Just a few more steps to go. Another fifty strides – actually, better make that a hundred – and I’ll be there, at the mountain pass. The range Ami and I have been climbing since stepping out of our yurt this morning is slowly losing its dominance; its uppermost limits falling, falling, falling, coming closer and closer to eye level. Won’t be long before I can see over the top of the pass, and, hopefully, get my first glimpse of Song Kul (Lake Song) in the valley below.
I stop and turn around, looking back down the grassy ridge we’ve been following, searching for a small figure on the slopes below. There she is. There’s Ami. She isn’t happy. I can tell from here. There’s animosity contained in those tensed shoulders, ferocity hidden behind that furrowed brow. If she were a cartoon she would have a little thundercloud hanging over her head at the moment. Ami hates climbing mountains. The uphill part at least. Going down doesn’t seem to trouble her nearly as much. I suspect, at the moment, that a touch of that animosity is being channelled my way. I was the one who coerced Ami into hiking. I was the one who dissuaded her from travelling on horseback – the less exhausting way to reach Song Kul. I’ve walked slowly with her all morning, and seen her displeasure slowly mount as we climbed and climbed and climbed and climbed. There’s no point walking beside her when she’s in this mood. None of my optimism and words of encouragement will have any effect. They’ll only vex her further. Ten minutes after reaching the pass those feelings will subside though, and the normal, winsome Ami will reappear.
Ami looks up, sees me, stops. I wave; an unenthusiastic half lifting of one hand is all I get in response. It’s a good sign though. It means she’s not as livid as I thought.
Now, time to finish this climb. A few more steps – it turns out even the hundred strides was optimistic – and I am there. A nameless pass, at 3400m altitude, or thereabouts. Song Kul glistens in the distance.
A shadow whips past my feet, sprints across the landscape. I look up. A vulture has just cruised by, riding unseen air currents, taking long sweeps over the landscape, barely flapping its wings. Moments later it is just a speck in the sky.
Did I disturb it, I wonder?
I look back at Ami. She’s gotten smaller again, having scarcely moved since I last looked her way. She’s moving now though.
I look past her, down into the valley below, then up the mountain range beyond. It’s the middle of summer, and the mountain passes – completely covered in snow and inaccessible in winter – are now verdant and green, thick with grass. A splendid alpine vista. It looks perfect. It looks like it has always been this way, and will always be this way. The truth is anything but. This year’s grass is already being stripped away, mown by sheep and goat teeth just as quick as it can grow. Soon these jailoo, or summer pastures, as the Kyrgyz call them, will be brown and dusty, devoid of grass, the sheep and goats having eaten every last blade they can find. What we are seeing is just a snapshot, just the briefest moment in time. This area is undergoing a long, slow process of desertification. The shrubs and small trees that would have been plentiful in these climes not so long ago, are all gone, cleared for firewood. Nothing has been planted in way of compensation. Grass and weeds are all that exist. Not a single native plant to be seen. No native animals either, apart from a few birds, like the vulture that just flew past. And the remaining native birds are probably on their way out too.
‘Why can’t you see the beauty in things?’ Ami complains, whenever I mention this topic. ‘This place is beautiful. Enjoy it. Stop looking for negatives.’
She’s right of course. This place is beautiful, despite the desertification, and I’ll be a happier person if I can learn to block out the rest. But I’m an environmentalist at heart, and the widespread desertification that has occurred throughout Central Asia, and which continues unabated, disheartens me, and takes some of the shine off the vista.
More sheep and more goats are being brought up into the jailoos every year. That means the grass is being eaten faster, and it’s being trimmed harder, and given less and less chance to re-establish. The topsoil that supported the now-missing shrubs and small trees is being eroded away. When it’s gone, what will be here? Just dust, just sand. Some valleys are already desert-like, the valley floor in these places no more than sand, and subsequently abandoned by the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz sheepherders.
How long till this desertification spreads across the region, till all of these summer pastures are rendered useless?
Then what happens?
The sheepherders move to new pastures, if there are any left. And the process continues. Will hikers continue to come here? Probably. Depends how the mountains look. And at the moment the mountains look spectacular. I don’t think the current breed of hikers are cognisant of the environmental change that is underway. The next generation of hikers that come here, when the grass is long gone, along with the semi-nomadic herders, probably wont know any difference either.
I look down at Ami; she’s getting closer. She pauses, looks up at me, smiles.
Practical information and how to reach Song Kul:
A comprehensive account of the 3-day hike/horse riding trip to Song Kul and back, including details of tour companies, can be found here: http://www.gonomad.com/5610-kyrgyzstan-a-horse-trek-to-song-kul