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International 2002 Muztag Ata Expedition

Since I still had some vacation time available for this year, even after the three weeks of climbing in Bolivia in June, I took the opportunity for a months long climb in southwestern China.  Near Kashgar (sometimes known as “Kashi”) is a mountain called “Muztag Ata” (known as the “Father of Ice Mountains”) at 7546 meters (24,756 feet) that is well known in climbing circles for its accessibility difficulties along with bad weather.  So that is where I headed for in August 2002!

                        On August 2nd I took an eight-hour flight from Washington, D.C. to London, and stayed at a hotel just outside of the Heathrow airport.  (I dislike Heathrow since every time I fly in there seems to be only two passport control officers on duty and it takes forever just to “enter” the country.  Argh!)  The next morning I met part of the team, which consisted of a Brit, a South African, another Yank (from Boston), and a Malaysian.  The Scottish leader was already in Pakistan rounding up some supplies (tents, stoves, climbing equipment) that were left over there last year from his visit.  He had left the gear in Pakistan hoping to climb there this year, but with the present political difficulties he decided to head for Muztag Ata instead and needed to retrieve the gear, travel overland to Kashgar, and then meet up with us.  So our group from London then proceeded to take a six-hour flight on British Airways to Baku, Azerbaijan, which continued on with a three-hour flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  As you can imagine none of us were wide-awake when we arrived at Bishkek (formerly known as “Frunze”) on August 4th at 6 a.m.

                        Needless to say we had some visa difficulties at the airport, since no one seemed to be able to find our pre-approved arrival letter from the government.  (Invitation letters are secured from the local mountaineering clubs/agency, which are suppose to make it easier to arrive there and stay there!)  After some time with the visa official he approved most of our entries, except a South African one (he could not find that country in his rules book), and we paid $60 U.S. dollars to enter the country several times (i.e. a multiple entry visa).  Once I went through passport control and customs I found our mountaineering and travel agency contact, and he gave me a copy of the pre-approval letter to show the visa official.  By that time the official had found a copy of the letter and reimbursed us our money.  (Afterward the fee from the club/agency turned out to be $75 U.S., which makes me think arriving on our own is surely a better deal all around!) 

                        Since a small (six person) Italian team was also arriving on this flight we all hoisted our climbing bags on to a lorry/truck for transport while we all took a pre-arranged bus for some sleep.  (The locals were all over us at the airport to “assist” us for a fee with our bags, while none of us had any local currency (“soms”).  The bus was very nice and we started off on our eight-hour ride to Tash Rabat, near the border towards China.  After two hours on decent but bumpy roads we stopped at a local restaurant and had “breakfast”.  The menu was not in English and our local guide/fixer translated it from Russian to English as best he could.  (“Fish fingers” became instead some indescribable meat patty, which I sampled and then decided not to finish.)  As we went on, hour after hour, the roads got worse and worse.  The lunch stop was at some “hole in the wall” run down place, and the Italians took one look at the place and passed on eating there.  While the rest of us tried the fried fish, that was not too bad, and mainly tried to re-hydrate with soda pop. (There was no bottled water around and none of us were all that keen to drink the local water.)   We finally turned off the road in the late afternoon and stopped at the yurt huts that were to be our home for the evening. 

                        The yurts (round enclosures made of willow wood and dyed cloth, with a hole in the top for the smoke from the cooking fire to escape from) were not bad, and metal beds were placed all around inside of them to accommodate five of us in each yurt.  It was also interesting that even though we were in Kyrgyzstan most of the people we had met were Russians who had emigrated from Siberia or some other Russian place.  At the same time we met the local Kirghiz populace when we stopped for food.  We all cleaned up a bit in the local stream and then took a short ride to “Tash Rabat”.  This was actually an old fort from the silk route days (circa 1300 A.D), and it was interesting to see how they must have lived back then.  Even though the fort is in a state of long decay you could still see places where the painting inside of it has survived.  Some of us then walked back to the camp to get some exercise before the BIG Russian type meal (soup, borsch, bread, meat, potatoes, and tea) were served along with vodka.  (We all passed on the liquor, although some nice wine was also served.)  I must read the “Travels of Marco Polo” some day to get an idea of how he traveled throughout this area, and then chronicled the journey. 

                        The next morning, August 4th, found us on our way at 9:30 a.m. for a bumpy two- hour ride to the border, and first through two military checkpoints to get to the border.  (This is where having all of our papers in order, and being associated with an invitation to visit the country, finally served us in good stead.)  In fairly quick order we were through the main Kyrgyzstan border post and on the short ride between the two guarded border outposts.  Once at the true border we passed under the arch at Turugat Pass (3752 m/12,307 ft in altitude) and transferred our bags and equipment to the waiting Chinese bus.  (The Italians were in another bus the rest of the way.)  We also met our Chinese Mountaineering Association (aka Xinjiang Autonomous Region Mountaineering Association) liaison officer, who in fact turned out to be a local Muslim Uygur young man from Kashgar.   Hassan actually worked for the Kashgar Mountaineering Association, which had as its director his brother!  Hassan has great English speaking skills, which was a bonus, and he also was ready for our arrival with bottled water and bread that was gratefully accepted by all of us. 

                        Once everything was transferred to the waiting bus we started the long descent towards Kashgar on very good roads.  There were not very many villages along the road, but at the first one we were stopped by the military and they made a cursory check through our personal backpacks for pornography and/or religious materials.  Once through this quick bag check we continued onward to the official Chinese border post, a good hours drive down the road into the country, and had our passports and bags checked.  This did not take long, since hardly anyone was at either border post when we went through, and we continued onward again to Kashgar.  It took us approx. 3-4 hours to get there in the afternoon, since the government is making a concerted effort to improve the road and drainage, thus there are many breaks and detours on the road to accommodate the upgrade work. 

                        That evening we arrived in Kashgar thus completing our 700km/434 mile journey to there.   We also met the Scottish leader of the team and who had safely traveled into Pakistan and through the border with the climbing equipment, and who was enjoying himself at the “Big Nose” (what the Chinese call us folks) bar.  Good place to meet, and after moving into our rooms at the Seman Hotel (the ex-Russian consulate area from years ago) we moved over to the Chinese restaurant and filled ourselves with about every imaginable combination of things that could be mixed with noodles and/or rice.  Of course this meant getting reacquainted with chopsticks, which we would use for the remainder of our visit in China.  (Fortunately we kept our handy spoons for eating while up on the mountain above base camp.) 

                        It should be noted that even though the Kirghiz are the dominant ethnic group in this area the Han Chinese, the major ethnic group in main China, are certainly in charge with the Peoples Liberation Army in overall control.  The main government is definitely in control, while also being very liberal in their allowance with the local majority keeping their religion (Islam) and local customs intact.  The Han Chinese are also making a major investment in building modern structures, usually with very poor workmanship just like in Tibet, while nearby are the mud and brick traditional homes of the local Kirghiz population.  Already many areas have been changed to the more “modern” tall and densely packed housing versus the more wide-open spaces of the older neighborhoods. 

                        The weather during this early portion of the trip was generally hot while low in altitude and in the cities, while the journey on the mountain roads generally proved to be much cooler and nicer.  The temperatures reached into and above the high 90’s F during the day in Bishkek and Kashgar in August, and fortunately the humidity is low then.  

                        To attempt to get on to the right time zone sleeping schedule we spent the next day in the city and took in some sights, walked around, and generally prepared ourselves for the trip to the mountain the following day.  (The government works on Beijing time that is three hours ahead of the “local” time, so we had to be careful what time people meant when making plans for the remainder of the trip.)  The highlight of the day was the visit to the “Fragrant Concubines” tomb, which looks like a miniature version of the Taj Mahal.  The story is that sometime around 1650 the lovely daughter, who must have smelled nice, of the local headman was sent off to Beijing as a tribute to the leader there, and while there became a favorite at his court.  (That she died of poison must mean that someone else did NOT like her!)  The story goes that when she died it took 3 ˝ years to cart her body back to Kashgar for burial there in the tomb, and a cart is displayed at the entrance to the tomb.  Even now the tomb is in good condition and has a well-kept garden in front of it, also like the Taj Mahal.  Late that evening our Aussie climbing friend joined our merry band of men, since flying through Beijing and Urumqi from Australia was easier than the route we had taken from London. 

              Part Two >>>>>>>>>

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