Initially, I had wanted to hitch a ride to Altyn Arashan, which would allow me to have more time for hiking in the mountains. However, I learned that there had been landslides and the only way to reach the valley would be either hiking or on horseback. Yet another very early rise enabled me to arrive at the bus station before 6. There was a marshrutka waiting - with the driver, but no passengers. In fact, the streets were very empty, and I realized that waiting for this minivan to leave could well take a long time. A policeman approached me, and I understood that he was going the same direction I was. I accepted his proposal to share a taxi, agreed on a price, and off we went. The policeman was engaged in a lively conversation with the driver, while I could enjoy the early morning scenes outside. After the policeman left the taxi, the driver and I were able to have a basic conversation - my Russian was improving by the day and my language guide, however limited, did allow me to understand and be understood. I liked the guy, and decided to give him two of the exquisite peaches I was carrying. But when we arrived at the end of the road, and I paid him the money we had agreed on with a little extra, the driver looked very disappointed and asked for ten times more. This would have been outrageous, and I ended up keeping the peaches for myself after yet another bad experience with a Kyrgyz taxi driver. I did not want to lose more time, and made a quick start hiking up the valley. The vegetation that only left a very narrow path, was still think with morning dew, and in a matter of minutes, my shoes and trousers were soaked. Where I had expected a road, I thought it was strange that I would walk on a trail, and the only explanation to me was that the real road should be higher up. So, I made my way up the hill, struggling through thick bushes, sometimes sliding down on muddy soil, without ever seeing a sign of a road. After continuing like this for more than an hour, I saw a herd of sheep coming my way - and at the same time, I realized with a shock that there was a road on the other side of the wild river. I was happy to see a shepherd as well: he would be able to point me the right way. The shepherd, an old man dressed in dark clothes, making sure to keep his dog under control, gave me a shock explanation: this was not the Altyn Arashan valley at all! It was actually one valley more to the west. My mouth suddenly turned dry, remembering the taxi driver with his absurd demands for money: he had also taken me to the wrong place... The shepherd showed me the way to a bridge, and when we reached what I assumed to be his tent, he ordered the girls inside to give me some milk. Several cows were staring at me, and when one of the girls came out with a bowl of warm milk, pointed to one of the cows and informed me that she had been donating the milk just before. As someone with an aversion to milk, I knew that now the time had come to just drink, and so I did. And to be honest, the taste was not as bad as I had imagined. It gave me some energy to walk down the road to the beginning of the valley as fast as possible, so I could finally have a hike up the correct valley.
And so it was, that instead of having an early hike up to Altyn Arashan, I started hiking after 10am. According to the travel guide, this hike should take between 5 and 6 hours, but I was determined to do it faster as I still wanted to hike in the mountains itself as well before calling it a day. Still ignorant of the many adventures that were waiting for me that day, I hiked up as fast as I could through the narrow Arashan river valley. In some places, I saw heaps of snow where I had not expected them. When the dirt track took a wide curve to gain height, I found a shortcut which saved me time, but which also caused my pants to be wet again. When I reached the top of a hill, I spotted a few houses not far away and knew I was about to arrive in Altyn Arashan - in two and a half hours instead of 5. It started to rain, and as I was hungry anyway, I took a pause for lunch - followed by a very HOT bath next to Arashan river. It was so hot that I just had to get into the river to cool off - but when I got out of the small wooden building, two girls doing some cleaning next to it were shocked to see me - even if I was wearing a towel around me.
Surprisingly, the weather was clearing, and I was soon on my way up the valley. I had decided on hiking to Palatka Glacier. According to my information, this would take around 5 hours, and I somehow assumed that also here, I could cut this back to half that time. The valley ahead of me looked very peaceful: green fields on both sides of the river, leading up to the trees growing against the mountains. In many parts, I saw herds of horses grazing, but I never saw any person herding those beautiful beasts. Moreover, I found that the horses did not seem very accustomed to humans - getting closer to them unfortunately always resulted in their running away from me. Only at one point did I see a yurt which suggested the presence of shepherds, but apart from the horses and some sheep, I never saw other animals. Meanwhile, the hike was not as easy as I had imagined. It had rained a lot lately, and many streams were coming down the mountain on my left hand side. The grass was often swampy, and I had to jump from stone to stone regularly to prevent getting wet feet. Crossing the small rivers coming down involved jumping, too: apart from a few bridges close to Altyn Arashan, I did not see any one higher up. I reached a junction and chose to keep my left. High above me, I could see waterfalls coming down the ridge of the mountains around me, and behind the ridge on the other side of the valley, I saw impressive, high mountains with a thick layer of ice and snow on top. Every time I had to cross yet another brook, I dreaded those crossings more and more. They slowed me down, and always carried the risk of ending up in the water on a slippery rock. Every time I thought that the mouth of the glacier would be visible around the next corner, it was not. I felt myself getting weaker, and realized I did not eat nearly enough for so much hiking. I only had a few chocolate bars in my bag, and wanted to keep them for later. So I had to push harder to climb the valley, to navigate the swampy grass, to cross the brooks. While I was still enjoying the scenery which was wild, alpine, and pristine, the hike became always more of a mental thing, as if I was involved in an endurance sport. I was fighting a breakdown, felt my legs more and more, and still, pushed on, all the while knowing that I still had to hike all the way back to Altyn Arashan to sleep. I had set myself a deadline, allowing me just enough time to return to my home-stay before it would be dark.
When that moment came, and I still could not see Palatka Glacier, I sat down, had a chocolate bar, and pushed on until the next corner. But even there, no sight of the glacier, even though I felt I was very close. But I also had to make sure to be back in time, so I took the difficult decision to turn back and walk down. With still three hours ahead of me, I knew I had to ignore all the signals of my body and just continue. It felt like putting my body in automatic pilot mode, where I only allowed my legs to work. It was then, when I was walking in some kind of trance, that something happened so unexpected that it turned everything upside down. As I was coming around a corner, my body froze and I stopped right there in my tracks. Right ahead of me, not more than a few steps away, a brown bear was coming my way when it spotted me. I will never know if it was the instinctive gesture of shock with my arms that alarmed it, or it was scared anyway of humans - but before I knew it, the bear turned around and ran away - in the clumsy way that bears run. I was still nailed to the ground, my senses were slowly coming back, and I realized that my right hand had taken my camera out of its bag - but too late. I looked around for the bear, or his friends, but could not see any, so I continued walking. The next ten minutes, I had my hand on my mouth and did not stop repeating words spoken in half shock: "I just saw a bear!". The encounter sent adrenaline racing through my body, and it was at once woken up from the numb state it had been in just before. I did not feel my legs anymore, and hiked on as fast as I could. Crossing the rivers suddenly seemed easier, and I was walking with a drive now: the drive to be back to the home-stay before darkness fell, and to have a filling dinner that would finally restore my body to its power. But the image of the bear was imprinted in my mind, and for the next days, it would often appear in my dreams and I would wake up with it. The sun was setting early in this valley, hiding behind the high mountains, and especially walking in the woods was becoming more difficult now. The bear was still so much on my mind, that I started to imagine bears in all the shadows and boulders I saw. I was relieved when I finally reached Altyn Arashan - the feeling of walking past the fence and knowing that I had made it, was one of deep satisfaction. All I wanted to do, was to shout out to everyone that I had seen a bear - and to have a huge dinner.
Unfortunately, things were not that easy. First of all, it seemed that I had to move to another room without windows, and secondly, after waiting in vain for ten minutes for someone to show up in the dinner room, I was told that ... the cook was drunk! When I checked the kitchen, I found out that this was, in fact, the case, and was so disappointed that I got all my belongings and stepped into the total darkness, making my way to the next house. Even though it was dark, I knocked the door, and the girl coming out told me in a friendly way that I could sleep there as long as I did not mind sleeping in a room with others. I could have slept anywhere - but I told her that the main problem was that I desperately needed food. When I entered her home, a guy with a bandage was sitting at a table, a glass of vodka in his hand, a cigarette in the other, listening to bad Russian pop music on his cell phone - the light of which was the only light in the house and gave the scene a surreal atmosphere. When I told the girl about the bear - I had the urge to share the story with others - using my Russian dictionary, she looked at me in disbelief. When my stomach was full, I felt the fatigue of a long day of hiking and surrendered to it on my bed. That night, the drunken guy turned out to be a deep snorer as well. But even before sleeping, I knew the topic of my dreams...
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Palatka Glacier (Kyrgyzstan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Palatka Glacier. Read more about this site.