Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Highlands

After several days of trekking, we finally arrived at Khan Tengri basecamp. At about 24,000 feet, with a picturesque peak, Khan Tengri is a popular destination for climbers. They actually helicopter into base camp, and then spend about three weeks to get to the peak. For me, base camp represented the end of the trek. We spent about three days there, hiking to the head of both Khan Tengri and Peak Pobeda, but not doing any serious technical climbing. After a day and a half of a pleasant rain/snow mix, the skies finally emptied one night in a serious snowstorm, and the remainder of our time there was brilliant. My guide told me that there are usually two or three perfectly clear days in the mountains every month. We were lucky enough to heave three on our trip.

Hiking into base camp, the morraine turned steadily into ice. We're a couple of hours from finished at this point.

The second night at base camp, a serious storm made for some tense sleeping, but also, the next morning, gave us a view of the surrounding mountains for the first time.

This is Khan Tengri. On the other side is China. We had to have special permits to hike in this border zone.

This helicopter was delivering a team of climbers, and also ferrying us back to the lowlands.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Lowlands

Though my time in the villages was immensely rewarding, the main reason I originally went to Kyrgyzstan was for the trekking. It has a reputation as being remote and wild, and fully lived up to it. If you're the type of person who complains about how over-populated all national parks and wildlife areas are now, and how it's difficult to get out into the "middle of nowhere," then Kyrgyzstan is for you. I frankly don't buy the idea that nature is only natural when humans aren't there. Humans are part of this world too, and after hiking for ten days and seeing only two other trekkers, I have to say that a little human conversation would have been welcome. There's something to be said for being alone, but it can get old.

The trek started at about 7,000 feet and worked its way slowly up to around 14,000. It was a pretty straightforward trek, basically climbing up the remains of the Inylchuk Glacier, the second longest glacier in the world. This meant walking over what was basically a 75-km long morraine field, with ice compacted underneath. If you ever doubt the power of glaciers, walk along rock shards for seven days and you'll begin to understand. The rocks I was walking across -- often several meters deep and constantly shifting under my feet -- were once a mountain, and it was the power of moving ice that reduced them to rubble. That and the rivulets snaking everywhere. It was the water that actually made the trek tedious at points, as they basically carved hills into the piles of rocks, so that you were constantly going up and down (but always ultimately up), trying to find the best place to cross the icy streams.

Below are some shots from the first part of the trek, before we reached the snow line.

The area where we trekked was so remote that we needed an old Russian military vehicle just to get there. I spent about five hours bouncing along in this truck, several times getting out with a shovel to either clear or create road. It was a beast.

The first day of the trek was my last encounter with civilization. You can get a sense for the scale of the mountains as this goat herder drives his herd home.

I ran across these boys a couple hours later. They lived in the yurt by the waterfall (shown in the blog post on yurts, below) and were only too happy to show me the baby lambs. I shared a few cashews with them before taking their picture, as experience has taught me that people of different cultures often expect a little gift in return for posing. But I later found this not to be true in Kyrgyzstan. I even had kids run up to me and ask me to take their picture.

Almost every day, the rain clouds would start moving up the valley in the afternoon. You could always see it coming...

A couple of brave marmots. You can hear their squeals everywhere in the mountains, but usually only see their backsides scurrying down holes. This was taken at maximum zoom on my camera.

After a few days of trekking, we arrived at the only grassy area along the glacier, Merzbacher glade. It was a relief to pitch my tent on such a forgiving surface.

Merzbacher Lake is close by. You can see it here full of small icebergs at the foot of this mountain.

As we got higher, the terrain grew rougher. A day before reaching base camp, I basically had to find a bunch of large, flat rocks to create a tent platform. This was my mattress.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Scenes from Kyrgyzstan

One of the highlights of my wanderings in Kyrgyzstan was being able to get so close to the Kyrgyz countryside.  After my trek, I spent several days volunteering for a Kyrgyz community center, whose objective was to help villagers make traditional crafts that they sell to tourists -- items like jams, soap, felt products, and artwork.  I was able to travel with members of this group to various villages to check in on the progress of participants, and along the way, saw several slices of life that I wasn't able to see on my trek, which I arranged through a tour agency.  

These women run a stall at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.  Many Kyrgyz people seemed delighted to have their picture taken, as long as I showed it to them afterward.

I ran into this boy in the hills behind Karakol.  This picture was taken at the end of a long struggle between boy and donkey, as he tried to lead the donkey uphill.  Finally he jumped on and they went down.  Donkey, 1; Boy, 0.

I arrived right after the hay had been cut (often by hand) and then raked into large piles.  The whole family then goes out to the field with a truck and piles as much hay as they can on it, whereupon they drive it home for the winter.  It's quite a sight to see large piles of hay driving down the roads, with men stooped over in the driver's seat trying to see out the windshield.

This is the Russian Orthodox church in Karakol.

Most Kyrgyz people, however, are Muslim.  Their mosques are usually small buildings with what look like aluminum domes on top.

I found this man, and his sideways wagon, while I was wandering through the village of Barskoon.  Most older men wear some sort of ornamental hat like this one.  This particular man was mostly blind, and couldn't see his picture when I showed it to him.  However, his friend was there and gave me the thumbs up.

Yogurt products are quite popular, and this woman was happy to let me try some from her stall at a bazaar.  They are quite sour -- probably an acquired taste.  But it's one way of making milk last through the winter.

Kyrgyz cemeteries are unusually decorative.

And, finally, one simple question:  why?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ala Archa National Park

When I first arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I spent about four days in Ala Archa National Park doing an acclimatization hike to the top of Uchitel (literally, "teacher") Peak.  At about 15,000 feet, it was good preparation for the trek I'd take to the Khan Tengri base camp later.  

The trail stretches all the way to the plateau in the distance.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Yurts of Kyrgyzstan

Yurts -- the original mobile homes -- have long been used by nomads when moving to higher pastures for their animals' summer grazing. More recently, since they are so identified with the traditional culture of Kyrgyzstan, they are more of a tourist draw. The first yurt below is for campers and hunters. The rest are the more traditional type. All of them are found deep in valleys, usually near rivers (or waterfalls!).

Kyrgyzstan sunsets

These are each from different nights. More posts to follow, as soon as I get showered!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Meet Ed

The baby turkeys on our farm are learning how to fly. But they prefer alternative modes of getting around - riding in Patrice's car, walking in a long line behind yard-wandering people, hopping up the steps of the ladder to peer in the kitchen window.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Chocolate in Three Acts

I. Belgium

My taste buds wanted to commit euphoric suicide, leaping off my tongue to chase the silk ribbon of chocolate headed for my stomach. Chocolate so impeccable, so rich, so superbly unexpected. I had almost - perish the thought - not ordered it. Full, I almost ignored the invitation of "Molten Chocolate Cake" in lovely fine print at the bottom of that Belgian menu. 

Everyone around us was Belgian; they had had it before. They didn't realize the implications of their chocolate. The dangers. Chatting with friends and co-workers around the dimly lit cafe, they didn't seem to understand that this was the best chocolate in the world. Each day they passed Leonidas and Neuhaus, offering barely a glance to the incredible displays: coated croquant and ganache, caramelized pecans dipped in white chocolate, buttery caramels dripped in dark chocolate, holiday icons molded in milk chocolate. To acknowledge the perfection of these tastes and textures would be to lose themselves in one sense, taste, and abandon the world. Soon everyone in Belgium would swell and the U.N. would have to relocate its headquarters. 

Lucky me, then, to be just a visitor allowed to revel in my forkfuls of bliss, my "mixed most populars" box from Leonidas, and my hazelnut chocolate cream at Au Bon Pain. 

II. Italy

After dinner we trekked two miles of wet street to find Chocolat, the gelateria of choice among hip and happening dessert-lovers of Milan. Two steps inside the door and we were face to face with the heart of the place, 20 rotating gelato flavors under glass, half of them subtle spins on chocolate.

"So what will you pair?" asked the case, as each flavor vied for our attention. 

"Pick me," whispered the cinnamon chocolate.

"No me," said the ginger chocolate heatedly.

"I go well with milk chocolate," said the Honey-Poppyseed Cream, hoping for consideration.

Raspberry sorbet might be good with dark chocolate orange. Perhaps white chocolate with chocolate pear. Might mango compliment chili chocolate? I just didn't know. 

A big decision lay in front of us. Luckily, our train didn't depart for another hour.

III. Bulgaria

"Chocolate Romance Pie?" I needed some cake, and that seemed close enough. I was sitting in a reclining wicker chair at "Sweet" Cafe, across the table from Brett, and it was my birthday. 

We hadn't yet learned that Sweet was a popular hangout for folks we probably shouldn't be hanging out with, and we sat blissfully unaware of the career paths of our neighbors. I had finished a pretty OK mojito, and there is something about one drink that makes dessert that much better to me, as if it sharpened the sweet side of my tongue a touch, and opened extra room in my stomach. 

As the Chocolate Romance Pie floated across the room on its tiny plate, I imagined heads turning, everyone wishing it were theirs. I'd never had anything quite like it. It was as if a triangular wedge of fudge fell in love with a plate of roasted hazelnuts, and the two went skinny dipping in cream together before lying down on a bed of soft vanilla.