It has been almost two months since we returned from Kyrgyzstan, but I still have vivid memories of that trip. We spent three weeks together in Kyrgyzstan and we got to know many sides of this little-known country in Central Asia. We immersed ourselves in the colorful life of Bishkek, experienced the breathtaking mountain and glacier landscapes, traveled the conservative south countryside around Osh and got to know the traditional life of the Pamir people.
It all started with our wish to experience something far away from the Alpine regions. When selecting possible travel destinations, our focus quickly fell on Kyrgyzstan, Dastan’s home country. At first we had some doubts whether we would find enough fellow passengers: only few people know that Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful travel destination. The diverse landscapes, e.g. around the Issykköl, the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, or the mountains of the Pamir and the Tien Shan Mountains would be worth several trips to this country. In addition, you can also experience the traditional life of the Kyrgyz in the mountains, which makes a trip here unique. We therefore chose Kyrgyzstan as the destination of our expedition and wanted to climb the Pik Leipzig (5,725 meters) in the Pamir Mountains there.
Our journey began in mid-July in Bishkek: the capital, metropolis of millions and cultural center of Kyrgyzstan. Life here is – by Central Asian standards – colorful and progressive. You can feel the liveliness of the city on every corner: hip cafés, restaurants, shops and many young people build up the vibrant image of the city. We quickly feel comfortable in this pulsating city. However we needed to continue to Osh the next day. There we should meet the other fellow travelers and continue our journey together. Finally we could meet each other and tell stories. Our group harmonized wonderfully and it was really fun to travel through Kyrgyzstan together.
Osh, the country’s second largest city, has three thousand years of history and located deep in the south of Kyrgyzstan. We quickly noticed the contrast to the more modern Bishkek. Osh is a vibrant city, but it is also traditional, religious, conservative. We became really aware of that when we met a gay group there one evening. Dastan organized the meeting for us. We met in a small restaurant just outside of town, in a separate room. The windows of the room were closed, doors locked. The men we met are between forty and almost seventy years old. The young people don’t dare to come here, they told us. You heard a lot of moving stories. All of them were married. Married to women and have children; two, three or even four. We quickly became aware that these men lead a double life – because society does not accept their true identity. They live with their homosexuality in secret. The conversation moved us, made us thoughtful. We became more aware than ever of what it means to be deprived of the possibility to be who you are. But at the same time the thought was frightening: of the unspoken suffering of the women and children whose family life is based on a tragic lie. We ended this day with strong feelings and gratitude for living in a largely open society.
Firstly, we had to do our shopping before we went to the mountains. We planned to be in the mountains for two weeks; without being able to buy anything. The lively center of Osh is the Jayma Bazaar. We bought groceries and small items there. We were worried about not having bought enough or too much: Too much would have been awkward, but too little would have been a disaster. Later it turned out that we had done everything right. After the day of shopping, we headed towards the mountains.
The drive from Osh to the Alai / Alay Valley was an experience in itself. The settlements along the road got smaller and smaller and the mountains higher and higher. With every kilometer driven, more and more yurts shaped the landscape. We made a short stop for lunch in Gültchö / Gulcha. We got a typical Kyrgyz lunch – ayran, flatbread, lagman and tea. Then there was a short tour of the small farmhouse and a yurt in the garden. After this short stop we continued, because the 3,600 meter high Taldyk Pass still lay ahead of us. The steep roads over the high passes were a test for all cars here. At first we laughed about other cars that had broken down and were standing at the side of the road. However, we quickly lost our laughter when our bus gave up. Thanks to lemonade and cola as cooling water, we arrived in Achyk-Suu with the last rays of sunshine.
At 3,500 meters we got off our bus. The actual settlement of Achyk-Suu is slightly lower. During the cold winters, the locals live there in their houses. In the summer months, on the other hand, they are up here in the mountains, living in yurts with their livestock on the green pastures. The beauty and uniqueness of this place is indescribable. The evening rays of sun illuminated the surrounding mountain ridges in the most beautiful colors. The white glaciers flowed down to the lush green meadows. Smoke from the ovens rose from the yurts as if in slow motion. Children played in the meadows, adults watched and the cattle passed by in the background. There wasn’t much time to enjoy this moment. It was late and we had to set up our tents. And when the last tent was up, it was already dark.
We spent the next few days acclimatizing to the altitude. So it was time to relax, explore the surroundings, eat and sleep. It’s wonderful to just let yourself drift through the day: no obligations, no news, no internet, no work. Of course we had also sought contact with the people here. We were allowed to watch the families preparing the flatbreads over the fire and were invited to eat in the yurts. We were allowed to ride donkeys, milk cows and watch the women weave the carpets.
After a few nights we went further and higher. We had loaded most of our luggage onto horses and donkeys. The locals were happy about the quickly earned money. But negotiating was tough and difficult. Our next camp was at 4000 meters altitude. It was in the valley, surrounded by high mountainsides. Ice and rock falls at regular intervals let a deep rumble echo through the valley. Despite the high altitude, almost all of us still felt fit. We explored the glaciers around the camp and followed the path to Pik Leipzig to find our way in the darkness of night.
After a few days in the second camp, we started the ascent to the only high camp. It should be the most difficult part of the mountain tour. The main part of the trail led over a steep, icy flank with falling rocks at an altitude of around 5,300 meters. We started early in the glow of our headlamps. Initially quite easy, the path later became steeper and steeper. Walking there was exhausting. When we reached the ice we tried to climb it. Walking with crampons seemed easier to us. But the terrain became so steep and unsafe that we quickly scrapped the plan. So we fought our way through steep rubble terrain most of the time. Every step in this terrain was difficult. One step up, two steps back. It quickly became clear to us that the only reasonable way to reach 1000 meters in altitude could only through firn or snow. But there was none of that this time. Just steep bare ice. And rockfall. We turned back exhausted. The dream of the summit is over and done with. The weather changed to match the mood. And that came as a surprise to all of us. It started raining, a thunderstorm poured and even snow fell. We could only guess how we would survive under these conditions in the high camp. But the change in the weather at least made sure that we were happy sitting in the camp down here and not in the high camp on the glacier.
After two days in the camp, during which we boiled away the last supplies, we went back to the yurts and from there we were picked up again by bus to Osh. We experienced a few more wonderful days there together, visited the bazaar, climbed the Sulaiman Too (holy mountain) and drove to Ösgön / Uzgen to see historical remains from the times of the old Silk Road. It was a wonderful end to the journey that we started and ended with new friends.