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The Central Tian Shan

Hiuan tsang journeying from Kucha followed this same route after passing by the foot of Khan Tengri. His feet may even have walked over the very spot where I bit the dust. During the crossing his caravan lost thirteen men. He says, speaking of the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains: "This mountain of ice forms the northern angle of the Pamirs. It is exceedingly dangerous and its peak rises into the very sky. Since the beginning of creation the snow has been accumulating on it, turning into blocks of ice which do not melt even in spring or summer. The hard, glittering expanses stretch endlessly, finally merging with the clouds. To gaze at them is to be dazzled by their brightness. Then there are sudden faults in the steep icy slopes, some as much as a hundred feet in length, others dozens of feet across, so that the latter cannot be crossed without difficulty nor the former surmounted without peril. Add to that the sudden gusts of wind and whirling snow that assail one at every moment, so that even with fur-lined clothes and boots one cannot help but tremble with cold. When we desire to eat or sleep, no dry spot can be found on which to rest. There is no resource left us but to suspend the cooking-pot in which we prepare our food, and stretch our mats out on the ice." (Rene Grousset.)

"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy

The corner of the Kyrgyz Republic that wedges itself between Kazakh and Chinese territory to the east of Karakol is indisputably the country's wildest and least accessible region. It is here in this region that superlatives abound: the highest mountains, the coldest temperatures, the longest glaciers, the grizzliest mountaineers and the strangest natural phenomena. This is a region of ice, snow and unexplored peaks - too high and inhospitable even for most hardy Kyrgyz nomads. It is home to Kyrgyzstan's highest peak (the second highest in the former USSR), the world's fourth longest glacier, an amazing disappearing lake and, if you believe in that sort of thing, the remote location for the crash landing of a giant UFO.

This highest and mightiest part of the Tian Shan system – the name means Celestial Mountains in Chinese – is at the eastern end of Kyrgyzstan, along its borders with China and the very southeast tip of Kazakhstan. It’s an immense knot of ranges, with dozens of summits over 5000m, culminating in Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak, 7439m, second-highest in the former USSR) on the Kyrgyzstan–China border, and Khan Tengri (Prince of Spirits or Ruler of the Sky, 7010m), possibly the most beautiful and demanding peak in the Tian Shan, on the Kazakhstan–Kyrgyzstan border. At 7,439m, Pik Pobedy is a fraction lower than the CIS's highest, Peak Ismoil Somoni (formerly Communism Peak) in Tajikistan that stands at 7,495m.

The bulky peak of Pik Pobedy stands like an enormous rock sentinel watching over the Kyrgyz-China border, whilst Khan Tengri is a perfect pyramidal icon of a peak that is known locally as Kan-Too (Blood Mountain) thanks to the roseate glow its marble upper reaches emit at sunset, almost as if the light comes from within. Khan Tengri, which translates as cither 'Lord of the Spirits' or 'Ruler of the Skies', is a slightly controversial member of the 7,000m-plus club, as its geological height is measured as 6,995m and it is only its glacial cap that elevates it to 7,010m. Nevertheless, Khan Tengri has been accepted as one of the former USSR's five peaks above 7,000m, and in Soviet times mountaineers who climbed this along with the remaining four peaks were eligible for the state's Snow Leopard Award. Of the five peaks - two in the Kyrgyz Tien Shan, three in the Tajik Pamirs - Pik Pobedy was considered to be the most difficult by far, followed by Khan Tengri.

The ranges of the Tien Shan culminate at what is known to locals as Muztag (Ice Mountain), and to geographers as the Central Tien Shan. It is a mighty citadel of ice, fortified by a series of impressive chains including the Kokshal-Tau (the highest range of the Tien Shan), in the shadow of Peak Pobeda (7,439 metres), now called Jengish Chokosu, on the border with China; Tengri Tau, crowned by Khan Tengri (6,995 metres), on the border with Kazakstan; and Inylchek Tau, to name just a few. Viewed from an aeroplane, they have a sculpted elegance rare in such high mountains.

Pik Pobedy is now officially known as Jengish Chokosu, a Kyrgyz translation of the mountain's Russian name that was given to it at the end of World War II. Rather than a single peak, Pik Pobedy is a massif with several summits along its ridge but only the main summit rises above the 7,000m mark. It is also the most northerly 7,000m rock peak in the world if Khan Tengri, just 16km northeast, is excluded from the equation because of its icy summit.

It is also one of the most deadly, with a very high death toll for climbers. The standard approach to the summit involves a 4km traverse along the mountain's west ridge at an altitude above 7,000m, where many climbers become trapped by storms. The route via the north face is even more treacherous.

The total area of the Tien Shan's glaciers is around 6,240 square kilometres, of which about four-fifths is in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan (the rest is in China's Xinjiang province). Of the Tian Shan’s thousands of glaciers, the grandest is 60km-long and three and a half kilometres wide Inylchek (Engilchek) glacier (which is considered to be the fourth longest glacier in the world), rumbling westward from both sides of Khan Tengri, embracing an entire rampart of giant peaks and tributary glaciers. It is said that the glacier holds enough ice to cover the whole of Kyrgyzstan in three metres of melt-water. This ice dragon gives life to the deserts of ex-Soviet Central Asia, through the Naryn river (which flows into the Syr Darya), and to Chinas Tarim basin, through the Inylchek river (which feeds the Sary Jas).

The glacier covers a total area of 583km2 and the ice in places is as much as 540m thick. Located close to where the glacier's northern arm, the North Inylchek Glacier, joins its southern partner, a remarkable two unique ice-locked lakes called Lake Merzbacher (named after the German explorer who travelled here in 1903) forms every summer as the glaciers melt. The upper lake is startlingly blue and clear. Every year, usually some time in mid-August, the lower lake bursts its ice banks and water and icebergs dramatically explode from the lake, spewing icebergs onto the glacier below and massively swelling the Inylchek river.

The first foreigner to bring back information about the Central Tian Shan was the Chinese explorer Xuan Zang (602–64), who crossed the Bedel Pass in the 7th century, early in his 16-year odyssey to India and back. His journey nearly ended here; in the seven days it took to cross the pass half of his 14-person party froze to death.

The first European to penetrate this high region was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semenov in 1856. He ventured into the Muztag heartland, crossing the Tyup river to find a way up the Inylchek river and onto the glacier. As reward, the Imperial Geographical Society of St Petersburg bestowed on Semyonov the honorary suffix, Tienshanskiy. He was followed by Nikolai Przhevasky.

In 1902–03 the Austrian explorer Gottfried Merzbacher first approached the foot of the elegant, Matterhorn-like Khan Tengri, Merzbacher failed in his attempt to climb Khan Tengri but he did succeed in discovering a highly unusual lake that would become named after him, in addition to proving that Khan Tengri did not lie on the main watershed of the Tien Shan, as had been previously thought.

The area was completely closed to outsiders during the Soviet era, although some climbers from within the Soviet Union were able to come here with permission from the military authorities to experience the ultimate mountaineering challenge that the USSR had to offer. Khan Tengri was first climbed from the south in 1931 by a Ukrainian team and from the north for the first time in 1964. Pik Pobedy -Jengish Chokusu was not climbed officially until 1956, although alternative accounts claim that the peak had previously been climbed in 1939, when the climbers had believed the peak to be less than 7,000m.

In Soviet times, even local mountaineers needed a permit to come to the border-sensitive zone and foreigners weren't allowed close until 1989. Now, climbers worldwide are making up for lost time, with Khan Tengri remaining a favourite today.

Along with the eastern Pamir, the central Tian Shan is Central Asia’s premier territory for serious trekking and mountaineering. Several Central Asian adventure-travel firms will bring you here by helicopter, 4WD and/or foot right up to these peaks. Even intrepid, fit, do-it-yourselfers can get a look at Inylchek Glacier.

Unlike the valleys closer to Karakol this is no place for gentle mountain hikes and is really only for committed, experienced mountaineers and those who avail themselves of the support services of guides and porters. Whatever the degree of tactical support enlisted, fitness and stamina are essential. Visiting the area requires a considerable commitment of time, energy and money, but those returning from time spent trekking in the region invariably insist that it is well worth it.

Information - Mid-July to August is the only feasible season to visit as at these elevations winter temperatures around the glacier are -15°C during the day and -25°C at night. The best book to take along is Frith Maier’s comprehensive Trekking in Russia & Central Asia, which has several maps and basic route descriptions for this region.

There are several basecamps operate on the South Inylchek glacier. The tent cities provide accommodation, food, saunas, guiding and consultation services. Their stupendous setting make the camps worth visiting even if you are not a climber. For amateur climbers, Peak Diki (4,832 metres) can be summited in a day from basecamp. Concrete Maida Adyr is just a helicopter pad offering wagon and tented accommodation and food. In between the two camps is a new centre, Jailoo Camp, which consists of a log hut and some yurts providing food, accommodation, sauna, horses and guides.

To get to Maida Adyr, you could always try for a place in a helicopter taking a tour group on the spectacular flight over the peaks. Otherwise, hire a four-wheel drive for the five-hour drive to Maida Adyr, via the mining town of Inylchek. From Maida Adyr it is a five-day trek or 45-minute helicopter ride to the basecamps.

Alternatively, you could undertake the tough four- to six-day trek from Jergalan to Ch'ong Tash at the snout of the South Inylchek glacier, with the support of a travel agency.

In addition, you could need two types of permit: one to enter the 'alptourzone', the region of the Tien Shan that lies beyond Inylchek town. The cost depends on the length of your stay and can be attained on the spot as long as you bring a letter from a recognised local travel agency detailing your itinerary. If you are caught without a permit, there is a fine of about US$200.
The other permit is a border zone permit. Obtaining this is a complicated process, so it's best to arrange it through a local travel agency. Contact them at least four weeks before you plan to arrive in Karakol, giving your passport and trip details.

Permits - To go into the sensitive border zone past Inylchek town or anywhere in the upper Sary Jaz Valley you need a military border permit (propusk) from the permit station of the Russian border detachment stationed at the army base of Karakol’s original garrison. Trekking agencies normally need at least two days to arrange this. You must have a letter with the stamp of a recognised travel agency in Karakol, Bishkek or Almaty, a list of everyone in your party and your itinerary. To climb in the region you’ll need a mountaineering permit, which trekking companies can get you for US$105.

Dangers & Annoyances - This is not a place to pop into for a few days with your summer sleeping bag. You need to be properly equipped against the cold, which is severe at night, even in summer, and give yourself plenty of time to acclimatise to the altitude.

Getting There & Away - Access to the region surrounding Khan Tengri is by road, air or on foot. It’s a four hour (150km) trip on a roller-coaster, all weather road from Karakol via Inylchek town, a mining centre at about 2500m and 50km west of the snout of the Inylchek Glacier. Do-it-yourselfers could hire a UAZ Jeep or a 4WD 15-seater. Even though maps show a road between Ak Shyrak and Inylchek, the last part of this road is no longer passable and access via this approach is by foot only. The new road to At-Jailoo has a US$10 toll for jeeps, or US$20 for trucks.

If you have the cash, take a mind-boggling helicopter flight over the Tian Shan to Khan Tengri base camp with Kan Tengri from its Karkara Valley base camp. It is possible to hitch a lift on a helicopter from Maida Adyr to the base camps for US$150 to US$200 (plus US$1 per kilo if you have more than 30kg of luggage). These trips run every two days in August. You can trek to Khan Tengri’s north face from Narynkol (Kazakhstan), Jyrgalang (Kyrgyzstan) or, less interestingly, from the Ak-Jailoo road head.