Kyrgyz Trek – Day Four

It was the best of campsites, it was the worst of campsites, but first we had to get there. Day Four started in another perfect mountain valley, whose light green-blue river of melted glacier memories ran between tall conifers sleeping in the mist at the uppermost limit of their range. The sharp mountain walls had acquired a new dusting of snow overnight, but down in the valley everything was water. Calm horses watched us break our fast from the far bank, while a few cows perused our side. Their hooves had churned up the spring, so I got as close to the source as I could before filling my bottles, and decided the little flecks of floating stuff were just mountain salad.

The Italians were on a more challenging tour, 11 days to my 6, so they bade me a kind farewell. Traveling makes you very aware of greetings and farewells, the punctuation of hospitality, and their warm send-off was a pleasure. Kyrgyz men had already impressed me with their greetings of a warm handshake, eye contact, and “salaam aleikum.” (They spoke Kyrgyz and Russian, but the Arabic greeting came with Islam.) If I showed initiative for it, they were quick to extend the courtesies to me too.

Three men paused from shoeing a horse to give us the greeting, then returned to hammering the mountain cleats. They had a rugged Soviet era truck and two tents, inside one of which was a box of food for us. This was our resupply, and I watched with gratitude and guilt as my guide and the porter loaded their packs with three more days of food. Hopefully our climb wouldn’t be too steep?

Over subsequent hours of pulling ourselves up with hands on rocks and roots, ducking under branches and climbing over trunks, I felt worse and worse about every peanut and hunk of cheese the two were lugging. So let’s pretend it was only compassion that made me sigh in relief when we reached “Orphan Camp,” a solitary hut beside a stream halfway up the pass.

(The most popular trek, 3 days, starts here)

We were slicing bread, cheese, and meat-lump-tube when four more hikers arrived. Their guide gave the handhold and salaam, but the tourists ignored us as if we didn’t exist. Were they Americans, being insular and rude? I admit to a small sparkle of relief that they were Russian. In a busy world it’s easy to feel like an individual fighting for your place, but up in the mountains I was reminded that there are bigger things than one’s own story, and individualism need not threaten community, even one as ephemeral as this.

The rest of the climb was the sort of perfectly arduous effort that pushes a sweaty joy into every brain cell and a lactic acid satisfaction into every muscle. At the top, once we’d crunched past the waterfall that would obliterate a human body without even noticing, we reached Ala Kul, the Lake of Many Colors. Those colors were hibernating still under a sheet of ice, on which were etched the patterns of the wind and high altitude sunlight. I felt something inside myself breathe in deep.

We celebrated the lake with cold water splashes on sweaty limbs and conversation in a tent over homemade Kyrgyz firewater. My trusty tent was set on solid rock that gradually filled with water and froze overnight. Sure, I slept on ice and stone, but what a place to do it! Getting up to answer nature’s call in the night, I stood abashed, shivering in body and spirit, with the mountains’ strength all around and the infinite spectacle of the stars everywhere above. No audible voice said “salaam” but I heard the message of peace in my bones anyway.

(If you would like to come with me to a place more comfortable, less mountainous, and with an even greater cultural richness, sign-ups for my small-group tour of Romania are live, check it out here)