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Inylchek Glacier Trek

You went trakking in the Kyrgyz mountain from Echkili-Tash, over the mountains, up the Inychek Glacier to the South Base Camp, and then evacuated by helicopter. Twelve days hiking with full kit: was kinda massive.

Day 1: Echkili-Tash, No Bridge

You awoke in the Green Yard Hotel in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, in the last bed you'd be seeing for a while. Everyone's backpacks were full of dehydrated food ready to venture forth into the mountains for ten days trekking. After breakfast you met a rough-looking bloke with a weathered face and his even more weathered van to take us to Echkili-Tash. He didn't speak word of English and his van — a beaten-up gunmetal green coloured Russian 4x4 that smelled strongly of petrol — didn't seem entirely road-worthy, but the bloke seemed nice enough. You excitedly jumped in and set off along the bumpy road.

Dropping off supplies at a family's mountain yurt. © Shu Yeung
Dropping off supplies at a family's mountain yurt. © Shu Yeung

The van's wobbly windows afforded little fresh air which caused the van's smells linger. Luckily there were ample breath-taking views to distract you from your petrol-fume headache. The road was rough as guts and you passed a few people on horseback along the way. You passed herds of farm animals and the occasional yurt, stopping at one to drop off supplies (empty plastic bottles and vegetables). You continued to ascend into hills closely resembling an open-cut mine. The roads narrowed and the air thinned.

The van conked-out at 4000 metets, bits of the enginer on the ground. © Shu Yeung
The van conked-out at 4000 metets, bits of the engine on the ground. © Shu Yeung

During the five hour journey from Karakol to Echkili-Tash you had to drive over a 4000 meter high pass. It was then, atop the pass, the van decided it'd had enough, spluttered and stopped. Before long the driver had opened the engine block and began hammering away at it (both figuratively and literally) while you and Meike waited in the sun, and Shu made a rock statue. The large pile of engine parts and innumerable bolts which lay on the dirt road beside the van was less than reassuring.

Echkili-Tash military outpost watchtower. © Shu Yeung
Echkili-Tash military outpost watchtower. © Shu Yeung

Several hours of switching between first and second gear along bumpy-rocky roads brought you to Echkili-Tash military base. The guard saluted and the men shook hands (Meike was mostly ignored). Your passports and papers seemed to be in order, unlike the bridge over the river which had been washed away some time ago. With no alternative, you drove nine kilometres back the way you came to the next available bridge, and late that afternoon got going.

The beginning of the trek over grasslands. © Shu Yeung
The beginning of the trek over grasslands. © Shu Yeung

The beginning thirteen seconds were easy. After that, carrying twenty-something kilogram packs up the slightly inclined path became tough. A Swiss couple — who were coincidentally embarking on a similar, shorter adventure — overtook you, making them seem ultra-fit from your (already distant) perspective. You walked across a wide grassy field and up to a farm near a river. Having started so far from the originally-planned outset you wondered if you needed to cross it, so the group consulted maps and GPS. Everyone headed up-stream for some time, passing a heard of sheep and some yaks before concluding it would take you up the wrong mountain. Hiking poles in hand and pants rolled up (or taken off entirely), you made your first river-crossing! A nearby shepherd watched in amusement. It was cold to say the least.

River crossing! © Shu Yeung
River crossing! © Shu Yeung

On the other side, you walked up a hill and over fields of tufty grass and Edelweiss flowers. The uneven, and sometimes swampy ground made walking difficult, especially with such beautiful surroundings; the view was very distracting. The setting sun setting behind you toned the vast, treeless landscape orange and yellow, and you three cast long shadows down the slope. By now you were pretty buggered.

Hiking at sunset (Shu striking a pose). © Shu Yeung
Hiking at sunset (Shu striking a pose). © Shu Yeung

Shortly before nightfall you arrived at another river in a small valley. Seeking protection from the wind, you set up the tent in a dent far from the planned camping site #1. Tuesday's dinner menu was stock soup, dehydrated spinach risotto and chocolate pudding. Stars had come out by the time the risotto had rehydrated to an edible extent, which you enjoyed by solar camping lantern light while listening to bubbling river sounds. It was a calm, cold night in Echkili-Tash.

Day 2: Tufty Grass and River Crossings

After freeing the frozen pots, bowls and cooking utensils from the ice which had formed during the night, you made scrambled pancakes for breakfast. The pancakes would not have been scrambled had the pot been non-stick, but with a heaped topping of Nutella and honey they were scrumptious anyway. By eleven o'clock you had packed up camp and readied yourselves for the next river crossing! Note: it had become custom to yell that every time one came up. Switzerland (a nickname for the other trekking couple) were already long gone. Henceforth, jokes about how Switzerland pranced up mountains with ease and such became standard hiking chatter.

River crossing! (#2) Very cold water.
River crossing! (#2) Very cold water.

Over the river, rolling grassland planes stretched far ahead into the distance. There were sporadic paths to follow, roughly in the right direction according to the map, which had probably been trampled by horses (as the droppings would suggest). The sun beat down heavily upon you, making everything seem heavier, while buzzy flies bothered an otherwise pleasant atmosphere. You made several drink-breaks in the long grass along the way. It was really warm.

Nice mountains, very colourful scenery. © Shu Yeung
Nice mountains, very colourful scenery. © Shu Yeung

It turns out reading a 1:100 000 scale map makes you an optimist. In other words, everyone believed that much more progress had actually been made. On more than one occasion (seven perhaps) someone declared ‘that's the last bump [ahead] before the river!’, only to be knocked back down to earth by another hill arising beyond and the weight of their very heavy bag.

Still hiking into the late afternoon. © Shu Yeung
Still hiking into the late afternoon. © Shu Yeung

At about the same time some foreboding dark clouds came rolling in and a thunder clap sounded, you arrived at the river which headed towards camp #1. The river crossing! was quite serious compared to those so far and everyone needed hiking poles for the multi-segment crossing, lest the thigh-deep water knock you off balance. With boots hung on backpacks (or just thrown over the river) everyone made it across incident-free. Damn, the water was cold!

Preparing dinner in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan. © Shu Yeung
Preparing dinner in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan. © Shu Yeung

The following flat path was a welcome relief from hiking over tufty grass. You made good time to the camping spot a few kilometres upstream and set up the tent just before sunset (a small improvement over yesterday). The camp was inside some cement walled ruins of an old building, below which a tiny stream provided clear water. You cooked, you ate, you washed (as best one could) and you went to bed.

Day 3: Tjuz Pass

Thursday began slightly earlier than days so far. Pumping water and boiling tea for breakfast was undertaken while watching the sunrise's warm light creep towards the tent; everyone's puffer jacket remained firmly zipped in place until then. By ten o'clock we got going.

Hiking along hourse trails, light rain. © Shu Yeung
Hiking along hourse trails, light rain. © Shu Yeung

It was about now that blisters had began to form on feet. You also had tender locations appearing on various other body parts. Your hips were definitely feeling some additional pressure, which you were more than happy to relieve by plonking down your bag at every opportunity. Shu was responsible for lunches and snacks, so during breaks you enjoyed his portioned ziplock snack bags of nuts, chocolate and nougat. The track ahead was worn into trough-like lanes by horse traffic and was mostly flat but required a little balance not to tip sideways. Light rain fell intermittently as the increasing wind brought grey clouds over the mountains.

River crossing! Not something to be taken lightly
River crossing! Not something to be taken lightly

Lunch (tuna wraps) was eaten while sunning feet and drying socks on warm rocks at the turn-off towards the mountain pass. This particular river crossing! seemed serious, so several locations were considered. Meike strode straight through, ankles bombarded by rouge rolling river rocks in one brave swoop, while you and Shu opted for several smaller segments, allowing time to regain feeling in feet and dread the repeat. Without incident (excluding some manly groaning and a bloody bruise or two) you all made it through the river.

Green field below the plateau. © Shu Yeung
Green field below the plateau. © Shu Yeung

Past the chilly river crossing! the trail became steep and stayed steep for the upcoming foreseeable future. Several hundred meters of vertical ascent led you to a large green field dotted by boulders and surrounded by steep walls. Switzerland had already set up their tent on the nice green grass and gone hiking further up the mountain, ‘probably to show off how fit they are’. Meike with her eagle-eyes spotted them walking back down the mountain so you waited below for their report. Apparently, above was a sheltered plateau with a stream flowing through a flat, grassy area with a view — essentially, the perfect camping spot.

Atop the plateau having dinner. © Shu Yeung
Atop the plateau having dinner. © Shu Yeung

The plateau was just as described. Green grass grew in the few centimetres of soil nestled along one side of the stream, spreading outwards towards the mountain's steep flank. Boulders spotted the landscape, both big and small, providing wind shelter for cooking and something to lean against while eating. The view wasn't bad either. Following a minor planning issue with the camping spot selection, everyone got busy setting-up and chilling-out (read: relaxing and freezing). It was cold at 3830 meters.

Starry night. © Shu Yeung
Starry night. © Shu Yeung

By now everyone had the evening routine down pat: set up tent, inflate mattress, pump water, start cooking. Each day camp set-up started a little earlier, went a little faster and with that gave you more free time. Shu — the designated professional photographer — made unpacking his big lenses his first action. At least once a day, usually during the golden hour near sunset he would have a Shugasum and shoot off a load of photos. He would disappear to places unknown, only to return half an hour later mumbling something about this being a shot and that being a shot. You were happy he was happy.

Day 4: Descent to Inylchek River

Friday's plan was to go over the pass and down the other side to Inylchek glacier where the serious bit of the treck started. You set off after breakfast (powdered scrambled eggs) full of energy but feeling the low air pressure. You walked slowly up a steep, slippery, sketchy slope where parts would just roll away at random. It was hot, hard adventuring surrounded by breath-taking beauty. At the pass you saw Switzerland returning from an optional Gipfelsteig (summit ascent). ‘I bet they jogged up while carrying rocks for fun’. From the ridge you could see almost the entire length of Inylchek glacier. It didn't look forty kilometres long...

Passing the pass. © Shu Yeung
Passing the pass. © Shu Yeung

The way down was steep and the weather fine which, while very nice, had us sweating buckets. The 1200 meter descent took over three hours to complete, ending at a small silty river near a camping spot with several heaps of rubbish. We were hot and buggered — no fit state to tackle a glacier so late in the afternoon — so we opted instead to camp. Switzerland on the other hand where long gone. ‘[They're] probably already at base camp by now’, jibbed someone. The ever-increasing exaggeration of their fantastic exploits had reached its figurative peak as we parted ways; they were going down the river and we (eventually) up the glacier.

Setting up the tent in the valley. © Shu Yeung
Setting up the tent in the valley. © Shu Yeung

Sam picked a camping spot on the other side of the small river. The river crossing! was cold but satisfyingly refreshing. The wide open camping area lay between the foot of the mountain and the Inylchek river: a tributary of glacial melt spanning most of the ca. 1.7 km wide valley. The camp was flat, strewn with rocks and dry as a bone, spare some poisonous-looking red berries and a few strands of dead grass. Rings of stones had been arranged in several places for some strange reason. We set about putting up the tent but it wasn't easy securing the pegs in such loose, dusty soil as rocks kept getting in the way. Shu began singing his horses song and wandered off. ‘Horses ♫ ♫ ♫’

Looking east towards the glacier. © Shu Yeung
Looking east towards the glacier. © Shu Yeung

As the evening progressed the wind became stronger and stronger. Sam and Shu gathered some bigger rocks to secure the tent. It then became clear why the rocks had been arranged in circles: to act as a wind break and stop tents blowing away. We piled up a small rock barrier to direct the wind over the tent (rather than let it blow under) while Meike sat inside against the wall to hold it upright. Depending on your definition, it was blowing a gale!

Night time in the dry, windy camp. © Shu Yeung
Night time in the dry, windy camp. © Shu Yeung

With sunset winds slowed and the weather settled. Yellow light shone up the valley, highlighting the outcropping edges of mountains and gave everything a warm colouring. From camp we could see to the foot of the glacier in the east, and some vague distance downriver to the west. Thick clouds gathered above the valley, closing it under a dark layer for a while, only to pass over the mountains by nightfall and open up a starry sky. Wild camping is nice.

Day 5: Glacier Crossing to Mud Camp

Now thing got serious. It was time to cross the valley and, consequentially, cross the glacier. After a scrumptiously-successful pancake breakfast, we were visited by three random Kyrgyz horsemen. We didn't understand anything they said appart from ‘schnaps’ but they seemed nice. Shu gave them a snack bag. We got moving along the easy path with a good pace until it disappeared into a muddy river and then prepared ourselves for yet another river crossing!

Searching for the trail. © Shu Yeung
Searching for the trail. © Shu Yeung

After the river, the path diffused into a wide open plateau of river rocks formed into wave-shapes by water flow. Hiking was easy enough, yet the sheer scale of our surroundings made our progress seem slow. Sunlight reflecting off the smooth stones was blindingly bright; a cloud or two would have been nice.

Taking a break at the end of the glacier. © Shu Yeung
Taking a break at the end of the glacier. © Shu Yeung

The foot of the glacier was a messy, muddy, rocky, icy, rough, confusing mess. The GPS showed the path lying about 800 meters to the north, but footprints led us to believe otherwise. The problem with glaciers is they move and change shape, so you have to judge the way based on current conditions. Today our path curved along a high ridge, below which the river emerged from the glacier. It was probably completely safe but we all had our reservations each time we heard a cracking sound.

So much glacier
So much glacier

Crossing the glacier was better described as path-finding than path-following. At times we knew exactly where we were going, spotting stacked-stone markers and walking on fresh footprints. Other times we lost the trail and Sam had to unpack the binoculars to scan the horizon for clues. We always found it again but the insecure feeling it gave, combined with how bloody hard it was crossing wobbly rocks and slippery ice was exhausting. In total it took over three hours to cross the two kilometre wide valley from North to South, ‘and Switzerland did this last night after a 1200 meter descent!’, someone added. They were so Swiss.

Traversing the glacier's complicated way. © Shu Yeung
Traversing the glacier's complicated way. © Shu Yeung

At the south-west end of Inylchek glacier we could choose between trekking 1.5 km back down the river to camp #4 or continuing 7 km up to camp #5. Sam used Karl psychology and suggested everyone ‘just walk up to the next ridge and then decide’. The next ridge was higher and further away than it initially seemed, so by the time everyone had scaled it no one wanted to climb back down. Decision taken.

Small river crossing! © Shu Yeung
Small river crossing! © Shu Yeung

At one river crossing! we met a group returning from Merzbacher Meadow. They had abandoned their plans to go to South Inylchek Base Camp due to lack of time. One asked us in a Spanish accent the cost of the helicopter flight back from Base Camp (160 US$), giving the impression they had paid significantly more for their trek than us. Their guide insisted he show us the way across the river. Based on how cautious he was being — almost mollycoddling — his group probably made the right decision to turn back. He was a nice bloke.

Icy lake made for photos. © Shu Yeung
Icy lake made for photos. © Shu Yeung

Late in the afternoon we passed a sizeable icy lake at the base of an adjoining glacier, containing an opportune peninsula just begging for handstand photos. As with all breaks it was hard to put the backpacks on again after, especially when followed by such a steep ascent.

Checking the map, planning the onward journey. © Shu Yeung
Checking the map, planning the onward journey. © Shu Yeung

By 18:30 we made it to camp. It was inside a mud-pan set back from the glacier and separated by a rocky wall. It contained two big yellow mess tents and three smaller green sleeping tents labeled with Red Fox and Ak-Sai Travel markings. We had just run into an organised tour group complete with guide, porters, cook (who was female, which kinda felt sexist) and three silly-looking Germans. The main guide, Kirill, was friendly and spoke quite good English. Sam had a short chat with him, then we got busy as usual with tents and food (pink beatroot-flavoured mashed potato). It was nice to rest after such a long hike.

Day 6: Stuck in Mud Camp

During the night it started raining. We had neglected to dig a trench around our tent to catch water run-off and so had minor seepage into our front-area. By early morning it started snowing. Heavily. Within a short time it looked like Siberia outside, so we stayed in our sleeping bags assuming we'd be spending the day there. Our tent may have been classified four-season (ok for Winter) but it still needed periodic shaking to keep the snow off the roof.

Removing snow and securing the tent. © Shu Yeung
Removing snow and securing the tent. © Shu Yeung

Mud Camp, which had temporarily been rendered Snow Camp, wasn't the most relaxing place in the world. After the sun came out and everything began to melt we had to take tent-flooding seriously. Using hiking poles, rocks and thongs we removed the snow and dug a trench around the tent. It was a very messy job and our tools weren't made for excavation, so Sam borrowed a spade from Kirill. The wet mud below the snow had a clay-like quality and it stuck to the bottom of our hiking boots in layers. The more we walked around camp the taller we got. It was hard to keep anything clean in these conditions; this put Sam in a grumpy mood.

One of zee Germans with an umbrella. © Shu Yeung
One of zee Germans with an umbrella. © Shu Yeung

During the day in a sunny moment one of zee Germans emerged from his tent. He had long scraggly grey hair and stood with a bendy posture holding an umbrella. This amused Shu greatly and pictures were taken. The porters busied themselves sticky-taping camping equipment into bundles and piling them up for the next helicopter pick-up. The trekking season was ending in the coming days and camp would soon close for winter. The porters wore sandals in plastic bags: a practical waterproofing solution. They also poised themselves on the high rocks to make scheduled radio contact. Nothing else happened in Mud Camp.

Day 7: Long Hike to Merzbacher

Sam was happy to leave Mud Camp: ‘I hope the upcoming rocks are extra rough [to get the mud off]’. The way ahead was rough and the going was tough, passing many landslides and washed out mountain edges. Nothing was especially dangerous per se, but a small slip with a heavy bag on a high path could escalate quickly, so we all stayed on point.

Photographer lever 3
Photographer level 3

Not everything was rough and/or tough. For example, we crossed several flat fields of stones without watching our feet at every step. One such field was bordered by a pretty stream and covered in snow leopard tracks*. We didn't see any snow leopards hiding in the hills unfortunately.

Arriving at Merzbacher Meadow. © Shu Yeung
Arriving at Merzbacher Meadow. © Shu Yeung

For the last stretch to camp the wind picked up from behind and it started snowing again. Spirits were low until arriving at Merzbacher where we were greeted by Sasha (camp boss) and Kirill who gave us two yellow Red Fox tents for the night.

View over the glacier towards Merzbacher Lake (empty). © Shu Yeung
View over the glacier towards Merzbacher Lake (empty). © Shu Yeung

Merzbacher Meadow was historically an alpine research station jointly run by Kyrgyzstan and Germany. The original hut still stood — ‘rats, rubbish and all’ according to Sasha — and was usually used by the porters. With all this bad weather we were considering abandoning our plans to make it to Base Camp. Sam had a chat to Sebastian and Kirill, who explained their group would continue as planned and that we shouldn't worry. It was relieving to have a group in front of us.

The original research station hut. © Shu Yeung
The original research station hut. © Shu Yeung

Sunset was amazing. Many Shugasums were had.

Day 8: Moraine Hike to Ice Camp

Metzbacher Meadow was the last point of the hike along the mountainside before switching to the moraine (stream of rocks and dirt on a glacier). The track went towards Merzbacher Lake on the opposite side of the valley and then turned back south, then north and south again. ‘Where are we going now?’. The track was easy to follow but it wiggled its way primarily up icy watercourses, which meant slippery bits and lots of river crossings! Our feet became soaked early in the day from miscalculated river jumps and hidden water pockets. Squelch, squelch, squelch.

Navigating slippery ice terrain. © Shu Yeung
Navigating slippery ice terrain. © Shu Yeung

During the trek everyone's tolerance for side adventures had varied. At times we were motivated to run about and explore, depending on weather and bag weight, but most of the time we just trudged on. One side-adventure led Sam and Shu into a cool ice tunnel. It was about 15 m long and it looked like the inside of a whale's rib cage. After lunch we met a group coming back down the glacier. They spoke no English; communication was limited.

More navigating ice terrain. © Shu Yeung
More navigating ice terrain. © Shu Yeung

Our spirits (and our feet) were dampened by fatigue, and we began to wonder if we would reach camp by nightfall. All we knew was the campsite was somewhere vaguely ahead of us on the glacier. Sam scouted ahead to look for it, or to find somewhere else to camp. Eventually, yellow tents came into view and he signalled to tell the others.

Ice camp. Cold. © Shu Yeung
Ice camp. Cold. © Shu Yeung

Ice Camp was great: no mud anywhere (excluding our base-mat). ‘It looks like a whale's diaper’, said Shu (perhaps thinking back to the ice tunnel). With vigour, we all (especially Sam) gave the base-mat a good snow scrub to remove the mud, and set up the tent on rough wooden planks. The area was too short for our long tent, but it was a handy way to stop our bums from freezing under the sleeping bags. The tent pegs were hammered into the ice and secured by heavy rocks. Getting water was trickier since the nearby stream had already begun to freeze, reducing flow. Cook, eat, nighttime photos, sleep.

Day 9: Epic Blizzard Hike to Base Camp

According to Kirill his group were going from Ice Camp all the way to South Inylchek Base Camp in one go. The straight-line distance was 12.5 km, which on the ground meant much more, and included a glacier crossing between moraine. It sounded huge but at least our bags were getting lighter and we would have a guide leading the way. We changed from thongs (absurd footware for a glacier) into our frozen hiking boots. ‘Let's do this!’

Traversing a galcier in a blizzard
Traversing a glacier in a blizzard

The morning was all smiles and sunshine. After lunch, however, the wind blew strong enough to make us walk half-sideways. Rain drops joined the flurry, followed by a few snowflakes and before long we were hit by a full-blown blizzard. Our view distance was reduced to about ten meters, so we navigated by following zee Germans' slowly-disappearing footprints. This was a shitty situation: navigating a glacier crossing at 4000 meters in a blizzard. We had only one choice: hike fast, no breaks, over slippery ice, in a whiteout. Three hours later, the footprints then split into two different directions. What!?

By this stage everyone was buggered from snow hiking
By this stage everyone was buggered from snow hiking

We eventually caught up to zee Germans... who were walking back towards us. Kirill decided his way over the glacier was unsafe and the group was on their way back to find another one. ‘Big Kiril — big detour!’ We went back to the split and followed the other set of footprints (which belonged to the porters). The path was not easy and even less obvious — in places is was bloody steep and wet, and elsewhere disappeared — so we let Kiril walk ahead just to check it out. The sky began to clear and we could see way-marker flags in the distance. The porters must have been worried; they came back to find their guide and carry zee Germans' bags.

South Inylchek Base Camp, arriving at sunset. © Shu Yeung
South Inylchek Base Camp, arriving at sunset. © Shu Yeung

Ten hours of hard hiking later, we landed in South Inylchek Base Camp. Exhausted didn't even begin to describe us. Sam tried to locate our contact person and was directed to a grumpy bloke who spoke exactly three words: ‘helicopter’ and ‘maybe tomorrow’. Shu wasn't making much sense as we began to erect our tent. Meike thought 10€ per person for a yellow tent was a rip-off. Sam's fingers and toes had lost almost all feeling. Somehow we got our tent standing. Excluding the preparation of some mashed potato for dinner, all other issues were left for tomorrow. Flop.

Day 10: South Inylchek Base Camp

South Inylchek Base Camp. We had made it. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and there was little to no wind. Best of all, we didn't have to pack the tent or walk anywhere today. It was a day of rest in Base Camp.

Hanging up pants to dry. © Shu Yeung
Hanging up pants to dry. © Shu Yeung

Sam hung up our wet and/or frozen cloths on the metal frame on the platform beside our tent. The day was warm so he walked around in thongs; this would eventually lead to a significant thong-tan. Sam's fingers had developed strange spots: most likely first degree frostbite, so no risk of permanent damage. Everyone's fingers were cracked and dry, especially our thumbs which bled when touched. Meike had blisters on her blisters and Shu's last camera batter was empty. We were all quite spent.

Resting in the tent
Resting in the tent

Base Camp was well equipped with a satellite phone (3€/min), wifi (10€/h), mess tent (20-25€/meal), tiny lake with lifesaver ring (Kyrgyz humor), sauna and toilets. Visiting the toilets was an adventure in itself: the path was slippery (especially in thongs) and the short walk was exhausting. Upon returning from one toilet expedition, Shu announced: ‘I just got a top score!’ Not leaving it to our imaginations what he meant, he then proceeded to describe everything in great detail. What a crappy topic of conversation.

While Meike stayed in her sleeping bag to read, Sam and Shu went for a walk. The snow covering the path leading up to Base Camp had begun to melt, revealing rubbish everywhere. One pouch of energy gel with Cyrillic inscriptions seemed to be from 2005. It was a stream of historical garbage. Shu did a handstand on a big boulder.

Night time in base camp. © Shu Yeung
Night time in base camp. © Shu Yeung

Back in camp zee Germans wandered past towards the mountain. Kirill set out, returning with them a few hours later. Sam asked if he went to rescue them. He was amused, and gave us an update about the conditions: ‘helicopter, maybe tomorrow’. Great... He had been so nice and helpful in the past few days, Sam gave him his pocket knife as thanks. The snow sparkled in the moonlight.

Day 11: Helicopter, Maybe Tomorrow

Not giving a chance to miss the helicopter, we woke up at 6am to pack the tent, eat the last of our muesli and get ready. We stood at the heliport at 7am only to be told there was a delay. It was cold and windy, so Kirill gave us a yellow tent to use in the meantime, which by 8am became ‘maybe tomorrow’. 9am... 10am... 11am... midday, and still no helicopter. Time passed very slowly.

A mountain... not sure which one, but a pretty one. © Shu Yeung
A mountain... not sure which one, but a pretty one. © Shu Yeung

Inside the tent it was boiling hot. We stripped down from five layers to just one (underwear in Sam's case) and ate the last of our snacks. Small clouds came and went but the weather conditions remained stable. Base Camp had a generator which ran almost all day and sounded somewhat like a helicopter. It was mean getting your hopes up listening to the wvum wvum wvum noise. 1pm... 2pm... 3pm... 4pm, and still no helicopter.

Waiting in a yellow tent. © Shu Yeung
Waiting in a yellow tent. © Shu Yeung

We resolved ourselves to another night in Base Camp and paid 20€ per person for some hacked chicken and oily lentils for dinner. The bone splinters were a bother but it was worth it, alone for the pile of strange Soviet sweets which sat on the table. Shu tried each in turn, providing his colourful critique while pulling funny faces.

Taste testing all the sweets. © Shu Yeung
Taste testing all the sweets. © Shu Yeung

Helicopter, maybe tomorrow...

Day 12: Helicopter Extraction, Drive to Tamgar

Jokes about helicopter maybe tomorrow and top scoring aside we were ready to get off the glacier and have a shower. It had been twelve days since we last washed ourselves properly, and merino wool can only do so much against smell. We were ready early but of course there was another delay. The grumpy-bloke mumbled something about ‘maybe September’. Nooo!

Helicopter landing was very windy. © Shu Yeung
Helicopter landing was very windy. © Shu Yeung

To prevent their toes from freezing the guides, grumpy-bloke and porters trampled snow flat at the heliport. They looked like penguins waddling in little steps up and down. After what felt like an eternity waiting outside in the cold, the helicopter appeared and the grumpy-bloke waved us to get down. Shu did his fastest lens-change in history, seconds before a blast of freezing snow and ice blasted through the camp.

Loading up the helicopter. © Shu Yeung
Loading up the helicopter. © Shu Yeung

The helicopter was an ex-military MI-8-MTB, painted in jungle camouflage and emblazoned with a big red star. Inside there was room for twenty people and their luggage, with seats along the sides and cargo piled down the middle. One of the first things unloaded was a box of smokes. The grumpy-bloke and his henchmen jumped on it, furiously ripping open the box and lighting up. So that's why they were being grumpy: nicotine withdrawal. The helicopter had brought a variety of long-life foods, frozen meat, bags of bread and fuel. While setting up the fuel pump, the pilot lit up and smoked a cigarette Russian style (with little concern for safety). Things were unloaded from the rear cargo doors, including the four walls and a roof of a new building.

Looking out of the window
Looking out of the window

We piled in and waited while the rotors sped up during the very loud take-off procedure. With a deep shudder the helicopter lifted and banked hard right, turning 270° to fly north-west beside Khan Tengri away from the glacier. Watching out the round foggy windows gave a view over oncoming glacier-capped mountain edges. The ridges shot up from below, peaking narrowly below the helicopter as it whooshed past. We flew behind Merzbacher Lake — it was a shame we missed out on visiting it. The flight time was 30 minutes, during which the landscape changed from snow-white to dry-grass-yellow and finally into forest-green. We weren't actually sure where we were going...

In Karkara Gorge chilling out. © Shu Yeung
In Karkara Gorge chilling out. © Shu Yeung

We landed on a field beside a river... somewhere in Kyrgyzstan. We consulted the GPS and discovered that we were at the boarder to Kasakstan in Karkara Gorge. The river was the boarder between Kyrgyzstan and Kasakstan but was unfortunately too deep and too wide to wade across. We were invited into a yurt for breakfast by the Ak-Sai Travel people, who didn't seem to care that we didn't belong to them. Shu was convinced he was dreaming, unwilling to believe the helicopter had actually come and taken us off the glacier. ‘I'm going to wake up in Base Camp any moment now’.

Doing a sesh with Big Kirill. © Shu Yeung
Doing a sesh with Big Kirill. © Shu Yeung

We hung out in camp outside the breakfast yurt on the grass waiting for our ride. We had been assured (before we left) that ‘transport will be arranged’ at the end of the trek, wherever that may be. It was a bright, sunny day in the middle of nowhere surrounded by green hills and horses, so there was not rush to get going. Shu did a sesh (weights session) on a makeshift barbell bench with Big Kirill and some one-arm handstands on a stump. Thanks to the very nice camp boss who offered to call our travel company, our transport was arranged and a few hours later arrived.

Some men in the Kyrgyz countryside. © Shu Yeung
Some men in the Kyrgyz countryside. © Shu Yeung

In the mean time, the helicopter had collected another Swiss group from the mountains. The four-man troop and their entire base camp worth of equipment was loaded into our minibus and off we went. They had been exploring in a nearby area, achieving the first ascent of two 5000 meter mountains while running a complete base camp. They had taken as much cheese and salami (in weight) as one of our backpacks, flour for baking bread every day (with olives) and enough gas canisters for a month. How Swiss.

A bloke on horseback moving his herd with a bottle on a rope. © Shu Yeung
A bloke on horseback moving his herd with a bottle on a rope. © Shu Yeung

The ride back to Karakol took three hours. Through the minibus's cracked windows we saw hay bails piled higher than houses, hundreds of horses and many Mercedes. Do all cars in Kyrgyzstan have cracked windows? One bloke on horseback was herding his sheep down the road with a plastic bottle on a rope. Back at the Green Yard Hotel, Shu was taken for a local again. He blamed it on his raincoat (Kyrgyz colours). The owner was super-friendly and arranged new accommodation and a taxi without charging us for our missed booking.

Tamgar guesthouse. © Shu Yeung
Tamgar guesthouse. © Shu Yeung

By late afternoon we landed in Tamgar Guesthouse on the south side of Issyk Kul and were welcomed by nice old lady who spoke quiet English. Suddenly, Switzerland appeared — what a coincidence! We picked our rooms and tried to wash under a dripping shower, which gave a little water when held at waist height. Washing in a squat position was better than nothing. Our kind hostess informed us she didn't sell beer, but said we could have the two bottles she had left in her fridge. ‘You're welcome’.

Here's the summary map and GPX data.