Back in 2005 a Russian Mi-8 helicopter crashed on South Inylchek glacier at Khan Tengri Base Camp high in the Tien Shan Mountain Range in Kyrgyzstan. ‘It was about to land,’ my guide told me, pointing at the helicopter crash site, ‘when a gust of wind swept across the chopper (which was well beyond its weight limit) and sent it spiraling in to that glacial moraine.’ Apparently, the chopper promptly caught fire upon impact but miraculously all 15 passengers survived, my guide cheerfully told me. I was standing about 100m from the crash site having a minor existential crisis as I contemplated boarding a similar-looking Russian Mi-8 heading back to Kakara Base Camp. Admittedly, it didn’t help when our group was told our passenger load was too heavy for the helicopter to gain altitude quickly enough to clear the mountains. Right. Plan B – there was this spot in the middle of the glacier where there was enough clearance for a helicopter to gain altitude with our full group and kit. However, in order to get there, we‘d have to helicopter over in two groups to minimize weight. Myself and a few other group members headed out first. We were flown across the South Inlychek Glacier and unceremoniously dropped off with our kit at its center. We shielded our eyes against the wave of snow kicked up by the chopper’s propellers as we watched it slowly ascend. The comforting sounds of the chopper’s blades faded into the distance. We were alone. No sat phone. No guide. Yes, I thought to myself, this beats being back at the office in my open-planned cubicle and ergonomic chair. The ensuing stilly quiet was magnified by the groaning sound of the glacier underneath, the gravelly scrape of someone’s boot against the ice, a zipper on a rucksack being ripped open, someone nearby saying ‘he’s coming back, right?’ and the ensuing brave-nervous chuckling of the group (which one is obligated to join in more to relieve your own tension than anything else). Before long, I saw a distant glint of sunlight reflecting off what could only be a helicopter heading towards us with the remainder of our group. Grateful to see them, we jumped on board the helicopter and flew back to Kakara Base Camp.
Rewind 8 days.
I was in Almaty, Kazakhstan standing around waiting for our driver to arrive who would take us through Charyn Canyon to Karkara Base Camp – the gateway to the Tien Shan Range, locally known as the ‘Celestial Mountains’. Bleary-eyed, I knocked back a couple of over-the-counter pain killers and started to question my life choices the night before. The heavy drinking with my small group of fellow trekkers no longer felt like such a wise idea. I was already a bit knackered from having spent a whirlwind 24 hours sightseeing in Almaty (I’d highly recommend the Ascension Cathedral) and now was about to spend the next seven days trekking between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan towards the Sary Dhas Valley and ending up high in the Tien Shan Range.
I’m not sure how much time passed before we saw another human being – a group of nomads living in a small yurt pitched up high on a plateau. I think they were equally pleased to see us as we were invited inside for fermented yak milk (kumis; which tasted as delightful as it sounds, but it’s hard to refuse the unwavering Kyrgyz hospitality). The 7-day trek was certainly one of the more isolated hikes I’ve ever done. Hiking in the Himalayas you’ll often pass other visitors on the trail, giving them the internationally recognized ‘nod of hello’ on the way past. Here it was different. We’d easily go a full day without spotting anyone.
The tough hike was made easier by the scenery (and, of course, our horses who carried most of the camping gear). Hours spent climbing steep, fir-tree lined canyons and boulder-strewn gorges to reach passes and plateaus was rewarded by sweeping valley vistas dotted with wild horses and filled by deep lakes. Trekking 8 to 9 hours a day over fairly rough terrain somehow always sounded easier when planning it over a bottle of wine….
After 7 grueling days we finally reached Sary Dhas valley where we radioed for our first helicopter. The silence in the valley meant we could hear its approach from miles away (much different to London where all I can hear is urban foxes screaming through the night as they wage an epic battle over an empty domino’s pizza box). Our excitement was high as we all threw our bags into the helicopter and lifted off deep into the snow-covered peaks of the high Tien Shan.
Base Camp Khan Tengri is located deep within the Range on the South Inlychek Glacier at 4,000m. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the most scenic campsite I’ve stayed at in a fair while. Opening your tent in the morning to be greeted by a blast of fresh air and the Celestial Mountains is a sight to behold. The camp, which sits at the foot of the Khan Tengri and Pobeda peaks (the two tallest mountains in the range at 7,010m and 7,439m), was our base as we explored the glacier on foot.
After long days of glacier trekking there was nothing better than returning to base camp to use the on-site spa which was a big tent with a dangerously warm heap of coals inside onto which we threw water to make a sauna. After twenty minutes in the sauna and the subsequent naked dive into the fresh snow, my aches and pains were temporarily forgotten.
Three days of glacial trekking and spa pampering later, it was time to leave the glacier by helicopter and fly back to Kakara, which is where the start of this blog began. Needless to say, and as I’m writing this post, our Mi-8 made it back safely (although I cant necessarily say the same for my nerves)…..
Practical Info for Hiking in the Tien Shan
The Tien Shan Mountain Range spans the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China and has a number of jumping points; Karkara being just one of them (some of the easiest short hikes in the range launch from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan). Obviously, as with all mountain hiking, trips need to be well planned and you need appropriate back-up to ensure that your trip is safe.
There are a whole host of trekking outfits that offer trips in to the Tien Shan range (start by taking a look at the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan website as they offer trips as well as advice and guidance if you want to hike solo). I traveled with Explore Worldwide but sadly they no longer seem to offer the trip. The closest I’ve found (in fact it’s nearly identical) is offered by KE Adventure Travel.