When I told people we were heading to Kyrgyzstan for our holidays the questions were generally “Where?” and “Why?”. Having explained it was in Central Asia bordering China and the other “stans” and that it is famous as one of the most mountainous countries in the world people, particularly those who knew my penchant for mountains, trekking and unusual destinations generally got the picture, although many couldn’t resist asking “is it safe?”. Truthfully I hadn’t really considered this question much before I booked the trip but investigation showed that it hadn’t had a major riot for a year and was 144th out 183 countries on the income per head tables, comfortably ahead of both our last holiday destination (Madagascar 172nd) and my next (Nepal 161st). These comforting thoughts were however somewhat balanced by the fact that it was definitely less set up for western tourists than either Madagascar or Nepal and that I had to randomly select an agency off the internet to organise the trip, including the trekking equipment and crew. It was with some relief that we spotted the handheld “Mark Dickson” sign at the airport and meet with Eve, who introduced herself as our 23 year old interpreter and trek “cooker”.
Our trekking was to be 10 days in the Celestial mountains, with the starting point a 2 day drive east of the capital, Bishkek. Here we met Valerie our Russian speaking guide, grizzled, sun tanned and well into his 50s he looked like he had plenty of days in the mountain behind him. The plan as far as we could understand it was to drive to the pass at 3800m early morning, meet the horses and horsemen who would be transporting our gear mid morning, and then head off on trek. This sounded like a good plan and it even bore a passing resemblance to the itinerary we had agreed over email.
By midday there was no sign of the horses or horsemen so we put up the dining tent and had lunch. Those of you who have been trekking in other countries will picture a dining tent as a sturdy construction, often a single, but thick, walled tent with an internal frame and several strong anchors. This Russian made dining tent was thin plastic with a strange external frame and walls which didn’t reach the floor. I mentioned at the time it wouldn’t stand up to high winds, but luckily all was calm. After lunch Valerie disappeared to try and find the horses and the inevitable happened, the wind picked up and the rain started, the dining tent collapsed and Claire made herself useful as a human anchor by lying on top of it and all the gear it was protecting whilst I found the “client” tent which I hoped would be a proper tent and struggled to put it up in the gale force winds. At this point it became clear that our interpreter “cooker” knew little about camping, or putting up tents at least.
Unbelievably the horses turned up at 6.30 pm and our guide informed us, via the interpreter, that for some unexplained reason, the horsemen were late as they had walked rather than ride the horses. This didn’t seem to make much sense, or even adequately explain an 8 hour delay and why they didn’t seem to be worried that they were late but by this time we didn’t care much as we were well inside our tent as it had started to snow, to accompany the gale force winds.
We awoke early to clear skies eager to pack up and get going to make up for our lost day. The scenery and weather were fantastic and we settled into the trekking routine for a few days with the occasional knee deep river to cross, the Russian system for which was to all link arms and cross as a human chain.
After a few days we began to have concerns about our “cooker’s” catering. The traditional supper on a catered trek is soup, main meal and maybe some tinned fruit for desert. The traditional diet for a 23 year old girl in Kyrgyzstan seemed to be a little soup, no real food and lots and lots of chocolate. This 23 year old girl wasn’t going to let the fact she was on a trek ruin her diet. Every night we were treated to soup (containing microscopic pieces of meat or fish but significant quantities of cabbage) followed by a large bar of chocolate, accompanied by chocolate biscuits. I presumed the biscuits were main course and the chocolate dessert, but didn’t like to ask. Lunch was similarly balanced with one small sandwich accompanied by a large bag of nuts and dried fruit and 4 large “wagon wheel” style chocolate biscuits. Just when we thought things couldn’t get anymore bizarre we were served cornflakes with condensed milk and added jelly babies!
If we were concerned over Eve’s catering, we were equally concerned over Valerie’s activities. He had the disconcerting habit of stripping down to his Y fronts, red T-shirt and cowboy hat whilst walking so he looked like one of the village people in retirement. More practically he seemed to have forgotten we were walking and not skiing as he tended to avoid any paths that threatened to get us from where we were to where we were going, in an (unsuccessful) attempt to contour round every single hill without losing any height. On top of this whenever he spoke in English it was difficult to concentrate and take him seriously (even if he had his trousers on) as with his heavy Russian accent he sounded just like one of the meerkats from the comparethemarket.com adverts.
If Eve and Valerie had their own idiosyncrasies, this was nothing compared to their combined performance. Initially, we put some things down to the language. Russian is a harsh language and I am sure even “Merry Christmas” in Russian sounds like a death threat. We presumed therefore that their interchanges were nothing unusual and they laughed when we described them as like an old married couple (a thought that filled Eve with far more fear than Valerie).
Things weren’t helped by the fact that neither of them had thought to bring a watch or could be bothered to look at the time on their mobile phones. This made the daily briefings about the next day’s plan somewhat pointless (we had already departed significantly from the original itinerary by day 2), every leg was “2 hours” regardless of how long it would actually take and plans such as wake up at 7.30 pack and breakfast at 8.00 just meant cold breakfast when they had cooked it by 7.15 but not woken us up.
Everything came to a head on the penultimate day when yet again the deadly duo couldn’t manage to organise getting us, the gear and the horses on the same map reference (actually map references are theoretical as they didn’t bring a map). This according to Valerie (Valeries’s English mysteriously improved when he was complaining about Eve) was Eve’s fault and according to Eve was Valerie’s fault, although both laid part of the blame with the horsemen and both were keen to complain about the others to us. Inevitably the Russian became harsher and Eve managed to act as any tour leader experienced in managing the inevitable mishap would – she burst into tears, went off in a huff and stopped talking to Valerie. Presumably she also ate some chocolate. We felt like we were witnessing a playground squabble, not a trek crew in operation.
Still barely speaking the next morning they hatched a “foolproof” plan to ensure we were reunited with our gear at the final campsite. We would go with Valerie and Eve would go with the horsemen and both Valerie and Eve would have mobile phones to keep in contact. Unbelievably they couldn’t even get this right. After 12 hours of walking we were still “2 hours” from camp (which Eve had placed ridiculously too far down the valley, the phones obviously not having worked) but had hit a main road so we got in a taxi and very much enjoyed finding a restaurant serving meat kebabs without chocolate that evening.
The next morning we point blank refused to get involved in any discussion with Eve or Valerie about why it was the other one’s fault and asked for a suitable half day excursion. There was a nice walk to a waterfall, unsurprisingly “2 hours” there and “2 hours” back. Imagine our surprise when the route involved crawling under thorn bushes, a short belay and rock climb. Following a 12 hour day yesterday we were not happy that these elements of the route hadn’t been mentioned, particularly as Claire hadn’t exactly demonstrated any rock climbing prowess in the previous 9 days. We made our displeasure known and when the transport got back to town Valerie left without a word and Eve blissfully stayed out of our way for the rest of the trip allowing us to track down more meat and beer on the drive back to the capital.
Despite all the above we had a great time in Kyrgyzstan, the Celestial Mountains are well named as the scenery is excellent and whilst the problems above make funnier reading than descriptions of idyllic campsites and stunning scenery, they are part and parcel of visiting a place so remote that we didn’t see a single other tourist during our 10 day trek. So I would definitely recommend Kyrgyzstan, just with a different crew!