed this type of travel in lieu of the social challenges: finding a hotel or bed, haggling in the market, sitting in a park until a friendly stranger (or wasted alcoholic) come to start a conversation, awkward conversations on long car rides, playing (or just being) dumb with crooked officials, and huge language barriers breached occasionally in celebrations of understanding. I figure there are plenty of mountains and deserts and lakes and fields in the US to play in and explore, but not so many Kyrgyz nomads, might as well use my time best with the locals, yeah?

So far, that philosophy of travel has worked well for me. As you've seen a bit of through this blog, I've had lots of new exciting, awkward, difficult and strange experiences since I left home. But, I realized last week that it's time for a break. Stephen, a CouchSurfing host of mine, explained it like this, "Yeah, I like to travel for the same reasons, but then travel became my life. I like to go hiking and stuff in my normal life, so I want that to be part of my life out here, too." Well played, Stephen. His words combined with a bit of travel fatigue (and fear of the 3-month-low experienced by many former Bonderman Fellows) and the beautiful mountains of Kyrgyzstan led me to embark on a short adventure into the wild this past week.

Nature has a way of centering us. No matter where we are in the world, rocks and trees and water and snow and wind will always be the same. We may find new species here and there, but cold still feels cold, sun still burns, and squirrels will still eat all of the good stuff out of your trail mix if you let them. In my time as an outdoor educator I saw it over and over: people brought to peace or revelations through interactions with nature. The wilderness is indifferent to who we are, where we're from or what language we speak, we're just another animal. We, on the other hand, are able to make the wilderness into our friend, muse or confidant (think of anyone -- or yourself -- who has baby-talked to a dog, squirrel, tiger cub, or plant). It may never reply, but we don't need it to. In the end it's a means for us to be introspective, or to just relax. Both of which I was craving after a couple of weeks in the city. Plus, I still have at least another 6 months to socialize and be awkward.

Like any good Kyrgyz adventure, it began with a burly soviet vehicle breaking down. 

The mountains
The plan was to go from Karakol, at 1800m in the eastern corner of Kyrgyzstan, up the Karakol valley, up another valley to Ala-Kol lake (3500m), over Ala-Kol pass (3900m), then down another valley to Altyn-Arashan, where hot springs and paradise would await.

Day 1: I'm out of shape. I blame the altitude.

Smiling at the outset
After hitching most of the way up the valley with the truck pictured above, I started hiking up towards Ala-Kol on my own. (Quick note about the truck: I'm pretty sure the Soviet engineering mentality with these things was, "well, why build good roads when we can just build a truck that doesn't need roads?" This thing probably could've driven up the river itself). Within a couple hours of hiking, I was tired, the scenery was beautiful, and I had come to a little climber camp that had been left empty for the off-season, so I decided to set up camp.
Cool carvings left in some stumps by past visitors

Unfortunately "leave no trace" has yet to become entrenched in Kyrgyzstan

Despite attempts to promote it (rough translation: "please don't leave your trash, thanks")
As it was mid-afternoon, I set about doing some of that relaxing and instrospecting that I was aiming to do. Then, just as I was eating my dinner of cold canned fish, the snow started to fall. Well, it actually started as hail, then snow, then a break, then more snow, then I went into hiding in my bivy. 13 hours later, I emerged refreshed, well-rested, and a bit surprised by the view about me:

Day 2: double-take, and a new friend

My morning view

Snow in the valley
Although only about 4in of snow had fallen over the night, it had nearly completely obliterated any trace of the trail. The trail was only really a little footpath to begin with, so it only took a dusting to wipe it away. As I had promised myself and loved ones back home that I wouldn't take any unnecessary risks since I was alone, I opted to head back down the mountain, along the path I knew, rather than try to head up to the lake, get lost or injured, and end up frozen somewhere in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Most of the plants were similar to what you'd find back home. Some were spikier.

Celebrating the beginning of winter
 Then, soon after I crafted the masterpiece above, I encountered my first visitor: a perky Moldovan named Oleg. Now, a quick note about Moldova: Until I met Oleg, my only understanding of his country was from "The Geography of Bliss", one of the books I brought on this trip, which describes it as, statistically, the least happy place on earth. Naturally, I was surprised when this upbeat software engineer started dumping his optimism on me in the middle of the Kyrgyz mountains and convinced me to turn around and continue with him and his gadgets (GPS, GPS Camera, Altimeter watch, etc.) to the lake and possibly beyond.

About 5hrs, 1000m, and two unnecessary river crossings later, we reached the lake and stopped for tea. Oleg was, at this point, cursing his GPS and its lack of accuracy in canyons, and I was just happy to have relatively dry feet and something warm to drink.

Tea time at the lake
We continued for another couple of hours around the lake and up to the pass, where we were confronted with beautiful views, terrible winds, and waist-deep snow. Rather than continue on to Altyn-Arashan and risk  avalanche or falling off a cliff, we decided to retreat to the lake for the night and make our way back to Karakol the next day.

Traversing around the lake

The view from the pass

Windy faces at dusk

Breakfast: boiling water, thawing boots and warming bread, all in one go.

Those weren't there before...

 Karakol: regroup and try again

After having spent two days dreaming of the hot springs of Altyn-Arashan to sooth my aching feet and legs, I was determined to get there one way or another. Soon after returning to Karakol, I met a group of Israelis and an American who were about to take a mini-bus up the valley to the springs and offered to squeeze me in:

Who needs legroom?

Altyn-Arashan valley

Hot spring by the river. Valentin built this one by hand.
In the end, I made it to the hot springs, got my fix of thin mountain air, and returned to Karakol refreshed and rejuvinated. Although I feel like I could probably spend another month here in Kyrgyzstan, my 30-day Tajik visa started today, so today I'm going to begin the journey down to Dushanbe. Hopefully there will be stories to tell about this leg, as well. Maybe more broken down vehicles, awkward Russian conversations, and more campsites like this bush in a swamp:

it was actually quite nice once I got inside the bush

Until next time!

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad you got away to the mountains! When I was in London it felt sooo good to take a few days to hike around Wales. I admire you wisdom in turning back when the trail was covered but am grateful you ran into Oleg to redirect and reinvigorate the journey:)