Most travelers have that one defining story. The story they tell everywhere they go about the craziest thing that has happened to them during their travels. Up until Kyrgyzstan, I did not have a defining story, merely pleasant occurences and the occasional “once I got lost and wandered around for a few hours.” My travel story came to me July 13, 2017 in Kyrgyzstan.
July 12 was spent like any day in Bishkek, in the office working on Visit Kyrgyzstan’s social media accounts. Halfway through the work day, a guy walked in asking about what to do in this part of the country, where should he trek, what is the best way to get there, and so on. I was only half paying attention. Yet, towards the end of the conversation, I butted in and suggested checking out Trekking Union Kyrgyzstan’s site, because there was a two-day tour to Song-Kül that upcoming weekend. We ended up exchanging Facebook accounts, because I too was interested in the two day trek.
Rashad (not his real name, but the anglicized version his Egyptian name) messaged me the next day saying he did not think the trek would work out, and asked, instead, if I would be interested in going to Lake Kol-Tor. Me, wanting to adventure with someone, mainly for the reason of needing someone to take pictures of me, after a little bit, said yes. The next day, we were off to Kol-Tor.
The adventure started off rocky. We were to meet at Q’s Coffee at 8:30. I left the house at 7:30, managed to take the wrong bus for 30 minutes, changed buses, got off a few stops too soon, and ran to the coffee shop. I got there at 8:50. Instead of enjoying my iced coffee, a daily occurrence, we hailed a taxi and headed towards the East Bus Station. Rashad, consulting Google, heard the best way to Kol-Tor was to take the marshrutka to Tokmok. Once in Tokmok, we realized how wrong tha was. The easiest route would have been to Kegeti and hiking from there. Rather, we had to hire another taxi to take us to the trail head. That alone took $10-15, expensive by Kyrgyz standards.
When the taxi dropped us off, we still had a small hike to the trail head. However, a family going up the same way, saw us and offered us a ride (it took a lot of hand signals to understand this message as neither of us spoke Russian or Kyrgyz). We climbed in the car, a five-seater, in which there were already 6 people in the car, we made 8. Fitting everyone and both our backpacks in the car took a lot of “tetrising.” After a very, very bumpy ride, the family arrived at their farm and we were off again on our own.
As both me and Rashad were beginner hikers on our first actual trek up a mountain, with no map, we did not start off all that bad. The trek started out pretty okay, but an hour into it, it started to rain. Neither of us had rain gear. Along the way, we passed a few trekkers, we always asked how much further. “An hour or two” was the answer we received every time. It was way longer than an hour.
By the time we reached the top of the large hill/small mountain that we climbed, we were drenched in both rain and sweat, hungry, and still could not see the lake. It had taken us almost four hours to hike up and we still had no clue how much farther we had left. It was getting cold and we were tired. At the top, there was no definite trail, Rashad went in search. He found one and we took it. It was the wrong trail. Instead of leading us to the lake, this trail lead us to a dead-end, but a dead end about 30 minutes in. We went back to the top, ate a quick lunch, and attempted to dry off. At this point it was 3:30 and we needed to start heading back if we had any hope of being in Bishkek that night.
On the way down, in our mostly dry clothes and waterlogged boots, it started to rain again. Rashad spotted a tented area and we headed over to see if we could utilize the camper’s shelter. When we reached the tented area, there four people already under. One Russian lady gladly invited us in to take shelter from the storm. By the time we had set our bags down, we were being offered compote (the best drink ever) and cookies. As we sat around chatting, the rain only came down harder. We ended up waiting in the shelter for over an hour before it finally cleared up. Once the rain had passed, we all ran to the fire to attempt to finish drying ourselves and warming up. Best of all, we were offered coffee!
After we had dried off around the fire, we said our goodbyes to the nice Russians and continued on our merry way. By the time we were down the mountain, we spotted the cabin that started the trail. Rashad wanted to call a taxi to take us back to Bishkek, and by this point I was more than ready to pay however much it would take to get us back. Rashad called into the cabin asking if anyone was there, he received a reply in Arabic. This alone freaked him out, as he was not expecting his native tongue to be spoken in the middle of nowhere in Kyrgyzstan. Knowing he was encountering Arab people, he gladly asked for assistance. The Arabs, who we later learned were mostly Saudis, offered us in for a traditional meal.
Let me tell you, the chicken and rice were pretty good and satisfying for someone who was starving and exhausted. The Saudis were nice enough to drive us back to Tokmok where we then were able to take a shared taxi back to Bishkek.
Arriving back to Bishkek had never felt so good. By the time we got back at 10:30 we were exhausted beyond belief, our bags were soaked, we were cold, but most of all, we were so thankful to be back. I learned a very important lesson that day, the day I did not actually see Lake Kol-Tor, never hike a mountain as a beginner with a beginner without a guide. Our situation ended very fortuitously, but it could have ended very badly. We were lucky to run in to people at the right time. But on the bright side, I now have a story to tell about how I got lost in the mountain, caught in the rain, drank compote with Russians, and dined with Saudis.