Thursday, August 11, 2016

Looking for Song Kol in the Mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Flounder is still feeling sick, though he slept through the night so I am hopeful. I know, however that he needs another day to rest in Kyzart, another day in the tiny village we’ve already been stranded in for three days.

As for me, I want to glimpse this famous Song Kol, the alpine lake we travelled to Kyzart to see in the first place, so I decided to walk. Not to the lake. That’s 15 kilometers and over 1500 meters of elevation gain then 500 meters descent away. No, I’d walk up to the ridge of the mountains that separates our little village from the lake and get some exercise and maybe a nice view of Song Kol and the yurts that surround it in the summer months.

With the help of Flounder and google satellite images, I find my starting point—a road that looks like it snakes into the mountains, passing over the small but rushing and ice-cold rivers that run in the way.

Over the river and into the mountains

I head out around 8:45 am, optimistic that I can reach the peak by noon. But I am soon surprised by the distance of things. It takes me around an hour just to reach the road we’d scouted on google, and that was walking on a level, cleared path. As I walk out of the village, the houses behind me, I begin to scan the mountains for any sign of a path. I see a small cluster of buildings on the gentle slope at the ridge’s beginning and I head there, thinking I might at least ask someone if I’m going in the right direction.

‘Salam alaykum,’ I call out the woman who just stepped out of the house. She motions me toward her, tying up the madly barking dog at her side.

‘Song Kolga kiteym. I’m going to Song Kol,’ I say, hoping I’ve remembered the words right. I point up and ask, ‘Mumkun mu? Is it possible?

She nods, and the younger man who walked toward us also confirms that it’s possible. She says a lot of words I don’t understand, but I am able to make out her offer of chai, and after brief consideration, I agree. I follow her into her house. There are two rooms—a kitchen and a multipurpose room with a twin bed on one side and a low-to-the-ground table on the other. She ushers me in and mixes me a cup of tea much in the way they do in Turkey: a small pot contains strong tea and a larger pot contains hot water. You mix the two to your desired strength. As we drink tea, I nibble on the bread she offered and try to use the little Kyrgyz I can remember.
With the mother who invited me in for chai

I tell her I’m American, but I live in Dubai. ‘Dubai’da jashaym.’

She asks if I have children and then I ask her the same question.

She holds up four fingers. ‘Tort,’ she says, then quickly corrects herself, ‘besht,’ adding a fifth finger as she speaks. She points to the younger man outside, indicating he is her son. I wonder if he’s the fifth, rather forgettable child.

She pours me a second cup and would have poured a third, but I needed to get going, so I thank her and again confirm the correct direction to Song Kol before I leave.

I wave to her and her son and set off, following a small, rapid stream and trying to stick to the horse path I found. Plagues of grasshoppers jump in every direction as I walk, clicking and rattling as they fly through the air. Soon I lose the horse path, then find it, then lose it again.

I follow the stream

I try to follow the stream, but the dry ground that was a haven for grasshoppers soon turns lush, fragrant with clover and wildflowers of blue, purple, red, and orange. Something underfoot smells spicy, like a wild cousin of the more cultivated thyme. Soon the undergrowth isn’t so much under as it is around me, up to my knees, then up to my waist, as high as my shoulder.

I push through, following the stream’s path up and up and up. The slope is gentle, so I hardly need to stop, but the going is slow, obstructed as my path is by the verdant riverside flowers and the unseen and uneven ground.

Through flowers up to my shoulders

I am making progress; for proof I need only to look behind me at the tiny village of Kyzart below, but when noon comes and goes I can see that my idea of reaching the peak by noon was clearly too optimistic.

‘Maybe 1 o’clock?’ I muse. But at 1 o’clock I round a bend in the path and see, not the blue sky I hoped for, but rather a large green mountain still looming above me. It’s time to change my plan.

My view at 1:00 p.m. Still a long way to go.

I set a time limit of 2:00 p.m. If I haven’t reached the peak and seen Song Kol by then, I would still turn around. That would be more than five hours of hiking and I don’t want to worry Flounder and I definitely want to be back in the guesthouse before dark.

I forge up, out of the gentle but overgrown riverbed, up a steep slope, in the hope of lower growth, better footing, and a faster path to the top. The slope is so steep I need to use my hands in places and I quickly discover that the flowers and plants are taller than they had appeared. In short, leaving the riverbed behind was a change, but perhaps not a good one.

1:15 p.m. I take as many steps as I can, before pausing, counting my breaths and waiting for them to slow down. Progress is slow, but I am gaining elevation.

1:30 p.m. I can see the rocky peak of the slope ahead of me (but mainly above me).
Beautiful view, but I'm still far from the peak
1:45 p.m. I finally reach the top and suddenly can see the valley to my left as well as mountains in the distance that had been hidden from view. But no sign of Song Kol. Instead I see a higher peak wrapping around my mountain and jutting far up above. 15 minutes left. Should I give up? Or try to scale this new peak?

1:50 p.m. I forge my own switchback as the slope up the peak is steep and my legs are feeling weak and wobbly from hours of hiking uphill.

My final view. Time to turn around.

2:00 p.m. I reach the top of my peak, but instead of Song Kol, I see yet another peak rising up. It’s time to turn around, to give up and head back. Giving up is difficult for me; stubbornness often trumps safety. But it’s made easier now by my worn-out legs and my worn-out husband waiting for me back in Kyzart.

I take one last picture of the mountain that defeated me, then put my small pack on and turn around.


For the first time I hear a sound other than the buzzing of bees and occasional call of birds. I look in the direction I think the sound came from, but I see nothing. I scan the mountains around me, hands on hips. Did I imagine it? Could it just be a bird?


It’s definitely human, but I still can’t see the human making the sound. Tired of looking and seeing nothing, I start my descent.

‘HELLLLLO!’ this time I hear some other words, not in English, and it occurs to me that maybe this voice is not speaking to me. Maybe he’s hailing a friend. So I continue my descent with more confidence but not more speed; the growth is so high that it makes walking downhill nearly as slow as walking uphill was.

Looking down at the village of Kyzart

I’ve forgotten about the voice and the unseen human attached to it. I’m focusing now on each step, on the pressure in my knees from the steep descent, and on the pain in my toes as my feet smush forward in my shoes.


This time the voice is closer and I turn around. I can see him now. It’s a man on a horse, accompanied by a very shaggy dog. He motions me to join him and I, not wanting to climb up the same hill again, make an exaggerated shrugging gesture as if I don’t understand. He rides downhill toward me.

As he comes closer I have some time to look at him and also some time to think. I don’t mean to sound alarmist or untrusting, but as a woman walking alone in a very remote place, my mind immediately tries to gauge the threat and simultaneously map out my options in case something goes wrong. He’s an older local man, wearing a wool skullcap and sporting a small moustache. But more than these things, I notice the gun he’s carrying. It’s a long rifle, likely for hunting and likely good only at long distances. Still, it’s a bit of an intimidating sight.

He gets closer, dismounts from his horse, and smiles at me.

‘Song Kol?’ he asks.

Jok, Kyzart,’ I say. ‘Song Kolga kitbeym. I’m not going to Song Kol,’ I say, hoping I’ve got the words right.

He sits on the ground, pulls out binoculars and invites me to join him. I think he sees my trepidation because he says, pointing to himself, ‘Hrasho. Good.’ And then, pointing to me, he says ‘Hrasho. Good,’ and hands me the binoculars. I sit down and look through them, but I don’t know what I’m looking at and I can’t focus, so after a polite interval I give them back and get up to leave.

He points to a different buttress leading off the mountain, just over one valley to the left, and indicates that it would be a better place to descend. But I notice that to get there I would need to walk down into the valley then back up a steep slope and I decide it’s not worth it.

Again, I think he sees my trepidation, because he motions me toward his horse and leads us, me astride the horse, shaggy dog at our side, over to the next mountain buttress. The horse is surefooted, but not as surefooted as the man leading the horse.

My kind guide and I

Along the way he asks the usual questions and I respond. We’re using a mix of Kyrgyz and Russian to talk about where we live, our spouses, our number of children (he has 8!). He asks if Flounder and I might like him to guide us to Song Kol. I’m tempted by the option as he clearly knows the way and seems like a kind man, but I know Flounder is too weak to make plans.

At the ‘path’ to Kyzart we stop. I take a few photos and he joyfully poses with me. As I lift my backpack he eyes my water and asks if can drink some.

‘Ich, ich. Drink, drink,’ I say, encouraging him to have as much as he likes. I see now that he doesn’t have any water with him. ‘Ich, ich,’ I say, repeating what the older woman who offered me tea near the beginning of my hike had said to me. He drinks and as he does I get out my little chunk of sunflower seed halva to offer him. He nibbles the halva, has another drink, then asks if he can kiss my hand before we part. I smile and laugh as he kisses my hand, then wave goodbye as he swings up onto his horse.

‘Paka paka. Bye bye,’ I shout.

‘Paka,’ he calls out in return and I head down the mountain, knees feeling the pressure and toes squished again into the fronts of my shoes.

I turn around only minutes later and already the group of three—man, horse, and dog—are so small against the immense green mountain that I can barely spot them, slowly climbing up the pass to Song Kol.

And I, I’m slowly descending toward Kyzart, my joints aching and my toes bruised. With the monotony of the downhill hike and of passing the same landscape for a second time, the disappointment of what I haven’t managed hits me and rattles around in my bored brain. I was looking for Song Kol and I didn’t even glimpse it. I didn’t even glimpse it. I didn’t even glimpse it. The thought is stuck on repeat.

Perhaps it’s the snow-patched mountains in the distance, or the green-covered mountains around me, or maybe it’s the tiny remote village waiting below; something stops my rattling, repeating thought.

‘No, you didn’t glimpse Song Kol,’ I interrupt myself. ‘But you were invited in for chai, sampled some bread and Kyrgyz hospitality, you breathed fresh alpine air, hobnobbed with wildflowers, surrounded yourself with green mountain peaks, and you rode on a horse and shared your water with a gentleman. And you’re heading back now to the sweetest gentleman of them all.’

A pretty good day.

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