Fear and Loafing in Kyrgyzstan

by Dave Fairweather

Everyone knows that all students are lazy work-dodging layabouts who spend all day watching daytime television and eating frozen pizzas, so how did nine students from seven different UK universities actually manage to complete a month long expedition in Kyrgyzstan despite having only seven months to plan it and being spread out all over the country? Read on

In November 2004 notices were placed on a number of popular UK kayaking websites asking for UK based students who were interested in taking part in a whitewater expedition which was to be organised and completed entirely by students. Several keen students responded and a selection event of sorts was held in North Wales just before Christmas. Aided by perfect river levels and the indispensable and seemingly infinite knowledge of the one and only Dave Manby, expedition boater of legendary proportions. A fantastic few days were had culminating with a team of nine eager paddlers, a chosen destination and to top it all off a dollop of excitement and anticipation. So it was that we had seven months to plan a month in Kyrgyzstan.

Planning for the expedition was done primarily via a "members" area on our website (www.kayakstan.net), which was the only realistic way of doing this given that the team members were spread throughout the country. In the months leading up to the expedition, maps were sourced, trucks were booked, and advice was sought from anyone and everyone. We knew of only three previous groups that had been paddling in Kyrgyzstan along with a whole bunch of Russian rafters, all of whom proved to be useful and helpful in sharing knowledge. Preparation was made all the more interesting by the small matter of the country having a revolution in the months leading up to the trip, the team decided that it would take more than a revolution to spoil their summer and carried on regardless.

One possible obstacle that threatened the team was that upon arriving at Heathrow the team had only met up twice since Wales; the student rodeo and an expedition first aid course. Somewhat surprisingly given the long distance nature of the organisation, we had all the kit we needed and a few nifty gadgets to make expedition life a bit more bearable. After some sweet talking and cunning weighing techniques we had all our boat and gear on the plane; nothing was going to stop us now.

After being collected at Bishkek airport by two immense six-wheeled army trucks followed by a quick visit to the markets to stock up on essentials like food and axes, it was off to the mountains to find some rivers. A vague plan had been formulated based on the information we had which involved looking at some rivers close to Bishkek before investigating the multitude of valleys feeding Lake Issyk Kul and then heading south for some bigger volume action on the mighty Naryn and its tributaries. The team wasnt entirely sure what we would find, were we too late? too early? Would the rivers be too steep? too flat?

We werent to be disappointed, the first river we investigated, the Ala Medin, provided us with two days of good continuous grade 3 and 4 paddling with a committing gorge and some tricky moves to warm us up. After some more exploring and a brief return to Bishkek to collect our ninth member (who got himself misplaced en-route from Delhi bloody students!), it was time to head towards Lake Issyk Kul, stopping on the way for a surprisingly exciting bigger volume run on the Kerkermeren River.

As for the country, none of the group had visited anywhere in Central Asia before, and we weren't sure what we would find there. Kyrgyzstan is an Islamic country and was formally a part of the Soviet empire, both of these influences are evident when travelling through the country and they combine to form a unique and enticing atmosphere. The scenery seemed to become increasingly dramatic, unspoiled and beautiful as we travelled through the country and further into the Tien Shan mountain range that runs through central Kyrgyzstan. The people we encountered were, for the most part, amongst the kindest and most hospitable any of the team had encountered in their previous travels around the globe. Always offering a cup of chai and some bread and butter, never asking or accepting anything in return. The lucky were given a warm place to sleep on a cold night and the unlucky, a bowl of fermented mares milk, a local favourite to be tried once and never repeated! The teams' sense of wonder at this incredible country only seemed to grow as the trip wore on.

Making our way along the south shore of Issyk Kul was where having two trucks came into its own, the team split in two and hopped past each other exploring the steep glacial rivers feeding the lake. The rivers we found were generally low volume, steep and of a much more continuous nature than commonly found in the UK. Whilst most of the rivers we paddled in this area were grade 3 to 4+, their continuous nature meant that they were much more demanding than anything of this grade would suggest. The quality varied with some being barely worth paddling and others proving to be gems, the Barskon and the Jeti-ghz were personal highlights.

After a quick stop in Karakol the team headed over a particularly high (and cold) pass, pausing only for truck repairs and snow boating, in order to reach the Sary Jaz river and its tributaries. Upon negotiating the pass we were confronted with a ghost town that had apparently once been home to several thousand people and a thriving tin mine, this somewhat interfered with our plans of buying fresh bread and meant a few days of living on pasta and tinned tomatoes. The reason we had come to such remote and inhospitable (although beautiful) parts was the lure of the Sary Jaz River. We had heard several tales of this remote river that flows into China and although the prospect of a ten day walkout over mountain passes had deterred us from paddling the bulk of the river, the maps that we had acquired showed several potentially interesting sections and tributaries. Some punishing walk-ins found us some beautiful tributaries whilst an equally punishing drive produced only several kilometres of braided flat water. So mixed results there.

After exhausting the possibilities in this part of the country (without paddling into China), we headed back over the pass to Karakol with its plentiful surrounding rivers and lively nightlife. The Arashan River was a real trip highlight, beginning with a relaxing dip in hot springs to ease a few aching heads before negotiating the eight hours of relentlessly steep and demanding river ahead of us and climaxing with a must-boof 4 metre drop. This was a river that left everyone buzzing and chattering for the next few days as we headed south to the Naryn River.

The Naryn River is the largest in Kyrgyzstan and drains the entire Tien Shan mountain range before flowing into Uzbekistan. The Naryn provided us with an epic five day multi-day paddle and some great quality high volume whitewater as well as all manner of shenanigans involving locals and horses. Shortly before the town of Naryn, the river is joined by the Kichi Naryn (small Naryn) which is ironically almost the same volume as its larger brother. With its incredibly committing gorge and much-bigger-and-steeper-than-it-looked-from-the-road rapids, the Kichi Naryn was a firm favourite of the team and one of our most exciting paddles.

For the final few days of the trip the team split; four went north to the big volume Chu and Chong Kemin rivers and five heading to investigate the steep little river flowing from the Song-Kl Lake at 3000 meters and joining the Naryn at 1100 meters that we had spotted on the map. The two groups met up again in Bishkek to exchange stories and one last slap up meal before saying goodbye to our indispensable drivers and interpreter at the airport and preparing for the inevitable arguments with airport staff about boats, weight limits and excess(ive) baggage charges. The flights home were quiet, with everyone contemplating the amazing people, landscapes and paddling that had formed such an unforgettable experience. One team member, due to a booking mix up, was left with an 11 hour stop over at Moscow to recount his memories.

All in all, the trip was a success; the team had some great paddling (about 20 paddling days over the month), explored some new places, documented some new rivers and all returned in one piece. In total we had just 3 swims, 1 lost paddle and 1 broken boat. Not bad for a bunch of work shy students.

Thanks to all who assisted the team, especially BCU expeditions board, Danny and the team at Desperate Measures, Sweet Protection, Boulder Adventures, Sea Specs, Nike ACG, Halina Imaging, thamesweirproject, unsponsored and all the associated universities.

More info at www.kayakstan.net