Like true hiking amateurs, we’d run out of water.
It was another hour’s climb to base camp and the nearest river was twisting below us on the valley floor. I said to Steve, “there’s only one thing for it.” Pulling from my pack the bottle of lager we’d jokingly brought with us, I twisted off the plastic cap and took a massive gulp. The nectar of the gods. To this day, I stand by my next statement — “this is the best beer I’ve ever had.” Steve finished the bottle before we continued dragging our bodies up the mountain.
The trek over the Ala Kul Pass in Kyrgyzstan was my first proper hike. It started in the town of Karakol, where I’d met Steve in a yurt and we’d teamed up to increase our survival prospects.
For it was now late September and Central Asia’s warm months were a distant memory. We rented a tent and sleeping bags, then took the marshrutka to the start of the trail. Getting up and over the Ala Kul Pass would require three days of walking.
The start was easy. The dirt road went through sleepy farming villages, past cows grazing in green fields. Soviet-era trucks sat rusting, beside yurts guarded by mounds of empty vodka bottles.
It wasn’t long before these dubious traces of civilisation were behind us. The river we’d been following had grown steadily wider, its turbulent waters making a cacophony that filled the valley.
The view was stunningly beautiful, crystal-clear water fringed by wild pine. Autumn’s colours were tearing across the forests, violent bursts of red and orange that warned of the impending winter.
My thoughts eventually turned to getting my tired legs to the night’s camp. We slept on a cold patch of earth surrounded by jagged peaks, the teeth of a beast that watched us from the sky with a billion glittering eyes.
Steve and I woke the next morning in the freezing cold, casting envious glances at the hikers cooking themselves a hot breakfast. We snacked on cheese and stale bread, fuel for the 600 vertical metres we had to climb to reach the Ala Kul Pass. We took the steep track up, trying to keep warm in the mountain’s shadow.
The reward for our effort was obvious once we reached the top and saw Ala Kul Lake. Its turquoise waters looked artificial, an illusion heightened by the perfectly meandering river that snaked from the melting glacier.
We crossed over the boulder field and climbed the torturous final stretch, ecstatic to reach the top of the pass.
This was the moment that made me fall in love with the mountains, and would later lead me to Nepal. Snow-covered summits stretched off into China, an unending wave of ice that melted into the horizon. There were shades of blue that I never knew existed, as if nature had been hoarding them all for herself.
But what impressed me most was the raw power of the place. A bitter wind roared off the glacier, while eagles soared above us. This was nowhere for humans to linger.
Steve and I hurried off the exposed pass, surfing down an almost vertical shale field. The terrain changed, the snowcaps replaced by muddy brown peaks. We walked past the remains of nomad camps, the owners taking their yurts and horses down to warmer pastures.
By now my feet ached thanks to hiking in sneakers. So after a risky river crossing, I was relieved to stop for the night in Altyn Arashan, a village known for its natural hot-springs.
I even got to soak in a private cabin, but don’t assume that this was luxurious. A throwback to communism, the cabin was a concrete bunker with no lighting. It was so dark inside that I couldn’t see my own hands.
I submerged into the hot water, nervous about what might bump into me in the dark. But there were very real dangers to worry about. The hot-springs were heated by radon, a carcinogenic gas formed from the breakdown of uranium.
Relaxing in a radioactive hot-spring, in a tiny Central Asian village nestled in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains. It wouldn’t have looked flash on Instagram. But this is what travel is all about.