Kyrgyzstan: Billies in the Crags, By Peter Hunt

One of the things I love most about hunting is travelling to places and seeing things that most people never will. Whether it’s the mountains and valleys of the backcountry of North America, or the plains of Africa, getting far from civilization and experiencing these places is a huge draw.

I’ve been fascinated with hunting Asia since reading East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt (Junior), and the stories of Jim Corbett as a kid. While India will probably never again be open for hunting, there are plenty of countries in central Asia where hunters are welcome. Consisting of six countries containing over 1.5 million square miles, central Asia is more remote and mysterious than any other place I know. With much of the land being too dry or rugged for agriculture, there are both a lot of space and few people. When I decided to hunt mid-Asian ibex, I had three possible locations: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. I settled on Kyrgyzstan, because it seemed to offer the best balance of trophy quality and cost.

After sending out several information requests to different booking agents, I booked our hunt through Greg Brownlee of Brownlee and Neil. The main reason why I chose them was that Greg had just returned from hunting ibex in Kyrgyzstan, so I knew that he had fresh, on-the-ground information. Greg was honest with me about his experience. When they got there, a local governor had refused to issue them permits for the area where they had wanted to hunt by Lake Issyk Kul, and they had to then hunt a different area. They got their ibex, but they weren’t monsters as they had originally hoped. Greg assured me that they had all of the kinks worked out and that he could get me into this area, where we’d have a legitimate chance at taking ibex in the 45-inch range.

Going with me on this trip was my buddy Dave from California. Dave I met in a sheep camp in the Brooks Range a few years ago and have hunted together every year since. Greg asked if we’d be open to having one additional person join us. When we said that we were amenable to that, he introduced us to Casey, a taxidermist from Idaho who I’d happily hunt with again. This was Casey’s first international hunt. Dave and I were pretty impressed that he picked Kyrgyzstan for his first foray out of the country. Go big or go home!

Greg had us book our travel through Stacy Gibson of Falcon Travel, and she did an excellent job of making sure that all of our paperwork was in order to properly travel with our firearms. I’ve flown with firearms many times. Usually, it’s not a big deal; you make sure everything is packed properly, and sometimes you have to let the airline know in advance and get permits for specific countries. This time, we had more issues checking in our rifles than I’ve ever had before. Thankfully Stacy had sent us all of the confirmation information from the airline along with our permits. While I usually have copies of that information, I’ve never had to actually pull it out to get on the plane. This time, if I hadn’t had it, I would not have been able to leave with my rifle. When booking a trip like this, I can’t stress enough the need to use a good travel agent that specializes in travelling hunters.

I met Dave and Casey at the Istanbul airport, and from there we flew to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Stacy had arranged VIP reception, so we were greeted right as we got off the plane and were able to relax in the lounge while they took care of all of our gun permits and customs registration. While getting there with our guns was difficult, once we were there, getting everything in order was as easy as I’ve seen it. As soon as we were cleared, we started our 12-hour drive to the hunting area.

The area around Bishkek was fairly flat, with lots of agricultural land and poplar and aspen trees. It looks a lot like where I grew up in northern Minnesota. As we climbed into the Tian Shan Mountains, the trees turned to pines. Kyrgyzstan is a stunningly beautiful country.  The mountains are huge and the spaces vast. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains and never have I felt so small and insignificant compared to my surroundings.

On our drive, we passed Lake Issyk Kul, which has the honors of being the 10th largest lake in the world, the second largest saline lake, and the largest alpine lake. Interestingly enough, because of geothermal activity the lake never freezes. Its size and relative warmth actually moderate the climate along its shores. Because it’s located on the old silk road, many different groups of nomads (Mongols, Turks, Huns, etc.) have taken advantage of this over the centuries and used the plains around the lake for their wintering grounds.

About eight hours into the drive, we pulled off at a mine and switched vehicles, from our luxury passenger van to Russian Uaz vans. Imagine a 1960’s Volkswagen van on a four-wheel-drive chassis. These diesel vans, while not the most powerful, can go through just about everything. Unfortunately, the exhaust seems to vent straight into the van, which made everyone a little nauseous. Within a few minutes, we were above the tree line, where we continued on for another four hours. I don’t know too many places where you can drive for four hours above treeline!

Camp consisted of several trailers. The accommodations were basic but clean. We met our head guides, Rouslan and Ibek. There was another junior guide and cook assigned to us, but their names escape me. These guys are as tough and skilled a collection of backcountry hunters as you’ll find anywhere and they are by far the most fearless horsemen I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, they only spoke about ten words of English between them: eat, sleep, horse, shoot, now, no, and a few numbers. Because none of us spoke Russian or Kyrgyz, communication was mostly limited to gestures, hand signals, and being told to eat, sleep, get on your horse, or shoot.

After we unpacked, they wanted us to check the zeros on our rifles. Looking back, in addition to zeroing our rifles, it’s obvious that they were also judging our shooting abilities. Casey shot first.

Getting prone and shooting off his bipod, Casey’s first shot went feet over the target. It can be nerve wracking to have to shoot in front of a group of people you don’t know, and there’s nothing that can rattle a travelling hunter more than getting to camp and finding your rifle completely out of sorts. He fired a few more shots all of them were feet over the target. By the time he realized that he still had his scope dialed up for 1,200 yards where he’d been practicing last, he’d fired a dozen rounds. As soon as he did, he was able to put all of his shots right on target. But this didn’t instill a lot of confidence in our guides.

Dave shot next and after a couple of small adjustments was on target. Luckily for me, my first shot was dead-on.

The next day we left in the van and started working our way up a very steep series of switchbacks. We were just coming up on our guides and horses when the van died and we started rolling backwards towards a cliff. The driver managed to stop it just in the nick of time and we all bailed out as fast as we could with our rifles. Using the remains repatriation coverage of my Global Rescue policy is something I try not to do. In our haste to avoid going over a cliff, Dave and I left our jackets in the van. This would turn out to have consequences down the road.

They got us loaded up on our horses and we started up the pass, which tops out at over 14,000 feet. Each time we got to the end of one switchback, we’d stop and let our horses blow. Given our experiences with horses in the US, we actually thought we were making pretty good time. About half an hour later, our guides had everything packed up and started up the pass after us. Not more than ten minutes after that, they had already caught up to us. Each guide grabbed one of our horses by the lead rope and took off up the mountain at a brisk clip. They didn’t stop once to rest the horses. All three of us were in shock that horses could climb like that without resting.

I do need to talk a little about the horses. Everyone I’ve spoken with who has hunted with horses in central Asia is shocked by the strength, agility, and toughness of these small, skinny stock. The locals use them like we would use a tracked vehicle. Straight up the side of the mountain, across avalanche slides, through rivers – you name it, they ride their horses through it. When it comes to packing them, they didn’t seem to put any thought into balancing loads, yet none of these horses developed sore spots. With our guides at the helm, the horses hold their heads high and move at a fast, smooth walk. When ridden by Dave, Casey, or myself, they would meander along and fall back, then catch up with a brisk, ball-crushing trot that also had the effect of driving the bipod, bolt, or trigger guard of the rifle into back and kidneys. All three of us looked like we’d been caned after the first day. It wasn’t until a few days into the trip when I finally managed to ask Rouslan, through hand signals, what was wrong with my horse. Once he figured out what I was asking, he indicated that I needed to haul back on the reins, then whip my horse to drive it forward. I’d seen all of our guides carrying riding quirts, but hadn’t really seen them use them much. That afternoon when I got on my horse, I pulled back on the reins and gave him a whack with my trekking pole. He looked back at me with a bit of surprise and then promptly began walking briskly, sparing my already-bruised testicles and back.

After we crested the summit, we continued on for another couple of hours until we came up on an old Soviet-era train car next to a glacial river. There were no train tracks for miles in any direction; the only thing we could think of is that they must have somehow brought it in with a helicopter. We set up camp and started glassing.

Within half an hour, we spotted what looked like a nice billy at the top of a ridge next to camp. The guides seemed to think he was a good one. I pulled out my tape measure and asked them to show me how big they thought he was. Rouslan indicated that he thought it was about 45 inches. We talked amongst ourselves and agreed that Casey could have the first stalk. We started getting geared up, thinking we were going to make a climb after him, but the guides told us to relax and take a nap. “Five o’clock,” Rouslan said, tapping my watch. “Eat.” Using hand signals, they indicated that the ibex would come down the mountain to feed. Around 4:00, we looked up and saw that the ibex was gone. At 5:00, the guides got us packed up and we continued down the trail. This included riding the horses through a couple of avalanche slides. That a horse could go through terrain that rough is something I never would have believed if I hadn’t done it myself.

About a mile from camp, we dismounted and Rouslan and Ibek went ahead on foot. They came back 20 minutes later, indicating that they had found the ibex. All six of us then followed together to go after him.

We didn’t have to walk far; maybe half a mile of fairly level side-hilling. Despite the easy walking, I was breathing hard from the elevation by the time we stopped. We peeked over the ridge and saw a herd of about 50 ibex in front of us on the other side of a steep draw. After glassing for a few minutes, we spotted the big billy not more than 250 yards in front of us.  We wanted Casey to shoot, but the guides insisted that we wait. Soon the ibex worked their way down the draw and were out of site below us. Once they were out of site, Rouslan and Ibek took Casey forward to the edge of a small cliff where he could see the ibex below. At this point, he could have shot the big billy at about 70 yards.

However, instead of having him shoot, they came back and got Dave and I. They positioned us off to the side and told us to get set up to shoot prone up the draw. A little confused by this, Dave and I finally acquiesced and got behind our rifles. At that moment, the wind switched and the ibex took off. The main herd started moving up the draw, and I heard one of the guides to tell Casey to shoot the fifth ibex in front of him. Looking over, I saw him cleanly drop the fifth ibex. The rest of the herd roared up the draw. As they went, the guides were yelling at Dave and me to shoot. Flock-shooting into a herd of 50 ibex at 250 yards wasn’t what we’d signed up for, so we held our fire. We could tell that they were a little disappointed that we hadn’t shot as they went over the ridge and out of sight.

At least we had one down. Everyone congratulated Casey and the guides indicated that he’d shot the right one. It took us a while to work our way across the draw to Casey’s ibex. With the excitement building as we approached the downed ibex, we were a little surprised by what we found when we got there. It was not the big ibex we’d glassed from camp, which he could have easily taken a couple of times. While he was excited to have fulfilled a lifelong dream to take an ibex, it was dampened knowing that they told him to shoot the wrong animal. Looking back, I think that after his struggles getting his rifle zeroed they just decided to have him shoot any ibex that was close. I don’t know that for sure, but that is my best guess.

The next day, Dave, Rouslan, Ibek, and I hunted another drainage. We saw a few ibex, but no big billies. When we got back to camp and opened the door to the train car, a cloud of very hot, goaty-smelling steam greeted us.

When we were planning the trip, Greg had warned us that we might want to bring some Mountain House with us, as many hunters don’t really like the food in Kyrgyzstan. Meals consisted of dried fruits, nuts, cheeses, raw bacon, and boiled ibex. The cook had taken the fatty ribs of the ibex and boiled them for most of the day. No seasoning, just boiled ibex meat. I had brought a small container of steak seasoning, and after we seasoned the boiled meat, it was actually really good. We joked that night that Brownlee’s other hunters must be pretty picky because we thought the ibex was great. We also learned that it’s probably a bad idea for western hunters to eat raw bacon, as we were all afflicted with what we named “orange delight,” also known as explosive orange diarrhea. It took me a whole course of Cipro to get rid of that when I got home.

The next morning we moved to a new camp about six miles down river, where there was a beautifully crafted log cabin. There were no trees for 30 miles, so I’m not sure where the logs came from, but it had incredible craftsmanship. That afternoon, the guides took Dave and me down river a couple more miles, and after a terrifying river crossing and riding our horses straight up a rock slide, we continued on until we came to a trench dug in the ground.

The guides told us that it was a military trench, as we were right on the Chinese border. Glassing from the trench, we soon found a big group of billies with half a dozen shooters. They were over a mile away at the top of some very craggy peaks. From where they were bedded, there was no way to get above them or to put a stalk on them. “Five o’clock,” Rouslan said, tapping my watch as he pointed to a large grassy valley below the peaks. “Eat.” The four of us made a long detour to get into a dry riverbed, staying low to keep out of sight of the ibex. At 5:00 the ibex came down the mountain, right on schedule. Dave and I flipped a coin, and I won the toss, so the next shot was mine.

The guides were lying flat in the grass about twenty feet in front of us. Peeking over the top of the bank, I could see one big billy — a definite shooter — 200 yards away. It would have been a chip shot. After a minute or two, the big billy walked away over the crest of a small hill just out of sight. One of the guides crawled over and grabbed Dave. They could obviously see the ibex from their location, but I couldn’t see any of them. Once Dave was set up, they motioned for me to come forward. As I got up to them, I could see the whole herd about 250 yards in front of us. They were strung out along the base of the mountain, just starting to feed in the grass.

Before I had a chance to set up, either the wind switched or they saw something they didn’t like and took off up the side of the mountain. One of the guides grabbed Dave’s rifle and propped it up on a big rock to give him the angle to shoot upwards, telling him to “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!” As the goats were scaling the mountain, they would occasionally stop and look back. Dave picked out one that was standing still and dropped him with a single shot, rolling him down the slope. Now they wanted me to do the same thing. I got my rifle on the rock and started scanning the mountainside with my binoculars. I spotted one near the crest that looked big, got a quick range reading of 450 yards, and, not accounting for the angle, sailed a shot over his back.

As we started up towards where Dave’s ibex was down, we noticed an argali skull on the ground; likely a snow leopard kill. I ran a quick tape around one horn – 61 inches! We held up the skull to show the guides. They shook their heads, eyes wide, and said, “Tajikistan.” Obviously there are some big argali there, but we got the impression that they don’t take many that size.

Dave’s ibex was a decent trophy, but was considerably smaller than the six big billies we’d seen in the herd. Dave was really pissed that he let himself get caught up in the moment and take a rushed shot. Once again, the communication gap had proved too much for us. We had each paid for a one-on-one hunt. Their idea of a one-on-one hunt was everyone hunting in a group with an equal number of guides and hunters. When ibex were spotted, everyone was to line up and group-shoot into the herd, ending the hunt as quickly as possible. Then, back to base camp for vodka and a sauna!

By the time we had the ibex skinned and loaded up, it was completely dark. When we got back to the river, we were in a different spot than we’d come up. The bank here was much steeper and higher. Rouslan and Ibek seemed to argue about what to do. While both of these guys are fearless horsemen, Rouslan seemed to be telling Ibek that we couldn’t go down a 200-foot rockslide in the dark. At that point, Ibek proved that he was just a little more fearless of a horseman than Rouslan. Or maybe he was just less concerned with me surviving the night…

Before I could react, Ibek took my rifle, slung it across his back, grabbed the lead rope on my horse and went full-on Man-from-Snowy-River over the cliff. In the dark. I’m not ashamed to say that I screamed like a little girl. My horse was dragging its hind end, front feet sticking straight out, trying not to go head over tail. I had one hand holding the front of the saddle and one holding the back. My feet were touching the horse’s head and my head was bouncing off his ass. I had no doubt that I was going to die, crushed beneath this horse.

Somehow, we made it. At the bottom of the rockslide, crossing the freezing glacial torrent that would definitely kill you if you fell into it was a piece of cake, and we made it back to camp.

The morning of day four we spent in camp. It was raining and none of our guides had decent rain gear or waterproof boots. Really sick of boiled ibex, we dug into our supply of Mountain House for lunch. While it was a much-needed change in diet, it did nothing to stem the raging orange delight that plagued all three of us. Being packed in a 16 x 20 cabin with seven other guys, drowning in the smell of ibex boiling over a dung fire, was more than I could handle. I filled my pack with all of our empty water bottles and hiked down river a mile or so to a clear stream to replenish our water supply. When I got back, Rouslan was shocked, and probably a little embarrassed, that I was out in the weather while they were sleeping in the cabin. Around 3:00, they started taping plastic grocery bags over their shoes and decided to take me out to look for another ibex. We saw one that was around 40 inches, but I declined it, much to their frustration.

Day five was clear, and a few inches of snow had fallen during the night. By now, both Dave and Casey had total cabin fever. Dave wanted to shoot a second ibex, which he could do for an extra trophy fee, but they declined to let him come along as they took me out that morning. We went back up to the trench where we had initially glassed Dave’s ibex — taking the safe route — and found the big group of billies, again in their mountain fortress, around 10 AM. “5:00?” I asked, assuming that they’d follow their usual schedule. Rouslan nodded, meaning we had a lot of time to kill.

We rode the horses out of sight of the ibex, and the guides pulled out a big blanket and set up a picnic of dried fruit, nuts, cheese, raw bacon, and cold, boiled ibex. I ate a Cliff Bar and did accept a cup of hot tea. By mid-afternoon the snow had melted, and it must have been close to 70 degrees. We changed locations to where we could glass the ibex again from about a mile and a half away. Rouslan had expropriated my Swarovski spotting scope the first day. It rode, caps off, in his wet leather saddle bag the whole trip. He set it up and confirmed that they were still up there. As Rouslan and Ibek were discussing how to get into position, I spotted one billy at the very back of the herd behind a rock. He had been lying down on his side, and I only caught sight of him for a brief moment when he rolled over. He was huge! You could only see a small part of his horns once he had settled in again. I tried to explain to the guides what I’d seen. They looked, smiled, and basically patted me on the head.

The stalk they planned would take us up the same dry creek bed that we’d taken to get into position for Dave’s ibex. But this time the ibex were on a different peak, so where they’d come down would be farther away from us than where they’d been two days earlier. They also had a better view of the valley, so it took us a long time to get into position without being seen.

By 3:00 we were in position. Ibek looked at me and said, “You sleep.” Trying to get comfortable in a jumble of rocks and brush while hiding under a cut bank is not the easiest thing in the world, but I did get a few winks in. At 5:00, the ibex started working their way down the mountain. We belly-crawled out of the creek bed and got set up behind a small natural berm. There were at least 25 ibex in front of us from 400 to 600 yards out. As we were looking through them, I glanced up and saw there was one last ibex up at the top of the mountain. He came barreling down at full speed. When he got to the bottom, the rest of the herd parted like the Red Sea at his approach. I heard Ibek give a hiss of shock. This was the big billy I’d seen earlier. The valley was rolling with lots of folds that could hide the animals. There was no way to get any closer to them, and they weren’t really working their way towards us.

At one point, the big billy was at 375 yards. I was going to shoot, but Ibek told me to wait. Then he dropped into a low spot, out of sight. When he didn’t reappear for several minutes, I started to worry. Finally he popped out about a hundred yards further out. I kicked myself for not taking the shot when I had it. I was going to take the shot at 475, when he turned and started coming towards us again. Seconds seemed like hours. He finally stopped to feed at 409. “No, no,” Ibek said. Having learned my lesson the first time, I squeezed the trigger. There was a very audible smack as the bullet hit, and he tipped over right there.

Unlike the first two we’d taken, this one just got bigger and bigger the closer we got. I don’t usually get too emotional about these things, but between the beautiful animal and the incredible sunset and mountains, I was a little overcome.

When we got back to camp, Casey and Dave came out of the cabin, the aroma of boiling ibex clinging to their clothes. “Did you get one?” they asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s on Ibek’s horse on the other side of the cabin.”

We walked over together. The look on their faces said it all. I knew that as much as they wanted to be happy for me, there was no way they weren’t at least slightly upset. “There are more big ones back there,” I said. “You guys should go tomorrow and see if you can each get one.” Both Casey and Dave thought that was a good idea.

The next morning the guides started packing up camp. When we indicated that we wanted to keep hunting, that Casey and Dave wanted to take another animal, the guides just told us the hunt was over. Not being able to speak the same language, we had to go along with it.

By the time we got packed up, the sun was shining and we were in t-shirts. Our packs were on the packhorses, and the wrangler started up the river before us. We departed 45 minutes behind him. It was a glorious day to be in the mountains. Fresh, clear air. The sun shining on the snowy peaks. The blue-green glacial river roaring by. It was exactly what I had imagined many years ago, reading those books. But there were a few dark clouds at the top of the pass in front of us.

We were about half way to the train car when the weather switched from a bluebird day to rain to a full-on blizzard in the span of 10 minutes. We were lucky that the wrangler stopped when the weather hit and we were able to get our rain jackets out. On the first day, when Dave and I bailed out of the van about to go over the cliff, we had left our warm jackets inside. I had a light puffy to put under my rain jacket and Dave had a fleece, but given that we were already soaked and cold, it wasn’t enough. When we got to the train car, it was obvious that Dave was already hypothermic. There was a guy — I’m not sure if he was a shepherd or what — already there, so thankfully the stove was going. We got Dave out of his wet gear, wrapped blankets around him, and filled him full of hot tea. After an hour or so, he seemed to be recovering.

We had assumed that we’d wait out the storm, but the guides wanted to press on. We bundled up as best we could and started up the slippery, icy pass. Thankfully, the weather was clear on the other side and we made it through without mishap.

We all agreed that despite the communication issues, this hunt was truly an adventure. On guided hunts, I will almost always defer to the guide. They know the area, the animals, and what the normal tactics are in their area. But in this case, that didn’t serve us very well. The one thing I regret was not using my InReach to contact our booking agent right after Casey shot his ibex. If we would have let him know about our concerns with how they were running our hunt, he could have contacted the outfitter, who could have then explained things to our guides, as they had a satellite phone.

If we had done that, things may have turned out differently, and Dave and Casey would likely have been a lot happier. Regardless, it was an adventure we’ll never forget.

Some tips if you go:

  • Make sure you have a prescription for Diamox for altitude sickness and Cipro for digestive issues. We all took our Diamox and it was a big help.
  • This is not a backpack hunt, but you still need to be in good shape. The real killer is the travel. By the time you get to camp, you’ve been either in a plane, in an airport, or on a van for almost two days straight. Combine that with the jet lag and you start out in rough shape. I ran my normal 12 miles a week and with a few days a week in the gym, I was fine. Cardio is the most important part of the preparation, as there isn’t much air at that elevation.
  • Bring extra binoculars for your guide.
  • Bring plenty of freeze-dried food and snacks, as well as some seasonings.
  • Practice shooting out to 500 yards and know how to compensate for steep uphill and downhill angles.
  • Do some riding before you go. Also, confirm how to ride the horse – tight or slack reins. These horses were used to being ridden with tight reins. When we rode them with slack reins, they did what they wanted at their own pace.
  • Bring a soft case that you can sling across your back for your rifle. You have to ride with your rifle slung as they don’t have saddle scabbards, so all of us had extensive bruising from the bipods and bolts of our rifles bouncing off our backs.
  • Make sure that all of your expectations are clearly communicated – to your booking agent, the outfitter, and your guides in the field. Don’t be afraid to contact your agent mid-hunt if things are not going the way you expect.
  • Every time you see a billy, ask the guide how big it is. It will help you get a feel for judging trophy quality. They might get annoyed with you, but it’s important.
  • Ask your booking agent in advance how much you should tip. We tipped very generously, especially considering how the hunt went, and they still looked at us like we’d cheated them.
  • Don’t eat the raw bacon…

 


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