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Alay Valley

The M-41 highway south from Osh leads to the remote village of Sary-Tash, which is a crossroads of sorts, with the road to Kashgar leading east to the Chinese border at Irkeshtam and the road south struggling over the immense barrier of the Pamir Alay range into Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region.

The road to Sary-Tash is spectacular, and one of the most beautiful drives in the country. Leaving Osh, the highway climbs slowly out of the fertile plain to follow the Taldyk River on the way to the 2,408m Chyrchyk Pass, before descending down to Gulcha at the confluence of two rivers.

From Gulcha, the highway follows the Alay valley south through rugged mountains and red sandstone cliffs above the snaking river. Just before the village of Sary-Tash is reached, a roadside sign enthusiastically bids you a 'Harry Journey' as you start to think about leaving Kyrgyzstan for pastures new.

This far southern arm of Kyrgyzstan is the exclusive turf of trekkers and mountaineers, consisting as it does mostly of the heavily glaciated Pamir Alay range, a jagged, 500km-long seam running from Samarkand to Xinjiang. The range is threaded right up the middle by the muddy Kyzyl-Suu River (known as the Surkhob further downstream in Tajikistan – the two names mean Red Water in Kyrgyz and Tajik respectively) to form the 60km-long Alay Valley, the heart of the Kyrgyz Pamir.

The magnificent melee of snow-bound peaks, known cumulatively as the Pamir, lies mainly in Tajikistan and China, with fringe ranges in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. To the north and west, Kyrgyzstan claims the major part of their lesser cousin, the Pamir Alay, a series of ranges stretching approximately 800 kilometres from Samarkand (Uzbekistan) in the west to China's Xinjiang Province in the east, where they plunge to the second lowest depression on earth, the Tarirn Basin. Forming the southern wall of the Fergana valley, the various ranges of the Pamir Alay merge at the Matcha mountain knot on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Few travellers make it to the rugged, remote southern edge of Kyrgyzstan. But those with a taste for adventure, mountaineering or serious trekking will not be disappointed.

The Pamir Alay, characterised by deep gorges, turbulent rivers and high glacial ridges, is becoming popular with mountaineers. The area was off-limits in Soviet limes so now boasts scores of uncfimbed peaks, many of which do not require technical skills or immense experience. The majority of the virgin summits lie in the Trans Alai Range (at the eastern end of Kyrgyzstan's border with Tajikistan) where, in 2000, a British team made nine first ascents in the region. The best months to climb in the region are July and August when the cold is less severe and access to basecamps is straightforward. The rock in the Pamir is very unconsolidated sedimentary rock, particularly in the east; this, combined with the higher summer temperatures, produces unstable snow conditions, and afternoon avalanches are common. October is safer in this regard.

A popular destination, both for trekking and to admire nearby peaks, is the Alay valley, running east to west between the Pamir and Pamir Alay ranges. The Kyzil Suu ('Red Waters') river winds its way through the 150- by 60-kilometre valley, framed by a phalanx of some of the ex-Soviet Union's highest peaks. At 7,495 metres, Peak Communism (now renamed Kuh-i- Samani) was the highest of the former Soviet Union's mountains and now lies in Tajikistan. Peak Lenin, at 7,134 metres, straddles the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The mountain was originally named Pik Kaufman after the Governor-General of Russian Turkestan but its recent change to Kuh-i-Garmo (Warm Mountain') has a more suitably local flavour.

For all its remoteness and harshness of climate, this southern outback has attracted intrepid travellers for centuries. Two of Central Asia's earliest and busiest Silk Route branches passed this way. The valley formed the southern frontier of the Kokand khanate of the 18th and 19th centuries. The ruins of an Uzbek fort can still be seen at Daraut-Korgon, the local administrative centre. Belore Russia gained firm control of it m the late 19th century, the Alay was a playground lor Russian (and very occasionally British) explorers, adventurers and Great Game spies as they filled in the blanks in the maps between Russia, China and India.

In 1871, an expedition of Alexey Fedchenko was denied passage by the Kokand commander at Daraut-Korgon. In an attempt to bribe his way through, Fedchenko apparently offered him his watch. The commander frantically played with the hands of his new toy until it broke down. In rage, he prohibited the party from proceeding any further and Fedchenko's Alay expedition had to be called off. Years later, he returned and discovered one of the longest glaciers in the world: the 77-kilomelre-long Fedchenko glacier, which today lies in the Tajik part of the Pamir.

A number of villages string out along the Alay valley, the main ones being Sary Tash, Sary Moghol, Kashka Suu and Daraut-Korgon. The population of the valley, around 17,000, is almost entirely Kyrgyz, with a couple of Tajik hamlets on the border.

In Soviet times, due to its proximity to China, the area fell into a high security zone and relied heaviliy on subsidies from Moscow. There have also been unsuccessful attempts to drill for natural gas around Kashka Suu. Today, the only sources of income are animal husbandry (yaks, horses and sheep) or employment with the border guards. Despite being isolated for a large part of the year and extremely poor, the people here are very friendly.

Access to this area from Kyrgyzstan is along the A372 from Osh, via Sary Tash and the 3615m Taldyk Pass. Bear in mind that the border crossing at Karamyk is closed to third country nationals. A trip into the Alay region is not a lightweight jaunt. There is little traffic on the main roads and food supplies are limited, even in summer. From October to May the A372 is often closed by snow, and even in summer snow and rainstorms can appear without warning. The best trekking months are July and August.