We woke to blue skies and the reality that we were to negotiate the pass above us. None of the skyline looked passable.
The strategy was to camp as high as possible in order to have the whole day of light ahead to allow for problems but where there was grazing and water for the horses. This was the first of four passes we were to cross. Chiim Tash at 11,811 feet would be one of the highest. We were going straight in at the deep, or more accurately, high end. Before supper I had walked up part of the track above the eastern end of the lake with my camera in one hand, my other holding any firm looking rock that I could find to anchor myself on the scree. I am naturally sure-footed and well balanced but it had been difficult for me. I’d slipped frequently and the waters increasingly far below had looked chillingly uninviting. It would be a big ask for horses, especially those with the packs, but Domas confirmed at breakfast that this was our route.
Camp struck and all loaded up Sue, Nicola and I were told to ride with one of the guys between us. It was comforting to know that we would be under their watchful eyes but quite what they could have done if any of our horses had slipped was difficult to figure. Domas led the way with a packhorse. They all found it hard work. Dislodged rocks from those in front bounced down past those behind and out of sight. Soon we were too high to hear them splash into the lake. We snaked higher and higher. More of the valley we had ridden during the past two days came into view but so did more mountain yet to be climbed. We crossed drifted, crusty-topped snow; scree cols, and fields of sharp rock. Sometimes a stallion on a turn would lose a rear foothold and pause to stabilise, but never did any stumble.
Eventually rock incisors appeared above us cutting into the sky. Domas told us to dismount for the final push. With toes wedged and fingers gripping we climbed on all fours for a short, almost vertical climb through two teeth of rock. The horses scrambled up behind us. Then we were on the top, able to see the next valley and rows of mountains disappearing into the hazy distance. We loosed the horses. Standing motionless on the rock with flanks still heaving they were too pleased to rest to worry that there was not even lichen for them to nibble.
A shout shattered the peace. A packhorse had become wedged between the teeth. Before the final climb Domas had checked and readjusted the packs but despite his attention there was not room for both horse and packs. Struggling, its front feet slipped underneath it and it went down on its knees. Marat and Shuhrat hung onto its head from above and with Marat’s feet braced against rock they managed to hold it steady while Illyaz climbed gingerly round another tooth and cut the packs free. When Marat let go of the rope it fell backwards. Packs and luggage fell until snagged. Somehow the stallion managed to regain its feet without falling out of sight and stood panting, with a resigned look on its face, as if waiting for Plan B. Illyaz suggested steeper but more widely spaced teeth and gently persuaded it up and through. Domas, Jonny, and Marat climbed down and struggled back with the packs. Other than a few superficial nicks on its front fetlocks the horse was none the worse for wear.
All were lucky. It had been tense and men and beasts enjoyed relaxing in the hot sun for a while. We fell silent in awe at the 360 degree view. The nomads once worshiped Tengri – the Sky Father and Eje the Earth Mother. This surely was where they met.
On the south side of the pass no snow remained and a few hundred feet down vegetation began to grow, the roots fixing any earth making for less treacherous going. Soon we were ambling through rough pasture beside another stream towards a wide valley – the Kara Kulja. On a knoll a few hundred feet above a confluence we stopped for lunch. Relieved of their packs and us the horses slept. The stroppy stallion, despite being tied nose to tail, lay down again. We loosened bootlaces and stretched out on our backs with combined feelings of relief and achievement. Thereafter we would ask Marat whether an upcoming pass would be as tricky to cross as Chiim Tash had been. None were.
Beside the river flowing below us another muddy circle with a rudimentary yurt beside it, indicated a night corral for sheep. A couple of donkeys grazed the banks. On the far hillside a third donkey was being ridden around a scattered flock. Three young men wearing baseball caps, pushed to the back of their heads, faded track-suits and rubber boots, walked up towards us. Two had homemade-looking rifles slung over their shoulders. A big woolly sheepdog with clipped ears trotted beside them. A wolf would have met its match.
It was becoming clear that Domas not only knew every path and rock but was also known by every person in the mountains. We learned later that he had started poaching as a teenager 40 years previously and was a local legend. Unfortunately for him he had been caught red-handed with a dead bear. Faced with a fine that would have taken more than a lifetime to pay off he had been persuaded to ‘turn keeper’. After the usual greetings he asked what they were doing with rifles and was told they carried them in case they met a wolf. That box ticked fairly unconvincingly and with the rifles lent against the packs, they shared lunch and gossip. The dog lay nearby. Its eyes skimmed the valley continuously.
The topography was totally different to that in the Urmaral valley and the ride up to the next pass was along a cart track through gently rising grassland not unlike some of the wilder bits of the Salisbury Plain. Herds of horses and flocks of sheep grazed peacefully. Every now and again a steel post, 8 or 9 feet tall, enough to project through drifted winter snow, marked the boundary between the Talas and Jalal-Abad oblasttar.
We stopped below the pass in a dip near the source of the Kara Kulja. Many rivulets drained from surrounding peaks. Having pitched our tents we managed to find a little dip in a stream where we could scoop enough water to wash our hair. Out of the wind in the late afternoon sunshine it dried quickly. I felt good, enjoyed mugs of tea, sorted my tent, and wandered off with my camera to make the most of a sunny evening and the infinite views. Across the valley a large herd of horses was grazing in a perfect circle of green grass. Even seen from a distance the sward was obviously different from the rest of the hillside. The encircling mounds looked like the remains of ramparts. It would have been a perfect site for a defended encampment with its back to the sheer peaks, unlimited water and all encompassing views.
Just below the pass was a corrugated iron hut in the middle of another blackened corral. A dozen donkeys of every age grazed nearby. One was tethered to the stockade fence, saddled and ready to ‘go’. When we had returned from our various amblings, we sat by Shuhrat’s cooking tent and set about helping to reduce the pack weight of vodka while watching the sun dip down beyond the valley up which we had ridden. The feeling of wellbeing was enhanced in the knowledge that nothing much had been damaged in the packhorse’s fall. A plastic carton had been cracked and a bottle of shower gel squeezed but not even an egg had broken. Shuhrat beamed.
A boy rode the donkey to us from the muddy corral. He wore pink slippers – presumably hand-me-downs from a sister and a faux leather bomber-jacket. He spent some time with us delighted with the unexpected company. Then as the hills turned orange we watched him round up a herd of cows and their large, grouchy bull that we had chased earlier from our camp in a foolhardy way. He clasped the reins and some crisps we had given him in one hand and thwacked the donkey absent-mindedly with his kamcha in the other. The donkey took no notice and took his own route over the tussocks as they drove the cattle back up to the stockade. The boy was living alone, in charge of the family herds, high in the jailoo.