Kyrgyz Trek – Day Three

I awoke surrounded by monsters. Their growls, snarls, and roars made Jurassic Park sound like a petting zoo, and I was very aware that I could see no further than the fabric of my tiny tent. They were right outside, and very large. People love saying “travel safe” and I restrain an urge to ask them not to, but would I actually find danger on this trek?

It helped that I knew they were just cows and bulls. They wander these valleys freely, but I never realized how demonic they could sound until they brought me out of a sound sleep. I emerged from my tent to find them all around me, body slamming each other out of the way to lick one particular spot of ground. Salt? I ate my breakfast and watched the beef bang about in the chill morning air.

We had camped near a group of Italians the previous night, but they were just stirring when I was ready and eager to get started, and my guide indulged me. We set off for the 800  meter climb to Teleti Pass at 3800 m, and soon their tents were far, far below. A print in the dust was confirmed to be bear, and when we reached the snowline, my guide pointed out the tracks of wolves. But I still didn’t think there was any real danger around.

Then I learned about snow.

Looks so easy, but is there a ravine under there? Yes. Yes there is.

I was raised on the beach in California, so I had never before felt the snow break to swallow my entire leg to the hip. New to me was the phenomenon of my foot ending in a hole too small to come back out. Nor had I considered the delicacy of a guide creeping back over the fragile frozen crust to help dig me out, watching to see if he would break through too.

The snow taught me all about those experiences. Repeatedly. And began conducting them on steeper slopes, where the small snowballs of our footfalls rolled until far, far below. How long would it take before I stopped, if I fell like one of those snowballs? I concentrated on each footfall, and let the quiet satisfaction of finding a comfortable level of danger sit in the background.

And the Italians that I had so confidently left behind? They appeared and blazed right past me, walking across the snow like it was parkland. Clearly, those walking sticks were a good idea, but stupid me had to do the whole trek with camera in hand. They would have undoubtedly left me in the dust anyway, and the photos were worth some cold fingers.

It was snowing by the time I reached the crest and felt the instant camaraderie among people who have just summited. The easy smiles, the celebratory snickers bars raised in salute, and the comparison conversations that revealed these were not your average Italians, but expert mountaineers from the Alps who travel the world to challenge its high places. They welcomed me, and forgave my undoubtedly patchy Italian grammar.

Then it was another long afternoon of descent into and through a long valley like a stretched out Eden, varying from rocky streams to enormous green abysses with bands of yellow exuberance. And at the end, my now beloved tent, already soggy as the rain began, but in such a place and such a moment that I sat grinning, stunned by the bounty of life. Yes, I was going to shiver through the night again, but how can there be so much beauty on one little planet?

What a beautiful place to be, this earth of ours.