What is it about this country that inevitably leads to me doing slightly silly things in pursuit of scenery? It’s not as if it’s hard to find the stuff here.
The pass was higher than I’d ever been in my life. The south side had been snow free, but the north was covered with overhanging snow bluffs, softened by the sun and the previous night’s rain. A sentence I’d read once in a book about an avalanche disaster on K2 or some other such baleful mountain leapt to the front of my mind and lodged itself happily there, replaying again and again: “Strangely, the party had chosen to cross the snow field during mid-afternoon, the most dangerous time for avalanches”. It was 2pm. Every ten minutes or so, a vast load of snow and rock rumbled off the neighbouring mountainsides, easily one of the most menacing sounds that there is. I probably wouldn‘t have been so concerned if our guide hadn’t also been so very obviously Not Happy. “Too much snow, too dangerous”. With a rope or an ice axe the bluff would’ve posed no problems, but mountaineering equipment was just one other thing that we had not thought especially hard about. Of course, most people don’t perish in avalanches. It’s just that, well, some do.
The idea had been to do some gentle trekking in the hills around Karakol, in the east of the country. We had been informed by the head of the local trekking agency that there was a beautiful azure gem of a lake called Ala-Kol just two day’s hike away, and we could breeze up there, admire the Alpine scenery and breeze back down again. The pass crossing might be a little tricky because of the altitude he conceded (Oh ha ha, I thought bitterly, struggling to put one foot in front of the other at 4000 m), but there would be no snow, and we would be laughing our way down to the hot springs on the other side. Things we were not entirely aware of when we launched ourselves merrily into this enterprise: a) June still counts as spring in Kyrgyzstan, not summer and this had been the wettest and coldest June for a while and b) due to the unrest, we were the first group of tourists going up the pass this season. For a brief comparison, this is Ala-Kol as it usually looks in late June:
This is how it looked when we were there:
The similarities are, you must concede, striking.
We eventually scrambled down some snow-free boulders, which were vertical and unsteady in a way that lent new and intensely personal meaning to the phrase “rocks fall, everybody dies” and bolted across the snow as fast as we physically could, which was not very as it was up to our thighs, as one of the snow bluffs above us collapsed, sending a stream of snow and rubble past us slightly closer than I would’ve preferred. One slightly unexpected river crossing later (who knew that unstable ice sheets can harbour glacial streams underneath? Well, most people I suppose. I’m reasonably sure I’ve never uttered such high-pitched noises in my life) and we were down in a green, flower-filled valley, contemplating the uniquely ex-Soviet attitude towards health and safety. Actual mountain climbers do stuff like that all the time and at much higher, its just that they tend to have stuff like experience and equipment and some idea of what they’re getting into. Evidently in Kyrgyzstan not much of this is important.
Still, the guy wasn’t lying about the hot springs, and if there’s one thing Kyrgyzstan is dead good for is hot springs. The thing to do with these is apparently to build a sanatorium on top and then depending on temperature either bathe in or drink the water, which of course cures everything, and everywhere you come across these decaying concrete complexes where cosmonauts used to convalesce and heads of state to meet and write constitutions and carve up new republics, and now they crumble gently but you can still get a two hour massage for five dollars. Fortunately the ones we stayed at that night were a bit too far away from anywhere for much of that, but there were still small concrete huts and huge baths smelling strongly of sulphur of which I got one of my own, because men and women sharing the same pool even while wearing bathing suits leads to the kind of moral degeneracy that even very smelly water can’t cure. In the evening we talked politics, because now what else is there to talk about, and toasted to our survival and peace in the country with a bottle of vodka which had heroically survived being thrown over a cliff during our descent. It felt a little silly that here we were, wandering around scaring ourselves by having inept and mildly dangerous fun in the mountains, when everyone I speak to has a relative or friend in Osh that they’re worried about, but then people are cancelling their holidays here in droves, and tourism is a major source of income in the rural areas, almost all of which are still safe, so we’re probably not doing any actual harm.
Back in Bishkek now, keeping an eye on things and working out what to do next. Things are calmer now but tense, with everyone anticipating further trouble in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on June 27th. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.