At about this point I have a profound thought: ‘Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.’
Glancing at Zim, intimately trussed up next to me in the back seat of what could best be described as the Russian version of a Unimog, I can tell he’s thinking roughly the same thing. Zim’s normally a pretty laid back dude, but right now his eyes are wide, and eyebrows doing the ‘aw ma gawd’ Golden Gate Bridge routine.
I can’t see Yewjin’s face. He’s packed in next to Toktosh, our cook, Turat, the young interpreter, and one of the horsemen – all in the backseat.
It was an hour ago that we left the Kyrgyzstan Army Headquarters, just outside of Voruch. After a serious half hour with the head honcho, it looked like things were about to grind to a halt. Three days driving the length of Kyrgyzstan, and one broken vehicle later (the bottom literally fell off – perhaps the driveshaft but I’m not mechanically inclined), it all came down to one rubber stamp moment. We had the appropriate official-looking paperwork (all in Cryllic, so it could have been a shopping list for all I knew), but was it going to be enough to get us where we wanted to go? The head honcho frowned. Turat shook his head and said everything was going to be all right.
Eventually, after a round of solemn handshakes, and thankfully without any more money changing hands, it was. The locals all lit up cigarettes. Zim got told off for trying to take a photo of the military compound. And then we piled back into our version of a sardine impersonation.
Our driver seemed cruisy enough, but the armed escort who rode shotgun was clearly a man of action. Resembling Vin Diesel, if you squinted your eyes, he locked and loaded his AK47, checked his numerous fatigues pockets for extra magazine clips in case the shit really hit the fan, and motioned our mini-convoy onwards.
Zim and I keep leaning back so the barrel of Vin’s automatic isn’t pointed in our direction. It seems like the situation is about to deteriorate. Our driver has just clipped a local on his motorbike. A large crowd gathers, waving their arms, shouting and looking riotous. Vin holds his rifle at the ready, and appears quite prepared to shoot someone - anyone. Clearly this is his usual form of negotiation. With a hand motion he instructs us to keep our heads down. Voruch is not how I remember it.
The settlement we have stalled in is a small Tazikistan village, with mud houses and narrow streets, completely encircled within Kyrgyzstan. Just one of the mind-boggling borders set by the Soviet Union back when they still flexed Communistic muscle over the ‘Stans’, it causes no end of strife for all those involved. According to Toktosh, who lives nearby, everyone outside of Voruch thinks it is full of bad people. Those within the town boundaries are constantly harassed each time they need to cross a border back to the ‘mainland’. I first visited here 12 years ago, and it didn’t seem anywhere near as tense as this time. But then, we are riding in the ‘enemy’s’ vehicle, and someone is waving a weapon in their direction.
We need to pass through here if we are to reach the Karavshin, and our own valley of choice – Jipdick. Since my last visit, foreign expeditions have experienced rough times here, including kidnappings and cross-border gun fights. Recently, the Kyrgyzstan Army stepped things up a notch, and now tend to shoot first if there’s conflict. And with good reason: Islamic terrorists occasionally attempt ‘smash-and-grab’ raids from across the mountains. It seems though, over the last couple of years at least, the local military has managed to force the rebels back into the remote valleys of northern Tazikistan.
I watch the arm waving going on outside my window. So does Vin, with added interest and no doubt an itchy trigger finger. Zim has fallen asleep and starts snoring – a sneaky way of dealing with the stress. Yewj wants to take photos, but figures now is probably not a good time. Eventually, the motorcyclist shoves his bike to one side in a final gesture of defiance, and we continue stalking through the streets of Voruch. But our driver decides on taking back alleys to avoid the large crowd now blocking the main street. A quiet glass of Riesling wouldn’t go amiss right now.
The weather’s gone to custard. Sleet has progressed to snow, and is doing the horizontal routine. Thunder and lightning wave their personal battle flags above and below. Zim’s a ways ahead of me up a cloud-engulfed spur, with the tent. Things are a tad icky. Being as he’s got the shelter, if I don’t find him soon I might have to think about turning around and trying to sniff out a bivvy rock. So much for summer.
We’ve been following animal tracks for the past hour, lots of little ones and then one set of prints the size of a small cow. Must be some mountain goat to have hoofs that size, I think to myself. And then I see him – an Ibex (I think) – about 300 metres away silhouetted on a ridge above, standing in full profile with huge curving horns. He’s an amazing creature and, even from this distance, I can judge that his bulk is big enough to make me decidedly nervous. Maybe I can’t find Zim because this creature’s already dealt to him?
Trying to estimate size, I figure he’s about shoulder height, not including his horns, rangy and muscular. He skips up the ridge a few metres. If only I could move like that in the mountains. And then he bounds off into the gloom, literally looking like a four-legged superhero. Maybe he’s got a spaceship on the other side of the spur.
I find Zim, and he’s got the tent up. Good man! I shake off as much snow as possible and dive inside out of the weather. All thoughts of continuing with our attempt of the stunning unclimbed peak we had spied earlier are gone. This much snow will make every slope a death trap. Just snuggle up for the evening and hope that we can get out of here tomorrow.
The rain is doing its pitter-patter thing on the tent again. I think it’s around 9am but can’t be bothered checking my watch.
Turat is standing in the drizzle, hacking half-heartedly at lengths of wood for the fire. Toktosh kneads wads of dough for some more of his yummy bread. Yewj is taking sips of whiskey and studying a textbook on anatomy trains. Zim absently rubs tiger balm on his belly, hoping to encourage some, or any, bowel movement. For breakfast he tried a tea made from plants Toktosh gathered on the slopes above camp. Apparently it cures most things, possibly even cancer and impotency. It smells like celery.
The expedition is winding down amidst false weather promises, spurts of bouldering intensity on the limestone between showers, and general unwashed apathy.
After a fine day yesterday, we were up early this morning hoping to at least pretend to climb something, but instead greeted with low cloud, a gusty northerly and showers. Now, three hours later, it’s bluebird clear. No doubt it will be sleeting by lunchtime.
Toktosh has asked me to wander up valley with him this afternoon to the Tazik shepherds’ hut, possibly for another meal of meat and meat with the locals: Past the peaks we have tried to climb, the mountain Zim and Yewj forged a great new line on (while I stomped grumpily around camp with a tweaked back), and the summits I’d stood on more than a decade earlier.
For now I keep my eyes peeled for earwigs. I’m sure they’re plotting their next attack. A month after I’m home I reckon I’ll still be tipping them out of drybags and gloves. Each morning they hide under the lip of the tent door, so that when I unzip it they can drop inside and run amok.
Zim’s finished War and Peace and is now chewing through Kerouac’s On The Road. I’ve read McCarthy’s The Road four times (a fantastic read) and looking for any excuse not to do anything. We’re out of real coffee, soon to be out of whiskey, and missing our loved ones at home.
Aah the joys of expeditions. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Try to stay healthy. Manage the weather, and hopefully manage to squeeze some climbs in along the way.
The horsemen are due tomorrow, and then we can walk back to civilisation – to hot showers, espresso, a bed that doesn’t seem alive with its own smell, noisy traffic, expectations, commitments…
Jipdick Valley, near Karavshin, Kyrgyzstan, July-August 2008.
Team members: Graham Zimmerman, Yewjin Tan, Paul Hersey.
First ascent (Zimmerman and Tan) Kyzyl Muz North Face, 1500m, 18, AI 4, M4, three days.
Four other unsuccessful attempts (including one solo) on peaks in the Jipdick Valley.
One new rock route (Hersey and Zimmerman), and heaps of boulder problems.
Thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation and the New Zealand Alpine Club for their support.