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Aksu Valley peaks dwarfing a hiker
In the Lost Valley
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When I first heard about Mountain Travelís expedition, "Lost Valleys of the Turkestan Range," in the former Soviet Union, it appealed to me because of its remote locale and my nagging quest for that feeling of "foreignness" in a place.

I pictured colorful caravans cruising across a dusty desert, the romantic and fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara and 1000-year-old markets...what I didnít expect was to be toasting "Na'zdarovie" (Russian for Cheers) and shimmying the limbo to a Kyrgyz mandolin at 10,000 feet!

Not being a group-minded person, the thought of spending two weeks in close quarters with 10 strangers was not a happy one. But a relationship breakup, a holiday travel cancellation and the thought of a vacation-less summer at a frustrating job was too much to bear. Plus, my father and stepmother were going on the trip and urged me to come along. "Bite the bullet," I told myself."

"Knowing that we were one of the first, if not the first, Western trekking groups to cross the Aksu Valley, I felt like our hearts owned that remote piece of Kyrgyzstan..."

Listening to fellow trekker Catherine tell me about her recent divorce, as we groggily lugged our bags off the rickety, single belt in the Tashkent Airport and negotiated Uzbek customs, I began to change my mind — this trip might be just what I needed.

Our group was eclectic: including four single women in their early 30s, two couples in their 50s and 60s, a 54-year-old man and our 36-year-old guide. After a few days of shared experiences visiting mosques, medressas (Muslim seminaries), markets and bus rides, we began to settle into our places, cutting through superficialities like a long-familiar family. It was at that point that I realized the benefits of traveling with a group: it provides an opportunity to view things from many different perspectives.

Watermelons for sale in Samarkand
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For instance, we knew that Bob from Anchorage, or "Alaska Bob", who had missed our flight from Frankfurt, traveled via Moscow and shown up sans passport and luggage, provided constant entertainment for the group. Joyce, the 60ish quilter from Toronto, encouraged us to always revel in the unusual. Her husband, Norman, the Canadian executive, celebrated his 63rd birthday on the trip and kept up with the fastest of the group.

Hanneke, who's Dutch and possesses the classic Northern European directness always told it like it was. Jennifer, the bouncy math consultant from Seattle, we nicknamed "Jackrabbit" because she always seemed to be racing and regularly preceded the group at a destination by an hour. Rob, our guide, embodied all the qualities — dividing his time equally among group members, never getting upset and always putting others' needs before his own.

And Catherine, we came to depend on to be packing one of every necessary item and many less necessary, including The Body Shopís blue corn mask, a glow stick and her beloved almond butter, which made up 75 percent of her diet on the trek. But if it werenít for Catherineís versatile unipod/walking stick, the limbo would never have been possible.

"But if it werenít for Catherineís versatile unipod/walking stick, the limbo would never have been possible..."
We toured Tashkent and Samarkand and were fascinated by the mix of cultures and history. I figured out why this is called Central Asia, as itís truly the meeting of the Western and Eastern worlds. The Uzbeks are an enchanting and furiously hospitable people whose physical appearance seemed to defy every rule Iíd come to know. Their looks ranged from medium brown hair and Asiatic green eyes, to bright blue eyes and black hair, to what Iíd more typically imagined: dark hair, dark eyes and Middle Eastern features.

The untidy mix of cultures here was obvious in that Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajik towns, where most people speak Tajik to each other on the street, yet call themselves Uzbeks. Much of the divergence between ethnicity lines and national borders across Central Asia is a result of Stalin's arbitrary drawing of national boundaries after the formation of the Soviet Union.

The fact that few tourists had ventured this way was underscored by the localsí innocent friendliness. The minute any one in our group pointed a camera in their direction, they posed; yet, unlike other destinations these days, we were never asked for anything in return.

Krygyz family on Thermarest
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For me, the visit to mythical Samarkand alone made the trip worth it. The famed Registan Square, mausoleum of Shah-i-Zinda, Bibi Ghanym and the Ulughbek Observatory were a feast for the senses. With their vibrant blue and turquoise mosaic set against dun-colored walls they were truly captivating. And in the long-forgotten mosques and medressas, currently being refurbished at what appeared to be an almost lackadaisical pace, history whispered at us. In the half-repaired sights it was almost possible to imagine life there a 1000 years ago.

"As we sat down to lunch, Bob appeared, white as a sheet and nearly collapsed in the corner, overtaken by stomach problems..."
By the third day weíd absorbed our fill of mosques and medressas and the group was restless to get on the trail. The journey to the trailhead involved a full-day's drive. As we sat down to lunch, Bob appeared white as a sheet and nearly collapsed in the corner, overtaken by stomach problems. Rob asked whether anyone else was suffering from Uzbek belly. Not one of us would get through the trip unscathed, but the delicious fruits and vegetables were difficult to resist.

We quickly became endeared to the Kyrgyz people, who outdid even the amiable Uzbeks in hospitality and friendliness. Like the Nepalese, what they lacked in material things they more than compensated for in spiritual wealth. We did not encounter a single Kyrgyz family or group who didn't offer us their prized kefir (liquid yogurt), yogurt balls or freshly made bread.

Campsite in Kyrgyzstan
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The scenery outdid that of most places any of us had been — and our group was a well-traveled one. "Picture a cross between Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies and the Alps, but with no people," is how I explained it to my friends.

Each day we were treated to magnificent views of sharp, snow-covered peaks, punctuated by high verdant meadows, studded with colorful wildflowers. We became jaded after a few days, when campsite after campsite provided these same spectacular views. Despite the fact that we were above 10,000 feet almost the entire time and crossed two passes on either side of 14,000 feet, few of us ever felt the effects of altitude.

"The scenery outdid that of most places any of us had been — and our group was a well-traveled one..."
Day three was our toughest day, and entailed a 3000-plus foot ascent, the last couple thousand feet over frustratingly loose scree, followed by an even longer descent. The fastest of our group took a full 7½ hours to make it to the next camp. Maybe because I'd psyched myself out, scaling the 14,393 foot Aktubek Pass was easier than Iíd anticipated, but the feeling of euphoria that overcame me when we reached the top was unexpected.

We crossed onto a dry, flat plateau surrounded by positively stunning snow-capped peaks: Iskandar and Alexander Blok notable among them. I experienced an overwhelming flood of emotion. No sign of human existence except for Hanneke, our Kyrgyz horsemen and me. Knowing that we were one of the first, if not the first, Western trekking groups to cross the Aksu Valley, I felt like our hearts owned that remote piece of Kyrgyzstan.

After taking too many pictures we headed down the spectacular valley in a state of giddiness. There was really no trail so we just wandered in a general direction and were whistled or waved down by our horsemen when we got off track. Our giddiness faded, however, as we came upon valley after valley and no sign of camp. Hanneke and I stopped talking, but continued trudging along and thinking to ourselves that surely the next valley had to be it.

Kyrgyz horsemen
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It had taken Hanneke and me 8-1/2 hours and I feared for my less than perfectly-fit father, a several decade mountaineer, who at 62, still seemed to think he could do the same things he did as a 25 year old. Much to our surprise, an hour later Rob cruised in and informed us that the rest of the group was a half hour behind him. That night most of us were too exhausted to do anything but eat and sink into our sleeping bags.

Many nights after dinner, Sadybei, one of our eight horsemen, began to play Bob's mandolin, which he had appropriated almost from day one. Given that the Kyrgyz national instrument is similar to a mandolin, many of our horsemen knew how to play and because they were all old school chums, they knew many of the same songs. The vodka was poured and Catherine would request that they play Katusha, a Russian love song with the diminutive of her name as its title. My favorite was the hauntingly poetic Kyrgyz mountain song they would all join in singing, but their repertoire was diverse.

"We tried to dance Kyrgyz-style as Farida had taught us, but couldn't get the belly dancing-like neck movements down..."

One night after playing many different songs, they said, "We've sung Ukrainian songs, Uzbek songs, Kyrgyz songs, Tajik songs and Russian songs, now it's your turn." After several failed attempts at American Pie, Yellow Submarine and others, we settled on the Star Spangled Banner. It wasn't long before Sadybei was back to his Kyrgyz songs and our horsemen were grabbing us women to dance on the brightly moonlit "dancefloor."

We tried to dance Kyrgyz-style as Farida had taught us, but couldn't get the belly dancing-like neck movements down. We moved into rock-n-roll and Catherine produced her walking stick as a limbo implement. We showed our horsemen the limbo and they loved it! A few of them were amazingly adept.

More vodka was poured and most of us pretended to drink it, but still the horsemen didn't want to stop. At this point, we were getting winded from dancing vigorously at 10,000 feet. Sergei, the most extroverted of the horsemen, told me there is a Russian saying that after drinking vodka, two people who donít speak each otherís languages can communicate. While many of us were having difficulty swallowing the burning straight vodka, we did find that communication had become easier nevertheless.

We toasted "Na'zdarovie" once again but this time the vodka, like the trip, went down smoothly.

— Julie McCormack, Mountain Zone Correspondent
Julie McCormack lives in San Francisco and recently decided to make her passion for travel a career by leaving corporate America and starting her own travel venture, Worldwide Escapes, the first Internet travel company to offer adventurous weekend trips and short vacations to business travelers (and others up for a weekend jaunt) in Asia and soon beyond.

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