Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Lake on the Roof

August 13, 2006

At 7 a.m., I awoke to the sight of smoke from dung fires mixes with the morning mist over the collection of yurts. The world looked green, fresh and reborn.

Just before 8, I set of with the yurt owner's 11-year-old son to visit Lake Chatyr Kul, which means, the lake on the roof. I had mixed feelings about this use of child labor. When I asked for a guide, I expected an adult, and a paid the price for an experienced guide. At first, I didn't mind, figuring that if he wasn't with me, he'd probably be collecting dung. And as long as his education isn't being interrupted, I didn't see a problem with him helping his family. But later, when his mother told me that the father serves as a guide for horse treks and the 11-year-old serves as a guide for walking treks because the father considers it too far to walk, I didn't feel so comfortable with the arrangement. It sounds like the father is just lazy and is putting the burden of earning an income on his son.

But in any case, I found myself together with this child, along with his dog Dingo, for the day. In his village, they offer only classes in Kyrgyz. So I exhuasted his Russian vocabulary in the first five minutes. This led us into a long and comfortable silence for most of the day, punctuated by one-word questions - tired? OK? backpack? pretty?

We started off with a one-hour walk along the valley, besides a clear, tinkling creek. Along the way, we passed several yurts and many herds of cattle - cows, horses, sheep and yaks. I found it most interesting to walk through the herd of yaks with their large, scraggly bodie, narrow, scruffy necks, small heads and shaggy tails. They raised up their large, pink nostrils as they looked at me, grunted like a person snoring, and went back to chewing the grass.

We headed toward a wall of rock that rose straight up before us. Along the path, we slipped on cattle poop. I noticed that there were no dried patties near the camp, all collected for fires.

At the beginning of our hike, a group of 12 French tourists walked in front of us. Having them in sight made me feel part of a herd. I wanted the Kyrgyz landscape to myself, even though I recognized that as selfish. Within the first half hour, we passed them and they soon disappeared from sight. We enjoyed a silent walk through remote, beautiful nature, hearing only the sound of the creek.

As we moved higher up, the sounds of the wind, the panting dog, chirping birds and squeaking groundhogs were added to the repetoire. The groundhogs ran across the mountains, stood up next to their holes, and scampered inside. They seemed to have poorly developed self-preservation instincts, announcing their prsence with a high-pitched squeal.

Three hours later, we were headed up a long, tough ascent. When we took a break at a stream, Nazar doused his head with cold water. He lifted his round, wind-chapped face, sighing with pleasure as the water dripped from his hair onto him. We heard thunder as a flack of horses ran across the mountain.

As we continued up and up, toward the 3,968 meter peak, the animals disappeared (I heard there is a mountain sheep, but I didn't see it), and I begin to feel light-headed, weak, short of breath and headachy. As a couple of the French caught up to us, I heard the sounds from the mountaineering movies Mihail sometimes shows on our weekend excursions - shallow, panting breaths and the clink clink of walking sticks against the rocks.

The path through the limestone and quartz peaks felt like a staircase to the clouds and we started to become level with them The clouds looked like cotton balls floating in a blue soup. The air seemed to shimmer and move, to become visible.

We made it to the Ag Zo peak, where the lake suddenly opened out before us, in 4 hours and 15 minutes, quite a bit faster than the six hours my guidebook predicted. The lake was long, still, shallow (someone told me it gets no deeper than 20 meters), like a large puddle drying up on a dry plateau. This was the Ak Sai valley, and the border area between Kyrgyzstan and China. The only signs of civilization were a few tiny houses in the distance, which I was told belonged to the border patrol. Bare mountains and snowy peaks rose on the opposite side.

When we'd first began our walk, I was so exhilerated by the beauty. I recalled that I've spent some of the happiest moments of my life hiking - in the northern mountains of Vietnam, on the well-marked alpine trails of Slovakia, in a Chinese gorge, in the Ecuadorian jungle, in the Indonesian tropics. When the climb became painful and my legs turned to rubber, I understood why locals think Westerners are strange for considering this fun. Upon reaching the summit, I felt joy, relief, and pride - and suddenly the pain was all worth it.

A permit is technically required to descend to the lake, since it is in the border zone. Burul told me no one would touch me if I went there. But adding another two hours to the trek didn't seem worth. A good 8 horus of walking was enough for one day.

Nazar collapsed at the ridge, made of shards of rock, and fell asleep, while I continued up to the peak, for a better look at the lake. A cold wind blew steadily, leading us back down within an hour.

On our return trip, we passed two Kyrgyz women on horseback. A little later, a teenage girl passed us, giving a young boy a ride on the back of a horse. I recalled something the museum guide told me. "In other countries, women were repressed," she said. "But not in Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan women rode on horseback and fought alongside the men."

"Then why don't I see many women on horseback now?" I asked. In my visit to Sheker, my guide Medina told me that women in her village don't ride horses, because the children would mock the sight of a female on a horse.

"It's because they all go in cars now," she said.

But it seems like in Naryn, maybe women have retained their roles of greater equality and greater freedom, at least in the pastures.

Nearing five o'clock, it was time for the cattle, as well as the humans to head home. I saw cows stampeding down the mountain towards their homes. I never knew how cows could run until I came to Kyrgyzstan. On the opposite mount, horses whinnied as they raced across the mountain.

I had hoped to leave that evening, but wasn't successful. So I sat with Burul and Anara, as they sat outside the yurts sewing shyrdaks. Burul told me that in her village, only potatoes, carrots and some herbs grow. They have to buy all other vegetables. According to her, and my driver Talai, the local people don't eat many fruits and vegetables. For that reason, the maximum lifespan is 80 or 85 and many die between 50 and 60.

Burul's mother had 11 children and as a result, was a Mother Hero of the Soviet Union. Burual has five. She told me her oldest son, at the moment busy gathering hay in the fields, is studying foreign languges in Bishkek. He won a scholarship and is planning to study in Japan next year.

Her daughter, Elizabet teaches biology and chemistry to 8th to 11th graders in Naryn and is enthusiastic about her profession, claiming that the students, especially in the Russian classes, are bright and hardworking, and that biology is a fascinating science.

"Nazar will probably become a shephard," Burul said. "He's good with animals." After our long walk, Nazar was already back on his donkey, his face red and chapped. When he dismounted, the donkey took off, running and neighing across the yurt camp, dropping its saddle on the way. Nazar took off after the runaway donkey, smiling as he ran.

She told me about the many difference tourists they've hosted. She finds it disturbing to see female tourists smoke. And she said the worst tourists, Western Europeans, pee in the river. She told me how some Dutch tourists pooped in a mineral spring where they gathered water and how others got up in the morning and went right to the river to pee. It's happened often enough that she wants the caravansarai caretaker to post a sign that says no peeing in the river. Besides purely ecological sense, which seems to make peeing in the river obviously not something to do, they collect all their water for cooking and washing from there. I thought about the soup I'd eaten for dinner that evening and the tea I drank and hoped that the current batch of tourists was better behaved.

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