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[TR] Kyrgyzstan - Karavshin Valley - Pamir Alai Mts - Everything is Normal (FA), etc 7/21/2004

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Trip: Kyrgyzstan - Karavshin Valley - Pamir Alai Mts - Everything is Normal (FA), etc


Date: 7/21/2004


Trip Report:

Forward (or forewarning): This is a trip report I wrote from a 2004 expedition to Kyrgyzstan I went on with a couple of folks I met on rockclimbing.com. It's kind of long, but maybe you'll find it entertaining. It's never been published online before. Sorry for the poor pictures too, I only had a film camera then. I'd love to back someday if anyone is interested.


We join the action after I've flown into Germany and spent 10 days making my way by land to Turkey, flying to Bishkek and meeting Ken and Chris. We spent a few days in Osh scouring the market for our food, fuel, etc.




Nineteen Days in the Valley . . . or . . . Me and my

Kalashnikov - a beginner’s tutorial

Stewart Matthiesen – 8/3/2004



The morning of our departure arrived and we crawled out of bed. I blew the snot from my nose and took some Imodium in the hopes our trip would not be too bouncy. We carried all our bags of climbing equipment, camping equipment, and food down to the hotel lobby and out onto the street.


At 6AM our truck showed up, a big Kamaz semi truck with an enclosed back end with seats and little windows. We piled the gear in on top of the gear our guides were bringing. After taking note of the cases of coca cola, beer, and vodka they had packed, along with the plastic lawn chairs, we didn't feel so bad about all our baggage.


After four hours of bouncy dirt and partly paved road we stopped for a snack and a bathroom break, and then continued a few more hours into Batken where we were supposed to pick up our border travel permits and meet with the border police. We parked the truck near a park in the center of the tiny town of Batken and our guides went off to get permits. We waited. I had to go to the bathroom after a while so I set off in search and after about 15 minutes found an enclosed hole in the ground known as the public toilet. On the way back a man came up and hugged me and followed me back to the truck. I wasn't able to make out much of his slurred speech except the phrase "everything is normal" repeated several times. He bought us ice cream while we waited. He bought us ice cream four times cause we waited there four hours, sitting in the park.


Eventually our guides came back and said they had finally gotten our permits. They apologized to us for taking so long and we said goodbye to the ice cream man and got back in the truck. It was now around 5 PM. We drove for about 5 minutes and stopped next to a graveyard. This was the border police office; apparently we had only just obtained our trekking permits. The border police were quite friendly as they interviewed us one by one in a little room. We passed scrutiny after less than a half hour

there and were on our way with an invitation to return for tea on the way home.


We started driving again and around 9 PM came to a military outpost with a gate. We were supposed to meet a military truck there that would carry us the rest of the way to the road end. Being late after dealing with the permits, the truck had already left. We were told to wait and maybe it would come back, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. We must wait. Everything is normal. We shared some watermelon, bread, and tomatoes with our guides and drivers in lieu of dinner. Pulling the truck off the side of the road we spread our sleeping bags on the ground and crashed out for the night.


About 7:30 AM we woke up and had a couple power bars for breakfast. And then walked over to the military base again. This time they let us in and our guides talked to the local commander, who called our tour coordinator in Osh, and then finally sent us away. Ten minutes later a big canopy truck came out with a platoon of soldiers. They unloaded our truck and put all our things into their truck then told us to get in the back. We waved goodbye to our truck and driver and then drove into Tajikistan. Oh, right, Tajikistan. That's why we had the military escort, so we could go through the inholding of Tajikistan that blocks the main (although still mostly dirt) road through southern Kyrgyzstan. After passing though Vorukh, Tajikistan we started up into the mountains.




Sitting in back with us was one soldier; apparently to make sure we stayed in the vehicle and behaved. Ken traded hats with him, and he joined into the music with one half of Kens headphones. This didn't last long though cause he kept falling asleep and pulling the headphone from his ear as he nodded forwards. Our guides (Artur and Valera) kept shouting at him to wake up. We hit the really bumpy roads and every time he nodded off we had to grab at him so he wouldn't fall out of the back of the truck. Later we learned he was the base doctor.


The road we traveled was more of a jeep track. Luckily we were in a six wheeled truck and at least four of our wheels remained on the road at one time. A few hours more and we stopped where the road was blocked by another military truck. We were at the beginning of a trail and we could see a scary wooden log bridge crossing the river up ahead. The troops were unloading all our equipment onto the side of the road. Unsure what else to do we wandered for a few minutes down the trail, and shakily crossed the bridge. We walked a few minutes more and realized slightly too late that we were walking into another military base made out of stick and mud huts and trenches dug into the ground. Having been noticed, and also having had a few soldiers follow us from behind, we continued up to the base where we were introduced to the commander (a man about my age, wearing an untucked camo t-shirt. He took us into a little room in one of the huts and sat us down and I did my best to translate for the other two. He kindly reminded us of the kidnapping incidents of 2000 in the valley and told us that nothing had happened there since. We learned that there had been several other expeditions through there the previous two years and that there had been no problems. We were the first tourists to come that year, but they expected more groups soon. He showed us a nice place to camp and told us that he would have his donkeys move our equipment across the river to the camp site. Only then did we finally realize that we actually were at "the end of the road". We were then invited to a "Soldier's Dinner" later and he left. We went back to the truck and our gear to watch an extraordinarily overloaded donkey nearly fall into the river off the bridge. We all grabbed loads ourselves to help prevent this and thus moved everything to camp.


Our "Soldier's Dinner" ended up being postponed and moved to our own camp and the commander came with some fresh bread and fresh butter, and some cans of meat. We provided a bottle of vodka for the requisite toasts. After a while Artur, one of our guides, pulled me aside and explained that they had a slight problem. Since we showed up a day late, our caravan of 24 donkeys had all gone home. They could get six donkeys from the army, but they would have to pay extra for them. They wanted us to get up and climbing as soon as possible so they offered for us to go ahead with our gear and they would bring up the rest of the base camp when more donkeys became available. We thought this was the best solution as well, so we set the alarms for 6 so we could load up the donkeys and go.


Loading the donkeys took over two hours. They unpacked and repacked all our bags several times and we finally started off around 9AM down the trail. It was around 9:20 when the first bags fell off. It was around 9:30 when I reached the first collapsed donkey (they weren't so overloaded, but it tripped on the ropes). We took nearly two hours to cover only a couple of miles of the rough trail, mostly due to the unpacking and repacking of the donkeys several times (the donkeys would go at a nice walking pace when not losing their loads). We were beginning to think that the ~15 miles trek to base camp might take several days. We stopped for a long lunch though and the two drivers unpacked all the donkeys and reloaded them one more time.


(donkeys after reloading several times)


From then on it was relatively smooth sailing all the way to base camp. For an hour or two I got to experience the life of a donkey driver with three of the donkeys under my command, fortunately they were the cooperative ones.




Around 4PM we hit another wobbly bridge and headed up the hill toward the Kara Su valley. We stopped at a small rock and mud shelter where a shepard lived with his family and they came out and brought us a large bowl of curdled milk (mmmm, yummy . . . or not), and then a bunch of hard sour milk balls. We were grateful for the hospitality anyways. We took some pictures and promised to send them a copy. Coming over a small pass we got our first view of Mt. Asan and the surrounding towers. The awesome granite faces of these mountains are difficult to convey,especially with these pictures. We made camp just before dark and cooked up a big pot of soup to share with our donkey drivers.



(the top haf of Asan on the left, Yellow Wall on the right)



So there we were, at last in the mountains. We shouldered as much gear as we could carry and started toward the base of one of the peaks. We did a reconnaissance hike and climbed three pitches up little Asan to try to get to a nice looking crack that ended up being filled with grass and weeds. We set our sights on doing the 16 pitch 5.10b "Diagonal Route" on the Yellow Wall first. This was where Tommy and Beth were taken hostage in 2000 and we could still see some of their ropes fixed up to their high point. We even found an old spent rocket propelled grenade at the base from when the army had used the hanging abandoned climbing gear for target practice. We felt quite safe though after the reassurances of the army and the local shepards.



(on little Asan)


We spent another day moving gear and climbed five pitches of the diagonal route and fixed lines to the base. The route was much easier than it looked from the side and was rather wet. We planned the next day to haul up some gear and spend the night on a ledge and then finish the route. We climbed our fixed ropes, hauled way too much gear up the mountain, and then slept. We woke up to wind and rain, and had to retreat down to base camp.



(starting up the Diagonal route)




It rained the next day, and the next. It rained every single day until we left, and it's probably still raining there.



We woke up again to rain, and then to a short severe whistle. We stuck our heads out of the tent to see a bunch of soldiers in camo. We wondered which side they were from, and whether they wanted our passports, until we recognized some of them as the same rag tag teenagers from below. They brought us a note from our guides saying they were still trying to get donkeys to come up. We made them all tea and posed for pictures. They handed us their loaded guns to pose for the pictures and then shot at some rabbits (or so they said). We invited them to stay for breakfast but they said they had to go back to the base. We sent them with a note saying all was well.


After a couple more days sitting in camp by ourselves, playing cards, listening to music, and reading we finally figured out the weather pattern and decided to get up early in the morning and climb before the rain hit in the afternoon.


Chris had realized that the hand he thought was just bruised from a baseball hit a week earlier was actually broken and he went off for a hike instead, to let his hand rest in the hopes he might be able to use it a little in a week or two.


The next morning me and Ken got up and took a light climbing rack and finished the diagonal route. I led the crux pitch which included a nice wide crack I squeezed my body into, and then had to crawl out of on tiny foot holds and hand traverse to the end. The exposure was great, looking down 900 feet to the base. We reached the top after only 12 pitches, but encountered rain and snow which fortunately stopped before the long trudge down the back side.


(entering the crux of the Diagonal Route)


(summit of the Yellow Wall)


Our next project was supposed to be a new route on the yellow wall, because we were too scared to attempt a real multi-day big wall on Asan with poor weather and one injured climber. We spent most of the rest of the climbing time working on this route, only to find that the top (seventh pitch) already had old pitons fixed in it. We think the first 6 pitches may be a new direct route up to the ridge, and we cleaned a freed much of the route after first aiding it. We also put in nice bolts at the belays where needed. "Everything is Normal", 5.10b A2.



(Diagonal route is obvious, Everything is Normal heads almost straight up just left of photo center to the ridge)





(way too much time was also spent in the tent in the afternoon rain storms)


After nearly two weeks our base camp arrived. So did the base camp for the 8 man Ukrainian national climbing team, a 3 person Russian expedition, 3 Norwegians, two Spanish, and four Polish climbers. Our camp quickly became a mini city. Our guides who felt bad for not being there to watch our stuff for so long (although we had no problems at all) cooked excellent meals for the rest of our days there.




Sadly our time to go had come, but again, it was not without more adventure. Our guides had run out of cash, paying for their own base camp move so we had to pay $70 of our money to hire two horses and two donkeys for the trip back down. We planned to spend our last day packing and sorting and then to head down.


Our last day started with Artur waking us up and telling us the horses were there. "What? That's tomorrow." "No, today is the 27th." "I thought it was the 26th." Apparently our dates were off, and my watch (when dug out) confirmed our error. Me and Chris quickly packed up our gear. Ken who had gone off early for a last hike would have to come down in the evening when he returned.


The hike out went quite well and we made it down to the end of the road again and found our driver and van waiting. We decided to camp there for the night and wait for Ken. The military commander came out and invited us to tea, but we declined to watch our stuff and cook dinner. He brought his AK and they invited me and the driver to shoot at a can. I hit it on the second try (it was sighted in a bit high for a longer range shot). If we wouldn't come to tea then, he said we must come to machine gun practice in the morning. 8 AM.


Ken showed up about 7 AM having camped part way down, he was just in time for machine gun practice. We had coffee and headed over to the base only to find most everyone still asleep at 8. The commander was woken up and reminded of his promise, and after some arguing back and forth with his second in command he sent a couple soldiers to the armory and they brought out several guns and led us to the rifle range. We were given the tour, starting with the classic AK-47, shooting from a foxhole at some cans, then moved to a sniper rifle, and then we all got to try a big bipod mounted machine gun. They said they didn't have enough ammo for the big gun to shoot it in automatic mode, but we all got to run through a small magazine with the AK-47 on full auto. Chris who had only ever shot a gun once made everyone laugh with his commando, shoot from the hip, style. I can't say I fared much better on fully auto mode though, but many cans were injured with the sniper rifle. Someone suggested rocket practice, but that was quickly vetoed due to lack of ammo. Maybe next time.



Having completed our weapons training we all piled into the van with our gear, two camp attendants, and several soldiers. Our driver did a pretty good job, only making us all lean to the side one time, and get out and pile rocks in a rut once as well. We dropped the soldiers off at the base on the edge of Vorukh (the Tajik enclave) where they let us in to pick some fresh apricots from one of their trees. We made some minor repairs to the wheezing old Russian van and then continued.


All went well until we hit another military post and had to get out. "Where are your visas?" a soldier asked. We showed him. "Those are Kyrgyz visas" he said. "Where are your Uzbek visas?" Hmm, Uzbek visas. We're in Uzbekistan? How did that happen? Apparently our driver decided to take a shortcut that took him through an island of Uzbekistan. He didn't realize that the Americans might have problems there. After waiting an hour and a half he somehow convinced them to let us though, and since we didn't have to pay, we were fine. Our activities in Uzbekistan included getting gas, fixing the van again, and stopping to steal some green apples from a roadside orchard.


We arrived in Osh in the evening and met with the tour company to get a refund for our extra donkey money (which they delivered the next day after checking with their headquarters), and then checked into a hotel. We spent the evening sorting gear and then went to sleep.


In the morning Ken was anxious to get back to Bishkek so he set about looking for a taxi. I suggested we arrange a taxi today for the next morning so we could get a good early start, but everyone else wanted to leave that day. After some haggling we had a taxi ready to go around noon, but we had to wait another hour for the tour company to deliver our refund money to the hotel. We started off a little after 1 PM with our bags piled in the back of a Mercedes station wagon (cause they're more reliable than the Russian cars, they said). We paid the driver one half in advance so he had money to buy gas and we started on our way. About 2:30 the engine sputtered and died and we coasted to the side of the dirt road in a little village.


We helped the driver push the car into a driveway and then we unloaded all the bags so he could get to his tool kit. "Bad gas" he told us, which was not hard to believe given all the cleaning we had to do every time we wanted to use our cook stoves. He had a spare fuel filter and he changed that out. When that failed to work, he told us he'd be back in a while and we should wait (like we could do anything else).


A couple hours later he returned with a new driver and a new car and said we should go with him, and pay the second half of the money to him. No problem there, except his car was a lot smaller. We piled bags between us on the back seat and between our legs. We started out again and didn't stop until 8:30 PM or so for some dinner. Oh, and to fix a flat tire. We unloaded the bags again to get at the spare, and then continued on.


The road to Bishkek through the mountains, half paved and half not, isn't that great in the day. Now it was dark, and we hit a nice storm with pouring rain and lightning. The driver slowed to 5 mph for every rain filled pothole, trying to preserve his tires and formerly clean car. We stopped about 2 AM for a short nap (although I suggested just camping till daylight), and then continued. 5 AM found us with another flat tire, and no spare. We waited till it got light, and then unloaded the car again (to get the flat tire out). Our driver told us to wait while he hitchhiked into the next town to get a new tire. A couple hours later we were on our way again, finally rolling into Bishkek at around 10AM, a 21 hour ride (and it only took us 9.5 the other way).


Ken headed immediately off to the air force base and me and Chris checked into a hotel and met up with one of his Peace Corps friends there. July 31st we got a taxi to Almaty, Kazakhstan.


From there it took me another few weeks to make my way across the Kazakh desert, narrowly escaping the former fishing town of Aralsk (now over 30 kilometers from the seas), crossing into Russia with smuggled women's clothing and alien eggs, and visiting old Peace Corps friend. Those stories remain for the campfire. . .


A few more pics can be found here, they are a pain to scan so most are still hard copy only: https://picasaweb.google.com/matthiesen/Kyrgyzstan2004#


Gear Notes:

Take lots of climbing gear as you won't find any there. Bring a stove that can run on crappy gasoline (and plenty of spare parts and cleaning tools). A pressure cooker bought at the market in Osh can save on cooing fuel and time. We used a cheapo Walmart tent for base camp and donated it when we left.


Approach Notes:

Fly to Bishkek, arrange your permits, fly or taxi to Osh and stock up on food, taxi to Batken then to the military post at the end of the road, get some donkeys to carry your gear and chaperon them to base camp. Watch out for revolutions, riots, terrorists, mines, and teenage soldiers shooting at "rabbits".

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We're in Uzbekistan? How did that happen?


Thanks for the TR, talk about an adventure!


The pictures are great . ..If you were going to try and get more moved to digital, Costco scans from slides (and negatives I think) for a very reasonable fee, and does a pretty good job (at least up here in the Skagit Valley). Those are some pretty amazing looking mountains!

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Awesome TR!


I would like to know if you ever figured out the who and why of 'everything is normal' and the ice cream. Who was it, and why the ice cream purchases--friendly hospitality of a drunk? Or the local visitor association representative? =]


Thanks for sharing, the rock and mountains looks beautiful back up in there!

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I never did figure that one out. I'm pretty sure it was that strange combination of extraordinary drunkeness and national pride/hospitality. A lot of folks there had never seen an American before. He may have either been too drunk to remember that he had already brought us ice cream the first few times, or just thought it was time again. It's always time for ice cream!


Even in the middle of Russian winter you buy ice cream from a cart on the sidewalk and enjoy it for hours as you stroll since it's too cold to melt.


It just emphasized the theme for the trip that we continually heard the phrase repeated, relax, it's all normal, just have fun and be in the moment cause you might not be going anywhere for a while (or you might suddenly find yourself in Uzbekistan). :-)

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