Kyrgyzstan Trek – Day One in the Mountains of Heaven

On Day One of the trek, at the start of the trail, we left the trail behind. Normally, we would have walked up the Jeti Oguz Valley (or Dzhety-Ogyuz if you’re playing Scrabble), but an overturned excavator the day before had blocked that route. ““So instead of walking up the valley, you will walk up along and over the ridge and will see down into it,” the trek boss explained. Sounded good. Everyone loves a good ridge trail.

Guide (left) and porter (right) will be in most of the photos of the trek

About an hour into the walk, already climbing into the range of sweat-soaked backs and swelling leg muscles, we ran into a pair of Kyrgyz cowboys. These were lean, hardworking men who patrolled the steep slopes to tend unruly cattle who could conceivably walk to China on their own. Their herculean task didn’t get any easier when it started raining. So I was surprised to see one wasn’t using a saddle, just a bridle and a lean pillow across the horse’s back.

As they galloped off to collect their erstwhile herd, I considered masculinity. It’s a prickly thing, and easy to get caught up in trivial answers of physical toughness and image, when kindness and care seem like better gauges to me. And this guy, tough as leather, caring for cattle, high altitude Marlboro Man with no need of stirrups, was wearing the goofiest, most gardening-housewife floppy hat I had ever seen. Take that, prepackaged notions of masculinity! I adjusted my substantially manlier hat, which was regularly laughed at by children, and on we went.

The mountains rose up around us with slopes and spikes of pure geologic rambunctiousness that takes eons to play out. Astonishing cliffs could appear anywhere in such a landscape, and I was grateful to have a guide. Especially when the horsemen pointed in a direction that had no path whatsoever. What it did have was swathes of spruce forest, overgrown meadows whose broad-leafed plants tickled and giggled under a light rain like a million tiny sky kisses, and a broad valley stretching out below us to catch our awe whenever we looked across it at the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. The Mountains of Heaven. Formed when India crashed into Asia somewhere in the last 66 million years.

These mountains would be my hosts, gods, companions, and adversaries for the week, and hiking up over this first long jagged ridge was a helluva way to begin. To break the seal. To get my footing. Any other relevant cliches? One more.

I forded the first snowmelt stream under the steady brown gaze of three horses. Second was the main river, and actually had a bridge. I lost track after that, but there were no more bridges, just clear rushing streams that descended from the peaks, so clean that we filled our bottles as we walked and drank deep. Then there was a big broad one. I danced across the tallest stones, but halfway across, something slid and my foot plunged, then the other on the rebound. Icy water filled my shoes, my socks, cooled my calves. Yes, day one definitely got my feet wet.

It was no problem though, because we made our camp that first night right there on the far bank. The constant rain had seeped through my rain fly, everything I had was some degree of damp, and I faced a long night of shivering ahead. But once my tent was pitched in the shadow of those celestial mountains, immersed in the harmonizing gurgle of the stream that had soaked me on the right and the deeper roar of the glacier melt torrent on the left, I knew the truth.

Yes, I would shiver the whole night through, but I would rest, dream, and wake in paradise. It was well worth the soggy feet.

Luckily the next morning dawned sunny