Monday, February 27, 2006

In the woods with a mountain lover

I spent my last half-day in Karakol with Valentin and Cholpon, two local guides I met at the ski base. They teach students studying to become guides and had planned a trip on Sunday for their students. They took a bus in the morning to the outskirts of Ak-Suu village, climbed a mountain with backpacks and cross-country skis on their backs, built a bonfire and had a picnic for a lunchtime rest, then skied down the mountain and back to Karakol.

Because I had to get back to Bishkek that day, I couldn’t join them for the whole adventure. But I did hike an hour or so up the mountain with them, then returned, alone, the way I came.

Valentin took us up into a forest that held 150 varieties of trees, some natural, others planted in a tree-growing institute. He pointed out the tracks of donkeys that pull sleighs filled with downed trees, squirrel tracks, new seedlings and a woolen birch. From the point at which we passed the last home, we walked through silence, the fresh, deep snow packed by the sleighs, the world quieted beneath the blanket.

He told me he and Cholpon each had 11 students, about a quarter of them female. Valentin started with 33 students in the fall and lost 22.

“We have a problem with people thinking tourism is going up to the mountains, eating a good meal, drinking vodka and driving back down,” he said. “So when I tell them they have to climb a mountain, carry skis or carry a heavy bag, they aren’t interested.”

Of his 11 students, only six are willing to go into the mountains, and only three joined us that morning.

“The others refuse,” he said. “So we divided them into two groups – the guide group and the excursion leader group. The excursion leaders will just be able to take people around town, to talk about things. But if they haven’t seen and done things, I don’t know what they’ll talk about. It’s nonsense.”

His love for the nature, for the area, came through so clearly. When he spoke about the different hikes available, when he told me his “big dream” of somehow owning freestyle skis, the white wrinkles emanating from the corners of his eyes danced in his tanned skin.

“We do this because we love it,” he said, “not for dollars. You see that we’d be here anyway, where you were here or not.”

And he was right. When I turned back, he cut a branch off a tree, peeled the bark with a knife he removed from his belt, and sharpened the tip. He gave it to me to fend off dogs. Then they continued on, a motley collection of dark and colorful jackets and backpacks, skis strapped to their backs, heading to the top so they could ski down back to town.

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