Tash Rabat – Winter in May

Entry gate to Naryn City
The entry gate to Naryn City.

Before visiting Tash Rabat, in the deep Southern part of Naryn, we were warned two things: It can snow any time of the year and the (possibly haunted) fort itself had an unknown number of rooms as it was impossible to count them accurately.  With that in mind, four of us set off with our former host father to At-Bashy where we stayed the night with another volunteer before our morning ride out to Tash Rabat.  As our SUV drove South of At-Bashy, much farther South than we’d been before, we stopped at the decaying ruins of Koshoy Korgon.  This Korgon (one of the Kyrgyz words for fort) is named after Koshoy Baatyr, one of Manas’ generals, who is thought to have ordered the fort’s construction.  The fort was interesting but really hard to envision what once was.  Also strange that you can just walk all over what in the States would certainly be protected in some way.

Koshoi-Korgon
Koshoi-Korgon, a small fort in Naryn thought to have been built by a close friend of Manas.
Ancient walls of Koshoi-Korgon
Koshoi-Korgon, a small fort in Naryn thought to have been built by a close friend of Manas.

We continued the drive towards Tash Rabat and as we entered the valley we finally saw yaks!  Yaks are a centuries-old tradition in Kyrgyzstan but was largely lost during the Soviet days.  Now, the government is actively trying to promote the practice and dramatically increase the number of yaks from the approximately 31,000 there are now (here’s a brief Reuters video with a little more info.)  Our driver laughed at our delight in seeing yaks but at least the whole group was entertained.  We pulled up to the yurt camp and unloaded our bags quickly so we could start our hike.

Yak!
We finally saw our first yak, with a baby!

Our first stop was Tash Rabat itself.  Tash Rabat is a 15th century caravanserai restored (poorly?) by the Soviet Union in the 80s.  The origin and use is argued about but it was likely some sort of rest spot, market and occasional prison for travelers/traders on the ancient silk road.  There’s a fee to enter and after a brief negotiation the woman agreed to give us the locals price since we spoke Kyrgyz (she quizzed us.)  Tash Rabat turned out to be surprisingly interesting and much larger than it looked from the outside.

We left Tash Rabat and the road behind as we hiked up the valley.  Soon, the valley filled with shrieks every time we came around a corner.  It didn’t take long to spot the source of the noise, marmots, hundreds of them lived on both sides of the valley.  When we came into view of a new group they would shriek out a warning call and we would get glimpses of the furry animals scurrying down into their holes.  The trail had patches of snow we crossed while walking up a narrow river valley.  The scenery was incredible and after 5 or 6 miles in we decided we had gone far enough, the end of the valley in site but too far to make today.

While resting, we saw our friends who had left much earlier hoping to get a glimpse of Chatyr Kol.  The skies began to darken and as a group we all headed back towards camp.  Along the way, the dogs who had followed our friends on their hike found a dead marmot which the larger one devoured, a bit disconcerting given the story about the teenager who contracted bubonic plague and died after eating a marmot three years ago.  Nearing the camp, rain began to fall and we could see flashes in the sky from lightning in the next valley over.  We were a bit tired and cold but when the rain turned to hail it was motivation enough to hurry up back to the safety of our yurts.  We rested until dinner and had a nice time in the large dining yurt making food and talking with the daughter of the yurt camp owner.  Snow began to fall, ensuring we would indeed experience all four seasons in a day at Tash Rabat.  The next day we woke up to beautiful, fresh snow on the ground.

Want to visit Tash Rabat?  Trips to Tash Rabat can be arranged from the CBTs in Kochkor or Naryn but we stayed at Sabyrbek’s awesome yurt camp.  They can arrange for taxis out to Tash Rabat and beyond as well from either At-Bashy or Naryn.  They can be reached at 0772 221 252, 0773 889 098 or a.tursun29@mail.ru

 

Hiking season in Kyrgyzstan has begun

Winter can be a bit rough here.  It’s not that any particular thing is really that terrible but the frequent power outages, boring work days and cold, windy days just get a little… dull. But as we wrote before, spring has arrived in Kyrgyzstan.  This means the fighter jets are again dropping test bombs near our city (oh ya, that happens) and the best part is that hiking season in Kyrgyzstan has begun!  We went on our first long hike of the season last weekend.  It was our first time hiking with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (www.tuk.kg) which frequently arranges trips all around the country.  Definitely the best way to see the beautiful nature here if you live in or visit Kyrgyzstan.

Our hike was in a place called Ak-Tuz (Ак-Түз), directly North of us and near the border with Kazakhstan.  The name literally means ‘white straight’ but basically translates to White Valley.  One great benefit of hiking with TUK is that they filled us in on a lot of the fascinating history of the place which I later researched more on a local website I found.  The region was established in the late 1930s when large amounts of lead and some other metals were discovered.  As WWII went on, the USSR was in desperate need of the lead and other metals and they quickly established a large mine and processing factory, both of which are still there today but abandoned.  We didn’t have any time to explore it this trip but we now that we know about it we plan on going back this summer to check it out. Continue reading “Hiking season in Kyrgyzstan has begun”

Bala-Chychkan Valley Hike

We’re determined to explore every bit of Kyrgyzstan while we’re here so we headed down to Toktogul to squeeze in one last backpacking trip before the snow comes.  Getting to Toktogul from our home in Balykchy requires a trip through Bishkek and we spent the night there to break up the long journey.  In the morning, we headed to the taxi stand to locate a taxi.  Normally we would take a marshrutka between cities but apparently due to a large number of accidents on the bad mountain roads they are no longer allowed.  We found a Toktogul taxi driver who told us he’d be leaving soon, just needed two more passengers… maybe 30 minutes.  An hour later the two additional passengers were sitting in the car but the driver was just strolling around and didn’t seem to be in a hurry.  Another 30 minutes went by and we became increasingly aggravated as another passenger had taken a seat but still we waited.  Finally enough passengers showed up for the taxi to fill and we took off, only to stop after 15 minutes so the ladies could spend 15 minutes buying bread.  Just double the time you think you need to get anywhere in this country.

From a nice fall day to this in minutes
From a nice fall day to this in minutes

An hour later we were out of the city to a part of the country we hadn’t seen before.  Turning towards the mountains we drove up and came to a toll booth, after this the road became twisty and climbed steadily.  I struggled to make out the scenery through the limo-tint glass as the road kept climbing the mountains.  I turned on my phone to see we reached 10,200’ at the top of the pass as we entered a very long and narrow tunnel.  We entered the tunnel under sunny skies but 3 or 4 minutes later we popped out and into winter.  Snow was falling and covered the roadway.  We stopped here for a rest stop, it felt 30 degrees colder than when we left Bishkek.  Heading down the mountain we reached a high plateau, technically in Talas Oblast, that seemed beautiful but I could barely see through the window.  The next two hours were mostly uneventful except for the amusing incidents where the car is forced to slow and honk its way through herds of sheep moving down the road.

Continue reading “Bala-Chychkan Valley Hike”

Jeti-Oguz Weekend

Another fun weekend adventure! This time we were headed to Jeti-Oguz (means ‘7 bulls’) for a little trip organized by our friend AJ and his organization, Eco-Trek. They had asked us to help them with a couple things including documenting the accommodations and a couple hikes with photos and GPS tracks. We were helping them put together some packages to give to their clients to offer a better product. In exchange, they put us up in their yurt camp and arranged for the transport out there.

We head out from Balykchy and stopped by Cholpon Ata to watch some of the World Nomad Games. It was pretty fun and really an impressive event for Kyrgyzstan, a couple dozen countries were there participating including the US with 5 PCVs forming a Kokuz Torgol team (a strategy game similar to mancala.) We weren’t there long and some other PCVs wrote about it more, you can read Shaun or Anna’s blogs to here more about the event. Also, here is a short video showing the opening ceremonies.

Our yurt for the weekend
Our yurt for the weekend

After the horse games we went to Karakol and stayed with AJ. The next morning we walked with him to his office and his director drove us up to his yurt camp in Jeti-Oguz. We didn’t really have an idea of what to expect as things here tend to be a little (a lot really) less consistent than we’re used to at home but this just lends to the adventure. The drive became very beautiful as we headed up towards the mountains, passing the small village of Jeti-Oguz before the road cut through a scenic, narrow river gorge. As the road opened up into a large valley we saw many other yurt camps, this is a very popular destination for both local and foreign tourists. Arriving at the yurt camp, we were given a brief tour of our very nice yurt (with the best looking bed I’ve seen in a yurt yet and power!) as well as the toilet (not an outhouse) and shower… yep, this would do. We unpacked our bags and took a look at my map to figure out where to head. The GPS showed a waterfall nearby so we followed the road that direction. After a bit of confusion we found the correct cow path that represented the trail we were supposed to follow. Heading up the fill the cow path turned into a real trail and we began passing Russian tourists and Kyrgyz people picking juniper (the branches do all kinds of magic but you can’t have a juniper tree on your property as it will sap the life from your family.

Continue reading “Jeti-Oguz Weekend”

Ala Archa National Park Hike

Since the first part of Pre-Service Training (PST) we’ve been planning a trip to Ala Archa National Park.  Ala Archa is an alpine National Park, just South of Bishkek.  Phase three of PST has miserably hot most days and a trip to the cool weather in the mountains was coming at a great time.  Early last Sunday, 12 of us plus our brother and sister piled into the family marshrutka early in the morning and our host dad drove us up to the park.

 

Ala Archa has two main trails.  The first is relatively flat and follows the main river up the valley.  We opted for the trail to the left which climbs a steep valley, past a waterfall and ends at a climbing hut where several glaciers meet.  The hike started up a steep hill and as soon as we reached the top the views were awesome.  To the North-East, 15 miles of the Ala-Archa river valley could be seen and in front of us the large waterfall and beyond that, the valley where Racek hut, our destination, was visible.

 

After traversing the side of the valley for about a mile and a half we stopped for lunch before tackling a steep section that took us past the waterfall.  Here, the trail winds through the Juniper Trees that give the park its name and is incredibly scenic.  Across the valley we could see a herd of ibex(s?) scaling the steep slope.  I’d seen many statues of ibex across the country and it was pretty awesome seeing them in person.  Even though they were several hundred meters away, it was easy to make out their huge antlers.

 

As we approached the top the steep cliffs and glaciers of the park became visible.
As we approached the top the steep cliffs and glaciers of the park became visible.

Continue reading “Ala Archa National Park Hike”

Altyn Arashan: Hiking, Hot Springs & Storms

For the second weekend in a row, we headed out towards the mountains to go on a hike.  This time we were heading to the other side of Issyk Kul (the huge lake we live near) to Karakol which is the city I originally hoped we’d live in.  Jake, Taylor and I took an early Marshrutka to Karakol and met all the other volunteers from Issyk Kul at Karakol Coffee for a quick meeting.  After that, eight of us headed up to Altyn Arashan valley in an awesome (and ancient,) 4WD van.  The road was the bumpiest road I’ve ever been on, often hugging the edge big cliffs.  Although we were packed in tight, ½ way up we stopped to pick up two women with two kids (for free of course,) I was happy to be in the front seat at this point.  After about 90 minutes of being bounced around we arrived to the valley and saw several houses scattered around.  Most people camp here but we were hoping to hike to Ala Kul Lake so we continued on.

 

Continue reading “Altyn Arashan: Hiking, Hot Springs & Storms”

Jailoo & Yurts: Our first overnighter in KG

One of the biggest reasons we are excited to be in Kyrgyzstan is to experience the beautiful nature all around us.  During the first part of PST we had a chance to go for a short hike (LINK) but that turned out to be more walking in a field then getting into the mountains.  As we’re now in phase 2 of PST and have a bit of freedom we were able to get out for a weekend so we headed towards the jailoo (Жайлоо, a high mountain pasture where Kyrgyz families take their animals in summer) above Grigorievka along with Jake, Molly, Mira & Shawn.  Shawn & Mira have been here for over a year now and were able to arrange for a taxi from the main road up the rough valley road where we expected to find yurts we could stay in.

 

After getting dropped off by the taxi, we head up the valley
After getting dropped off by the taxi, we head up the valley

Continue reading “Jailoo & Yurts: Our first overnighter in KG”

First Hike in Kyrgyzstan

Our awesome hiking team
Our awesome hiking team

Oh, how good the idea of a hike sounded on Friday.  This is why we were so excited so be in Kyrgyzstan right?  The mountains, the grazing horse and sheep, the fresh air and clean water…  I forgot all about that Sunday morning when the alarm went off way too early.  I was not expecting the hangover but this is a consequence of never having water on the dinner table while drinking vodka with your family.  I laid in bed and considered the options.  I wanted to hike but I felt bad.  And it would be hot, so hot.  And dusty, it’s always hot and dusty it seems….  But, this is why we came, so we got out of bed and rushed out the door without breakfast (or coffee) and ran to meet the group.

What a fun group we are!
What a fun group we are!
Wild horses?
Wild horses?

Continue reading “First Hike in Kyrgyzstan”

West Coast Road Trip – Day 14 – Canyonlands NP

3/26/14  Canyonlands

This is part of a 100 mile off-road loop in Canyonlands
This is part of a 100 mile off-road loop in Canyonlands

The next morning we ate a quick breakfast and drove an hour into Canyonlands National Park.  Canyonlands is divided into three sections.  Island in the Sky and the Needles districts are both easily accessible by car but a long drive from each other, while the Maze district is more remote and accessible by long hikes or off-roading.  We chose to go to the Island in the Sky for its accessibility from Moab and expansive views for sunsets.  When we reached the visitor center the weather seemed perfect for hiking – a bit cool, keeping the crowds away.  We drove to Mesa Arch, named for the great view of the mesa as you look through the arch, and attempted to get a photo of us sitting on it without a crowd around (we had to settle for stitching several photos together.)

Us sitting on top of Mesa Arch
Us sitting on top of Mesa Arch
The wind was so strong Taylor sat down during the hike
The wind was so strong Taylor sat down during the hike

Leaving the arch, we drove down to Green River Outlook while Eric played with a sunset app on his phone. We were trying to figure out the best spot to watch the sunset this evening.  The outlook was beautiful with views of the Maze and several canyons below.  We continued to the end of the road to the parking area for Upheaval Dome, one of the largest mysteries in the park.  During the 2-mile hike we learned about the various theories for how it came to be, while we battled increasingly windy weather.  The wind got so strong on the way back that Taylor had to sit down since nothing was around to brace herself.  We made it back to the car, ate, and headed to our next stop.

Canyonlands
Canyonlands
The expanse of Canyonlands NP
The expanse of Canyonlands NP

The downside of the Island in the Sky district is the lack of many long hiking trails, so we found another short trail to a great overlook named Murphy’s Point.  The trail was flat but 4 miles round trip so a little bit of a chance to stretch our legs.  The second we arrived back at the trailhead rain began to fall, perfect timing!  We drove to our last stop, Grand View Point Overlook, and when the rain let up we walked out to the viewpoint.  The view was the best we had seen in the park – with Needles in front of us, the Maze to our right, and the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers in the distance.  We decided this was the spot to watch the sunset, hoping that the stormy weather would provide for a spectacular show, but we still had a couple hours of daylight left.

No, Eric isn't about to jump to his doom, the wind was so strong in Canyonlands you had to lean into it to stay in place
No, Eric isn’t about to jump to his doom, the wind was so strong in Canyonlands you had to lean into it to stay in place

Having done most of what we could in this section of the park, we rested in the car for a bit as sunset got closer.  As the sun set we had the overlook to ourselves. It’s pretty awesome when you get to experience the parks in such solitude.  The sunset didn’t quite live up to our expectations, but it was still a nice finish to another great day.  We went back to town for our final night and got ready to head to Capitol Reef.

Eric found a perfect (and perfectly safe seat) in Canyonlands
Eric found a perfect (and perfectly safe seat) in Canyonlands

West Coast Road Trip – Days 7-10 – Hiking the Grand Canyon

3/18/14 to 3/21/14

Grand Canyon backpacking –

Morning arrived and it was finally time for the hike!  This was the part of the road trip we were most looking forward to.  Our itinerary:

  • Day 1: Down the South Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch – all the way down to the Colorado River – to the Bright Angel Campground for the night
  • Days 2 & 3: Shorter hike along the river, up to the lowest plateau to camp for two nights at Indian Garden Campground
  • Day 4: The toughest day, hiking back up to the rim

Day 1 – What Have We Gotten Ourselves Into?

DSCF4017We woke, packed our remaining items, and had breakfast at the hotel.  We were in a bit of a hurry since there were only three hiker express shuttles from the lodge to the trailhead – we had to be on one of them.  The first two weren’t happening (for us, at least) and making the third was going to be close by the time we were finished with breakfast.  Driving into the park we got lucky and found parking spots right by Bright Angel trailhead – this is where we’d be coming up in four days.  We caught the hiker express and thirty minutes later we were at the South Kaibab trailhead getting ready to head down.

DSCF4027The South Kaibab trail is 6.7 miles to the campground, dropping about 4,780’ along the way.  The trail is very uneven despite constant work from the trail building crews due to the constant mule traffic.  It also generally follows steep cliffs, so it can be a very unnerving first backpacking experience, especially if you have acrophobia.  The South Kaibab trail also lacks water, which can be an issue in summer, but temperatures were barely above freezing when we started, although it warmed up pretty quickly as we made our way down.  One interesting thing when hiking in the canyon is how much the temperature varies as you change elevation – it’s typically 20-30 degrees warmer at Phantom Ranch in the bottom as it is on the rim. Continue reading “West Coast Road Trip – Days 7-10 – Hiking the Grand Canyon”