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TREKKING ALONG THE SILK ROUTE: KYRGYZSTAN TO WESTERN CHINA

Kate McCallum

Kate McCallum My friend Jane handed me two plastic pill containers filled with brightly coloured capsules. One read, "Bedouin Repellant. Take as required. An extra 1 at night might be advisable as u are blonde, luscious & desirable! Beware!"; the other, "Altitude Sickness Antidote. Take 1 morning and evening. A nubile male to warm extremities speeds up healing." She added meaningfully, "Now don't go falling for a pair of large brown eyes with long eyelashes. And I don't mean the camels! Just remember, dear, all those rural nomad types have rotten teeth. Ask to see his teeth before you allow yourself to be inveigled into any tent."

Her geography was shaky, but she had the gist of it - which was a month-long journey via Istanbul and Almaty in Kazakstan, acclimatising to altitude gradually through Kyrgyzstan, then across the 4000m Torugart Pass to Kashgar in western China, before going out on the Karakoram Highway to Karakul Lake, and turning off into a little explored part of the Pamirs, where our trekking group of 15 would join the climbing party of 12 at the 4500m base camp. This was an official MCSA expedition in 2001, led by Ulrike Kiefer, whose aim was to climb some unclimbed 7000m peaks in the area. Much of the journey followed routes of the old Silk Route, in an area redolent with romance and history.

Andrey Ershov, a smaller Bill Clinton look-alike and the Russian expedition organiser, was the point of liaison with the compulsory Chinese agent, Mr Kung, and the liaison officer / interpreter. He accompanied the climbers, who were ten days ahead of the trekkers, and he'd arranged for a climbing friend of his, Alexei Chalaev, a doctor in charge of a cardiology ICU, to accompany the trekkers on his annual month's leave, and to smooth the way through the largely Russian speaking Kyrgyzstan and on through China.

Not having been on an expedition before, nor having been to altitude, and believing that a day is not well spent unless it's had at least two hours of solitude in it, I'd been slightly apprehensive about my ability to cope with the altitude, and with being in a group for a month 24 hours a day. But I was utterly enchanted - like a four-year-old being read a story, with each day a new page that I couldn't bear to have end, and with each day being full of new surprises. And I laughed, helplessly, more in that month, than I had in the past year.

I've often observed that all a group requires to work well is a critical mass of good humoured and tolerant individuals, which means that the group is able to absorb the odd difficult one. We were lucky to have in both the trekking group and in the climbing group, that critical mass of people with good humour, wit, enthusiasm, and a desire to extract the maximum entertainment and enjoyment from any situation. There was also a common love of the mountains, and a good humoured tolerance of discomfort. Ranging in age from 35 to 62, Lindsay Hooper, Margie Boyes, Robin Kamke, Terry White, Sue White, Helen Struthers, Jenny Paterson, Andreas Schenke, Herbert Seuring, Lance Knowling, Liz Parker, Leon du Toit, Gillian McGregor, and Stephanie Pienaar, were excellent companions for the various metaphorical fox holes we encountered.

Having our first lesson in patience with Central Asian bureaucracy - which incidentally made Africa look like a model of efficiency and clean administration - from 02:00 to 05:00 in the morning, we'd been driven from Almaty across the mountainous border to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It is a small treed town at 800m laid out in a fertile valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with the Russian influence still to be seen in the wooden gabled houses. It was also our first encounter with the painted biscuit tin on wheels, the truck with no apparent shock absorbers, in which it was impossible to snatch a moment's sleep, flung about as we were like sacks of potatoes, with the luggage hurling itself down on the necks of the unwary in the back seats.

Our first acclimatisation walk was the following day, in the Ala Archa Canyon (2800m), a beautiful Alpine-like glacial valley, with meadows of late summer flowers -another unexpected enchantment.

up and over the Tash-Rabat Pass The next day took us lurching and bumping over passes and along valleys down into the centre of the country to Son Kul Lake, a tranquil misty blue lake set in grassy steppes. We slept in yurts - large round felt tents, with a lattice-like framework - with brightly coloured quilts as our beds. And, as we discovered, we were fed surprisingly well throughout the trip. Dinner that night, produced from a fire outside, was the ubiquitous tea, vegetable soup with a few cubes of mutton, smoked fish, fresh rye bread, tomato and cucumber salad, followed by watermelon. Breakfast the next morning was a creamy rice pudding porridge, flat vetkoek, jam, nuts and raisins, and tea. In fact, right through China, too, the standard dishes were plov (rice with mutton and vegetables), surpa (root vegetable soup delicately flavoured with dill or coriander, with a few cubes of mutton, and a large piece of mutton fat, which is the great delicacy), laghman (noodles covered with a spicy mutton topping), manti (steamed mutton dumplings), and shashlyk (mutton and mutton fat kebabs).

We spent two nights at Son Kul Lake, climbing the nearby range to 3000m. It was here that the first stomach bug made its appearance, as did the first mild symptoms of altitude sickness.

Then it was back into the biscuit tin for another day of driving through rivers, over passes, down a hair-raising 26-switchback road (each switchback required the truck to reverse twice to the edge), to Tash Rabat. What was striking was how empty the countryside was - just miles of soft green steppes, with the occasional yurt, snow-covered mountains, herds of glossy brown and black horses, and the occasional flock of sheep watched over by a Kyrgyz shepherd on horseback, wearing his white felt embroidered tall hat.

Up the valley from Tash Rabat was a fifteenth century caravanserai, and we, too, walked the old merchants' route over the 3800m pass down to Lake Chatyr Kul. From here it was a full day to get through the bureaucracy of the 4000m Torugart Pass, where we unloaded our half ton of luggage from the truck for the last time, and re-loaded it through a back window of the Chinese bus for the first time - but not the last - that day.

The landscape in China was immediately and entirely different - rocks, stones, and mud, with spectacular rock mountains. Here, and on the Karakorum Road from Kashgar, the women were dressed in bright red, with gold jewellery, a combination which was a photographer's delight against the austere landscape.

There were several washaways on the Karakorum, and the final one was so dramatic that we were unable to pass. Our bus driver did a deal with a bus driver on the other side to exchange passengers, and so, for the second time that day, we unloaded the luggage from the bus, portered it over 200m of mud and fallen rock, and reloaded through a narrow back window into the new bus.

Muztagh-Ata from the Kuksay Glacier From the mud village of Kongtoyagz around the spectacular deep blue 3800m Karakul Lake, we set off over a stony range into a remote river valley, with camels carrying the luggage. For two days we trekked over rough terrain, up to the tongue of the glacier. The area was so unexplored that the porters were unsure of the way, and had us crossing and re-crossing the fan of channels of the river several times. Not only was it fast-flowing ice-melt, but the stones were sharp and shifting.

After a minor porter mutiny, the camels were left at the tongue of the glacier, and porters and donkeys took over the day's slow climb up the glacial moraine, an unpleasant loose mass of endless peaks and troughs of shifting boulders, small rocks and scree. Base camp was a flat sandy area with a stream at the base of a rock scree, with spectacular views of the bowl of peaks surrounding us.

One by one the climbers came in, and the two groups adjusted harmoniously and humorously to the dynamics of becoming one large group, despite the best efforts of the porters, cooks, and, later, Mr Kung, to separate us. The trekkers' excellent cook was Muslim Uyghur (he miraculously provided five Chinese dishes each night); the climbers' cook was Han Chinese, and never the twain shall meet. The rivalry and tension between the two ensured that they maintained separate mess tents, and would feed only "their" group. One of my memories of that mess tent is of the bloody carcass of a fat-tailed sheep hanging from a cross wire, with the cook's sun glasses hanging next to it, and Terry beneath, lustily singing the "wicking" song.

near Emerald Lake The trekkers had four days at base camp, walking up the glacier to the Emerald Lake (4700m), and across the glacier to the other side.

Since Mr Kung had not supplied enough porters, it was clear there would have to be several trips to get all the gear off the glacier. The weather had also changed, with gentle rain all night loosening snow and rocks, so we could hear the avalanches and rock falls above base camp going off with increasing frequency. When we woke the next morning, the camp was covered in five inches of snow, and we walked and slipped down in a blizzard of lashing rain and sleet, over loose iced rocks. That was the coldest night we had, with the temperature below freezing.

In blazing sunshine the next day the camels took over, and we walked out, this time keeping to a narrow scree edge along the left side of the river. The river valley gradually broadened, with grassy slopes on which we slept that night. Those of us who could no longer stand our smell braved the glacial ice melt for a wash. Back over the stony range again, and back to the grass hummocks below the mud village, where Margie spread her newly bought strip woven rug, and an impromptu bazaar took place, with the villagers bringing out their rugs and camelbone jewellery.

We went back to Kashgar by bus (separate buses), this time well supplied with excess beer (Mr Kung provided more beer than food), with more washaways on the road. The bus inched precariously over cracks in the much-repaired tar, with the greasy grey foaming river two metres below.

Made aware of his deficiencies on arrival by an irate and fluent Andrey at 01:30 the night before (separate hotels), the hapless Mr Kung tried to make it up to us by arranging an excursion to the local sights - three very old mosques and a market. The first had a delightful sign, adjuring visitors in Rule 5 that "Breaking wind and talking loudly are forbidden." Rule 6 forbade "intimate actions." Dinner that night was a spectacular 16 dishes, with speeches, singing, and the worst alcohol any of us has ever had the misfortune to sample, called "Double Happiness". It tasted of camel piss. The evening ended memorably, with Andrew Kendall doing his Michael Jackson imitation (lots of pelvic thrusting) by way of indicating that we wanted to go dancing, but this was misinterpreted, and we landed up in a Kashgar brothel, with karaoke and two bored hostesses by way of diversion. "I wish you wouldn't do that!" complained Ian Bailey, as Andrew demonstrated his desire to go dancing to a second taxi driver. "It keeps on getting us into the wrong places."

The return journey was a long one, three days of bus/truck journeys back along the same route, but in high spirits, we read our books, played cards, played the fool, and drank beer.

Two weeks later, the New York Trade Centre towers were hit, the retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan began, and the area where we'd been - roughly 50km from the Tajikistan border and 100km from Afghanistan - had become a no-go area, filled with refugees and military.

photos: Jenny Paterson and Andrey Ershov

To see more photos from our South African Kuksay - 2001 expedition, please, click here , here and here .

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