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The unexpected pleasures of hiking in Kyrgystan

A pretty young lady, name of Marina, arrived as agreed after breakfast.

Her smile and impressive command of English offered the best possible introduction and, whilst she wasn’t exactly the guide I’d visualised, it was a happy old camper that clambered aboard the minibus. She was my “social guide, to do the cooking and the translation”, she explained without so much as a nudge nudge wink wink, and the blokes inside the bus turned out to be our mountain guide and three porters. All of which filled me with a rather overwhelming sense of privilege. It had never occurred to me that a whole team of people would need to be assembled to get the white man over the mountain.

It was 11am by the time we started walking, a gentle sloping path alongside one of the many white water rivers. An idyllic setting but, for the first time since arriving in the country, the sky was looking uncertain and it was no surprise when the rain appeared just as we stopped for tea and packed lunches. The weather got steadily worse by mid-afternoon and the prospect of traipsing through the mountains for five days wearing a light jacket and a pair of shorts was diminishing in its appeal by the minute. A situation made worse when my left foot slipped off a stepping stone and dunked me up to the knee in an icy stream, and worse still when I did the same ten minutes later with the other leg. Bent double, with my head cowered into the oncoming wind, I was just going through the process of thinking how miserable life can be when you’re cold and wet when the rain finally stopped… and the hail began.

My hands had turned blue, all fingers paralysed in a half-grip position, and my teeth had started chattering uncontrollably. I was standing in a field, in a hailstorm, wet from the waist up, soaked from the waist down. The only bit of good news was that three of the lads were putting the tents up, an indication that there would be no more walking for the day. At least a chance to change into dry clothes, take shelter, maybe even stop trembling.

The missing porter appeared in the distance, his bright jacket standing out against the black sky, and I noticed as he drew closer to the rest of the party that he didn’t look ever so happy either. He yelled something to Marina through the noise of the weather and she explained to me, the smile now gone, that he had fallen in to one of the rivers. He was drenched from head to toe, as indeed was all the stuff that he’d been carrying; the poor guy must have felt more miserable than I did. And only then did the penny drop…within his dripping wet 30 kilo pack was my precious little bag of dry clothes.

But they weren’t dry clothes, were they boys and girls? They were the wettest fucking clothes you could possibly imagine, a sodden lead-weight package handed over with a mumbled apology and dumped unceremoniously into the corner of the tent. I’d managed to get the boots and socks and shorts off and could think of nothing else to do other than sit there trembling on the lumpy groundsheet, a sorry huddled figure clad only in wet walking jacket and, if you must know, extremely damp underpants. The only slither of good news was that my sleeping bag had been elsewhere and thus had been spared.

The team worked hard to try to cheer me up. A calor gas heater was introduced to the tent, followed by tea, hot soup and, later, plastic bottles filled with boiling water. My blue hands returned to a sort of crimson as I lay there in the 3-seasons sleeping bag, reflecting that this was obviously the season it hadn’t been designed for. The bottles proved an essential tool but the pleasure of their warmth was replaced by the fear of their possibly melting, or simply leaking on to my bare flesh and scalding my legs beyond repair. Just what on earth was I doing here?

By 3am it was freezing cold, and once again, so was I. My back hurt from the bone hard ground and everything else ached with the tension of trying to keep warm. There had been far more hours of lying awake than sleeping, ample opportunity to reflect on camping as a leisure pursuit, and more specifically, to question whether there had ever been a point in my life when I’d actually enjoyed it. Most certainly four more nights of this did not seem like a good idea, in fact it seemed the craziest, most depressing prospect known to man. At least I was the only paying guest, I was the boss, and if I decided we weren’t schlepping across the mountains with a bag of dripping laundry, my entire wardrobe for the next four days, that was entirely my prerogative. By 3.30 am, if not before, my mind was made up. Enough was enough.

When darkness lifted I poked into the spongy mess of clothes to see if there was anything at all that might be redeemable. To my surprise there were a few garments in the “extremely damp” category, as distinct from “piss wet through”, so I took the more promising little bundle in hand as I unzipped the canvas wall and scrambled out into the soggy field. It was a relief to stand up, to regain the freedom of movement and to be able to put up a challenge against the elements after more than twelve hours of feeble capitulation.

The cows took a break from their dawn munch to watch the strange man in sandals spreading his clothes out on the rocks. Little did they know that he would be putting them all back in his wet bag a couple of hours later and buggering off to a nice warm hotel to reconsider his immediate future as a Central Asian explorer. Then they stared in unison as the weird human walked up the side of the mountain, breathing air loudly into his lungs and flapping his arms like a flightless bird.

The sun came up over the highest of the peaks and announced to the valley that a new day had begun. It mattered not to the cows that wandered around regardless of the hour or to the white bubbling river that flowed around the clock… but it made all the difference in the world to me. The sight and the sound of raw nature reminded me why I was there in the first place and what had prompted me to embark on this journey without really thinking what might be involved. I should have known it would be tough at times, maybe most of the time, nature always is, but it only serves to make the rewards that much sweeter when finally they arrive. And by the time the rest of the team had emerged to share the new day, I already knew that we wouldn’t be turning back.

* * * * *

The sun shone for the next four days. We walked through meadows and valleys and followed pathways through the pine forests. We traversed boulders and scrambled over piles of loose scree to reach mountain passes almost 4000 metres above sea level and we climbed up to alpine lakes as green as the waters off the islands of Fiji. We saw cows and horses grazing amongst the wild flowers, cashing in on the final days of summer, and at night we camped alongside rivers that moved at the speed of a train. We feasted on hot soup and pasta and all sorts of other tasty treats and my smiling team of servants brought tea and biscuits to my tent as the meals were being prepared. Day one was soon a distant memory. Camping wasn’t so bad after all.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from or

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