On Thursday, August 30th, The Republic of Kazakhstan celebrated their Constitution Day. Since I had the day off, I celebrated by hiking to the top of a mountain!
I actually didn’t totally intend to find a summit, but I just wanted to push beyond the area I had explored with coworkers a few weeks before. My Latvian roommates wanted to join, and they invited another Latvian exchange student, who invited “some Lithuanians.” By the time we boarded the #6 bus a few days after the initial invitations, there were the three Latvians, three Lithuanians, two Singaporeans, a Korean, a German, and a Kazakh. Plus one American (me), who was the only person who had been in the area. Everyone blindly threw their faith into my leadership, and just like that, it felt just like so many trips I ran with the famous University of Denver Alpine Club.
The week before, there had been some shady business going on up in the mountains near Almaty, not the least of which was a crazy fire near Medeu (Photos and info here). I stayed in the city during the weekend of the fire, and got my first glimpse of the damage early on our Constitution Day hike.
The young crew I was hiking with made quick work of the hill I had hiked two week prior, and we ended up on the pass I had explored earlier after an hour and change. This time, the area had much fewer humans, but there was a pack of horses about, making for some impromptu photo shoots for many of the hikers.
We decided to keep hiking up from the foothills, and we followed the trail to another pass that had great overlook of Komsomol Peak, a mountain I have my heart set on skiing next spring.
At this time, it became apparent that six of us were moving a lot faster than the other five, and I think it was at this point that someone said, “hey, let’s climb to the top of the mountain!” So we left the trail and the others behind and started to make our way up the mountain.
After a steep hike that lacked a defined trail, we found ourselves on a gorgeous ridge. To the south, a new trail ascended to the summit, but behind us it looked like it fell off all the way to Almaty.
Once again, the strong crew made quick work of the ridge and we found ourselves on the summit, marked by a mirrored plaque which talked about the history and the name of the mountain.
Unfortunately, the trail was marked by swastikas, and the summit rocks were completely covered in them as well. The German seemed to be the only other person in the crew who noticed them, and we were both annoyed by their heavy presence. The views from the summit, however, were the best so far on this trip.
I had assumed that nearly everyone on the trip had had some sort of mountain experience before coming due to their speed on the ascent, but I was wrong. It was Katia’s first trip beyond the hills of Latvia, and I was extra impressed!
After some food, photos, and relaxation, we made our way down the ridge, and decided to follow the trail back down to the pass with the horses. For the most part, the crew was quietly happy with our achievement, taking in the views almost silently. On the way down, however, that all changed. We were not far from where we had originally crested the summit ridge when we heard a voice call out to us. We turned around to see that the two Singaporeans and the Korean had not turned around, as we had originally thought. In fact, they were pushing their way up the same trail-less hill we had ascended earlier. We called to them to join us as the day had grown late, and we had to catch the bus back to Almaty by a certain time. They continued their ascent to the ridge at least, and when they reached the ridge, they were simply overcome by the fantastic views. They hooted and hollered like so many of my friends and I have after long climbs, fantastically excited about where they were, and how different it was than the urban streets of Singapore and Seoul. I fed off their energy, and started shouting with them. They took what seemed like hundreds of photos before they finally started downhill, and I couldn’t help but join them for a few shots.
To see and hear such amazing energy generated from hiking and seeing mountains, from people who hardly knew such things before that exact moment, was a simple reminder about why I am here and who I am. While I love traveling and I am really starting to enjoy teaching, I realized four years ago while hitchhiking across Norway that when I am in the mountains, I am completely at home. That feeling is magnified tenfold here in Kazakhstan. There are no language barriers, there is no need to visit the notary to get another official stamp, and no need to worry about tomorrow. There is only you, the weather, a trail to walk on, and the earth to explore. It is worth shouting about, it is worth jumping up and down about, and it is certainly worth taking hundreds of photos and writing thousands of words about.
We made our way down, pausing to rest tired legs and sore feet. I made sure to examine potential ski slopes for the future, and before too long, we were back on the #6, headed back to the city, and back to a reality in a place that hardly seems like reality sometimes.
Author’s Note: Well, I’m all moved in to another apartment, one that includes internet! I’ve also found some loopholes in the National Firewall Against WordPress, which allow me to access and post to this webpage. I’m really enjoying a once-a-week blog post, so I will do my best to keep it at that. I’m two weeks behind on sharing my adventures, which provides a buffer zone to work with as well. I hope you’re enjoying them! Let me know what you think.