Hiking is one of our great loves so we will be aiming to hit as many trails as we can in the next 16 months. At home, we try to hike most weekends in the Summer plus a few weekends snowshoeing in the winter. We hike following well defined trails plus we arm ourselves with detailed trail descriptions and clear maps. To prepare for hiking we have access to an abundance of recent trail descriptions so that we can be fairly sure that the trail is within our capabilities. We have rarely, if ever, undertaken a hike that is beyond our capabilities. We can be thankful for the Washington Trails Association and local hikers for the fantastic trail work they do and information they provide for hikes in the Cascades and Olympics.
When we hike overseas we usually take a guide and sometimes a porter (or horse/donkey and horseman) for their local knowledge of trails. Many of the world’s famous trails in the Himalaya and Andes are well-documented but we found that this is not the case in Central Asia. For some reason, writers of guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Bradt) provide useful detail for hiking to Everest Base camp, the Annapurnas, or Cordillera Huayhuash but neglect to provide any information for the Bachor trail (Tajikistan) or the Holy Lake trail in Arslanbob (Kyrgyzstan). I find this a little odd since surely the main reason to come to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is to hike and get into the mountains!
Our first hike in Central Asia was the 4 day Holy Lakes hike starting in the delightful village of Arslanbob in Southern Kyrgyzstan. The trek was arranged via the excellent CBT (Community Based Tourism) office in the village. The CBT provided a guide, a porter (we were out of shape!), a cook, tents, and sleeping bags. We knew from guidebooks that the hike was four days and crossed a pass at 12300 ft (3750m). Or, maybe the pass was 3500m or 3600m. The CBT office was somewhat vague! There were no decent maps of the area and the CBT office had only a hand drawn representation of the local trails. We had no idea about the trail conditions nor did we have any idea of the length of the trail or approximate walking times between camps. The trail conditions proved to be very challenging at times and the climb up to the pass required some scrambling over very loose and steep scree with all hands and feet on the rock. The top of the pass was snow covered with a scary drop at one point, which could have been lethal if we had lost our footing.
Our third hike in Kyrgyzstan was in the more remote Pik Lenin region in Southern Kyrgyzstan. The local CBT sent us information on 10+ hikes ranging from 1-9 days. Once more there were no maps, little information on walking times, altitude, and trail conditions. It was hard to know how to pick one trek since they all sounded similar. With the information we had to hand we decided to go to the area and hope we could get more information at the CBT. At the CBT we saw some beautiful photos of the various trails but still there was scant information about the routes. In addition, our guide for the trek spoke very little English and although he knew the trail well he couldn’t advise us on walking times or altitude. The office had some very poor quality topographic maps of the area and a hand drawn map of the trails on the office wall. We decided to hike three days to the high alpine lakes at Besh Kol. In the office we saw 3 different altitudes for the high point of the hike (3600, 3750, and 4005m). The office and guide were unclear as to where we were camping on day two which would be our highest camp.
CBTs hire out tents, sleeping bags and mats but often the gear is not suitable for the conditions you might face. Our tents in Besh Kol withstood some fierce rainfall but would have definitely struggled if it had snowed. Our sleeping bags were rated down to 5C, which again would not have been ideal in the snow.
Why should all this matter?
When you are hiking at high altitude in areas where there are no rescue services it is handy to know what you are letting yourself in for and to know altitude gain so that you can plan accordingly to avoid the risk of Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS). I appreciate, there are hikers who are comfortable following GPS plots and are happy with dealing with uncertainty but that is beyond our comfort level and from what we could see on the road beyond the level of most travelers in Central Asia.
So, what are we going to do about it?
We thought it would be useful to document our hikes in words and pictures so that hikers like us could make a decision on whether it was worth the effort to make the long journey out to some of the trailheads.
We don’t have a GPS device with us and we are not going to provide maps or definitive trail guides but we will try to give you an idea of the trail from our perspective.
What kind of hikers are we?
At home in the Cascades, Olympics and Sierra Nevada ranges, we are happy walking up to a week on well-defined trails or well-known backcountry routes. We have lightweight gear (tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment) and we eat freeze-dried food. We have walked up to 15-16 miles and gained up to 5000 feet of elevation in a day, although 8-12 miles and 2000-3500 feet of elevation gain is more typical for us.
In Asia, we will hire tents, sleeping bags, and use guides for their local knowledge. In the past, we have hiked up to 17 day teahouse treks in the Himalaya and 10 day fixed camp treks in the Central Tien Shan.
We are strong walkers with a lot of stamina but we don’t have the confidence to strike out on our own without the kind of information we have at home.
How do we rate hikes?
Scenery: the main reason to hike! Our favorite type of scenery is high, snow-capped mountain ranges with glaciers and lakes, although we also enjoy forests and valleys.
Cultural interest: does the trek pass through areas with interesting village life or cultural spots like pilgrimage sites?
Difficulty: how strenuous did we find the trek? Are there any technically challenging sections that required scrambling or maneuvering with exposure? Underfoot conditions also play a part in the difficulty of a trail: is the trail steep and rocky or well-graded with switchbacks?