‘Tian Shen’ roughly translates from Chinese to ‘Mountains of Heaven.’ The rugged mountain range hugs the Chinese-Kyrgyz border. Dotted with 7000-meter-plus giants, high-altitude lakes, and the occasional family of nomads herding bison and horses.
The weather had begun to turn toward the end of my third day on the trail in the Tian Shen that I hoped would lead me to an isolated lake located at around 3,500 meters, about 70km from the eastern Kyrgyz village of Jyrgalan.
As I scrambled up the final 500-meter incline, I felt relieved. The trek had been tougher than expected, and I’d slept very little the night before as temperatures plummeted. But the end was near as the steep climb would reveal Boz-Ochuk Lake.
The final climb dragged on. Despite being just a few hundred meters from my destination, my legs had become heavy, and the gathering storm clouds released a gentle spatter of raindrops.
As the ground grew softer and my breathing heavier, the wind began to pick up. Determined to camp by the lake, a decision I’d shortly come to regret, I pushed on, ignoring the bruising sky above.
About an hour after I’d begun the ascent, I spotted the lake and found myself on even ground for the first time in hours. The lake was not how I imagined it. The crystal blue waters were instead jet black, seemingly absorbing the little light left filtering past the grey clouds. The sight was somewhat haunting; it felt like an omen for the gathering storm.
The weather was only getting worse; the gentle precipitation now resembled the beginnings of a storm, and as the sun dipped below the craggy mountains surrounding the lake, the temperature followed suit. I filled several bottles with water and started putting up my tent.
The wind did its best to frustrate me as the tent’s outer layer refused to stay put. Thankfully, the pegs and clips fell into place just as the rain started to soak through my coat. I threw myself inside and dropped a water purification tablet into the bottles.
I sat in the tent with mixed emotions. The solitude rewarded me with the privilege of seeing Kyrgyzstan’s rawest beauty; I witnessed wild horses galloping through the open steppe, young men no older than 13 herding bison through deep valleys, and spent hours with giant eagles and hawks circling overhead in search of prey.
However, a part of me had felt out of my depth. The passes had challenged me more than I expected, and I was more aware than ever of my isolation. One slip and a twisted ankle this far from help would likely be fatal. There were moments when I peered over my shoulder as the snow became deeper on a mountain pass and found myself having to silence the voice in my head, pushing me to panic.
Luckily, the tough part was behind me. I’d made it to the lake, and my ankles were intact. The next day promised to be a smooth walk out of the valley, and a sense of accomplishment washed over me. I wrapped myself in several layers of clothing, a safety blanket, and my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep.
The tent was about to collapse. The sound of flapping and the bending of poles violently tore me from my dreams. Several pegs had been pulled free, and my feet and hands were frozen. The rain had turned to snow, the wind had whipped up a blizzard, and several inches of white powder had accumulated on the tent.
My heart sank. My fingers were numb, and there were still several hours till dawn. The adrenaline dragged me from my slumber to a state of hyper-awareness. Waves of anxiety washed over me as I decided whether to wait out the storm and hope it cleared up before I froze or risk trekking for several hours with next to no visibility on uneven ground littered with boulder fields and river crossings. With several hours till daybreak, I forced myself to try and sleep as there was nothing I could do in the darkness.
The alarm buzzed around 6.00 am as the sun peaked above the mountain range. My fingers were starting to go numb, and my toes were no longer paying attention to my demands. Despite the storm howling outside, leaving was the best option. If my fingers got any colder, I’d be unable to take down the tent, and frozen toes would make walking impossible.
I peered out of the tent; just for a second, I forgot about my predicament and appreciated the beauty of my surroundings. The giant peaks littering the edges of the valley me were now nothing more than grey outlines behind a whirlwind of giant white snowflakes. I was terrified, but a part of me couldn’t help but feel privileged to witness such a brutal side of nature in complete isolation.
I thought about taking a picture, but as I removed my gloves to get to work taking down the tent, I decided it wasn’t the moment. Fortunately, half of the tent’s pegs had been ripped out during the night. In normal circumstances, removing and collapsing the poles takes seconds, but a combination of the wind and uncooperative fingers had turned the process into a nearly impossible task.
Every time the wind ripped the poles from my hands, I contemplated leaving the tent behind. Luckily, the poles eventually slipped free, and the tent collapsed with a satisfying thud into the thick snow.
I stuffed my bag, got my gloves back on, and began walking towards the hill I’d scrambled up in the rain the afternoon prior. The brief moment of relief I’d felt, having successfully packed away the tent was washed away as I felt the snowstorm grow in strength while peering down the disconcertingly steep hill.
I planned to follow the river out of the valley. What was a small stream the day before had turned into a raging torrent of water fed directly from the snow melting around Boz Ochuck. Squeezed between the river on my right and a snow-covered boulder field on my left, I began the descent. With every cautious step I took, ice-cold water filled my boots, and with every slip, the dread of a twisted ankle or worse haunted me.
Halfway down, my mind began to drift. I lost control of my thoughts for a split second. Fear engulfed me, my heart rate spiked, and I could almost feel my pupils dilate. As the adrenaline rushed through me, my 14-kilogram bag no longer felt heavy on my back, and all I could let myself focus on was the next ten metres.
A surge of adrenaline in a desperate situation is a surreal feeling. With the right amount of focus, your brain moves quickly to solve problems while your legs momentarily lose any sensation of fatigue. Controlling such a surge in energy is another matter, and for the next few kilometres, this became my biggest challenge.
A false sense of relief came over me as I reached the bottom of the hill. The lake was now hundreds of meters above me, and I hoped that the temperature would begin to rise. I decided this moment was worth losing a little heat from my fingers and pulled my gloves off, and took an incredibly unflattering selfie.
The river on my right had grown considerably and appeared to be swelling with every minute that passed. Almost shaking from the adrenaline, I managed to pull my phone out and grab a quick video of my predicament.
The storm continued to howl, and the terrain became almost impassable. No clear path forward remained as the river banks pushed up against the boulder field. Clambering across the field of giant boulders is tough enough on a dry day, but once covered in snow and ice, they become a sadistic obstacle course.
Choosing every step carefully becomes a priority. One slip is all it takes, and your legs could be crushed into the cracks and crevices hidden under the soft snowy blanket. Carefully checking every foothold with my hiking poles was a painfully slow process. The sense that every second left me that much colder had to be balanced with the danger of twisting an ankle.
The field felt endless, and the snow showed no sign of relenting. Furthermore, according to my map, I’d have to cross the river at least three times before getting to the village Novo-Voznesekova around 25 kilometres west through the valley.
My frustration grew as the gravity of my situation set in. I was moving too slowly. The river turned into a torrent, my feet were freezing, and I was still battling through the same boulder field hours after leaving my tent.
Mercifully, the boulders began to thin out and eventually gave way to deep shrubbery. My path began to narrow as the inevitable river crossing grew closer; the crashing white water plastered with chunks of ice awaited.
I removed my shoes and socks. My feet were as white as the snow, and unfortunately, they were about to lose whatever heat they managed to retain. As the frozen water rushed up toward my knees, I did my best to let my mind wander to a warmer place. I moved quickly, ignoring the numb pain rushing through my legs. Shaking and unsteady on the river’s far bank, I sat down on the nearest rock, squeezed the water out of my socks, and slipped my feet back into the icy boots.
I began to walk again. Ten meters at a time. In a situation like this, it doesn’t pay to think too far ahead. As I meandered down the valley, the blizzard slowly began to ease, and I’d occasionally look around and tell myself that, in spite of my predicament, this may be the most beautiful and isolated place I’d ever been.
The huge mountain peaks surrounding the valley were coated in thick blankets of snow reaching high into the clouds, while the hillsides leading up towards the mountains had a deep green colour topped with stretches of perfect white snowy patches.
The ten-meter stretches had begun to add up, and soon, I was facing the river once again. I imagined the snow had begun to melt by Boz Uchuk and was now feeding the river that seemed to be growing more violent by the minute.
A half-broken bridge stretched across a narrower section of the white water. Barefoot once again, I waded towards the planks of wood that would save me half the crossing. As I stood on the frozen bridge for a moment, I drifted into myself, and my exhausted brain asked what the hell I was doing in the middle of nowhere halfway up a frozen valley, in a river without my shoes on in Kyrgyzstan.
I hobbled toward a rock and put my frozen boots back on my equally frozen feet. I walked for around four hours more before reaching a 4×4 track. Realising that I was safe and that the road would lead me to the village, a wave of relief washed over me, followed by pain. The adrenaline was gone; my back, shoulders, and legs were shattered.
The rest of the day is mostly a blur. The track wound itself through the valley for longer than I’d hoped. By the time I reached the village, I couldn’t walk any further. I threw down my bag outside an old Soviet-style village house and decided that, after my ordeal, someone would take pity on me.
Soon, thanks to the incredibly good-natured people of Kyrgyzstan, a young man helped me into his old Lada, and I was on my way back to a guesthouse. It was over. The Russian pop music played through the car’s old speakers, and I couldn’t help but cry as the emotions of the past day washed over me.
As I sit here typing in a comfortable cafe in Barcelona, Buz Uchuk Lake feels a world away with its opaque black water and unforgiving temperament. Strangely, part of me is thankful for the experience; the fear I felt waking up in my tent half-frozen and completely alone dragged up an urge to survive from somewhere deep inside me that I didn’t know existed.