By Brianna 17/May/17 Kyrgyzstan
Tourists, backpackers, hikers, armchair travellers, nomads, campers, hippies, gap yah toffs, explorers, adventurers and holiday goers; we all love a bit of a mountain lake. Well, at least I'm sure we would, had we ever successfully managed to see one. In the majority of cases, touch wood, we have been very lucky with our travel plans so far (mostly by pure fluke), but you can't have everything. Somethings you are just cursed never to see...
Once upon a time there was a girl a boy and a mouse, who together embarked on a mission to travel from one side of the world to the other using as much public transport as possible. They witnessed astounding things on their journey, from the mysterious mangrove forests of Bangladesh to the dry desert that was once the bottom of the Aral Sea. They marvelled at people's generosity towards complete strangers worldwide, as well as their sheer determination to contort their bodies into the most uncomfortable and claustrophobic positions imaginable rather than sit in the empty, spacious back of the bus. There was one thing they were not destined to see, however, and that was an alpine lake.
All around the globe, tourists are clambering up mountains (some more gracefully than others) to experience this beautiful natural phenomenon described so tantalisingly in their guidebooks. And there is nowhere which boasts such picturesque and secluded lakes as those in the rugged, untouched Kyrgyzstan countryside. Although the travelling trio had made it to Kyrgyzstan just as weather was turning frosty, they couldn't pass up on the opportunity of a few days camping and hiking in the mountains. Little did they know a curse was upon them, which, along with the many obvious (and completely ignored) signs that pointed to this being a bad idea, would thwart their expedition at every turn...
CURSE STRIKE #1: FROSTBITE
It didn't take long for the supposedly pleasant journey to Ala-Kol (Kol meaning lake) to dissolve into UpRouted VS. Nature. Within minutes of disembarking our marshrukta at the beginning of the hiking trail, it had begun to snow. We're not talking naff British snow. We're talking immediate morphing of burnt orange leaves and bare, rocky cliff faces to full-on winter wonderland kind of snow. Common sense should have kicked in here and told us to turn back. But our common sense appeared to be back in the cosy guest house we had left that morning enjoying our our free breakfast of eggs, homemade bread and jam. In any case, we were enjoying ourselves far too much to realise that our clothes were getting damper, the path more obscure and the weather exponentially worse. By the time we had reached Altyn-Arashan, a small village only occupied in summer months, we were knee deep in a steady, stubborn snow storm. Tired and soaked through after a mis-navegation down a slippery river bed (if you have done this walk you know how difficult it is to get lost - we can only blame the weather), we thought rather than put us and the tent through its paces, we'll seek refuge in a closing-down for the season guest house. We dried our clothes around the fire and thawed out in the village's natural hotsprings under the stars, restoring our faith in life and our confidence in our Bear Grylls-esque survival instincts to get us through the next 48 hours.
That confidence quickly evaporated the next morning. The snow had subsided, but the air felt even colder and our feet, fed up of trudging through 30 cm of icy slush, were not doing so great either. This wasn't helped by the fact that within 15 mins of leaving Altyn-Arashan we had already winded up off-piste, resulting in one of us getting stuck in a muddy bog, hidden by the evil frost of death. This resulted in one of us having a tantrum as she (or he) was hauled out of the frozen quick sand. The tantrum continued all the way to a fiercely flowing river, its natural stepping stones covered in a thick layer of ice. There was no option other than to carefully shimmy between two thin logs, knocking off icicles as we went. It took about 20 minutes of pure adrenaline to go 3 metres, but by the time we had made it to the other side I (or Alex) was so hell bent on never crossing that river again I (or Alex) had no choice but to power on through.
The regular trail was hidden so well that we had no choice but to follow animal tracks in the general direction of the lake and hope for the best. The few hours before the sun made its way above the peaks were trying as we constantly fell through uneven patches of ground, unable to get a sure footing anywhere. We willed ourselves through the forest with forced encouragement and Snickers bars. As we reached our second treacherous river, however, things had literally brightened up: patches of snow were melting and a group of horse riders (the only other people we saw) breezed passed us, giving us a clear path to follow for the rest of a way. It made the terrifying stream crossing and the prospect of scaling another vertical river bank seem worth while - we would make it after all!
The curse had other plans. We reached the last hurdle of the hike a couple of hours before sunset, optimistically searching for the path up to the viewpoint. We saw the horses that had passed us a few hours before, patiently awaiting the return of their riders. And then we saw the riders, still almost at the bottom of the pass, held together by ropes and guides, hauling each other painfully and slowly up the trail. The mountainside had slyly evaded the sun's rays, making it steep, slippery, and, well, a bit too dangerous for two independent amateurs who needed to be in their sleeping bags by sunset to prevent frostbite. On any given day, you would really have to earn that Instagram of Ala-Kol. Today, we would have needed all the Irish luck in the world to make it up there, find a camp spot and not freeze before dusk.
We were disappointed, naturally. We had gone through a lot to get to this point, far more than we had expected and prepared for. But we still felt very proud of ourselves for achieving something neither of us had ever considered doing before. There aren't many opportunities left to do something like this completely independently, relying on your own instinct to cope with extreme environments, finding your own way, bringing your own provisions and having to decide for yourself the right thing to do. Maybe, if we pushed ourselves, we could have some fairly unique pictures and experiences of Ala-Kol, but as we sat around thawing our walking boots on our gas stove the next morning, we felt that this experience was unique enough for us already. Besides, we had that curse to contend with, so its very doubtful we would have made it up there anyway...
And so the mouse, the boy and the girl had failed in their mission to see the crystal clear waters of Ala-Kol lake, unable to join the elite band of Central Asian tourists who had had the privilege of doing so before them. But one unsuccessful alpine lake journey is not enough to prove, nor even be made wary of the curse that haunts them still. And so, in their ignorance, the wandering compadres moved on to another mountainous region of Kyrgyrzstan, with the intention of discovering more natural delights. If you would like to know what ridiculous misfortune befell them this time, you can eagerly await the next 'curse of the lakes' installment. If not, well, fine, I didn't want you to read it anyway.
Until next time, blog compadres!