Monday, November 4, 2013

I went to Son-Kol and lived

"Son-Kol is a lake is closed," said miss liu from the Chinese agency, "all roads are covered by snow."
I hitchhike a truck from Balychy to the south for the first time, direction of Naryn. There is not much traffic on the road although it is the main road to the south-east. It also goes high into the mountains pretty fast. My drivers tell me that there is nobody going to Son-Kol anymore but they can get me to a village called Bashugandu on the main road, north-east of the lake. There is a path from there that leads to the mining base of Kara-Keche south-east of the lake. There should be some people there, and if I am lucky, I can catch a truck going to get coal. From Kara-Keche it is 40 more kilometers to the lake, south-east side. That is 40 kilometers that I will have to go on foot because according to them, there is no one at the lake and therefore no cars going there.
In Bashugandu I get worried looks from villagers.
"Dont go there on foot," they say, "wild wolves are running all over the place, you'll get killed. Come sleep at our place you'll be comfortable and worm instead"
Village boy on a horse
A car is going to the mining base, it wants to take me but the driver gets into some family problems with his wife and and they decide not to go. So I go by foot very fast passing the villagers who all try to stop me, always talking about the wolves. So far, I didn't see a single one. I get picked up by a mining truck on the way, as advertised and we ride into the night.
I arrive in a little settlement about 5 kilometers from the mining base. It is freezing cold already and completly dark. There are no houses, just a few trailers. It looks scary. A women comes out of one of the trailers, she lookes surprised to see me.
"What are you doing there"
"Going to the mining base, I'll sleep there I think"
"In a tent?"
"You're not afraid of the wolves?"
"Are they afraid of me?"
The woman seems genuinly worried and it is the first one that I believe.
"They are wolves on the road at night. It's no joke."
She lets me into one of the empty trailers, there is a heater there. In the freezing cold I really need that heater. It is operating at full power and it only manages to create a normal temperature in it's close proximity. The isolation of the trailer is bad but still many times better than my tent would be. I was lucky this woman was there with her wagon and heater. My head hurts, I don't know why and then I realize that I have not drunk anything for the whole day. I also don't have a lot of food. Just one bag of buns, a symbolic quantity of some vegetarian sauce and buiscuits Nata left me and some nuts from Kairad. It's not so bad for one person actually but food tends to dissapear pretty fast in the mountains.
The next day I start at 7AM, the night is dark, no light whatsoever. The feeble sun must be clouded by the giant mountains surrounding my path from both sides. My goal of the morning is to get some food and water at the mining base. I am greeted by Kyrgyz workers with black hands and I can see coal everywhere. The mining base is an accumulation of trailers like the one I slept in with a house at the center. I am invited to the canteen by the chief of the base who is also the local chief of police with about the same grade as the asshole who tried to deport me at the Kazakh border.
The mining base
This one has more of a sense of humour. First he tells me that I am a spy because I know russian too much, then he tells me that there are still people living at Son-Kul lake but wolves will kill me before I get there. It is still 40 kilometers to go. I drink tea with the workers, eat bread, buiscuits and some kind of rice porrifge. They give me a big bottle of bozo, a Kyrgyz traditional drink made from wheat for the road. It is drink and food at the same time, perfect for the mountains.
I don't walk 5 kilometers before a black jeep stops. The chief of the mining base is in there, he tells me to get in:
"We can't let you go alone, it is way too dangerous. Allah spoke to me, he told me to help you."
That is how with the will of Allah I make it to Son-Kul lake in a badass jeep with the chief of police lecturing me about religion.
I make it to Son-Kul lake with probably the best car in the region, it even has an altimeter, we pass 3000.
The chief of police is one of the very religious people. Usually it is ok to be christian as long as you believe in god, nobody will bother you. But some people, like him, really take it as their mission to convert me to the right faith. I tell him that my girlfriend is Kyrgyz and more muslim than Allah himself and he is relieved, she just might do the conversion for him.
At Son-Kul, he drops me in front of a Yurt where I meet the first non-russian speaking Kyrgyz. A woman lives there while her husband is fishing. She invites me in to eat fish. They didn't catch a lot of fish this season but she doesn't mind and it really is very good. We try to communicate with mimics I have been used to understand and be understood easily in russian for the last weeks.
She prepares bread in her yurt
After having a good meal, I decide to explore the lake. It is not Ala-Keul but still, the lake is very beautiful, it is a giant lake as high as 3000 meters of altitude. From time to time they are yurts, each of them about two kilometers apart. The lake is starting to freeze but the ice is usually not thick enough to step on. Outside it is cold, people say that temperatures go to -20 or -25°C.
View of Son-Kul lake

I walk on the south side of the lake for the whole afternoon. The lake is bigger than I thought and I barely make it back to the yurt where I left my things before nightfall. It is a long way back but I can't stop to rest because I really don't want to witness the -20 without any warm clothes.
Along the shore
I talk to the fishermen in the Yurts a little bit, they are a bit surprised to see a tourist. But nobody seems to be going back. I start wondering how I am going to descend these 45 kilometers of mountain path from the lake to first civilisation but it is still too early to worry. Plus, the woman told me something like there will be some friends going back down tomorrow.
When I get back to the yurt, it is freezing cold. I can't even put my hands out of my pockets. Nobody has given me gloves yet and I am starting to really need them. But I am convinced it will happen.
When I get to the yurt with my things in there, a car is allready being packed with pretty much everything.
"Do you mind if I put my tent next to your Yurt?"
"You call this a tent?, " says the fisherman, "you are going to sleep in our friend's Yurt, it is better"
With the horrible cold that I feel I don't really want to argue.
The owners of the Yurt are going away, the car is being loaded and overloaded
"You know what," says the fisherman, "just take the key of our Yurt and sleep there."
I am realising that this car is maybe the only transport that will go to the village for a long time but at the same time isn't it great to have my own Yurt. I say no to the car and yes to the Yurt. The car leaves and darkness and cold overwhelm me.
It is cold, really cold, what would I do without my Yurt? I am starting to realize that what I just did was just a little bit reckless and the fact that I am going through everything with a relative comfort is just very necessary luck. I am glad I made it so far but I keep in my mind to try to be a little less stupid next time.
My shoes are wet, my pants are wet, everything is freezing to ice, I can't feel my fingers if I leave them out too long. And the sun didn't even come down completly. I need to make a fire, I need to heat up that furnace before everything freezes.
Nothing burns. It is too cold and some of the wood is wet. There is coal, I don't even know how that burns and "kyrgyz coal" which is a variant of compressed cow poo and it is about the best fire fuel you can get. There is a oil lamp in the corner of the Yurt, I pour the oil on the pile of wood. Thanks god it burns. I find more chunks of wood and after a while I even put some coal in. I don't know what the fuss is about all people buying coal, that thing doesn't burn or very badly. I fuel my furnace with cow shit, that's more Kyrgyz style anyway.
Me operating a Yurt
After a while, I even manage to make tea and it is really needed. There is a lot of food in that Yurt. Mostly there are maccaroni and potatoes but I manage to find a bottle of home made jam which is really tasty. I drink my tea and eat buns with jam. I am the happiest person in the world. I hear some yapping, I thought is was dogs but then it tries to get into my Yurt, to dig through the wall, to dig under. A little paranoia overwhelms me and I barricade the door with a table. Then, I go to sleep.
The combination of my sleeping bag together with the furnace allow me to have a comfortable night.
This is my Yurt!
I realize that it is a full skill to know how to operate a Yurt. You have to handle the furnase, the cooking, the lighting, air flow, it's not that easy.
I create myself a comfortable nest with enough tea to last a month, a lantern and a drying system for my shoes and clothes. Since I am staying here a while I establish communication so my parents and Janela don't worry too much. I attach my secundary GPS beacon to the Yurt from the outside, so it has a clear view at the sky. The device is connected by bluetooth to my computer inside the yurt and I can send messages by satellite from my comfortable bed.
The black device is a satellite transmitter, it is connected by bluetooth to my tablet, inside
The next morning I want to visit my Yurt neighbours 2 kilometers away but I am greeted by two errant dogs who I mistake for wolves. So many people are scaring me with wolves that I start seeing them everywhere. Maybe it is the same case with the people who tell me to be careful because of the wolves, maybe they are also imagining them because other people told them.
My mission for today is to find myself a car to get down. there are several ways out of Son-Kul. One west, back to Kara-Keche, the coal mine, 45 kilometers. One south to the main road to Naryn, 45 kilometers. Two west, 70 kilometers to the main road to Balychy. Nobody is going down either of the road, there should be a car going in a week. The rule is simple. If there is fish, there is a car downhill, if there is no fish, there is no car. And this week there is no fish.
Fishing boat on Son-Kol
I am not ready to wait a week, I decide to go by foot. The firshermen have different opinions about wolves, distance and feasability because they are all going by cars and nobody has a clue about how it feels to walk the way. They advise me to take the south road, 50 kilometers to the main Naryn-Osh road. If there is a car going from Son-Kul, it will go that road.
"It is a two-day walk," says the fisherman, "and it is dangerous to camp anywhere because of the wolves."
Message recieved, no walking at night. I have to make it in a day. My plan is to wake up early in the morning, and start at 6AM. It will be dark but the first 10 kilometers will be above 3000, there should not be any wolves there, nothing to eat. After I cover my first 10 kilometers there will be light. The most wolf-infested area should be after I descend the high mountain range to about 2500-2300 meters, about 80% of my journey. I need a weapon.
I look in the Yurt some clothes, I find a sock. I soak in in oil and put a plastic bag and paper around it for quick inflamation. I take some matches and I have myself enough fire to scare the wolves for five minutes, about the time the oil burns and I find a tree to climb on and a flying saucer to save me.
My weapon of mass destruction
At 6AM I have my breakfest and I start walking. It is dark but the sun is slowly coming up. I am on the top of a mountain range, day comes quicker than in the valley. It is freezing, it must really be -20. I have a centimeter square of skin exposed the wind and I feel it's nakedness.
I have almost everything on me. My two sweaters, my coat, Igor's cap and a piece of table-cloth that I got in Kadzhi-say as a scarf. Besides my fingers freezing I feel confortable. I could put my second pair of pants over my first but no need.
The path is white with snow and beautiful. It goes over a saddle at 3400 meters where I get my first telephone signal. I have a series of supportive and worried messages from Janela who probably didn't manage to read my GPS beacon.
I am leaving my Yurt behind
I lose my GPS signal pretty quick when I get downhill. There is a million turns, I just cut straight through the terrain nearly twisting an ancle and killing my tablet. I get to a road at 2300 meters, theoretically entering the wolf zone, it is nice and quiet there. The path is better, it is a road actually, I can walk faster. I am on schedule, I should meet civilisation at 5PM if I keep my current rate. Except my feet hurt, I am tired of walking between the mountains across the endless plains. But civilisation is starting to appear; by civilisation I mean abandonned ruins from the soviet era but enough to find an enclosed space to hide from wolves and not freeze to death. There is even one house that seems inhabited, I pass it quickly, just marking it on the map as a safe spot to return to.
First inhabited farm
Ten kilometers from this place I see another house, I am starting to feel saved. About five kilometers before I reach the main road I hear a roar on the road and dust in the air. Miracle, that's a car! It is a jeep coming from Bishkek to Naryn through Son-Kul. It went up by the eastern road and down the south road. And they take me all the way to Naryn with a lunch stop.
Naryn, civilisation at last.