Saturday, March 15, 2014


Caravan across Chai-Naanistan

     Tea and bread, you cannot escape it in Kyrgyzstan. That and invites home to sleep with the family are a couple of my favorite things about this country. Our taxi driver, Iliaz, who speaks absolutely no English is a wonderful example of Kyrgyz generousity and hospitality. Despite the fact that his three word vocabulary- "hello, Mr. John" severely limits communication (and my slim Kyrgyz does not help),
he is unrelenting in his requests that we stay at his home, enjoy a free taxi ride to the airport and "talk" on Skype when we return to the United States of America. Mr. Iliaz, you are a gem!

Iliaz and his wife Tamara. Eventhough you almost killed us, we appreciate your generousity!

     After more than two months on the road travelling through southern Kyrgyzstan and China, Bishkek feels positively cosmopolitian. Back at Interhouse Hostel to connect our circle and complete the first third of our big adventure, we are not quite ready to give up on winter and skiing, despite the coming Naurvooz (Spring Equinox) celebrations and decididly transitional weather. We were fortunate to meet up with a new friend, Mark Novacs, a Romanian living in Kazakstan,visiting Kyrgyzstan, who was game for adventure and had his ski gear with him. I'm not sure he knew what he was getting into by hitching his pony to our little cart, but off we all journeyed to Suusamyr (2-3 hrs South and 4,500ft above Bishkek) for four days of skiing and exploring.
With Mark, high above the Suusamyr valley on the summit of Belaya Grud' 3,800m.

       Once we broke through the valley fog, we found glorious blue skies, snow capped peaks as far as the eyes coulds see in every direction and inescapeable sunburn. We saw the same avalanche conditions we've seen everywhere in Central Asia - super weak facets on the ground with a thick solid slab on top. A classic continental snowpack in the middle of the largest continent on earth!
Suusamyr peaks rise above the clouds

       With sunny and warm weather, altitude and aspect were our friends and we found great dry corn conditions on high and North facing slopes. Once again, it felt like we were alone in a sea of untracked snow.
Our guardian angel in Suusamyr

      Our tolerance for mutton finally bottomed out during our stay in the Suusamyr Valley. After one visit to the only restaurant in town, we decided to opt for the healthy choice to fuel our adventures. We powered through our alpine days on a steady diet of dried noodles, Yak Yak bars and my new favorite condiment - canned sweetened condensed milk, which, combined with a couple teaspoons of instant coffee, makes a fine frontcountry latte.
Naurvooz celebrants in downtown Bishkek

     The greatest benefit of travelling without a plan, is adaptability. In this spirit we find ourselves today in an endless sea of a different kind. Birkas and turbans as far as the eye can see in every direction, this time at the Dubai airport on our way to Katmandu for a six weeks vacation from our central asian vacation. Thanks to everyone for following us! More to come soon!
Mountaineers' Hut on the trail to Ala Archa

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dreams Denied

Top secret spy photo at the border.

     Putting all the pieces together to travel independently with our skis into China took a good bit of work.  We had dreams of skiing off the Karakoram Highway; no big objectives, just adventure turns in a land far, far away. Unfortunately, the Gods had other plans for us.

Subashi yak on a thin snowpack

      First, southern Central Asia is having a very low snow year this year.  Everyone we talked to in Kashgar said we were crazy and stupid to try to ski, but we are used to hearing that. This time, however, they were right. Because of the political situation on the borders near Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afganistan, the West side of the Karakoram Highway is a "Forbidden Zone". Travel of any kind above 4,000m on Mustagh Ata requires a $3,000+ permit not to mention gale force winter winds and glacial ice. We might have been able to ski the East side of the road, below 12,000 ft, but it would have been on dirt. In the end, we left our skis in Kashgar and went looking for "cultural experience" in the Tajik Autonomous Zone towns of Subashi and Tashkurgan.
Our host in Subasi who curled up next to me at night and proceeded to snore like a chainsaw for 8 hours straight until he got up to pray at 5:30am.

The walls of Tashkurgan's Stone City with the Karakoram in the background.

      We drank salty yak milk tea, visited Tashkurgan's 1,400 year old Stone City and absorbed a bunch of Chinese Tajik culture (and a little bad bacterial culture as well!). Hitch-hiking our way North on the chinese Karakoram Highway, we found ourselves in a small coal truck.
       I've had a lot of scary moments in vehicles; from sliding backwards down the Fairy Lake Road at home in Montana to drunken Bolivian bus drivers pulling off 10 point turns on a hair-pin curve. But I've never been scared like the last hours of our journey out of Tashkurgan. The ride began with the usual basics- miscommunication surrounding the price on the ride, the Figuring of Ages and the shock and awe at our lack of children. As the "road" crested a pass, the tarmac turned to a skating rink. With a 2,000ft drop off to the river valley on the left, semi trucks choose to jack-knife right, face first into the sheer walled cliffs on the left. Our driver choose to slalomn through the insanity with his horn on permanent honk and, to our horror, actually accelerated as he made passes around blind corners. The only hope we had was that he valued his life as much as we valued ours, but with the culture of suicide bombings growing in this corner of the world, we were'nt too sure. I'll take this moment to reveal that seatbelt use is seen as a sign of weakness in the 'stans.
Kashgar kids

       We are chilling on the bus as I write this back in friendly Kyrgyzstan, so obviously we survived! Winding down another 24 hr bus ride and happy to be back in the KGZ. Onward toward Bishkek tomorrow (another 15 hrs by car) and hopefully a little more winter and skiing!

China, Kashgar and The Uyghur People

     It took us almost two full days in Osh to figure our where, when and how to take the bus to Kashgar. After arriving at the burned out, abandoned and apoctolyptic "new" bus station, we were still a little worried. Slowly, the bus filled, including three little old ladies who we suspected were smuggling heroin inside their candy boxes. Eleven of us borded the "sleeper" cab and we were off at around 10pm. 
      The journey took us 25 hours, 12 of which we spent driving. The other 13 hours we spent enduring childish beratings, searches, and endless waiting all at the hands of the chinese military. The border patrol were particularly interested in Deb's feminine hygiene products, all the heroin the little old Uzbek ladies were carrying, and my Black Diamond snow saw.
       Somehow, we made it to a bed in Kashgar by sleeptime and were ready to check out town in the morning. The cultural/political situation in Xinjiang is similiar to Tibet, though much less publicized. The Uyghur people,their religion and culture are literally and figuratively being bulldozed, over-run and buried by the Han Chinese.

Uyghur man at the Kashgar Bazaar

      The Uyghurs, however, are not going down without a fight. What is seen by the outside world as terrorism, and billed by the Chinese as such, as well, are the last desperate breaths of a people fighting an un-winable war. Sad.
Hot peppers in the market

      Kashgar is crazy. One side of the street is crumbling mud hovels with thriving and lively street markets while across the boulevard are three story malls filled with plastic goods, giant plasmatron TV billboards and 20 floor cement tenament buildings. Deb and I enjoyed jumping back and forth, sport shopping and being the only tourists in a huge melting pot as we preprared our own goods for a trip to the mountain village of Subashi and Mustagh-Ata . . . without our skis. But that's another story.
Cultural graveyard with Ferris Wheel in background.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Almost Heaven in Kizil-Shoro

     Maybe you saw our frenzy of Facebook postings during our brief meeting with wi-fi technology in the city of Osh? Maybe our computers are not as useful as we thought they would be! From this bustling and vaugely dangerous city near the border of Uzbekistan, we made our way up the Ak-Buura river valley through an incredible 40 kilometer long steep-walled canyon to the tiny and remote village of Kizil-Shoro. Kizil means red, but we could never learn what "shoro" meant. Maybe "breathtakingly beautiful"?
Azuilkhan and Abdulakbar's home in Kizil-Shoro. Our gracious and chai-crazed hosts.
     We had heard that there was a possibility that there was skiing potential in this area, though skiers had never been here. Time for a little exploration! On the advice of our host family, we ventured up into the various jailoos located above town. Our tours included Bielle Pass, Mingh-Tkah and Mingh-Jlkah.
Mingh-Jlkah Panorama

     Our days began with a secret cup of coffee, boiled in our room, then potato soup with potatoes and "eagle" meat, and chai. We'd then head off into the mountain and into the bright sunshine. After 4-5 hours of hiking and skinning we'd find ourselves at around 4,000 meters of elevation, or around 12,000 ft. 
D skinning above Kizil-Shoro Village

      Everything about this place was heavenly for skiing . . . except the skiing! In additon to an amazingly thin snowpack, barely covering sharp, skibase-eating rocks, we found terrifying avalanche conditions.  We did manage to find turns everyday, some better than others, and actually had a great run down the North facing slopes above the jailoo at Mingh-Jlkah on our last day.
D and the boys of Kizil-Shoro

       This little blog isn't really in-depth enough to get into the nitty-gritty details of some of our adventures, but ask me when we get home about Deb's naked bath/rubdown at the hands of Azuilkhan, the breakfast porn DVD, or the 4 hour coal-truck ride back through the canyon to Osh city. I'll tell you a good story!
Blending in!

    Onward to the city of Kashgar, China. The bus leaves sometime between 7pm and midnight and takes 12 hours or 24 hours depending on who you talk to. We figure we have a 50/50 chance of making it over the border with our visas. Facebook, Youtube and maybe Google are unreliable or banned in China, so it may be a while before we are able to be in touch.

Jalalabad and a Goodbye to Arslanbob

O     After two weeks straight of amazing skiing, during which, each day we would swear to each other that we'd just had "the best day ever", we were ready for three things: a hot shower, maybe some pizza and a little wireless internet therapy. Three crowded marshruka rides and three hours later, we were in downtown Jalalabad.

One of the best days ever!
      We struggled in Jalalabad, and it seemed we were striking out on all fronts. With just a few hours of daylight left, we were saved by an angel who we met in a taxi. Our new friend Venera welcomed us to her home, gave us a hot shower, fed us a huge plate of plov and chai, and unleashed her children on us. No internet therapy, but honestly we didn't have time for Facebook.
Venera, the Angel of Jalalabad.
     Deb asked this beautiful and intelligent woman how she had met her husband and we learned that she was one of Kyrgyzstan's many "Kidnapped Brides". She had been taken during her university studies by her future husband and his family. She said she cried everyday for the first month, but was now excited to maybe add a couple of daughters to her crazy brood of three boys. We later learned that about 20% of Kyrgyz relationships are "Love Marriages".
     We returned, refreshed to Arslanbob and after another week of skiing, it was time for goodbye. We made so many great friends in town and our farewell was a difficut one. Of course, there was a party with lots of chai, naan and a little vodka. As tough as it was to hug Hayat and all the Arslanbob guides goodbye, the hardest parting was with Abdullahjon and Ullmashon. Not a few tears in everyones eyes, but I have a feeling we will be back to this awesome mountain town, maybe to ski Babesh-Ata in the Spring! 
Abdullahjon and Ullmashson, we'll be back!