Monday, January 09, 2006

Return to an icebox

One week ago I returned to Bishkek after a short trip home for the holidays. I spent Christmas with my family and New Year’s with Mark in a fantastic log cabin we rented in a Pennsylvania state park.

I returned to the most absolute cold I’ve ever experienced in Kyrgyzstan. When I got off the bus from Almaty in Bishkek, my watch read 8:30 a.m. But the streets were dark and silent. There were no taxis, virtually no moment, and few lights illuminating apartments.

The bus stop was about a mile from my home and I decided to walk yet, seeing as I frequently walk that stretch without problem. But I hadn’t walked it before with four bags, on a snowy street, in the dark, and in what I later found out was minus 20 degree Celcius temperature. It was so cold that my fingers burned in pain and I worried about getting frostbite.

I tromped home almost in tears. Not only was I freezing and exhausted after over 30 hours travel, but I couldn’t understand why the city was so dark and lifeless. Finally, I asked someone the time.

“6:30,” he said.

I’d set my watch ahead one hour instead of behind one hour and that made the two hour difference. So life was still carrying on in Bishkek and I still had a warm apartment to gratefully arrive at.

A few days later, having warmed up sufficiently, I decided to go on a skiing trip with the group of outdoorspeople that go out of town each weekend. We went to a ski resort 1.5 hours outside of Bishkek, called Tugus Bulak. Ski rental was $15 and an all-day lift ticket $7.50. There is only one lift and it extends far up into the mountains, a 15-20 minute ride.

“Last year they only had a rope pull,” a young software company owner, Volodya, told me.

“A rope pull, going up to 2000 meters?” I asked. That was a long way to have to hang on to a rope. “Didn’t people fall off?”

“Off course they fell off,” he said.

There was only one lift and one two paths down, of about equal difficulty. From the top, a beautiful panorama of endless white mountains was visible and I had the privilege of skiing down into them.

My first run down, I didn’t consider it quite such a privilege. There were two steep parts on the run and I hadn’t put on skis in two years. Terrified, I stopped after every turn and it was a long way down. Near the end, I collapsed from altitude sickness. After lying in the snow, certain I would vomit, I took off my skis and staggered to the lodge.

A few hours later, I was ready to give it one more go. Knowing what to expect made it much easier and I had some fun coming down the second time.

By the next day I’d decided I would take up skiing this season. When again will I have the chance to live 1.5 hours from mountains and to have relatively cheap access to lift tickets and equipment. So I bought a pair of ski boots, which reduced my rental costs to $5 per visit and decided I’d try to ski at least weekly.

We had a four day weekend. We got Monday off for the Russian Christmas, which was Saturday. And Tuesday was a religious holiday, Khurban-Eid, the day that Muslims remember those who have passed away. So on Tuesday I joined Mihail and his group for another trip to Tugus Bulak.

This time, unfortunately, the chairlift was under repair and there was no way up but by foot. Some people did walk, at least partway. I foresaw a long day in the lodge. Until Volodya came to me,

“I’ve negotiated with the owners of some horses,” he said. “They’ll take us up the mountain and we can ski down.”

I was tempted to decline. It sounded too crazy. Then I remembered I’d be very unlikely to ever again be offered the chance to go up a mountain on horseback and down on skis, so I accepted.

We each got on a horse, we put the skis in a bag across his lap, and the owner walked in front of us. We probably went about halfway, or a little less up the mountain.

A thick, white fog covered the mountains and we couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of us. It was like a movie, moving uphill on horseback into the unknown whiteness. Even Volodya talked about images of Nepal and Tibet that floated through his mind.

Skiing down the mountain was fantastic. Because there was no chairlift, we were the only people that high on the mountain and we had it completely to ourselves. Thick snowflakes fell throughout the day, so we had a nice layer of powder. And due to the complete whiteness that blocked our vision, we couldn’t even be afraid of the steep parts because we couldn’t see ahead far enough to tell what was steep. We could only make sure that we stayed in the area marked by ski and footprints and headed downward.

Before we reached the bottom, the horses met us and took us on one more trip up the mountain.

While I didn’t get in the skiing practice I’d expected, that experience was unique enough to make my day. Afterwards, I filled my water bottles at a natural spring nearby and admired the trees covered with frost that formed fine art patterns on all the branches.

No comments: