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Trekking to Inylchek Glacier

The only viable time for non-winter alpinists is high summer - July to August. Border permits will be needed for any sort of visit and should be organised well in advance. Mountaineering permits are necessary for all climbing expeditions.

Several tour companies arrange expeditions to the area for both trekkers and climbers and all of these operate basecamps in the Inylchek valley. The usual overland route into the region is via the depressed and almost deserted tin-mining town of Inylchek. Until the 1990s, Inylchek was a small town of around 5,000 citizens that worked in the mines and factories of the town. Now less than 20 families remain, determinedly staying on by adapting to a far more rural mode of life.

Consequently Inylchek is rather like a ghost town: an eerie sort of place with empty streets and abandoned khrushchevki apartment blocks. Beyond Inylchek, a dirt road continues to Maida Adyr, a 5-hour drive from Karakol, from where it is a 4-6 day trek to the basecamps. Maida Adyr itself is little more than a helicopter landing pad, a tent camp that provides basic food and accommodation needs, and a clutch of the ubiquitous recycled freight wagons that are seen all over the country. There is another, rather nicer, basecamp run by Tour Khan Tengri at Ak-Jailoo further up the valley, which has both yurts and wooden huts to stay in, in addition to space for tents (a bed in a hut costs about US$30, in a yurt US$18, in a tent $9, 3 meals US$20).

Helicopters are used to provide fast and expensive transport in the region, linking Maida Adyr with the basecamps, and spectacular pleasure flights over the glaciers can also be arranged. The helicopters are chartered by the tour companies but it may be possible to pay for a ride to the basecamps if they have room and you are travelling independently. They are not cheap: fares start at around US$100 per person per flight.

Trekking from Maida Adyr to the basecamps at the Inylchek Glacier takes four to six days. It is important to have some knowledge of glacier walking and an experienced guide who knows the terrain. The route follows a dirt road along the Inylchek River for 15km before arriving at a confluence with another river where there is a good campsite. From here, it is another day's hike to Chong-Tash, which is marked by a 9m-high boulder on the left bank (hence Chong-Tash, which means 'big stone'). This has a freshwater spring and is another good place to camp.

From Chong-Tash, the standard route soon reaches the glacier, which it crosses diagonally, climbing all the time. Then the right-hand moraine is followed, sometimes on the glacier itself, sometimes beside it. Merzbacher's Glade is reached after a long day's (8-10 hours) hike from Chong-Tash, at the point just below where the northern arm of the glacier joins the main southern one. From Merzbacher Glade, a side trip directly to the north leads to Merzbacher Lake after a few hours' ice walking. The main trek continues past several other glaciers flowing into it to reach Red Moraine, another camp site. Beyond Red Moraine it is another 5-7 hour glacier hike to the South Inylchek Glacier basecamps.

The most common trekking route to the Inylchek Glacier is the remote and wild seven- or eight day trek from Jyrgalang, 70km east of Karakol. Most trekkers will need support for this trek, not least because you will need a military permit from Karakol to head up the Sary Jaz Valley. There’s one daily bus from Karakol to Jyrgalang.

Red tape: Trekking anywhere beyond Inylchek requires a border zone permit. Border permits can be obtained through tour operators in Karakol, but are best arranged well in advance as they usually take several days to organise. Climbing permits are required for actual attempts on the peaks themselves and, similarly, these should be arranged with a local operator well in advance of your trip.
It is possible to hire a 4WD in Karakol to the yak farm in Echkili-Tash and join the trek there, leaving only two or three days to reach Chong-Tash. From Chong-Tash you’ll face a one- or two-day hike back west to Ak-Jailoo or Maida Adyr camp and Inylchek town.

To continue from Chong-Tash on to the Inylchek Glacier you definitely need the support of a trekking agency to guide you over the glacier, keep you in supplies and let you stay in its base camps. With an experienced guide it’s possible to continue from Chong-Tash over the glacier for one long day to Merzbacher Lake and to continue the next day to the camps. A popular excursion for trekking groups based here is to make a trekking ascent of Mt Diky (4832m) or Pesni Abaji (4901m), or to hike up the Zvozdochka Glacier to the foot of Pik Pobedy (7439m). Most groups take in a stunning helicopter route around the valley and out to Inylchek town and you might be able to buy a ride back up to Inylchek for US$200 to US$250. The best time for trekking in this region is July and August. 

Another tough, and even wilder, approach is to make a 4-6 day trek from the town of Jergalan along the Jergalan valley and across the Sary-Jaz mountains to Chong-Tash, near the foot of the South Inylchek Glacier. It is a 2-day trek from Maida Adyr, or another 4 days along the glacier, to reach the basecamps. This route can be shortened by arranging 4x4 transportation in Karakol to drive as far as Echkili-Tash, from where it takes 2 or 3 days to trek to Chong-Tash.

There is no public transport into the area apart from a single daily bus to Jergalan from Karakol. It should also be possible to hire transport to go as far as Inylchek town from Karakol but a 4x4 is necessary.

As well as treks to the Inylchek Glacier, Merzbacher Lake and the basecamps, some companies offer the option of an ascent of 4,832m Pik Diki, which is considered to be a 'trekking peak'; it's an 8-10 hour round-trip from the basecamp.