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Tian Shan & Khan Tengri

Kazakhstan’s highest and most magnificent mountains rise in the country’s far southeastern corner where it meets Kyrgyzstan and China. The mountain named after Tengri, the Turkic god of the heavens is widely considered the most beautiful and demanding peak in the Tian Shan, and there are many more 5000m-plus peaks around it, including Mramornaya Stena (Marble Wall, 6400m) on the Kazakh–Chinese border, and Pik Pobedy (7439m)south of Khan Tengri on the Kyrgyz–Chinese border.

Khan Tengri (7010m) is a massive marble pyramid, ranking alongside such peaks as the Matterhorn as the most beautiful on earth. At sunset, its marble walls glow red. Khan Tengri is flanked by two long, westrunning glaciers, the North Inylchek Glacier on its Kazakh side and the South Inylchek glacier on its Kyrgyzstan side. Inylchek Glacier, at more than 60km in length is one of the largest in the world outside the polar regions, frame the mountain to the north and south.

The first mountaineer to attempt to climb it was the Austrian explorer Gottfried Merzbacher at the turn of the 20th century. He came to realise that the ascent would require a significant expedition, and left unsuccessful, though did establish the relationships of the various peaks and ranges in the region, as well as giving his name- to the intriguing seasonal Lake Merzbacher. The first successful ascent was made by a Ukrainian team led by Mikhail Pogrebetsky in 1931. Khan Tengri was originally thought to be the highest peak in the Tian Shan: it was only in the 1940s, when Peak Pobeda to the south was properly surveyed, that it was discovered that the latter, at 7,439m, rose considerably above Khan Tengri. With its striking pyramidal form, Khan Tengri had just seemed higher than the more solidly proportioned Pobeda.

The height of Khan Tengri itself has been a matter of considerable debate. It was originally determined at 7,193m, a height revised in later surveys to 6,995m. But in sources published within the region its height tends to be given as 7,010m, using the argument that the peak is crowned with a cap of ice, which puts its height above the 7,000m mark. It is one of the qualifying peaks for the Snow Leopard Award, earned by those mountaineers who have climbed all five peaks more than 7,000m in height in the former Soviet Union. Accepting the claim that Khan Tengri does top 7,000m would make it the most northerly peak on earth to reach this height. Otherwise that accolade goes to Peak Pobeda, 16km to the south, which is now officially known as Jengish Chokosu, Kyrgyz for 'Victory Peak'.

Attempting to ascend Khan Tengri is of course for experienced mountaineers only, and requires considerable planning. But even to reach the foothills of the mountain is not straightforward. There are no roads anywhere near the place, and most visitors arrive by helicopter or on a long trek which includes the base of Khan Tengri. The area is also part of a restricted border zone, for which special permission is required.

Most visitors arrive here via the camp at Karkara run by Kan Tengri. This is situated some 280km east of Almaty: take the main road east to Kegen, turning south at that village towards the Kyrgyz border. From Karkara a rough track takes you to the camp, which is located amidst meadows close to the Karkara River. Accommodation is in two-person tents or a yurt.

From Karkara there are trekking options along the Kokzhar River and some good mountain biking, but for most visitors the key to coming here is the transfer by helicopter to one of two Khan Tengri base camps, both operated by the Kan Tengri company. Both tented base camps sit at heights a little above 4,000m. The North Inylchek base camp is on the Kazakh side of the border, close to the North Inylchek Glacier. The South Inylchek base camp is in Kyrgyzstan, and also serves as a base for Peak Pobeda, across the South Inylchek Glacier.

Kan Tengri hires the helicopters, usually Soviet-era Mi-8s, for the summer period (the season for trekking and climbing around the central Tian Shan is a short one, focused on July and August). The flight to the base camps, which takes around 35 minutes, is spectacular. It is not safe if the weather is poor. At the time of research, Kan Tengri was charging around US$3,500 for a helicopter transfer. These are mostly aimed at groups on organised packages. The helicopters seat 20, and individual travellers may wish to ask the company about the possibility of spare seats on flights, which should be charged at US$200-250 a time. Make sure though that you organise your seat back at the same time!

There is another camp, at Akkol. It is closer to Khan Tengri, at an altitude of 2,600m in the Bayankol Valley. To get here you head eastwards from Kegen on the road towards Narynkol, turning off to the south at the village of Tekes. There is tented accommodation as well as beds in hangar-like dormitories. The deal is otherwise similar to Karkara, with helicopter transfers to the North Inylchek and South Inylchek base camps. Note that the Akkol camp is itself in a restricted border zone, for which permission will need to be obtained with the help of the agency organising your trip.