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Trekking the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan


"You don't go to Kazakhstan for a holiday. You go for an adventure." Lonely Planet Central Asia

 

An alpine meadow dotted with spruce and juniper. Copyright: Rick Hudson.You got that one right, Lonely Planet. If you like your travel predictable, the alphabet decipherable, and the language understandable, then stick to California. But if you want something different, then Kazakhstan will blow your socks off.

Let's start with a geography lesson, since all those 'stans changed after the breakup of the USSR. Located south of central Russia and north of Afghanistan are four countries, the largest of which is Kazakhstan. Population: 17 million. Size: same as Western Europe (that's BIG). Southern border: the Tien Shan ('Celestial') Mountains, running 2,800 kilometers across the steppes, and 800 kilometers wide (eat your heart out, Rockies). This has BIG COUNTRY written all over it. And finally, after a century of politics, it's open to anyone with a spirit of adventure.

Where to go? Well, you might as well ask the same question when visiting the Andes in South America for the first time … it doesn't matter. It's so big, you just start somewhere. However, one factor will override everything else. You can't just pitch up at the border and ask to stay for a month or two. You have to be invited. The easiest way to get a visa invitation is to have a trekking company sponsor you. That reduces a lot of the unknowns simultaneously, like where to go, how to communicate, what to bring, and what to leave at home.

We chose the largest private tour company which is run by one of Kazakhstan's most famous mountaineers, Rinat Khaibullin. With a fleet of 4WD vehicles, ex-army trucks, base camps in remote mountain regions to operate from, and high altitude helicopters, they offered a wide range of trips. There are bus tours to 'the Polygon' (the old USSR nuclear test site in central Kazakhstan), the Singing Sands (I'm not making this up!), the Tamgaly Petroglyphs, ancient memorial grounds that make you wonder about Stonehenge, the impressive Charyn Gorge (a mini Grand Canyon), any number of mountain lake areas, and Khan Tengri.

Kazakhstan’s location in Central Asia. Copyright: Rick Hudson.What's Khan Tengri? We'll get to that in a minute. But first, when to go? The winters are freezing, the summers hot. Remember, you're 2,000 kilometers from the nearest ocean. So spring and fall are best, unless you want to get into the mountains. They're at their peak (no pun intended) in the summer months of June to August.What do I recommend for a first timer to the region? Take a mountain trek, to acclimatize to the 2,500 – 3,500-meter zone, and to see some of the most beautiful, untouched alpine areas left in the world. Imagine what Austria and Switzerland must have looked like before the coming of cow tracks, shepherd's huts, autobahns, ski lifts, mountain-top restaurants, helicopter pads and cellphone towers. Imagine a country that has wide, gentle valleys filled with meadows and streams, and carpeted with flowers. Where the slopes are dotted with spruce in the lower zones, and scrub juniper in the higher. Imagine a country where you can trek for eight days, and meet no one. Nada. Nyet. Where you don't hear a mechanical sound, nor see a jet trail in the sky, for an entire week. Imagine …

The trekking is fairly easy on passes of up to 3,700 metres. Copyright: Rick Hudson.Kazakhstan has a shrinking economy, and most things that involve the service industry (like trekking) are reasonably priced. Our trip cost US $750 per person, and included a guide and cook, all equipment (except sleeping bags and foamies), a helicopter flight into and out of the glacier base camp at the foot of Khan Tengri, full use of the base camps (and all food), hotel accommodation in Almaty, and all transportation. For extra comfort, we chartered two pack horses and a packer. That meant we had lots of spare carrying capacity (we walked with only a light day pack). Daily our cook produced fresh fruit, exotic salads (no one got sick from the uncooked food), mountains of potatoes, melons and more. Folks, it's the only way to travel.

We had chosen a fairly strenuous trek that involved some 10-hour walking days. Starting in the beautiful Tekes Valley in the southeast corner of the country, where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China meet, we traversed four passes over 3,400 meters, ending at Akkol Base Camp. All the crossings were gentle, which the horses negotiated without difficulty. The views from these high points into the main Tien Shan to the south were spectacular, and the broad grassy valleys and many lakes made the days pass quickly.

The only challenges were the river crossings. No trails means no bridges, and in the lower valleys, the rivers are wide and cold. We crossed only one on horseback. Usually we traded our boots for runners, gritted our teeth, and waded up to our thighs in the swiftly flowing mountain streams.

Crossing the Tekes River, Tien Shan. Copyright: Rick Hudson.The mornings started at about 7 a.m. After a sit-down breakfast (aluminum table & chairs!), we trekkers would walk until about noon. Our beefy young guide Andrey Barbashinov was on hand to advise us on the route, since there were few trails and the local maps are very basic. Andrey spoke good English. Of Russian parents, he seemed typical of the new generation after glasnost. He'd read Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, liked jazz, had harsh words for Stalin's role in WWII, and wore North Face gear.Svetlana Serova had recently graduated from university with a degree in tourism management, and was getting her hands dirty as our camp cook. Shy, blonde and pretty, she wore NYC ski gear, and loved the pack horses. Most days she led one of them as we trekked. Initially, I thought her affection was strictly the remote love affair that so many teenage girls have for ballet or ponies, but in the evenings Sveta rode bareback with a graceful ease, suggesting many years of experience.

After lunch, we usually walked till 6 p.m., set up camp, and then enjoyed a large two- or three-course meal, washed down with many cups of strong Russian tea. Like so many things in Kazakhstan, the product was similar, but differed in some basic way from our Western style. Tea, for example, is made in a small pot, very strong. A splash is poured into your cup, and then diluted with boiling water from a kettle. Similarly, a loaf of bread is not cut in slices the way we would expect. Instead, it's cut lengthwise down the 'spine', and then diced into thick chunks. The tea and bread taste the same as they do back home … but were prepared in a different way.

One night we had just settled in when a major thunderstorm started. Lightning flashed, transforming our skins into momentary shades of gray inside the yellow tent. We huddled on the exposed flank of the mountain, aware of the absence of sheltering trees, and counted the delay before each thunderclap rolled over us. As the night wore on, the storm approached and I found myself breathing to the rhythm of the count … flash .. 1 second .. 2 seconds .. 3 seconds .. boom! That was a kilometer away … and getting closer.

Then, when it was almost on us, the clouds opened and the thunder was drowned out by pounding rain on the taut tents. It lasted an hour. Later, in the calm that followed, we emerged into a breathless night, to find inches of hail carpeting the ground, under a silvery moon. It was magical.

North route up Khan Tengri, showing the 4 camps. Copyright: Rick Hudson.Crossing our third pass the following morning, we saw for the first time, the snow – and glacier – covered pyramid of Khan Tengri (7,010 meters) to the south. As we watched, the clouds drifted in, and the summit disappeared, but the view whetted our appetites. A day later we rose before dawn to reach a high point early in the day and to get a panorama of the main ranges and the great peak itself.

The Tien Shan's most famous summits are Khan Tengri – meaning 'Lord of the Spirits' – and Peak Pobeda (7,439 meters) – meaning 'Victory Peak'. Both have permanent glacier camps which you can fly into on those big Russian ex-military helicopters that have no seat belts, but windows that open – just great for taking clear pictures!

In camp, you can hang out, climb, glacier travel, or do whatever you choose. Although Khan Tengri is the lower of the two '7,000-ers', its perfect pyramidal shape and relatively safe northern route make it a popular attraction for climbers looking for a big peak with not too much technical difficulty. There is over 4,000 meters of fixed rope on the route, threading its way up through crevasses, seracs and rockwalls past four high camps. The mountain generally takes about a week to climb, although in August 2000 a super fit, 27-year-old mountain guide, Denis Urubko, stormed to a commanding win in the First International Khan Tengri speed ascent/descent, doing the round trip in 12 hours and 21 minutes! (And he did it in borrowed boots.)When You Go:

You'll need an 'invitation' from AsiaTour (www.asiatour.org/index.html) before you can apply for a visa at one of the Kazakhstan Embassies
(www.zoo.co.uk/~kazakhstan/Dipmissn.html).

Helicoptering to Khan Tengri (7,010m) - the perfect pyramid. Copyright: Rick Hudson.Austrian Airlines, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Turkish Airways, China Airways, and others fly to Almaty (airport symbol ALA), which is the staging ground for most treks. Airport transport and local hotel accommo- dation are included in the AsiaTour package. Almaty (the name means 'father of apples', since they grow huge ones there) is an attractive city of a million, situated on the edge of the Tien Shan, like Denver is on the Rockies. The broad avenues are lined with tall trees, making the hot summer days more bearable. Pretty much any food you can buy in North America is available there (Mars Bars, powdered fruit drink, etc.), but the cost of living makes things cheaper.

Although 40 percent of the people are Kazakhi, Russian is the language of commerce. There are 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, so KAZAKHSTAN becomes KA3AKCTAH. It takes practice. The best dictionary I found on the web was E. Jones' English-Russian 500 word list at www.seanet.com/~ejones/download_stuff.htm. Learn those, and you're almost an expert.

There are numerous websites providing details on the country, such as www.kazakinfo.com and lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/kztoc.html.

What do I recommend for a first timer to the region? Take a mountain trek, to acclimatize to the 2,500 – 3,500-meter zone, and to see some of the most beautiful, untouched alpine areas left in the world. Imagine what Austria and Switzerland must have looked like before the coming of cow tracks, shepherd's huts, autobahns, ski lifts, mountain-top restaurants, helicopter pads and cellphone towers. Imagine a country that has wide, gentle valleys filled with meadows and streams, and carpeted with flowers. Where the slopes are dotted with spruce in the lower zones, and scrub juniper in the higher. Imagine a country where you can trek for eight days, and meet no one. Nada. Nyet. Where you don't hear a mechanical sound, nor see a jet trail in the sky, for an entire week. Imagine …

The trekking is fairly easy on passes of up to 3,700 metres. Copyright: Rick Hudson.Kazakhstan has a shrinking economy, and most things that involve the service industry (like trekking) are reasonably priced. Our trip cost US $750 per person, and included a guide and cook, all equipment (except sleeping bags and foamies), a helicopter flight into and out of the glacier base camp at the foot of Khan Tengri, full use of the base camps (and all food), hotel accommodation in Almaty, and all transportation. For extra comfort, we chartered two pack horses and a packer. That meant we had lots of spare carrying capacity (we walked with only a light day pack). Daily our cook produced fresh fruit, exotic salads (no one got sick from the uncooked food), mountains of potatoes, melons and more. Folks, it's the only way to travel.

We had chosen a fairly strenuous trek that involved some 10-hour walking days. Starting in the beautiful Tekes Valley in the southeast corner of the country, where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China meet, we traversed four passes over 3,400 meters, ending at Akkol Base Camp. All the crossings were gentle, which the horses negotiated without difficulty. The views from these high points into the main Tien Shan to the south were spectacular, and the broad grassy valleys and many lakes made the days pass quickly.

The only challenges were the river crossings. No trails means no bridges, and in the lower valleys, the rivers are wide and cold. We crossed only one on horseback. Usually we traded our boots for runners, gritted our teeth, and waded up to our thighs in the swiftly flowing mountain streams.

Crossing the Tekes River, Tien Shan. Copyright: Rick Hudson.The mornings started at about 7 a.m. After a sit-down breakfast (aluminum table & chairs!), we trekkers would walk until about noon. Our beefy young guide Andrey Barbashinov was on hand to advise us on the route, since there were few trails and the local maps are very basic. Andrey spoke good English. Of Russian parents, he seemed typical of the new generation after glasnost. He'd read Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, liked jazz, had harsh words for Stalin's role in WWII, and wore North Face gear.Svetlana Serova had recently graduated from university with a degree in tourism management, and was getting her hands dirty as our camp cook. Shy, blonde and pretty, she wore NYC ski gear, and loved the pack horses. Most days she led one of them as we trekked. Initially, I thought her affection was strictly the remote love affair that so many teenage girls have for ballet or ponies, but in the evenings Sveta rode bareback with a graceful ease, suggesting many years of experience.

After lunch, we usually walked till 6 p.m., set up camp, and then enjoyed a large two- or three-course meal, washed down with many cups of strong Russian tea. Like so many things in Kazakhstan, the product was similar, but differed in some basic way from our Western style. Tea, for example, is made in a small pot, very strong. A splash is poured into your cup, and then diluted with boiling water from a kettle. Similarly, a loaf of bread is not cut in slices the way we would expect. Instead, it's cut lengthwise down the 'spine', and then diced into thick chunks. The tea and bread taste the same as they do back home … but were prepared in a different way.

One night we had just settled in when a major thunderstorm started. Lightning flashed, transforming our skins into momentary shades of gray inside the yellow tent. We huddled on the exposed flank of the mountain, aware of the absence of sheltering trees, and counted the delay before each thunderclap rolled over us. As the night wore on, the storm approached and I found myself breathing to the rhythm of the count … flash .. 1 second .. 2 seconds .. 3 seconds .. boom! That was a kilometer away … and getting closer.

Then, when it was almost on us, the clouds opened and the thunder was drowned out by pounding rain on the taut tents. It lasted an hour. Later, in the calm that followed, we emerged into a breathless night, to find inches of hail carpeting the ground, under a silvery moon. It was magical.

North route up Khan Tengri, showing the 4 camps. Copyright: Rick Hudson.Crossing our third pass the following morning, we saw for the first time, the snow – and glacier – covered pyramid of Khan Tengri (7,010 meters) to the south. As we watched, the clouds drifted in, and the summit disappeared, but the view whetted our appetites. A day later we rose before dawn to reach a high point early in the day and to get a panorama of the main ranges and the great peak itself.

The Tien Shan's most famous summits are Khan Tengri – meaning 'Lord of the Spirits' – and Peak Pobeda (7,439 meters) – meaning 'Victory Peak'. Both have permanent glacier camps which you can fly into on those big Russian ex-military helicopters that have no seat belts, but windows that open – just great for taking clear pictures!

In camp, you can hang out, climb, glacier travel, or do whatever you choose. Although Khan Tengri is the lower of the two '7,000-ers', its perfect pyramidal shape and relatively safe northern route make it a popular attraction for climbers looking for a big peak with not too much technical difficulty. There is over 4,000 meters of fixed rope on the route, threading its way up through crevasses, seracs and rockwalls past four high camps. The mountain generally takes about a week to climb, although in August 2000 a super fit, 27-year-old mountain guide, Denis Urubko, stormed to a commanding win in the First International Khan Tengri speed ascent/descent, doing the round trip in 12 hours and 21 minutes! (And he did it in borrowed boots.)When You Go:

You'll need an 'invitation' from AsiaTour (www.asiatour.org/index.html) before you can apply for a visa at one of the Kazakhstan Embassies
(www.zoo.co.uk/~kazakhstan/Dipmissn.html).

Helicoptering to Khan Tengri (7,010m) - the perfect pyramid. Copyright: Rick Hudson.Austrian Airlines, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Turkish Airways, China Airways, and others fly to Almaty (airport symbol ALA), which is the staging ground for most treks. Airport transport and local hotel accommo- dation are included in the AsiaTour package. Almaty (the name means 'father of apples', since they grow huge ones there) is an attractive city of a million, situated on the edge of the Tien Shan, like Denver is on the Rockies. The broad avenues are lined with tall trees, making the hot summer days more bearable. Pretty much any food you can buy in North America is available there (Mars Bars, powdered fruit drink, etc.), but the cost of living makes things cheaper.

Although 40 percent of the people are Kazakhi, Russian is the language of commerce. There are 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, so KAZAKHSTAN becomes KA3AKCTAH. It takes practice. The best dictionary I found on the web was E. Jones' English-Russian 500 word list at www.seanet.com/~ejones/download_stuff.htm. Learn those, and you're almost an expert.

There are numerous websites providing details on the country, such as www.kazakinfo.com and lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/kztoc.html.