Old Gits on the Wye

Four Old Gits on the River Wye with a combined age of 260!

Four Old Gits on the River Wye with a combined age of 260!

Having watched the rowing and canoeing at the Olympics, four men, all of whom reached the ripe old age of 65 this year, felt inspired enough to seek their own adventure by canoeing a 50 mile stretch of the River Wye from Hereford to Monmouth. This epic adventure was to be completed in three days. We had even paid close attention to the cycling in the velodrome and taken note of slipstreaming in order to save energy and to gain advantage over each other.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as we left Worcester for our mid morning rendezvous with the Ross-on-Wye Canoe Hire Company who were going to take us and our canoes to Hereford. There we received our standard safety instruction before we were allowed to prepare ourselves for the river.
Four of us and two canoes. Who was going to go with whom? Ian and Rob had met before but neither of them had met Steve. Could I risk them being exposed to Steve so early in the trip? I know Steve well but did I really want to be trapped on a canoe with him? Of course I did. if nothing else Steve is always good company and a source of great amusement.
Setting out from Hereford

Setting out from Hereford

Canoes loaded we managed to clamber aboard without anybody going through the embarrassment of one foot on the land, one foot in the boat and a backside slowly descending towards the water (that was to come later). We paddled gently through Hereford with the cathedral on our left, dodging bridge pillars and fishermen wearing waders and up to their waist in water. Soon the city centre was behind us and we passed some exceptionally large and beautiful houses with gardens sweeping down to the river, all very Grand Designs.

Throughout this section, and much of this first day, we were amazed just how many swans were on the river, not just confined to urban areas where children throw bread for them, but anywhere where the water was shallow enough for them to feed. And in many places it was shallow with strands of beautiful green weed swaying gently with the flow.

IMG_2467There was always something to fascinate us as we paddled, flashes of vivid blue as a kingfisher darted for cover, heron gracefully lifting off and flying laconically as they relied on their huge wingspan to make them airborne with the minimum of effort, cormorants standing on the uppermost branches of dead trees affording them the best aerial view of fish below, fish leaping with flashes of silver, cattle cooling their feet, standing in the shallows at the side of the river, sheep gathering in the shade of a river bank tree as they avoid the glorious sunshine, and of course, the fishermen lurking in their camouflage outfits semi-hidden  on the river bank. Often we would just catch the sun glinting on their tight line, forcing us to give them a wide birth, in an effort to share this glorious space.
IMG_2468Pulling into the bank for a lunch break, Rob provided me with the best egg sandwiches I have ever had in my 65 years. I had to have them as the bacon butty I bought in Ross en route was, predictably, long gone.
The river was quite busy with a number of other canoes paddling downstream, enjoying the peace and tranquility. The only time that peace was shattered was when we passed a noisy engine pumping water from the river on to parched farmland, satisfying the thirst of needy crops.
Yum!

Yum!

This was our toughest day on the river, only because we did not actually get on the water until midday and we had 18 miles to cover. There was a little pressure to get on with it, so we tended not to stop for long when we chose to have a break. As a result, at 5.30, we pulled into the river bank at Tresseck Farm, Hoarwithy, where a number of other canoe groups were already encamped. It is a lovely flat site but the facilities are rather limited with just a few portaloos and a tap. It’s saving grace is a good pub, the New Harp Inn, at the end of the track, into the village. The food we had that evening was superb and the few pints we had to help wash it down.
IMG_2486
The following morning we were up early. I was carrying a thick head (I wonder why?). It did allow us to get away in good time, meaning that we had the river to ourselves. I was now partnering Ian, while Rob was joined by Steve. It was glorious as the river meandered through the delightfully pleasant Herefordshire countryside. Life does not get much better than this.
Approaching Ross

Approaching Ross

Everything was going really well when we reached Ross-on-Wye after three and a half hours. Pulling up at the landing platform by the Hope and Anchor we prepared to go ashore for lunch. There were a number of mothers and children on the jetty, feeding ducks. Suddenly, a horror show opened up in front of them. Rob managed to get one foot in the water and was preparing to swing his other out of the canoe when his foot in the water slipped. Grabbing the nearest thing to him in the hope that he could save himself, he grabbed the canoe, unbalancing Steve to the point where he thought he was going to fall in. The canoe drifted away under Rob’s weight, splitting his legs further apart to the point where his bottom became his centre of gravity, whereupon nothing could save him. There was muted laughter from the mothers, not sure if they should express their mirth, until they heard Steve, Ian and myself falling about with laughter. I was laughing so much I forgot to get the camera out to record Rob’s embarrassment for posterity. The mothers melted away to give counselling to their traumatised children.

Taking it easy

Taking it easy

After lunch, with Rob’s shorts draped over the barrel to dry, we continued our journey in perfect conditions. There was not a breath of wind and the sun shone. We punctuated our journey with periods of sustained paddling and rafting up to drift gently with the flow. At one point, Ian tied our canoe to the rope at the stern of Rob and Steve’s, allowing them, unknowingly, to pull us along for a while.

The scenery, as we neared Symonds Yat, became more dramatic as wooded hills rose steeply from either bank of the river.
IMG_2474Throughout our journey so far we had been impressed by some of the houses along the river bank. Many of them were very “Grand Designs”. Now that we were coming into forested gorge there were fewer in evidence. However, high on the hill the was a large stone building rising above the trees. Rob pointed it out to us, saying, “Look at that monstrosity up there. How can they be allowed to build something like that?” It was only Goodrich Castle.
It was on a bend of faster flowing water that we came to the landing point for our camp at Wye Valley YHA at Welsh Bicknor. As we did so, Rob’s, now dry, shorts fell off the barrel into the river!
IMG_2493Youth hostels are so much better than they used to be with facilities to suit all tastes and needs. We were camping but we had full use of the hostel, choosing to eat their set meals. It was a short walk from the camp to the impressive building, once a large country house. Adjacent was an old church going through a full renovation paid for by the new owner of the large country estate further up the hill. As we relaxed on the grass outside our tents in the evening sunshine, three deer dropped out of the trees and started grazing on the camping field, not bothered that we were there. It is these unexpected little joys that make trips like this such a pleasure.
IMG_2503During the night it started to rain; the good weather had come to an end. Fortunately we had the shortest of our days with only ten miles to paddle to Monmouth. After a full English breakfast we loaded our canoes and set off with the only disturbance on the water, the rings created by raindrops and our bow waves. Despite the rain it did not detract from the pleasure of what we were doing.
We made excellent progress as we rounded Yat Rock with its spectacular view point high above us. Bypassing Symonds Yat West with its caravan park we headed to the more traditional Symonds Yat East with its hotels and bars. The wet weather meant that day canoeists were deterred from venturing out on the water and the pleasure craft were still securely moored. However, as we approached, we were met by bands of low flying Canada Geese, passing just above our heads, creating a wonderful spectacle.
P1040757Just before the famous Symonds Yat Rapids we moored up outside the Royal Lodge, a wedding and conference venue, and took our wet selves into the bar for a coffee. I have to say that I felt rather conspicuous as wet as I was but nobody seemed to mind.
Attaching all our kit to the canoes we prepared to shoot the rapids. Rob and I went first. Aiming for the V of smooth water before it tumbled over the rocks below, we got the line right and were soon through the main section. Pulling the canoe round we positioned ourselves in a smooth patch of water behind some rocks to watch Ian and Steve successfully navigate themselves through.
P1040751From then on it was plain sailing through the gorge with sporadic rain. After a beachside lunch stop by Biblins Bridge we continued the last three miles to Monmouth in increasingly heavy rain. Despite the rain we were happy to spend some of our last moments on the water simply drifting along. It would have been nice to have sunshine on our last day but it did not matter and in no way diminished our enjoyment of the trip. In fact, all of us have agreed to do it again, or something similar next year, and others have already said they want to join us. Maybe the full 80 miles of navigable water on the Wye, or perhaps we will find something better. Difficult to imagine when we have arguably canoed the best canoe-able river in England. Watch this space.
I cannot end without saying how much I enjoyed the company of Ian, Rob and Steve. Thank you, guys.

 

Kyrgyzstan, the final chapter

Having travelled to Naryn in our cramped lorry, we arrived at the Celestial Mountains Guest House and emerged like butterflies, stretching our limbs, circulating blood to the extremities of our bodies. You can sense the excitement as people prioritise their fantasies – a cleansing shower, Internet connection or a quick trip to the nearest shop to buy a favourite snack and drink. For me it’s shower, then Internet, but with so many trying to connect with the outside world, it is slow. Chris and Alice shop first so we have snacks when we have our first beer.
It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good!

It looks good, it tastes good, and by golly it does you good!

Now clean, a change of clothes and a quick trawl of the Internet, we head off to our little booth for a beer or two. Boy, it tastes good. The crisps were so moorish we get through three large packets. It is Saturday evening and the place is busier than I have seen it before. Most booths are occupied and plates of food are being delivered. Even flies go out on Saturday evening and they are a bit of a pain.

Refreshed, we return to the guest house for dinner. There is a subdued sense of satisfaction, people are clean, they have contacted people at home and they have spoiled themselves with familiar, tasty comforts.
Bed beckons. It has been a tiring trek. There is so much expectation surrounding bed but it proves to be disappointing. Sleep does not come easily, it is too hot, too stuffy, too uncomfortable. I want my tent back. Now that others are asleep the Internet is much quicker and my phone is a distraction. It pings. Ignore it, but the light it casts across the room draws me like a beacon. Rain starts to drum on corrugated roof and cars parked outside. It starts to get light and still sleep has evaded me. In the end, having tossed, turned and coughed all night, I get up, shower again, because I can, and head down for breakfast.
It is really raining and I am grateful that all we have to do today is drive to Bishkek. We have been lucky with rain throughout this trek. There has been much more than expected but it has, without fail, come at the right time, during the night, just after putting tents up, in the evening, driving in our cramped lorry, rarely when we have been exposed on mountain sides.
After breakfast we climb aboard our two minibuses and start the journey north to Bishkek, first through the mountains until we reach the flat plains of the north where we follow the border with Kazakstan to Bishkek.
Our driver is distracted, erratic, driving too fast for the conditions, always harrying the car in front. We doze but only so we cannot see the risks ahead.
In Kochkor, we visit a women’s cooperative craft centre. I visited it four years ago on my way back from China and K2. They said they remembered but I have my doubts. It didn’t stop them from showering me with three free gifts but that was probably because the group collectively spent a fortune, having had money but nothing to spend it on for so long.
Having spent, we lunched at the same house as we did on the journey into the mountains. Excellent fare. Then a visit to another ‘Nandicraft’ centre before completing the journey to Bishkek. Out of the mountains the road was straighter, faster, busier. Our driver alarmed us on a number of occasions travelling six feet behind the vehicle in front at 110kph. It left no room for manoeuvre or reaction. It was with some relief that we reached the Alpinist Hotel, a comfortable boutique style hotel, booked at short notice because of our early return to Bishkek. It’s a very nice hotel with a relaxed atmosphere and good food. It is a shame we cannot have both nights here.
Natalia from Asia Mountains met us and I was able to organise transport to take us all into town in the morning, to a restaurant for lunch and transfer us to Asia Mountains 2 in the afternoon for our last night and early start for the homeward journey.
Cheers!

Cheers!

Indeed, the meal in the evening was excellent. There was a calm and relaxed atmosphere as I bought the group a drink if they wanted one. It ensures that they don’t do anything silly. To keep us all entertained, Chris played the piano, using an app on his iPhone. Chris is totally self taught and manages to achieve a high standard. He does seem to be able to turn his hand to a great many things and the more I have got to know him the more I appreciate him being a part of the team.

Had a worthwhile sleep, which I put down to having the air conditioning on all night.
I tend to hate last days, as much of the time you are thinking of the journey ahead, taking the pleasure out of the here and now. Dimitri came to take us shopping for those items we had so far failed to buy, returning to the shopping complex we visited at the start of our trip. Many of the group had failed to spend all of their money so an hour was filled changing their Com into Euros, much more useful than trying to change them to Pounds in the present climate.
Lunch

Lunch

Lunch was taken in a very smart restaurant. Even the students felt they were underdressed.
Our final destination was to transfer ourselves to Asia Mountains 2 Hotel for a relaxing afternoon and our celebratory dinner in the evening. The hotel was very comfortable and the meal in the evening lived up to expectation.
At the end I made my customary thanks to the staff for the support and company during the trip and presented them each with a coffee table book on Kyrgyzstan.
New outfit

New outfit

The pupils have been excellent throughout and I was pleased to be able to tell them, to the extent that they have been one of the easiest groups I have had in every respect, a credit to the school, their parents and themselves. They had a surprise for me and presented me with a smooth, obelisk shaped stone that they picked up during the trek. Chris wrote ‘Kyrgyzstan 2016’ along the length of it and each member of the group had printed their name on the other side. Thinking that was it I was then surprised again when they produced a full length velvet coat embroidered with gold thread and a Kyrgyz hat. It looked stunning. Thank you guys.

Final sunset over Bishkek

Final sunset over Bishkek

Fittingly we sat on the top floor balcony finishing our drinks watching the sun set on a fabulous trip to Kyrgyzstan. I’ll be back!

This is also my final chapter as the one at the head of the Himalayan Club. After 25 years, I have decided, again, that it needs a younger member of staff at the helm. Needless to say, I wish I could go on and on, but I have to be realistic. It has been a tremendous 25 years for me and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I would like to thanks the hundreds of pupils that have taken up the challenge, the parents who have had faith in my ability to look after their children in challenging environments, and who have demanded their own expeditions, the staff and doctors who have supported me and the school for allowing me to follow my passion. Thank you to you all.

I will, of course, continue to seek out adventures for people nearer my own age, like my next trip, kayaking the River Wye.

Footnote:
Magda had to deal with sick passengers on each of our return flights – a Swiss man on the first and a Nigerian on the second. 4/4, not bad, eh?

 

Kyrgyzstan – Trek 3

Cattle, horses, sheep and goats are free to roam where they please

Cattle, horses, sheep and goats are free to roam where they please

A couple of problems have cropped up today. The first is the quality of the drinking water we are being provided with. The large water bottles have now all been used and they are being refilled with water from streams. With so many animals about we are questioning the advisability of this. There are a growing number of stomach related problems being referred to Magda that suggest our delicate western stomachs struggle with the change. Alex was not altogether sympathetic and assured us that there were fresh springs at the next campsite.

The lorry took us a short distance this morning, including a crossing of the Kok-Kiya River, to start, what was described as a 6km walk to our next camp. It started with a long and steady climb up a wide path to a pass, followed by a slightly shorter descent into a valley. It was extremely hot with little or no wind to take the edge off it.
This walk was turning out to be considerably longer than the distance promised, and this was exacerbated when the site we were meant to camp at was inaccessible to the vehicles. This necessitated us walking further and including a river crossing for which we were not prepared.
When we did reach camp we were pleased to see that Magda, and two boys who chose not to walk because they were not too well, had managed to put all the tents up. We were more than pleased when the heavens opened just after we arrived and we were able to dive into our tents for shelter.
A problem we will have to face tomorrow is whether the high day where we climb to approximately 4200m is still achievable from this campsite. We now have a longer trek in, being considerably further away from our target mountain. I think we will set out as planned, in order to climb the mountain, but will be aware that it may be too much for some. My feeling is that it is better to have tried and failed rather than not tried at all.
The mess tent

The mess tent

In discussions with my staff colleagues during the walk we aired some of our concerns. For my part this does not feel like a trek in the real sense of the word. It is not a journey that naturally links together but a series of day walks. As good as some of them have been we have always been dictated to by where the vehicles can reach. This has left us with a couple of spare days. What I want to avoid is doing something for the sake of doing it in order to fill the time. There has hardly been an opportunity for spending some of the cash that is burning a hole in the student’s pockets.

As a result of these discussions, I used the satellite phone to ring Natalie in the Asia Mountains office to see if it would’ve possible for us to end the trek a day early, bringing forward our night in Naryn and allowing us two nights in Bishkek. It appears that it will not be a problem. I have the money in hand to pay for any extras.
I then told Alex what our plans are, reassuring him that it was not a reflection on him or the crew.
While all this was going on the group had a good playtime in the river.
Setting out on the big climb

Setting out on the big climb

Our last objective day dawned bright and sunny. Alex had earmarked a 4200m dome shaped peak for us to climb, one that would afford us excellent panoramic views. Magda, still not recovered from her chest infection, remained in camp, while the rest of us travelled a short distance in the lorry to get us a little closer to the mountain. I had little intention of going to the summit, having a milder version of Magda’s infection. Instead I was going to find a spot to sit and watch their progress while looking after any kit they did not need to take to the summit, water shoes etc. I found the perfect spot; my own little castle, a band of limestone rising like a tooth out of the surrounding moorland. I explored my castle, had a nap and waited, enjoying the peace and tranquility, the solitude and the sheer magnificence of the countryside.

My rocky outcrop

My rocky outcrop

Nobody gave up and returned to keep me company and eventually, after five and a half hours the group returned as one, triumphant, happy and pretty tired.

Thank goodness we were ahead of schedule and the group climbed the mountain yesterday. As we awoke this morning it began to rain, lightly at first, but with increasing intensity as we ate breakfast. Today, we drove down to a lower altitude for a couple of nights of warmer camping and a walk in a different area.
Sasha brings the lorry across the fragile bridge

Sasha brings the lorry across the fragile bridge

By the time we loaded the kitbags and tents into the lorry they were properly wet. Then, twenty-four damp people scrambled aboard, squeezing into their seats. There was literally no room for any more, we were sardines packed into a tin can. Added to the tight squeeze was the fact that there were leaks everywhere, from the windows, the roof lights and every screw hole in the roof. It was going to be a damp, bumpy journey. Because of the weather we chose not to visit another canyon but head straight to our camp via the two border check points. In the first three hours the only time we could extricate ourselves from this crushed environment was when we came across a weak bridge where it was deemed safer for us to walk across.

After the second check point we descended steeply down a series of hairpin bends into a land of trees; we had been above the tree line throughout the duration of our trek. It is only when you see them again that you really appreciate that you have missed them.
By the time we reached camp, a flat plain by the side of a muddy brown river, the rain had ceased and through the bands of heavy cloud that still lingered we could see glimpses of snow capped mountains. Hopefully the weather will clear and we will see them in their full glory and that our walk tomorrow, wherever it takes us, will be rewarding.
Looking up valley from camp. It could so easily be Scotland

Looking up valley from camp. It could so easily be Scotland

After a stormy night both outside and inside my tent, rain and high winds outside and coughing fits inside, I decided not to walk on our last day but to give my lungs a rest. It was a disappointing decision as I realised as the group was setting out for the ridge behind camp, that this was to be my last Himalayan Club walk. I had made my decision and it was too late to change my mind. Instead I relaxed around camp, enjoying warm sunshine, peace and quiet.

The group had barely been away for three hours when they were back.
Ultimate frisbee

Ultimate frisbee

The rest of the day was spent enjoying camp, playing a few games (them, not me, I refereed a long game of ultimate frisbee, a game I invented a few years ago in India). It felt that the wind down to returning home had started. We had achieved everything we set out to achieve, giving nearly $5500 to two children’s homes as well as some of our time and energy, completed an at times demanding trek in a part of the world that sees very few tourists. I am sure, as Kyrgyzstan gears itself up for tourism and the world becomes more aware of its possibilities, that it will become more popular in future.

The game of ultimate frisbee prompted Alice to be poetically creative.
Time slows as the light
Lifts the frisbee mid-flight.
Laughter. Hoots of happiness
Fill the valley’s sides.
Victory seems almost an afterthought;
Success seen as an irrelevance rewarded
Only to the bumptious few.
Snow topped peaks oversee the action,
Painted as a picture.
On a hill she watches undisturbed.
A blue butterfly obstructs her view –
Momentarily.
Without a word,
Baffled by their determined dives,
She turns back to her own reality.
Relaxing in camp

Relaxing in camp

There are aspects of this trek that have not quite worked to plan. I was expecting a continuous trek but it was one punctuated by rides in our very cramped lorry. How the trek evolved very much depended on whether the lorries could get to each camp. We became too dependent upon them. In a land of horses, there surely is the possibility of using pack horses to transport all the kit needed. Much of the walking was on open hillside with no tracks, hence we found ourselves walking across tussocky grass with many hidden marmot holes. This was very energy sapping, particularly at altitude. Camp did not always come up to expectation. We had to erect and take down our tents. I don’t mind, but some do. There was never any washing water, only rivers. Some days we had afternoon tea, others not. It needed a consistent approach. Dinner times varied, sometimes 7.00pm, at others 8.30pm without explanation. For several days we were served stale, moulding bread, until they acquired an oven that allowed them to make fresh bread. At times, however, the food was excellent.

Despite these comments it has been an excellent trip. There have been some genuine highlights, the feeling of doing something worthwhile for a disadvantaged group of children, the Kok-Kiya River gorge, Kol-Suu Lake, climbing to the pass and the peak, the friendliness of the people, the remoteness of the region, particularly the lack of other tourists, and the company of such a good group of young people. I would certainly entertain the idea of coming back to Kyrgyzstan again, perhaps not to this particular area, but with a country that has 90% of it land area above 1500m and 71% above 2000m there is plenty of scope.

Now we move on to Naryn and Bishkek before returning home to a, hopefully, good English summer.

 

Kyrgyzstan – Trek 2

Another bright start to the day, although it was not long before cloud built up, which fortunately did not lead to any inclement weather while we were walking.

The group functioned well, packing their bags (no easy task after three days in the same camp), taking their tents down, breakfasting on a large bowl of porridge and stale bread and getting themselves prepared for a full day’s walking.

Glipses of the Kok-Kiya Gorge

Glipses of the Kok-Kiya Gorge

Leaving camp at 8.30, we climbed steadily up on to the plateau with the upper crags of the Kok Kiya Gorge on our left. To the right a long ridge trailed off into the distance. Instead of following the ridge line we traversed around the mid slopes of the ridge climbing and descending regularly as clefts disappeared steeply into the gorge. This was remote country with a derelict shepherd’s cabin being the only evidence of human activity. Vultures circled overhead.

Some of the girls were finding the pace on the uphill sections a little fast so I introduced them to the plod. Alex had slowed the pace a little but, when walking in a group, they felt under pressure. Detaching ourselves from the group we plodded up the hills at a set pace which allowed us to maintain a steady breathing pattern and reach each uphill section without stopping for a rest. Setting this pace also helps me.

DSC_0352At the top of one of the rises we stopped for lunch overlooking a beautiful hillside with a large flock of sheep and goats making their way across it. Later a lone rider and his dog came into view, and after redirecting the flock, he came over to see us. Hand shakes all round. Having chatted, he climbed back on his horse and as he rode off his dog kept jumping up and taking a bite at the horses tail.

On the next climb we were overtaken by Magda on his horse, being led by the shepherd. She had been at the back, so feeling sorry for her he gave her a boost up the hill.

Eventually our path joined the ridge and it was here we descended into the upper reaches of the Kok Kiya Gorge. It was a steep descent made more difficult because of the many hidden marmot holes in the long grass, just waiting to break an unsuspecting ankle.

Exiting from the top of the gorge

Exiting from the top of the gorge

On reaching the river we headed up stream for about 6km, the valley gradually widening the further we went. We could see camp but it took an age to reach it. It is in a beautiful location, completely surrounded by mountains, the highest of which are snow covered.

Shortly after getting settled into camp Alex came over with two Kyrgyz who needed help. They had a car seriously stuck in mud and needed to use my satellite phone. They offered to pay me but I would not accept anything. We had been made to feel welcome wherever we had been and I saw nor reason why I should not reciprocate.

Our camp, just visible, in the shadow of snow capped mountains

Our camp, just visible, in the shadow of snow capped mountains

The support lorry climbing precariously up from the river bed

The support lorry climbing precariously up from the river bed

An hour or so later they came back to camp with the previously stuck car and thanked me again. It needed a wash!

A thunder storm with heavy rain confined us to our tents until dinner was ready.

The one feature missing in these mountains is waterfalls cascading down rocky gullies from lofty snowfields. There are none. Instead, the water from on high seeps down through the Rock and emerges at the bottom of the valley in extensive soggy bogs, but with the disguising feature of lush, green grass. This sums up a large part of the walk we achieved today (Friday) as we made our way a few kilometres up stream of the Kok Kiya River. Working a route through the quagmire was tedious and I found it distracted me from the beauty of the valley we were walking in. To our left, on the other side of the river a range of relatively accessible mountains trailed off up the valley and into the distance. To our right we were passing the large rock wall which marked the end of a jagged snow capped range. In front and behind more mountains pierced the greying sky. Rain was on its way and fortunately it held off until we had established camp fairly early in the afternoon. I get the impression that there is a lot more soggy ground this year, which is restricting where the two support vehicles can go. Hence our itinerary is being slightly adjusted to compensate for that difficulty.

During a break in the showers I wandered up the valley we are venturing into tomorrow. It looks stunning.

We are camped here for the next two, possibly three, nights. It is fine but we become a little exposed to the wind which seems to accompany the showers.

Storms rattled through camp during the night, accompanied with strong winds which had the tents straining at their anchors. Nobody slept through them. When we emerged out of out tents several hours later there was a layer of snow over everything and any washing that had been left out was frozen stiff.

Rocky slopes above camp

Rocky slopes above camp

The walk today was voluntary. It involved a climb up to a pass which would give us views of turquoise Kol-Suu Lake. One or two were feeling a little under the weather with chesty colds or slightly wobbly tummies, while others were tired. Also, I had indicated that boots were essential and the resulting wet boots from the very boggy ground of yesterday ruled them out. There were thirteen students, Alice and myself, as well as our guides Alex and Sasha.

Stunningly beautiful in crystal clear light

Stunningly beautiful in crystal clear light

The morning was bright and clear, with the last remnants of the overnight cloud evaporating from the rocky summits. We set off up the valley behind camp, climbing gently towards the headwall, some 5km ahead of us. There are no nomads in this valley but there is one abandoned hut and plenty of evidence of livestock having ventured up here.

During our first short break I had a conversation with Alex about the lack of waterfalls in the area. He assured me there were waterfalls. I was right about water permeating its way to the valley floors but what I hadn’t appreciated that these watery places were permafrost areas that had melted, rather more than normal, it would appear.

Bird life was everywhere but almost impossible to spot in the vastness of the valley. Many of the birds are the same colour as the rock and blend in so well. The most popular species were Crossbills.How many times did I look for a bird when, what I had heard was a warning cry from a marmot. We were lucky enough to see a young vulture sitting on top of a rocky ridge and then swoop off to glide to another part of the valley.

Kol-Suu Lake

Kol-Suu Lake

As we delved deeper into the valley the slope became steeper and the going slowed accordingly. Grass was replaced with scree, which led to the crest of the pass at 3975m. The view on the other side was stunning. Beneath, on the other side were the turquoise waters of Lake Kol-Suu fed by the River Kurumduk. Surrounding it were mountains as far as the eye could see. These were not the jagged mountains we had seen on our right as we walked up the valley but layer upon layer of similarly sculptured mountains.

Looking back the way we had come

Looking back the way we had come

While the rest of the group climbed up to a ridge on the right of the pass in order to reach  4000m, I happily sat on the pass admiring the view on either side. Looking down the length of the valley we had travelled, at the wall of snow capped mountains across its lower end was equally spectacular.

When the group returned they were so enthused they went up the much higher ridge to the left of the pass. Meanwhile, having recovered from my own ascent I went up the ridge to the right. Stunning!

Mess tent shadows

Mess tent shadows

As I went to bed I looked back at the mess tent and the shadows of those still deep in conversation. Looking further afield the dark shapes of the mountains stood out against the clear night sky. Predictably, this meant it was going to be a cold night and, indeed, so it proved to be the coldest night so far with a heavy frost clinging to the tents in the morning. The sky remained clear and the early morning sun soon melted the frost as the temperature rose rapidly.

Walking through an almost perfect valley

Walking through an almost perfect valley

The lorry transported us some way down valley, following the river bed rather than negotiating the sodden ground on either side of it. It dropped us off at a side valley. I felt tired. I could not make up my mind as to which reason made me so. Was it Magda coughing in the tent next to me, disturbing my sleep, or my own developing cold, or the energy I had used to reach the pass yesterday? I suspect a combination of all three. However, once I got started climbing into the valley I began to feel better. It only necessitated a climb of 200m and we reached our high point. On reaching this point we turned right into a valley that at first  ought to have had a lake in it. It was beautiful and, apart from the odd cowpat looked as if there had been no human interference. On the left the grassy slope gave way to rock, snow and ice, while to the right the grassy slopes provided homes for a multitude of marmots. A stream gradually formed from the boggy areas creating crystal clear pools. Towards the end of the valley, as it joined with another, was a lone shepherd’s hut, abandoned now but the only evidence of human activity. The valley we had walked down was about as pristine as it could be.

Enjoying a bit of down time before heading up to Kol-Suu Lake

Enjoying a bit of down time before heading up to Kol-Suu Lake

We now turned into another valley running back towards the main valley we had been deposited a few hours earlier. There were our trucks negotiating a boggy bit with difficulty. Eventually it was decided that they could travel no further up the valley with safety, so camp was established where they stopped.

Looking out from my tent at the wall of mountains, I could see the cleft where Kol-Suu Lake was situated. It was about 4km away, so I told Alex that I would take myself for a stroll to have a look at it. He thought that was a good idea and the whole group would go. There goes my peaceful stroll without any pressure. Who was I to argue, it was still an absolutely gorgeous day, still with hardly a cloud in the sky.

Predictably the route was not straight forward. If you took the lower level where the dirt road runs you would spend a lot of time working your way through boggy terrain. The alternative was the higher route over tussocky grass littered with marmot holes and at an awkward angle across our direction of travel. We took the higher. It was hard work, particularly as there were several hidden descents and ascents along the way.  The final ascent is up a natural barrier that retains the water of the lake. Part way up a white gash of water emerges through this barrier where water has found an escape route.

Kol-Suu Lake

Kol-Suu Lake

It took ninety minutes to get there but it was well worth the effort. Lake Kol-Suu has to be one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever set eyes on. The water is turquoise blue with sheer cliffs rising from it on either side. It is never more than 100m wide. All we can see is about 1km length of it before it is hidden by towering cliffs closing in on each other. A rocky island pokes above the water at the far end. It is hard to imagine that this us the same lake we looked down on from the pass. I sat on a rock a few meters above the water level and was mesmerised by the pure splendour of the sight in front of me.

But there hasn’t always been a lake here. The River Kurumduk used to flow through a gorge here until an earthquake 10,000 years ago caused dramatic landslides and cliff collapses to block off the flow. Gradually the water built up behind the natural dam forming the lake that filled the gorge. Its length and depth varies according to the climate. Its length can vary from 7 to 12km and the depth, which is normally around 10m can rise by 3m. In 2012, during a particularly dry period it drained itself so that there was no lake there for a while. I am very grateful it was there for me to see.

Evening light

Evening light

Having started the day feeling very tired, by the time I got back to camp I was tired again and decided I was going to have a more relaxing day the next day.

If last night was the coldest night of the trip so far, the one that followed was the warmest.

The rest of the group were going to return to the lake, then explore a cave system before scrambling up a 140m gully to look down on the lake. I decided that while they were doing that Magda, still recovering from her chest infection, and I would amble up to the lake in our own time and join the group before they went to the cave and beyond. I fully expected them to spend a couple of hours by the water, those brave enough to have a swim. Certainly there was talk of swimming before they left camp. As we arrived at the lake we saw them heading off to the cave. The weather was not as good as yesterday, with the threat of potential rain, so they didn’t linger there too long.

I could never tire of looking at this view and photographing it

I could never tire of looking at this view and photographing it

There was still some warm sunshine around so I tested the water. It was cold. I did manage to sit in it, briefly.

After an hour or so the rain drops began to fall so we headed back to camp and waited to hear from the group, as they returned, how they had enjoyed their day. All positive, I am pleased to say.

Kyrgyzstan – Trek 1

A cloudless morning dawned with frost covering the tents and shimmering in the grass. Quite a few of the group had felt cold in the night but I had not been bothered by the temperature and had had my best night’s sleep since arriving g in Kyrgyzstan. In the clear morning light the mountains looked stunning.

Heading out at the start of the trek

Heading out at the start of the trek

After breakfast we headed out along the valley with the river on our left. Along the way we passed a number of yurts where families cared for their flocks of sheep and goats, a few head of cattle and horses. These family summer homes are totally self sufficient but still manage to live a simple, nomadic lifestyle. At each one we passed we were given friendly waves, or they came over to shake our hands and willingly allowed us to take their photo. At each one there was an area of stained ground where the sheep and goats are corralled each evening behind a makeshift fence. Dogs guard these homes, barking constantly while we pass but not once did I feel we were threatened.

Beating the wool

Beating the wool

We came across a woman beating the brown sheep’s wool with two metal rods. Her daughter was beside her. They beat the wool fibres to break them down so that they can make it into felt, which provides them with clothing, bedding and carpets to keep them warm on the long cold nights of winter. When we asked if we could take their picture they preened themselves in preparation and posed for us. Not exactly what we wanted.

Dramatic landscape

Dramatic landscape

After a couple of hours we began a short, 250m, steep climb out of the valley, over a ridge into a much larger, wider valley. Immediately as we started to climb you realised you were at over 3000m and the breathing became instantly laboured. This was our first real test at altitude and it was quite a shock for some.

The descent, unlike the ascent, was long and gentle. The clear skies of the early morning had gone and the high mountains had cloud clinging to them, becoming more threatening with time.

Horses run free in the open country

Horses run free in the open country

Distance can be very deceptive in this type of country; it is so vast that distances can be difficult to assess. We were camping in this valley, and although we could see the end of it it was impossible to say how far it was. We weren’t even certain where camp was going to be and Alex would occasionally veer off the path to gain a better view.

Eventually, after a much longer trudge than we expected, we reached camp requiring a river crossing to reach it. The clouds that had been building around the mountain tops had now gathered across the whole sky and thunder rumbled ominously. A storm was on its way and our priority was to get our tents up, and our kit stowed before it came.

Fortunately we were successful, but it was not long after that the rain came and confined us to our tents or the mess tent.

During the evening Alex chatted to me about plans for the next day. He advocated driving to the next camp because the rivers that we would have to cross were running much too high to make them both fordable or safe. Disappointed I had to accept his advice.

It rained all night not stopping until about six in the morning. At least it had meant that the night was warmer, so instead of cold keeping people awake it was the constant noise of the rain on the tents.

In order to get to camp we had to make a circuitous drive of 75km on rough unmade roads. This time I sat in the front of the lorry, affording me a much better view than sitting in the back. This is big country with wide, gently sloping valleys . In the distance, in every direction, are jagged snow capped mountains, now bearing fresh snow from the overnight precipitation. Skyscapes are huge. I have to admit here that this is not really what I was expecting. I was expecting more dramatic scenery in closer proximity to the high peaks. That is not to say that the scenery was not dramatic in its own right, particularly when we could see storms sweeping across the vastness of what was around us us. We occasionally drove into these storms and they were driven on strong winds with snow included in them.

We eventually turned into a particularly wide river valley. The view to the north looked as though the sea might be just beyond the horizon. This is a double landlocked country, so this impression was purely in the mind.

Our lorry temporarily came to grief

Our lorry temporarily came to grief

We needed to go into a side valley from this main one which required us to follow a track over a spur. Sitting in the front it was clear to me that the track was far too eroded for us to comfortably make it. There was a huge channel down the middle, I could see what the driver was trying to do, he was trying to get the wheels to straddle the chasm. Only it was too wide and the earth was far too fragile to hold the weight of the lorry. First we lurched to the right, towards the rising hillside, and to the left towards the descending hillside, before coming to a crunching stop. Those in the cabin might not have known that it was impossible for us to topple over and down the hill. We were wedged and going nowhere. Evacuating the group from the vehicle took some time while the crew set too with shovels to make it easier for the vehicle to be reversed down the track and back onto the valley floor. I was glad that mobile phones did not work here and that the students could not contact home and over dramatise the incident. It was quite exciting though.
Just below where the incident took place was an area of flat grass in the river bed. Clearly we were not going to get to the site we had set out to reach, so we pitched camp on this area and spent the afternoon enjoying some beautiful sunshine interspersed with sweeping thunder storms, some of which swept over us while others passed by without affecting us.
We are here for the next three nights and will be doing radial walks from here.

Setting out for the Kok-Kiya Gorge

Setting out for the Kok-Kiya Gorge

The title of this whole trek is Unknown Kyrgyzstan. It might well be Hidden Kyrgyzstan. Today it was going to reveal a secret beauty. The morning dawned bright and sunny with just a few clouds clinging to the mountain tops. By the time we set out for our walk to view the Kok-Kiya Gorge the clouds were already gathering to the north and heading in our general direction. We immediately climbed up from our river bed camp on to a plateau of rolling hills with occasional rocky outcrops. To the east, beyond the lush green plateau rose the jagged peaks that form the border with China.

A colourful carpe

A colourful carpe

The whole area was covered in an array of flowers, purple being the predominant colour but not exclusively so. There were some beautiful yellow poppy like flowers, amazingly complex thistles, what appeared to be wild onions, dandelions and a more aggressive looking dandelion with spiked leaves.

The clouds from the north had now built up sufficiently for us to be hit by flurries of rain laced with sharp hail stones, driven on a keen wind. There was a coolness in the air, particularly noticeable when we stopped for a short break. I always imagined it would have been warmer than this.

Kok-Kiya Gorge - Wow!

Kok-Kiya Gorge – Wow!

We eventually reached a cliff edge in this smooth landscape as we peered down into a wonderful limestone gorge and the Kok-Kiya River flowing 500m below us. It was stunning with many pinnacles of rock rising majestically from the sides of the gorge. We walked along the top edge of the gorge for some time, never failing to marvel at its splendour, eventually deciding on a rocky outcrop for lunch. The light in the gorge varied and when the sun hit the Rock the features stood out more clearly.

After lunch we returned to camp, arriving by mid afternoon, to rest up for the remainder of the day, in our tents when the keen breeze picked up with a shower or on the grass between showers when the temperature was significantly higher.

The next morning dawned bright but still with a few clouds around the higher summits. However, I instinctively knew that it would be more settled today, that we would not have any rain and that the views of the upper Kok-Kiya gorge would be amazing.

We set off as we did yesterday but then veered off climbing steadily on to the plateau. We were gaining height quicker than we did yesterday, the extra height meaning that there were fewer flowers at our feet.

Even better views of the Kok-Kiya Gorge

Even better views of the Kok-Kiya Gorge

Reaching the edge of the gorge we were greeted with some amazing views of sculptured limestone interspersed with carpet-like grassy slopes.

To the south was an even more prominent viewpoint so we headed round to it. When we got there it was a little exposed in places so, having checked it out, I gave everyone the option of not going to the extreme point.

Below, the Kok-Kiya River snaked its way majestically around the floor of the gorge, flanked by pristine green pasture on either side. From here we were heading back to camp, about ninety minutes away, but I would rather have explored more, possibly dropping into the gorge to get a very different perspective.

Enjoying the spectacle

Enjoying the spectacle

I couldn’t help think that not many people have seen the views I was seeing, certainly not from the UK. I also knew that had this been in the UK there would have been roads leading to it with car parks, gift shops and cafes. It would have been utterly spoiled. What we were seeing was as good as it could possibly be.

The afternoon was spent bathing in the river, washing clothes and relaxing in gloriously warm sunshine. This was punctuated by three soldiers riding into camp, having ordered those that were washing to return to camp. They were friendly enough and wanted to see our permits and passports, a fairly laborious affair but all done with good humour. By the time they had finished the sun had gone behind cloud and a stiff, cool breeze had blown up. Chris asked if he could take their photograph on their horses but they said ‘Niet’. He managed to get some surreptitious photos of them from over my shoulder as they left.

Fiery sky

Fiery sky

As quickly as it came the cool breeze ceased, the sun shone and temperatures rose so that it was warm well into the evening. The setting sun, with such big skies, was a real spectacle and brought the cameras out.

Tomorrow we move on and the story of the next few days will appear in Trek 2.