As I mentioned in my last article, describing my first impressions of Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, if you look to the south of Bishkek there are big, beautiful snowy mountains overawing the cityscape.
On Tuesday evening, speaking to three Kyrgyz software developers at a craft beer brewery, I found myself saying for a third consecutive evening that I am planning to go to the mountains. My planning, though, remained at the stage of: “I have seen the pretty mountains and I want to visit them.”
When I get home, I get my arse into gear and look on 2GIS, the Google Maps for this part of the world, what mashrutkas go that direction.
Mashrutka number 265 goes to the entrance of the Al Acha National Park, many kilometres short of the base of the mountains. I figure I can catch 265 and hitchhike the rest of the way.
I have still been working on GMT time, rising middayish and sleeping after 3am. Fortunately, when I drink a British quantum of beer, I sleep little, which means I wake up wake me up in good time to adventure to these mountains and my skewiff body-clock is recalibrated.
Arising 6am, I throw into my already-packed bag my provisions for the day, namely, two books and a notepad. I know I have swimming shorts, sleeping bag and bivvy bag in there – plus some gymnastics rings I cannot be bothered to fish out of the bottom of the bugger. I strap my sleeping mat to the top, and my wallet, phone and penknife are in my man-bag on my front.
I put on a t-shirt, joggers, steel-toe boots, and I rock and roll out the door.
The mashrutka departs from Osh Bazaar, which I also mentioned in my last article. It is strange to see the place that time in the morning, without the teeming mass of people barging and haggling about the place. There are just drivers smoking outside the mashrutkas, a few passengers waiting, and your standard dirt-poor rough-looking characters glaring away.
I cannot overstate how much of a sore thumb I stick out as in this place.
I spot number 265 and go up to it, but the driver indicates me away saying something in Russian.
I say, “Anglisky?”
To which he replies, “[Incomprehensible Russian spoken louder than the first time]”.
A Kyrgyz lady overhears me speaking louder English in reply to the Russian, and asks, “Are you going to Al Archa too?” Al Archa is the name of the national park in which the Ala Too mountain range is located.
“Yes I am,” I tell her.
“Me and my sister are going there, you can get the mashrutka with us.”
I follow the little Kyrgyz lady, who looks 40 to 50, and wears hiking gear and a bandana with a marijuana leaf on her head. We introduce ourselves. Her name is Anara, and she introduces me to her sister who she is going hiking with, Ikara.
“My name is Liam.”
“Ahhh, like Bruce Lee-am!” Anara says. We laugh, great chirp in them both.
She asks about what brings me to Kyrgyzstan, and we speak tourism to the country, and how it has become even poorer during the pandemic. She tells me there is a mass of unemployed men who have turned to taxi driving – or worse things – to make ends meet.
“You speak really good English!” I tell her, meaning it. It’s good by the young generation’s high standards, and a rarity for the older generation. “Where did you learn to speak so well?”
“From YouTube videos,” she tells me.
That’s right, people. It turns out our excuses for not learning other languages are invalid, as a Kyrgyz lady who works two high-level jobs can learn to speak fluent English from YouTube videos in her spare time.
“Do you mind if I practice my English with you? Promise to correct me if I say something wrong. Oh, and when the mashrutka arrives, you have to push to the front so you can sit at the back. And watch out for – thiefs, is that how you say it, thiefs?”
The mashrutka arrives, and I put pedal to the metal, by British standards, and power-walk towards the bus. But there are runners involved, and a couple of elbows. I would rather be an awkwardly polite Brit who is uncomfortable for the duration of a bus ride than spend five seconds barging to the head of a queue.
As it happens, Anara has managed to save me a seat next to her, bless her heart, so we put my bulky bag on the gangway and cram myself in next to her.
Mashrutkas are minivans, really, cramped little things with artistically hazardous and perpetually smoking drivers. There are handrails on the roof for people to stand up (just no-one approaching my height), and there is the odd old person harassing people to give them their seat. They don’t take no for an answer. I had two oldies just walk right in front of me at the post office the other day; their blatancy is commendable.
The driver pops round and collects everyone’s fare, this longer ride costing the exorbitant equivalent of 34p. It is pretty full. All windows are closed, all blinds are drawn, as they always are for some unbeknownst reason.
Myself, Anara and Ikara talk about everything and anything during the bus ride.
Anara is a doctor, and has worked two jobs since the start of the pandemic, at both a private and a public outfit on the ‘frontline’ of the the fight agains Covid-19.
“The government said there was 1,000 deaths, but I know there was more like 8,000 or 10,000. I see the people dying and they are mostly fat men and older people. Is that how you say it? Fat?”
“Me and my sister had covid,” Anara continues. “I had it because of work and I gave it to my sister, we were both very ill – is that how you say it? – for about a month. Very bad.”
I comment on the seemingly suicidal tendency of the drivers here in Kyrgyzstan, explaining my story about the trolley bus driver. Anara tells me simply, “Kyrgyz men are crazy.”
That theme crops up again and again.
They ask me if I have kids, if I have a wife, if I have a girlfriend, and they seem a bit surprised that I don’t. “We will find a Kyrgyz girl for you!”
I laugh, and say, “Noooo…”
“Why no?” Anara exclaims. “You need a girl! Kyrgyz girls love European men, they don’t want Kyrgyz men. Kyrgyz men lay on the sofa, they order you around, they will hit you, they are drinking, it’s not good.”
This is the third Kyrgyz lady who has said something similar to me.
We had a discussion as to whether drinking ability and proclivity was genetic. We agreed it was.
Anara said that the Russians colonised Kyrgyzstan and introduced vodka. While the Slavs can drink and still function, “For Kyrgyz men it’s not the same, they are dying all the time, it is not normal for them. Kyrgyz men are only used to kumis. Kumis makes you happy, and it’s healthy for you.” Kumis is fermented horse milk, and can be as strong as beer.
I tell her I have robust drinking genetics from the UK and Ireland, but I don’t drink vodka, and I would love to try kumis.
“You should take my number in case you have any trouble in Kyrgyzstan, and you can phone me.” Bless the hearts of Anara and Ikara. I pass her my phone, because I’d forgotten her name again, and she typed in, Anara ege, which means Aunty Anara.
“When we arrive at the gate,” Anara tells me, “We have to pay 100som to get into the park, but we are going to run around the side. You should come with us, but not at the same time.”
“I don’t mind paying 100som,” I say, not wanting to incur the attention and potential wrath of the militarily garbed and notoriously corrupt officialdom.
“No, you save your money,” Anara tells me sternly, “You’re coming with us.”
It’s just 85p.
We arrive, and alight the mashrutka at some gates with a small office overlooking a green valley, lined with trees and overseen by the now magisterial and imposing Ala Too mountains.
Anara and Ikara immediately begin power-walking on the valley’s ridge, around a barrier and past the gates. I throw my lot in with the two old birds and power-walk after them.
The nature is breathtaking. I don’t use this word as a cheap cliché. There is a road stretching for miles at a steady incline ahead of us, some horses whinnying in the distance, the sound of running water arising out of the gully, and pines and rocks and birds all competing to be heard, in a much more orchestral ensemble than the one in the city we have just departed. There are a group of horses up the road whinnying and skipping, a few brown, a couple black and one white.
Ikara asks in her broken English if I can sing.
“I like to sing, but it can smash glass and damage your ears,” I tell her gravely.
I try to josh them into a sing-song, but they are not having it.
“Fine then, I will, because I am happy.”
And I sing them my favourite happy song, old gold, from 1935:
Heaven… I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.
And I seem to find the happiness I seek,
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
Oh, I love to climb a mountain,
And to reach the highest peak.
But it doesn’t thrill me half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek.
Whether it is the altitude or the few days in smog laden Bishkek, I cannot keep pace whilst singing, so I slow down and make grand, sweeping gestures so I can steal air between lines.
The ladies clap along, and when I finish with a flourish they applaud and compliment my voice, asking if I am a singer. Lord above, I hate to know what Kyrgyz singers sound like, then.
They tell me it is 12km from the gate to the base of the mountain, and if I want to climb a mountain – and to reach the highest peak! – I should hitchhike. I invite them to come with me, which they seem already to have taken as a given.
We pass a spring of fresh water on our path, cleverly directed over some slate to trickle down in an inviting stream. I am rasping already, having not eaten or drank anything since yesterday evening and forgetting to bring any food or water. What sort of a moron comes with gymnastic rings, swim goggles and two books, but not water?
I take out my wooden cup, a travel essential I received from my friends in Norway, and chug a few back. It tastes as refreshing and crystal-clear as it looks.
The ladies spot a van as we water ourselves, and we stick a thumb out.
A delightful Kyrgyz gentlemen on his way to pick up some off-piste skiers from Scotland stops, and he happily gives us a ride. They chat away, as I pull back the blinds and look out the window. Every bus, mashrutka and van seems to have windows shut and covered by blinds here.
On our steady ascent we see streams, boulders, rocks, sites from former rockslides, and of course, more horses.
We arrive at a kind of holiday yurt encampment and basecamp for the mountain. There are quite a few vans in a car park, one super-yurt, and a board with information on the hikes to be hiked up the mountains.
“We always do the same hike, so we want to try something different,” Anara says, pointing to a winding path up to one peak, which then leads onto another much larger peak. Most of the path is covered in snow, save for the path which has a hard, muddy frost, with a smattering of trees here and there. I think, that’s bloody bold of you, and follow them.
“I like to come to the mountains to escape because I am working all the time in two jobs,” Anara tells me. I feel a little guilty for telling her I feel like I am having a break from the city, when I have been here for less than a week and I haven’t worked since January. My throat feels like I’ve smoked cigarettes and there’s blood every time I spit, such is the Bishkek smog.
“You need to move away from Osh Bazaar. It’s not good. It’s dirty, the air is bad, the food is bad, you need to move away from there.” I tell her about the raspy throat I’ve developed and the Osh Bazaar street food that voided my guts and soul, and I regret upsetting her with the information.
The path quick intensifies from a steady incline to a use-your-hands incline, plus ice. I take the lead and am waiting a fair bit. Though they are in their fifties, they are fit as fiddles, but the shoes just aren’t up to ice.
So we say our goodbyes.
Anara demands I call her and let her know how I go with the climb, and I say it was a pleasure meeting you both.
And off I go.
Up the glorious mountain by myself, with a sweaty half-hour ascent, I cannot see or hear a living soul; just mountains reaching up in all directions, frosted pine trees, the odd magpie or eagle, and the crunch and the slide of my old battered boots attempting to do something they were not designed to do.
The sun is blazing. We are at mid-morning now, and the blue sky has a slight haze, and a large halo has formed around the sun. As I begin to sweat and pant, I am glad I wore a t-shirt, and wish I could find a secure place to change out of my joggers and into my shorts. Alas, there is only the steep incline; and the beautiful, echoing silence.
The ascent, for all its astounding beauty, is becoming rather arduous, but I am unwilling to give up the pace. Over the peak of yonder mountain is a waterfall, and I have it in my head that I am going to dip in it and camp somewhere nearby. So I breathe in deep, the cold and fresh air purifying my city-stained lungs, I put my head down and I climb. And slip and flail my arms occasionally.
I see someone trudging around the mountain I am ascending, wrapped up in all the gear with skis on his back.
I holler, “Hello!” I get a hello in return. I ask how he is doing, and I detect his Scottish accent – our off-pister, from earlier.
The skiing Scotsman asks, “Are ye going to so-and-so camp?”
I say, “I don’t know where I’m going! I’m just following the path, man.” I felt my apparent stupidity the second I said it. Just following the path maaan, said the unprepared hippie with a spliff hanging from his gob.
“Good luck with that, then!” He shouts back, and continues, with his big snow boots, his two walky-walky-look-at-me-hiking sticks and posse of gear-bearers.
I think to myself: bollocks, I really am just winging it up here with bugger all experience or equipment or even adequate clothing to my name.
Which reminds me: I am rasping for water, sweating, and the sun drying me out at the same time.
The heat, fortunately, has been melting some of the icicles daintily drooping underneath pine branches, and I plop my wooden mug underneath and wait impatiently for the most delicious, refreshing, pine-flavoured water I ever did taste. The break is welcome, too. My legs burn in places that I forgot existed.
Returning to the ascent, around and up the mountain, about two hours in now, I arrive to what is essentially basecamp for the ‘real’ ascent, an intimidatingly steep climb to the peak. It doesn’t look far, but being markedly steeper, it is going to slow my shuffle-shuffle-don’t-slip pace right down.
There are no longer footprints to be seen, so I am wondering whether I took a wrong turn, and Mr. All-The-Gear might have been on to something.
After drinking in some more of the views, I begin.
And I slide backwards, face down in the snow.
I look at certain rocks and trees and aim for them, going one step at a time, trying desperately not to slide again. The pace is abysmal. The slipping becomes more frequent. My hands are numbing, and the snow is entering my shoes and shirt as I slide.
I set myself a stone in the distance to reach, and when I get there, I lean back on it, knackered.
I send some photos to family and whack some up on social media. I can feel Liam of a year ago tut-tutting that I am on my phone with such beauty around me.
My old man replies to a photo, “Are you alone? FFS put on a Guernsey!” I can understand it looks frozen, because it is, but hiking in the sun is hot work.
Sliding about in the snow is not hot work, though, and as I send my smart arse reply – “Cold is a conspiracy of the energy and clothing companies man” – a wind picks up, and clouds roll over the peaks of the mountains. All of a whistling sudden, I wish I had an ounce, or even a gram, of common sense and I packed a jacket. And I am glad I didn’t put those sodding shorts on.
I can feel the clouds chilling me through my sweat soaked shirt, and my fingers and toes are numb. I decide a better idea than snakes-and-ladders-ing up and down the mountain would be to descend and find a spot to camp near the bottom.
But… how to get down?
Climbing up, you can lean into the incline and clasp onto stones or branches or crouch and dig your hands in.
Descending? If you fall, you fall, as I soon found out.
I began my descent, adopting a leaning crab approach, taking baby side steps one after the other, preferably on a stone or grass if any was showing.
Slip – thud – slide.
I fall on my arse, which promptly begins to slide down the mountain, raking stones, snow going into my shirt and shoes, and I fast approach the precipice of a cliff.
I turn onto my side, hack with my feet into the snow, and manage to grab onto a branch. As I stop short of said precipice, I think, “Christ, wouldn’t this be fun if there wasn’t the impending doom, and I had some gloves and a jacket and some boots on.”
Slip – thud – slide.
I feel like I have that tattooed on my arse, back and elbows after this expedition.
After the steepest bit was descended, I recommenced my crab shuffle down the mountain with greater success.
This was enjoyable. I should stress this, as the above might sound stressful: it was immensely enjoyable, in a way more intensely felt than I can adequately describe.
The rate of slip – thud – slides decreased, and I made my way perhaps halfway down the mountain, and treated myself to a little break on a patch where the snow had recently melted.
Quite a substantial amount of snow has melted, in fact, and I can hear and soon see small channels of water flowing down the paths I had recently ascended, which before were frozen solid and snowed over.
I enjoy my break, with things a little warmer and less windy down south, and continue my descent. As my confidence begins to soar after many minutes of no slippage, I boldly attempt to descend a steep stretch of path, which to my credit, I do. At pace.
Slip – thud – slide. This time, rather much more fun, without any impending doom, and I even manage to steer myself around a corner, opting to ride the slide for what it is worth, though this time the slide is much muddier and slushier.
Icy water soaks my joggers, seeps into my shoes, and helps to spread mud onto my arms and up my back. It is surprisingly cold, impressively so.
After this sloshy slide, I question whether I am going to camp at the base of the mountain. I am cold and wet with only shorts or bathers to change into, though I am well prepared for a swim or gymnastics session.
A couple more slip – thud – slides and there is no way in hell am I going to camp anywhere in the snow tonight, I am going home to eat some food and drink some beer.
The last slip – thud – slide I felt was so long and impressive that I stayed put, dried myself, and got my phone out to photograph the slide for my fans.
Squelching into basecamp, I find myself being eyed up and down, as I have fast become used to in Kyrgyzstan. I see a toilet for the yurts camped there, and I pay the 1p it costs for admittance.
I take off my joggers, soaked through and muddied all up the back and front where I’ve wiped my hands, and put them in a bag, and don my shorts.
Leaving the toilets, I become more aware that I am being eyeballed, as the cloud cover is complete, the wind picks up, and I the only person not layered in winter clothing.
I take to the road with my thumb out, hoping to catch a ride before reaching the group of people playing with a volleyball further down the road. And before it gets dark, I guess.
A couple of cars drive right past me, so I had to walk past a group of a dozen teenagers, and was treated not just to the open gawp, but open laughter too. I cannot help but smile.
I call the old bird to say hello, tell her all is well and I’m off the mountain, and swiftly have to hang up and put my thumb out as a beaten-and-souped-up car comes growling towards me.
Out pops a beaming, Russian-looking fellow who shakes my hand vigorously. We say hello to each other, throw my bag in the boot and I pop in the backseat next to his baby boy and behind his passenger, his beautiful wife.
His name is Islam, 27 years old, and her name is Nastya, 21 years old.
They ask via Google Translate, “Why are you dressed so lightly?”
I reply, “This is warm weather where I come from!” This was true a couple of hours ago.
The first rain of the day lashes into the windscreen. We pass an elderly couple sat in a cart, the gent wearing a traditional Kyrgyz kalpak – a tall hat – chiding their donkey to pull them along with his whip. We stop several times for crossing horses.
They, like Anara and Ikara, are dismayed that I am staying near Osh Bazaar.
“Bad people in Osh Bazaar,” Islam tells me. “Kyrgyz Mafia. No good. Bad people. This is not Europe, you cannot walk around at night. If any bad people bother you on the street, tell me where you are and I’ll come.”
They tell me they live in the south of the city, which we have since driven past, and where the air is cleaner, the traffic easier, and much closer to the mountains.
Islam and Nastya are currently saving money to realise their ‘dream’ of obtaining a green card and moving to some different mountains in the United States, in Georgia or Nevada.
As we enter into the city proper, we enter the familiar reality of traffic and street sellers, and we pass the grisly scene of a crushed scooter and crumpled car bonnet with some police on scene. That Islam and Nastya pass it without comment is telling.
Islam asks if I have tried shoro. I say I haven’t – I haven’t heard of it, to be honest. He pulls over onto a street corner and approaches one of the old babushkas who is sat next to barrels of a drink, which I thought contained tea or juice, and buys the two of us some shoro.
And so it is that I break my fast about 5pm, with a salty, grainy cup of shoro, which Islam excitedly informs me a healthy mixture of fermented dairy and grains and animal fat. I like the taste, it’s tangy and has punch, but my poor innards gurgle to me loudly in protest.
They insist on taking me right outside where I’m staying, where we swap contact details and say our goodbyes. I get another vigorous handshake and toothy grin, before I hobble towards the apartment, with sore legs and squelchy shoes, a sunburned face and dodgy stomach, and some new friends and lifelong memories.
Plus, another place to stay! Anara messages me insisting that I move away from Osh Bazaar and move in with her and Ikara – which is where I have just arrived.
The hospitality here is magnificent.
About which, more later.
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