In the morning the flock reappeared herded by the man on the mule and his dogs. They cropped on the move. Satisfied that they had reached the pasture he wanted for his sheep, he and Domas walked over to each other and the two of them sat cross-legged on the grass, occasionally pointing to this or that part of the mule, still seeming to be discussing its finer points or shortcomings.
The climb up to Kashka-Suu, although again nearly 12,000 feet, was easier than that to Chiim-Tash as enough vegetation grew to anchor the scree and there were no jagged rocks. The pass was wider at the top. The horses nibbled lichen and herbs. A couple of lammergeier, using their spade-shaped tails as rudders, circled rather uncomfortably close to us. Although we knew they were bone, not flesh, eaters I felt they were eyeing us up as they angled their heads and fixed their beady eyes. They extract the bone marrow either by crunching the the bones or dropping them to smash on rocks, sometimes from 500 feet. Had any of us had been short of hair we might have tempted fate, perhaps that was the reason Marat had placed his kalpak on his shaved head although I think he was celebrating being Kyrgyz in this, his Kyrgyz country. We were on top of the world and the views were again, stunning.
We lazed in the sun and absorbed it all. Marat pointed out a turquoise lozenge about 5,000 feet below in the gorge to our east. It was the Kara-Kamysh mountain lake, besides which we were to make our next camp.
Despite looking a comparatively benign descent Domas told us to lead the horses. We traversed across alternating wild flower meadows and scree where landslides had swept the vegetation away. On either side were sheer drops. It was not somewhere to let concentration wander or to stop to take photographs. The pungent smell of sheep told us that we were approaching a night refuge and sure enough, perched in the lee of a rock outcrop at the end of a mountain finger, with knee-trembling drops on either side, plastic sheeting had been loosely draped over a few poles to make a tent in the middle of the now familiar area of black dung. It was deserted. Shepherd, dogs and flock had gone up the mountain for the day.
The path zig-zagged away from it and enjoying the fresh air we dropped down into a high marshy valley, from which we rode beside unseen gurgling waters that only became visible through the reeds as with gathered volume they turned into a stream. A donkey eee-awed a warning and some children stopped playing among far boulders to watch us as we picked our way beyond their summer camp. As we went further into the valley it became the Kara Suu Gorge. It was littered with boulders and limbs of trees with very few tufts of anything growing. A wide fast flowing river snaked between the debris and where the rock allowed conifers, not dislodged by landslides, clung to the sides.
We stopped for the guys to talk to a family who were living in a small log cabin protected from wandering animals by a rickety fence. Within the stockade were dozens of beehives. A little boy, so short he could barely reach on tip-toe, pushed an even tinier girl in a makeshift hammock, used as a swing. We had passed many families, while riding in Kyrgyzstan, where subsistence was the name of the game, but here there was a palpable air of dejection. It turned out that the electric storm that had circled us while we camped at Two Lakes, had wreaked havoc on them. Flash floods had rampaged down the gorge and swept away dozens of hives, thousands of bees and a year’s supply of honey. It was a major blow not only for the immediate harvest but it would take years to replace the bees. Honey is a significant crop in Kyrgyzstan. Until the Soviet collapse in 1991 the national output was 12,500 tons. Now, even without the Russian market and marketing skills, it is near 2,000 tons. This gorge was full of honey farmers and honey provided 60% of their income.
The guidebooks have it that this is a gold prospecting area. The log huts could well have been prospectors’ but we saw no panning or evidence of anyone having found anything to augment their modest agricultural income. We rode down the gorge, fording the river as the sheer-sided cliffs dictated. Wherever there was a bit of flat land between the cliffs and the river, a timber cabin surrounded by beehives, had been squeezed in behind a fence, but they were never more than a foot above the river level. Everywhere there was evidence of the damage the storm had done. Tree trunks and limbs had been strewn randomly like Pick Up Sticks by the torrents. It was a miracle that more hives hadn’t been washed away. The severity of the storm must have been extremely unusual or the farmers would never have sited their cabins where they had.
Gradually the gorge widened to about quarter of a mile and we started following a cart track that meandered away from the river across flat green pasture dotted with gnarled poplar willow. At the end of it we could see the still, turquoise waters of Kara-Kamysh Lake. The track we had been following rose up into the northern cliff edge where it had been carved by industrial means to enable vehicle access and egress from the gorge. There was no path at all on the south side. The rock was so vertiginous and barren it was difficult to imagine any animals living there and we did not even hear bird song. Landslides had left gashes of white powdery scree that were mirrored in detail in the glassy waters of the lake.
We pitched our tents feet from its edge on the spongy grass shelf a few inches above the water. When we gingerly paddled in we sank up to our calves moving clouds of silt. It was hardly the clear water we had envisaged in which to wash but if one was careful one could scoop up enough to clean teeth and wash faces. Aquatic life sent up bubbles from the silt in protest at the disturbance. Marat, Illyaz and Jonny went off discreet distances and loud splashing accompanied their efforts to keep warm as they swam away the travellers’ grime.
Just as we felt duty calling us to alleviate the weight of vodka, Jumas and Illyaz appeared from the base of a cliff carrying wood. Some years previously there had been a massive landslide and a higgledy stack of dead trees, enormous trunks, broken branches and smashed twigs afforded an unlimited supply of firewood of every circumference and length. The guys had taken two long limbs and crossed them with shorter ones, then longer, then shorter and so on until they had a pyramid on a stretcher carried between them. They dragged some dead trunks round the fire for us to sit on as an alternative to the boggy turf. As the light died and the flames took hold we did our best to the packweight and Shuhrat’s delicious supper. That night we slept to the sound of water flowing into the lake and I dreamed that floods were washing us away.