Kyrgyzstan Trek – Day One in the Mountains of Heaven

On Day One of my 6-day hike in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, I had no idea what to expect. Apparently my guides were playing it by ear a bit too. The route normally began in 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 down in the valley, you will walk up and over the ridge and will see down into it,” the trek boss explained. Sounded good. And when we had to immediately ask directions from a local farmboy, that was all part of the adventure.

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 shirts and swelling thighs, we met a pair of Kyrgyz cowboys. They were lean, hardworking men who patrolled the steep slopes to manage unruly cattle capable of wandering off to China. Their herculean task didn’t get any easier when it began to rain and the slopes became slides. 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 after their erstwhile herd I considered masculinity. It’s a nebulous thing, clouded with trivial answers and lots of branding. But here were two men who epitomized the ad campaigns, mountain riders with limbs made of wood (if not iron), easy exemplars of the old Marlboro masculinity. But it was the warmth with which they greeted us, and the care they showed for their animals that seemed manliest to me. Plus, the high altitude hero who didn’t need stirrups was wearing the goofiest floppiest hat I had ever seen. Take that, prepackaged notions of masculinity! I adjusted my substantially manlier hat, which is regularly laughed at by children, and on we went.

The mountains rose around us in spikes of geologic rambunctiousness that take eons to play out. Astonishing cliffs can appear anywhere in such a landscape, and I was grateful to have a guide, especially when the horsemen pointed us toward open terrain with no path. We descended through swathes of spruce forest, crossed overgrown meadows whose broad-leafed plants tickled and giggled under a light rain, and reached a broad valley below the snow-wreathed peaks on the other side. This was the Tian Shan Range, the Mountains of Heaven, formed when India crashed into Asia somewhere in the last 66 million years. And they would be my hosts, companions, and adversaries for the week.

Summer comes late to those heights, and the June sun was melting the ice to stream into the valley from a thousand directions. We filled our bottles with the clean water as we walked and drank deep. Three noble horses watched me cross the first stream. Two dozen cows watched me balance across the second. A lone bull was unimpressed as I barely managed the third. I don’t know how many there were, but I remember I was halfway across a particularly large and fast one when the stone rolled under my foot. I was instantly refreshed up to the knees. I knew Day One would get my feet wet, but I didn’t need it to be so literal.

Granted, I was already soaked from a steady rain that had laughed at my pack’s cover, and everything I had was wet. 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 river 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 and I sat here to dry

(If you’re looking for other beautiful places off the beaten tourist track, check out my small-group Best of Romania tour. Europe’s best kept secret!)