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One million steps for the three of us

  • Submitted by: Vitaliy Shuptar, Kazakhstan
  • Submission Date: 24th Nov 2005

‘It is not a plain,
the climate is different here…’
Vladimir Vysotskiy

One million steps for the three of us

(July 2004)

Almaty – the gorge Alma-Arasan – the gorge Prokhodnoe – Space station – Institute named after Shtenberg – Big Almaty lake – pass Ozerniy – valley of the river Chon-Kemin – pass Kok-Airyk – Chon-Sary-Oy – Cholpon-Ata

How many times I have heard carelessly hurled words: ‘Ah, you’re going to Issyk-Kul. But there and then are only two days of walking’. About the fact that you will have to cross two passes, one of which is covered with snow, about forced crossing of the mountain rivers while it is raining, about ascents and descents on the ground that is slipping from under the feet, about shooting down your head rocks from the middle of nowhere and about other surprises which are peculiar to the mountains these people obviously have never heard. Really, it’s very popular itinerary. The joke of those days: ‘Well, next time will go to Dubai as anyone who takes the trouble to go to Issyk-Kul goes there, it even hurts.’ I’m not going to argue with the fact that it is possible to get to Issyk-Kul in two days. Right, people go there (but accompanied with the instructor and using shorter way), but for us traveling is not sport, it is life. And from life you should not only obtain results but pleasure as well. And so ‘we’re choosing difficult way…’

As the matter of fact we’ve chosen not usual itinerary. It can’t be called straight and short. It took us six days to get from Almaty to Issyk-Kul. But those were such days that we were not bored during any single minute. Each step, each turn was fraught with something new and unknown, pleasant and dangerous, but in any way very interesting and exciting for the kind of adventurers like we were.

Just a couple of words what we are like. We are the members of Karaganda historico-geographical society ‘Avalon’ (Vitaliy Shuptar, the brothers Ermolenok Sasha and Zhenya, Marina Belyaeva) and also the girl who hasn’t been yet the member of the Society because of her young age (13 y.o.) – Lena Ismaylova.


Having bought all the supplies and equipment in Almaty, our group moved out according to already familiar itinerary, on Sunday morning, in direction of the resort Alma-Arasan, where last year we started our trip to the Zailiyskiy Alatau from. Half an hour in the bus, which was spent talking with inhabitants, who appreciated the weight our backpacks at their true value, kept asking us about our undertaking, and we were on the spot.

The first day obviously didn’t make us happy with the weather. Hardly an hour had passed from the moment we stepped on the path when it started pouring. Involuntary was recalled the memory about last year’s trip, when rain and dampness made us to descend two days earlier than we’d planned. But unlike last year, that time we had ample reserves of gas so we were not threatened to die because of cold and hunger.

From the gorge Alma-Arasan we were climbing up along the valley of the river Prokhodnaya, after which was the gorge named. It didn’t seem that the rain was going to stop, but our raincoats looked half of what they had looked just half an hour ago – the thinnest polyethylene kept breaking everywhere caused by any movement. Soon it had become colder and we decided to stop and have a cup of tea.

Hidden under the trees we kindled the gas-jet and very soon nice warm of hot drink petted our guts. We had hardly got warm when we were passed by the group of briskly walking tourists, and some of them were wearing bathing suits. ’It is evidently yogis’ – we thought, - as far as the weather was not suitable for sunbathing at all. But in an hour we met them again getting changed into more appropriate clothes for mountains and wood. Well, they were not yogis…

Climbing higher and higher we passed the place on the opposite side where we laid out the tents last year. Now our itinerary is considerably longer. Searching for the Aleshka’s bridge Zhenya and I had gone way forward and at last found that legendary for that locality crossing. Sasha and the girls stayed to wait for us down-stream. That was useless to cry because the river was cutting off all the sounds. So what we had to do just to wait till they understand that we were not coming because we had found the crossing and decide to catch up with us. And indeed, soon they had already been with us.

Now it was necessary to go up to the Space station to the pass Zhosalykezen. For me, personally the ascent was difficult and I managed to do it only at the cost of supreme efforts. And by the end I was just dragging behind, counting ‘portions’ of ten-twenty steps and then rested between them. Somewhere in the middle of ascent the height pasted over 3000 meters point.

The itinerary we’d chosen for the first day was rather long and difficult itself and in addition the weather meddled in. Though of course, spectacle of mist and clouds in the mountains is charming (especially on comparatively low altitudes), but it only from the plain seems that the clouds slowly float across the sky. Only being on height you understand as swiftly and quick they move. There is something terrifying as you watch a cloud rushes to you and understand that you will be inside it for some time. That day the clouds passed us with interesting periodicity of 40 minutes, like submitted to the unknown for us timetable. Right after this ascent when we’d been inside the clouds one thought occurred to me that we could proudly declare: ‘We had been there where the sky met the ground’.

By the skin of our teeth climbed on the top we found ourselves at the Space station. There was a thought to stay for a night right there, because to walk somewhere else wasn’t the brightest perspective. But having thought about it thoroughly we swept aside this possibility. At this height and moreover next to the pass that would be terribly cold at night there. So after a short break the way down had begun.

Surely we were affected with both either the huge gain of the height during one day (by bus and on foot was about 2800 meters as a total) or just physical tiredness for want of habit. And for Lena it was the first mountain trip. So from the Space station down the serpentine road and till the institute named after Stenberg we were walking in complete darkness and in condition which was very close to zombies. And only Zhenya decided to go down ahead of everybody and not along the serpentine road but straight. That day all of us were surprised with his playfulness. As we found out later, descending almost in complete darkness he stumbled and rolled downhill. But that didn’t prevent him to be the first in the village and to give signals with a lamp showing the direction to us, who was walking in the dark.

With a help of Zhenya’s efforts the house at very moderate price 50 tenge per a person (as we were told later that was the fee per electricity) was waiting for us. We stayed in this house for a night. It was decided in the evening that Lena had to go back and Marina would accompany her. Till late at night we were trying to dry our boots, which got soaking wet during the day. But then we gave up this hopeless work and went to bed somewhere about three o’clock in the morning.

The next day began with the descent down to Big Almaty lake. The color of the lake was amazingly beautiful, but generally it was very natural for the glacial lakes. It was whitish-turquoise. Having drunk tea for the last time on the lake side we parted with Marina and Lena, who left for Almaty. And we started to drag ourselves along the river Ozernaya in direction of the pass with the same name.

On our way there we met a big group of the tourists from Ekibastuz, who were coming back from the Tourists’ pass. According to their words, the pass Aksu (one of the possible ways to Issyk-Kul) was blocked with the snow.

Marmots in the Northern Tien-Shan are probably the most widely spread living creatures. Their whistling kept making us turning around – it really sounded like human’s one. And also they trampled down very good paths, which actually had one disadvantage – if you were inattentive you could easily get into one of their burrows and break something. Taking into consideration that little amount of provision we had with us, very soon we started to dream to slaughter a marmot with the rocks and to try fresh meat. That was very illusory dream indeed, bearing in mind their swiftness and attentiveness.

By the way, speaking about fauna. At that height and in that season a traveler is usually bothered with two disasters in turn: either it rains and you walk soaking wet and cold or rain stops and like obeying to the looked out sun the swarms of the horse-flies appear. And they try to sting you and succeed in it even through the jeans and thick shirts. First appearances of rain certainly sweep them away and you even can’t decide what bothers you more. Thinking what is better we have come up to the place where our way was blocked with the river.

Ozernaya was the first river, which we had to force a crossing over. And to tell you the truth, we couldn’t make up our mind to do it for a long time, remembering one simple rule: to cross the mountain rivers only in the morning. But the perspective to dry early in the morning tomorrow and waste time on it was seducible to no one of us. That was better to cross the river today and to lay out the tents where that was possible to make the belongings dry and to receive something hot as a treatment for super cooling. Our hesitation finally disappeared after a man carrying a bicycle on his shoulders crossed the river before our eyes.

In brief, we took off our boots and ran on the ice-cold water and slippery stones. And then a series of incidents happened. Sasha owing to my and Zhenya’s effort and assistance crashed into the icy water. And Zhenya had to run across the river twice as he had left his look-see at the opposite bank. Later on it became a true tradition. In two days, for example, Zhenya left his axe on the bank in the same way.

We settled on a small hill not far from the bank for getting dry and spending the night. Mountains with slopes partly covered with snow rose to the south as a solid wall. When looking through the photos shot that evening at home I couldn’t choose the sunsets for printing. Each of mountain sunsets is beautiful and unique in its own way. The moments when the sun has disappeared but its light is still reflected like a red glow on the mountains situated to the east stick to one’s memory forever.

Not far away from us we saw a moraine for the first time (that time we didn’t know that was exactly a moraine) and it had such even edges that it seemed something made by human hands. We even called that place a ‘bunker’ as a joke.

And in the evening we had a rich and hearty meal. The cognac (there was much less left) was postponed for a while and vodka which was the warm healing remedy was taken out of the backpack. The toast of that evening was: ‘Well guys, now we know what a real forcing is but it has no relation to the movie’.

The next morning we started out towards the Ozerniy pass. Theoretically there exists a highway in this direction but in fact only a cross-country vehicle or a quadrocycle could ride through it. A group of people riding such quadrocycles rushed by when we were at an hour’s distance from the pass. At the same time we met two men from Bishkek moving from Almaty who were going to pass the route by the express method as they had only three free days.

And we saw the Ozerniy pass at last (3520 metres). The fact that we were already in Kyrghyzstan could be determined only by the GPS coordinates and the map. We didn’t see any boundary posts, men with guns and dogs or any other cordon attributes. We even had a feeling that Asia had a chance to eliminate all the boundaries some day just the way Europe is trying to do it now. It is necessary to mention that the hope was awfully ruined when we were getting back to Almaty by bus and had to pass the customs control twice (we were lucky to have registered in Cholpon-Ata, otherwise we would have troubles).

Not far away from the frontier we decided to halt and make some kidney beans with tinned stew meat. Who could know what our meal would turn out to be. The point is that we didn’t have an idea to soak the beans in the evening and did it only in the morning. The time before the dinner was evidently not enough for the beans because at the moment we put into the pot it was absolutely hard. We tediously boiled it for a long time and then decided that hot things can’t be raw and tried to eat it. It was really disgusting as the beans were hard and tasteless. But anyway we had to move forward because according to our plan we were supposed to get to the Chon-Kemin river by evening.

In a couple of hours a vast valley of the Chon-Kemin river with cloudy sky above was stretched in front of us. At the other side of the valley rose the Kungey-Alatoo mountain ridge, the second main ridge of the Northern Tien-Shan. But half an hour later we didn’t care about the beautiful views at all.

Our stomachs tried to digest the kidney beans, failed to do that and went out of order altogether. It was revealed in different ways. However, the typical thing was that the beans managed to find the way back outwards doing it repeatedly and grievously preventing us from sleeping, eating and drinking all the evening long. At night when the beans had been finally moved out of the stomachs along with all the things that had been there we fell asleep being exhausted. And that was the end of the Tuesday – the third day of our journey.


The boot with a vibram sole found by Zhenya on the bank of the Chon-Kemin which had been lying in the water for a long time judging by its condition showed expressively that the river was not quite an easy one. It was interesting to think of what had happened to the owner of the boot. Did he swim further with stream without one boot or did he walk? We wondered how he could do it.

We were roaming to no effect along the Chon-Kemin for rather a long time and even got over several streams towards the Jasyk-kul lake. The logic of that actions lied in the fact that the Chon-Kemin is flows from there and obviously the river-bed must be narrow there. In fact it turned out that the water ran much faster there. As a result we had to jump over all the streams in the counter direction. In one of the streams Sasha caught some small fish by hand but we had to let it off because of its food uselessness or insignificance.

All the stories we heard revealed that there were no safe bridges over the river in sight (except for the ferroconcrete bridge which was too far). Therefore the problem of forced crossing the river at that exact place where, judging by the map, it was comparatively narrow and divided into several branches was critical. To tell the truth, the river was overfilled with water because of the rain and we hesitated for long time before daring to wade it. That is why we decided that it was necessary to at least wait for the rain to stop and halted. We began cooking boiled rice which was supposed to be a remedy for our stomachs tortured by yesterday’s incident.

The boiled rice was eaten and we began to boil the water for tea but it was still raining and every drop made the possibility of our crossing the river more and more illusive. Then the divine intent sent help for us in the person of two Kyrghyzes hunters who offered to take us across riding to the other bank, not for free of course. But who said that the divine intent should be disinterested?

When the weather grew calmer the Kyrghyzes began to transport us and our backpacks in lots across the roaring river. The poor horses pawed the ground with all their might trying to grope firm ground and resist the strong current. From time to time they plunged into the water to the level of the belly. Several times my horse bent so much that I thought: ‘That’s all, we’re going to overturn’. But nevertheless the brave horses withstood and took us to opposite bank safely. Well, we thought, what would happen to us in case we conceived the idea of wading the Chon-Kemin. No rope would help. The rain had done its part and the river was just overfilled with water.

‘Will you give us the rope, eh?’. We heard this phrase from our Kyrghyzes about ten times both before the crossing and after it. We had been informed of the fact that local people were distinguished for their ‘simple souls’. Give it and that's that. But we stood firm not even because we didn’t want to give the rope away but because we were anxious it could be useful.

The Kyrghyzes told that we would have to cross three rivers and turn left before the third one, that way we were supposed to reach the Kok-Airyk pass. We finally gave them the rope but not the one they asked for. We gave them a thinner one.

The road along the Chon-Kemin valley has no increase of height and therefore doesn’t require any special effort. The effort had to be made to the small rivers flowing into the Chon-Kemin we were told about. So, we wandered along the North Cholpon in search of a place to cross the river for about two hours if only not longer. It was evening, about six o’clock, that is why the water in the river was just raging. While roving around small islands in the river-bed and trying to cross the river I found a wooden box which was very useful for us in the evening taking into account the fact that the place was very poor in wood for a fire.

By the way, we have made up our minds to spend the night at that bank and I even began to set up a camp while Sasha and Zhenya walked around in search of wood. However, in ten minutes the overnight rest was postponed because our explorers returned. And they told that the crossing was possible that day and we would have to moisten our feet in the Chon-Kemin again in order to get to the other bank.

You wonder why? The reason was in the history of the highway construction. Human mechanical ingenuity decided during the construction to make a bridge not over the river but over its new channel for saving of efforts. In other words, they built a bridge at the bank, dug a new channel under it and tried to redirect the river into it. However, the stubborn mountain river not only washed the foundation of the bridge away but also returned to the old channel. There was a rather useless construction connecting an island in the middle of the river with one of the banks and the connection was rather questionable. As a result we had to get to that island first and then go along a bridge rather high but awfully rattling and unsteady because of wind or any move. We were afraid of giving a cough there. Having jumped from the bridge to the wanted bank we felt firm ground underfoot and continued our trip.

It is necessary to say that by the end of that day crossing rivers and streams seemed something ordinary. We stopped taking off our boots and walked in the water in them. Am I wearing Gortex or not? Why shall I freeze my feet? That was the way we crossed the Tertunchu-Koy-Suu – the second of the four rivers we had been told about. After crossing it we decided to make an overnight stop.

Zhenya fell the only bush on the bank, arrange fireplace of several stones and in half an hour we were pleased with the warm and somnolent flame. Our boots and clothes which had gone through so many troubles that day were drying around the fire in all possible versions. And we were sitting near the fire getting warm and drinking the indispensable in the mountains admiral tea (usual sweet tea with a spoon of cognac).


The third river on our way along the Chon-Kemin surprised us with the presence of a small bridge, and so we didn’t have to wet our feet once again. However, the rain which began falling from the sky as if there was a special schedule didn’t give our boots a chance to have a rest. We passed the Kara Murun moraine and then having reached the fourth river (Orto-Koy-Suu) we turned away from the Chon-Kemin and set out towards the Kok-Airyk pass just as we had been told to do.

Any hunting is prohibited at that territory, therefore the animal world became more diverse at once. We were fed up with marmots and they didn’t arouse Sasha’s initial ecstasy. The scenery also changed little by little. Step by step it looked more like what we see in movies about the Southamerican Andes. But we saw golden eagles instead of condors. We ran against a nameboard ‘Burkut uya’ (‘Golden eagle’s nest’ in Kyrghyz) as if it was a confirmation. Obviously it was the name of a rock which in fact abounded in caves at a big height that could be perfectly used by golden eagles as homes.

There were snow and heavy clouds hanging over it to the left and to the right. We found the first and the second trailers we were also told by the Kyrghyzes about. Since the time the Cholpon-Ata-Almaty road was constructed there had been a lot of different equipment left and there are even several construction trailers which have been used by tourists moving over the pass as a shelter when the weather was bad for many years.

We settled in the more home-like right part of the second trailer with all the walls covered with notes of such travellers as we were. And we came across some very interesting examples like ‘28.02.2003. It has been snowing for three days, the pass is filled up. We have nothing to eat’. And somebody even drew a whole picture representing an island with a palm and a girl on the coast seeing a ship sailing against a background of the sun setting. Then some of us noticed that one of the inscriptions telling that somebody had got ‘frozen to death’ was dated with that day. Later on we met some times the notes of that group of tourists who got as we discovered into a snowfall at Kok-Airyk.

We just began settling down at our new home when Zhenya went out and cried to Sasha to run to him with a camera. And our not quite young naturalists devoted themselves to shooting the animals. That time mountain goats – marals or roes that were grazing on a heel at the other side of the valley got into the field of their vision.

In order to join the community of the around-Tien-Shan travellers we decided to make an inscription on a wall the trailer immortalizing the fact of our being at that hospitable place. Right at the entrance to the left of the table a seal of our historico-geographical society was attached and the precise GPS coordinates of that place were written down.

In the evening all the food was done away with or left for those who could get into the trailer after us. We were just bound to get to Issyk-Kul the next day.

A strong wind had been blowing all the night long and it had been snowing heavily, so the following day the mountains surrounding our refuge greeted us with sparkling whiteness.

The morning began with conquering the pass. The road to Kok-Airyk is a big serpentine sometimes leading one away to a kilometer’s or longer distance from the purpose. Such road forces a man to try to climb cutting the way and we did that from time to time. However, there were it was difficult to pass even along the serpentine. At one place the road was completely blocked and the talus (in addition to its steepness) was evidently the latest as the stones underfoot were just moving including even very big boulders. To crown it all, some weighty stone rolled down from above periodically and carried along a lot of the like. I’m sure that each of us had a good time to think of many serious things while getting through the talus.

Sunglasses in the mountains are a really indispensable and obligatory to be taken. Sasha half broke his glasses and so he looks like a pirate having a yawning hole instead of an eye covered with a little sport cap on most pictures.

Kok-Airyk is of course not Everest, it’s just a pass which doesn’t even have a complicacy category. But nevertheless we were just overfilled with elation and it was expressed in the joint singing of ‘We are the champions’ at the moment when we realized that we were on the last lap. What a wonderful and unusual feeling it is when you see clouds floating below you.

The Kok-Airyk pass is situated at a height of 3889 metres. That was the highest place we managed to get that time. Right at the pass there is an arch with a very optimistic inscription saying that the Cholpon-Ata-Almaty road has been built and international tourism can feel safe here. Probably everyone who reads this inscription after getting to Kok-Airyk from the Chon-Kemin feels skeptic about it. And someone has even shot to the metal Kyrghyz flag placed above the arch.

Zhenya thoroughly made a note on the snow: ‘Avalon-Karaganda’. Sasha wanted to make his picture taken naked up to the waist and his wish was fulfilled at once.

We found the signs of our ‘frozen to death’ friends’ stay again in a construction trailer at the other side of the pass. That trailer unlike ours was equipped much plainer and was more blown through by wind. And it was their refuge during the snowstorm. It turned out that they left us behind for about half a day. We couldn’t catch up with them at the descent though it would be interesting to talk to them.

At a height of more than three thousand metres on the descent there is a wonderful view of the Issyk-Kul lake and the snowy Terskey-Alatoo mountain ridge situated at the opposite side of the lake. It is an inexpressible sight.

It took us about three hours to rise to the pass. And we had the time before the evening to go to Issyk-Kul. We decided to go not to Cholpon-Ata as it was farther but to Chon-Sary-Oy – a village we were supposed to find walking along the Orto-Koy-Suu valley. Then the eight hours of burning descending to the lake came.

But even in spite of the fact that we were almost running we couldn’t avoid paying attention at the idyllic pictures around: sheep and horses pasturing peacefully without any shepherds, rich green meadows and the mountains framing the valley. On the way we even came across some ancient ruins but, to tell the truth, we had neither energy nor desire, nor time to look at them. We didn’t want at all to come to the village at night and knock against something unknown. And another thing was that we awfully thirsted for beer.

When we were quite close to Chon-Sary-Oy we met two Americans who wondered if there was any water in the mountains. They were going to pass over Kok-Airyk and return to Issyk-Kul via the Aksu pass. In fact that was an interesting route. And one of the foreigners was burning with the desire to see wild animals and hopefully inquired if we had seen any wolves or other living creatures above. We disappointed him since we hadn’t seen any beasts of prey on our journey (apparently, we were lucky).

I have always thought that beer is a magic drink and in some cases it can work wonders. And it proved to be truth. Having covered a whole day’s distance, first upwards and then downwards, (30 km in total) we came to Chon-Sary-Oy almost exhausted. Therefore it seemed to be a magic when at one o'clock in the morning after four liters of beer at the bank of the lake a desire to do 16 km more to Cholpon-Ata aroused in us. All the more, the bank in Chon-Sary-Oy left much to be desired. I was attracted there with the dream to wake up tomorrow at the sandy bank of Issyk- Kul.

We always do what we say. The road was peculiar. I’m still feeling amazed with the attitude of the local inhabitants to the tourists. Everybody comes up to get acquainted, some people even invite to their houses. But it is necessary to mention that most of these fellows were far from being sober. That is why in response to the offers to talk we said a polite ‘no’ and explained that we came to Cholpon-Ata just for the sport of it. And in about two hours the interest to us was worn out. Nevertheless we had to continue the trip.

We had got to Cholpon-Ata by sunrise. There we set up a tent in an apricot garden and fell asleep. We didn’t sleep long. The noise of airplanes flying by and people’s hubbub around awoke us. It turned out that people were gathering in the harvest not far from us. After having breakfast we started out in search of a beach, food, a bus station and the police.

Having registered and bought the tickets for the evening we had a meal in an Uygur cafe. We finally relaxed and went to the lake. There as it should be we got bad sunburn and spent a sleepless night in the bus to Almaty in the throes peculiar to sunburns. I took some Issyk-Kul sand as a souvenir reminding that we had achieved the object of our journey.

When we were descending from the Kok-Airyk pass an idea to count how many steps each of us had made and would have made within that six days came to one of our heads. We multiplied the figure by three and after rounding it up we got a very round and impressive figure – one million steps.

© Vitaliy Shuptar, 2005.

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