My lungs burned as I pulled in deep breaths of freezing air, physically unable to keep up with the oxygen demand. I laid into the toe of a moraine pile, the shelter we’d sought after sprinting across an exposed hillside. We were close now but unsure if the ibex were still there. Did they see us cross the open face and are they still feeding towards our location?
My heart was thumping as I climbed the rocky face to peer over the top. This was it, it all came down to this moment. I had a million things running through my mind but amidst the exhaustion, pain and burning cold, there’s a sense of freedom and calm. The crisp air providing relief from an unquenchable, instinctual desire for mountain hunting.
This hunt takes place in Kyrgyzstan — the gem of Central Asia. It stands out in the region with its relatively democratic Government, vast tracts of wilderness and ancient nomadic culture. Kyrgyzstan is also home to some magnificent wildlife including Argali, Snow Leopard, Wolf and Mid Asian Ibex which were the inspiration for this hunt.
The Tien Shan mountain range stretches nearly 3000km (1800mi) with towering peaks exceeding 7400m (24,000ft). While it is only sparsely inhabited, it hosts a range of economies including agriculture, tourism, winter sports and hunting.
In the months leading up to this hunt, I made concerted efforts to improve cardio fitness in anticipation of the altitude. These efforts were wasted after being struck down for three months by Pericarditis which is a viral infection of the heart lining. Literally unable to walk a short distance without taking a break it put my fitness efforts back at square one. With only a matter of weeks to improve my health before departing I had some reservations about the hunt and how my heart would hold up at elevation.
Adding to the challenge are the complexities of travel. International travel from Australia generally takes reasonable amounts of time and this hunt was no different. A fourteen-hour flight to Dubai, an eight-hour layover and a four and a half hour flight had us landing in Bishkek at 4.30am after over forty hours awake. I caught twenty minutes sleep on the floor of Terminal 2 in Dubai Airport which is hot, busy and noisy – about as uncomfortable a place as you could sleep.
After arriving in Bishkek and passing through security without hassle we headed straight for the hotel to catch up on some sleep. Typically, hunters embark immediately on the journey to the base camp after arrival. Taking the day in Bishkek to acclimatize to the time zone and recover from the travel was time well spent. After a few hours’ sleep, we headed into the city to grab some supplies and get a bite to eat. It’s hard to know what to expect in Central Asia so I always buy enough food for around half the hunt, enough salt for preserving capes and anything else you might need like gas for boiling water.
The capital Bishkek is a moderately sized city whose urban sprawl is bounded by small fields of intensive cropping. The architecture reflects its Soviet history and Bishkek contains the last remaining major statue of Vladimir Lenin in Central Asia. Except for in limited areas, the infrastructure and roads are generally in poor condition. There are drains, some over a meter deep, randomly crossing footpaths and on road verges that would be the subject of litigation in any modern Western civilization.
For a relatively small population, the people of Bishkek can sure generate some pollution. It’s surprisingly smoggy in the city and the sulphurous scent of burning coal is never far away.
The city has several shopping malls, bazaars and a range of restaurants and hotels. Bishkek is a very affordable city and is worth taking a day or two to explore. The local currency is the Som and at the time US$15 would buy around 1000 Som. Most eateries will not have change for 1000 Som so try and get smaller notes. You will end up with great wads of cash but that is somewhat unavoidable.
Driving in Kyrgyzstan is mayhem. There does seem to be some system, but I couldn’t work it out. Taxis are cheap with a 10-minute cab ride costing anywhere between US$1.5 – $3. While not a particularly large country, most hunting areas are a good 10-12+ hour drive from Bishkek due to the condition of the roads and slow travel through winding mountain roads. This is likely the most hazardous part of your entire hunt.
After a great night’s rest, we woke early for the journey from Bishkek to our hunting area. The drive passed by numerous small villages, the home of the Nomad Games and along the shores of the massive Lake Issyk Kul which goes on for several hours. The trip was largely uneventful except for the Russian versions of popular Western songs from the likes of AC/DC, Queen and Guns N’ Roses that kept us singing along with our driver. We reached Karakol around lunch time where we stopped briefly for lunch. Among the menu options were horse and yak which are popular in Kyrgyzstan.
Continuing the journey to base camp, we approached the mountains where the snow load increased and cold became noticeable. Before heading up through a high mountain pass we stopped by a large rock with a plaque stuck to it. We weren’t told of the purpose of the stop but none of us were unhappy as we had all taken Diamox to assist with the altitude. Diamox works by removing the build-up of fluid in the body that can cause altitude sickness when it accumulates on the lungs or brain. As a result, frequent bathroom stops were necessary as one of a range of side-effects of Diamox. In broken English, the driver happily declares that we have stopped for “the tradition”. The tradition involved drinking a bottle of brandy and eating a block of chocolate amongst the occupants of the vehicle. Probably not the ideal preparation before ascending.
The winding roadway through the pass, topping out at around 3800m, was dotted with graves which is unsurprising given the icy road, lack of barriers, steep terrain and the highly unsuitable vehicles that use the pass. Fortunately, we were in a modern 4WD which was more than capable in the conditions and we made it through without incident.
The surroundings became increasingly remote as we followed alongside an aqua blue river through a narrow mountain gorge deeper into the mountains. Eventually, we approached a border checkpoint manned by two stern military guards and a German shepherd. The guards casually but purposefully approached our vehicle. It was a classic Soviet picture with a fire burning in a drum, an abandoned mine in the valley below, snow-covered ground and their trusty Lada Niva 4×4 for transport. After checking our passports our passage was expedited with some cigarettes and a bottle of vodka and we were free to carry on.
Further on, the valleys began to open up to broader river flats and gentle concave slopes allowing shepherd to persist year-round. Some of the hillsides were scattered with boulders that had eroded from the mountaintops. We pulled into one rock that had numerous petroglyphs of ibex from ancient tribes. It’s remarkable to think that our journeys collided at this rock, where, as hunters, we shared a mutual respect, admiration and purpose, yet separated by thousands of years.
As we took some photos, our driver showed us photos of arrowheads and ancient Chinese coins that he had uncovered in the area using a metal detector. It puts time into perspective when you see the evolution of events that have taken place in this remote and inhospitable valley.
When we arrived at base camp we were greeted by our outfitter, camp staff and guides. Basecamp was located at the junction of two valleys where a massive rock outcrop formed a spectacular backdrop. Sitting at some 2600m elevation, it provided a good opportunity to acclimatize to the elevation. On previous high altitude hunts, I had struggled with persistent headaches, nausea and an extreme shortness of breath. To mitigate this, I had obtained a prescription for Diamox which helped tremendously but it was not without side effect. As I mentioned earlier you will pass a lot of water but I also experienced tingling in the extremities (hands, feet and face) and a general reduction in cognitive abilities for the first few hours after taking it. For this reason, it is wise to take it before going to sleep so you are in a good state of mind while hunting.
When the guides noticed that we were taking altitude sickness medicine, they quickly offered up their natural remedy – garlic. They themselves use this when ascending to very high altitudes to survey ibex populations for the Government outside the hunting season. You certainly know you are alive when you consumed a whole clove of garlic, but it seemed to help. After the first day in the mountains, I stopped taking Diamox and continued with the garlic and suffered no ill effect of altitude other than shortness of breath.
In the base camp, we had a glowing coal fire which warmed the rooms to the point where I needed to open a window before going to sleep. That night we dined on a fantastic ibex soup, bread, salami and other cured meats.
The staple diet of the Kyrgyz people appears to largely be meat and noodles. Fermented horse milk (Kymyz) is a traditional drink although I can’t say I indulged in any. The food provided by the outfitter in basecamp was excellent. Food in the mountains included salami, noodles, bully beef, tins of fish and bread. I supplemented this with dehydrated meals and breakfasts from Heather’s Choice, and a range of protein and energy bars and which were a welcome change and provided some lasting energy.
The following morning, we were to spike out but not before testing our rifles. The guides like to put a bit of pressure on you to sound out your shooting ability. They crowded around, none of them wearing hearing protection, and set us for a 300m uphill shot. As I had zeroed my rifle at slightly above sea level and in warm conditions I was interested to see what difference the cold and higher altitude would make. According to my ballistics calculator, only 1 click of additional elevation was required and it turned out to be correct. With that done we headed off in the 4×4 to where we would meet the horses.
We all split up at this stage and headed to different areas of the concession. With 140,000 ha to hunt, there was no shortage of space for three hunters. Each of us had two guides. One guide, Chubak, accompanied me from base camp and we met a local yak farmer, Erlan, at the head of a valley who would be my second guide.
Chubak was an older and experienced guide who, through much-confused translation, I determined to be a grain farmer when he was not hunting. He was a nice man who operated at a slower pace than the younger Erlan. Erlan was a yak farmer and a very hard man although was considerate and polite. He was clearly the lead guide but worked well with Chubak.
We rode horses for about four hours into a large main valley with a partially frozen river flowing down its base. The south face of the main valley held snow and the northern side was riddled with steep feeder valleys that looked to hold endless opportunities for exploration.
We made camp on a flat spot in the base of the valley around mid-afternoon and immediately started seeing ibex. These were mainly nannies and kids or ‘baby mama’ which was a mutually understandable phrase. After about 15 minutes of glassing, Erlan determined that there were no mature billies despite seeing dozens of family groups. It seems almost inconceivable that you could glass such a vast landscape in such a short amount of time, but the guides have incredible eyesight and as I would later learn, ibex are not difficult to spot or judge.
I loaded some essentials into my EXO Mountain Gear 5500 pack and we hiked high up into a side drainage where we spotted small bands of nannies, kids and juvenile billies. These animals, while alert to our presence, did not spook at our sight. We headed back down into the main valley, saddled up the horses and travelled several kilometres upstream to look over new ground. At one point, Erlan, who would largely glass from his horse, abruptly jumped off and leant against a boulder to take a close look at something. He motioned purposefully to Chubak and I to take a look. A mature billy was making its way out of the crags down lower to feed. It was an impressive sight and at 800m away it would have been possible to put a quick stalk in with the remaining light. Erlan pointed to the mountain indicating a possible route to where we could wait for it to feed towards us. I retrieved a translation sheet that I had prepared and asked how big the billy was. Erlan indicated that it was around 115cm or 45”. I had made it my goal to harvest a mature billy 45” or above, and although this met the criteria, I couldn’t help but feel that I would be disappointed to have the hunt end on day one. The guides showed no concern with my decision which helped satisfy my reservations about passing up this opportunity. As the chilly night air fell into the valley floor we rode back to fly camp, the only noise was the crunch of frozen ground against the horses’ hooves.
The camp consisted of a “seven-man” tent which was cozy for three and some gear. The guides liked to cook inside the tent on a butane stove. Initially, I was alarmed by this but figured they do it regularly and were still alive. While I was well equipped to deal with the cold, the guides thin foam mat and quilt were inadequate, so they certainly welcomed the warmth from the stove.
I climbed out of the tent to a clear, dark morning with a sharply cold katabatic wind flowing into the valley. After a quick breakfast, we embarked on foot into one of the steep, narrow feeder drainages. As we ascended, the valley opened to a high basin lined with tussock. The ibex come down from the tops and feed on the lower grasses and herbs. With the apparently small amount of pressure in this region, it was not uncommon to see ibex feeding until noon and then begin to reappear around 3pm.
Spotting only small family groups we headed through a saddle into the adjoining valley. This valley was steep and rocky with many scree chutes cutting our path as we contoured upwards towards its head. By this time the sun was warm, and we enjoyed breaks to sit and glass the distant faces. Although it didn’t hold any mature ibex, it was an enjoyable morning and the populations that we encountered gave me hope for what lay ahead.
We headed back to the saddle and found a flat spot for some lunch. As we waited for the water to boil suddenly a nanny appeared from the back of a pyramid-shaped peak whose back face had remained hidden from our view all morning. I glassed some nearby faces to find two billies bedded in the shadows. After a quick assessment, they appeared to be around 43”. The guides were encouraging me to consider putting in a stalk. With the absence of mature billies, I think they were a little concerned about my second decision to pass.
Over lunch about six nannies fed into view from behind the pyramid peak. The wind, which was steadily on our face, paused momentarily, and the ibex froze upright on high alert. Suddenly, a stream of ibex poured out from the hidden face in seemingly endless surges. In single file, they ran below our position, a huge band of nannies and kids. The two billies that were bedded in the shadows took this opportunity to depart and they dropped from their position as if free-falling from rock to rock in an impossibly smooth motion.
Having now covered a considerable amount of the country accessible from our camp the demeanour of the guides changed. Discussions became more animated and there was a hint of frustration at the apparent difficulty in locating mature billies. The particularly clear weather and lack of snow had meant that the billies had remained dispersed and high. It was clear that we had to move locations.
That evening we made a fire with the few sticks that we could find, and we sat in silence scavenging what little warmth it produced. Out of the darkness, and without any lighting, a shepherd walked into camp joining us by the fire along with his two dogs. The guides and the shepherd talked for a while before we all headed for dinner in the tent.
As we ate our noodles and tinned beef under the light of our headlamps, the shepherd reached into his pocket and revealed a plastic bag containing something wrapped in a handkerchief. I had no idea what was about to be revealed but I couldn’t help but think it was drugs. Carefully he untied the bag and gently rolled out the fabric and with a smile produced a fist-sized piece of brown pumice-like rock. This was received with much excitement by the guides and much confusion by myself. A small amount of the precious rock was broken off and shared with the guides and this lifted the mood of the tent a couple of notches. The rock was wrapped in paper towel and squirrelled away into their respective bags.
Some days later I deciphered that the rock was some sort of mineral that has a variety of health benefits including for the joints and skin. It’s a telling example of the remote, sheltered and traditional lives that a substantial portion of the Kyrgyz people live.
Editors Note: Due to the length of this piece, it has been separated in two parts. Check back in next week for Part II of James Barben’s tale.