Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Story: When we didn't see Khan Tengri

Khan Tengri is a 7010 meter (almost 28,000 ft) mountain peak situated on the Kazakhstan/China/Kyrgyzstan border.  It is the second tallest peak in the Tien Shan range (the mountains I see from my window are part of the same range), so one can understand why the mountain might generate some excitement.  This weekend a bunch of us went to see the mountain.

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Before you get jealous (if you are the type to get jealous about the size of a mountain), when I say "see" you must understand that our intention was not to get close to the mountain or to climb a bit of it; our intention was simply to drive east until we could see it, and maybe to hike part way up some hills to get a better view.  Besides, as the title of this little story implies, we didn't actually get to see it. If you want to know more than that, you will just have to keep reading.

We left Almaty early Friday evening hoping to get as far as we could get before the sun set.  We sped eastward as fast as traffic and the law would allow along the birch and cottonwood lined A351 "Kuljinsky track"stopping only for a quick bite for dinner at the little market town of Baseit.  Ten kilometers beyond Baseit, the trees that lined the road to that point suddenly gave way to plains covered in grass and fragrant sagebrush.  As the sun sank at our backs we began scouting for a place to sleep for the night.  We found a dirt track that led toward the nearby hills, and followed it until we found a decent spot to camp for the evening.  Friday we slept under a full moon, bathed in the thick aroma of the sage covered ground.

The next morning I woke shortly before dawn with the chirping of the birds and went for a sunrise hike up some of the hills near our camp.  From the hills I could see the red hills just across the green sage-filled valley where we camped.
A sharp shout drew my attention back to the camp, where I saw a horseman approaching the tents and shouting a greeting.  I took this as my cue to begin heading back toward the camp where we breakfasted to tales of how the drunk cowboy who wanted vodka and couldn't stay on his horse delivered the morning wake-up call.

The southern end of Charyn Canyon
We packed camp and continued eastward.  We wound our way through a deep gorge with spring greenery creeping up through the steep red walls.  We drove across the top of the Charyn Canyon that hides the Ili River as it winds its way westward. We drovethrough green valleys and gentle mountain, and a seemingly endless string of little villages with hobbled donkeys and little calves grazing beside small, white, Cossak-style tin-roofed houses: Kegen, Tasashi, Sarizhaz, Kainar, Tekes, before we finally reached Narinkol, the little village at the Chinese border.

A house near Narinkol

Me (with China in the Background)

At Narinkol, we turned south on a little road that while paved, was so riddled with potholes that we careened down the street weaving from side to side in an effort to keep our automobile intact.  Across the river we could see the occasional glimpse of the fence that marks the chinese border.  Then suddenly the fence crossed the river and the boarder was just a few short steps away.  It isn't everyday that one finds oneself on a remote border with China, so naturally, we stopped for pictures.

More China
After driving along the border for a couple of kilometers, we turned westward on a steep dirt track that led up into the mountains.   We stopped once we reached a small, white ranch house with a relatively flat pasture bordered by a lively brook.  This scene would ultimately be our camp site for the night, but not before we walked up the road for two more kilometers to see the guest cabins and yurts that are available to rent for the night.

The first ranch house boasted a cabin that could sleep eleven, a yurt that sleeps three more, a small sauna that can hold up to 4 people at a time, and a little wooden dipping pool fed by a constant supply of diverted brook water. The top ranch house had two guest yurts and a nice cabin, but there was a party already in progress.  According to our guide, the hike to the view point to see Khan Tengri is another two hour hike from the top ranch house.  

We set up our camp in the first meadow in a light drizzle.  The cows came home as we huffed and puffed at the damp wood in our fire pit in an effort to get some kind of blaze going in the rain.  Then we sat around the fire, making dinner slowly and telling stories and the mountain air cooled in the evening and the rain slowly stopped.  

We would wake up to fresh snow on the peaks, and a grey morning that still obscured our objectiv, Khan Tengri, from view.  Sometimes, though, the fun and the company of camping is it's own objective, and for me anyways, the mountain was just an excuse.  Not seeing it, gives me an excuse to go back and try out that Sauna.

Oh, and I finally found my dog.  Too bad he is one of a kind and rather busy herding sheep right now.


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