Watch Sherry’s video blog from Sarychat first:
“Sherry? Sherry, are you awake?”
Friday, February 15, 7:15am.
Kuban Jumabai uulu, the director of Snow Leopard Foundation in Kyrgyzstan (SLFK), is the only one awake. The three rangers from the Kyrgyz State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry, Urmat, Askat, and Mishka, and my colleague, Suraiya Luecke are still sleeping on the wooden platform of the small mud-hut. We are in Sarychat-Ertash, a nature reserve located in the Central Tian Shan Mountains in the southeast of Kyrgyzstan. We’re only 40km away from the Chinese border, but a 14 hours drive from Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital where Suraiya, Kuban and I are based.
I open my eyes, trying to distinguish the surroundings in the early dawn. Kuban tells me that now is the best time to observe wolves. I quickly get out of our single-room hut, binoculars in hand, heading to a spot with open views to the slopes of the valleys surrounding the hut. Suraiya soon joins me. The cold temperatures quickly wake us up. The morning is calm. Not even a bird is flying over us – but the wolves are there. Scats and paw prints prove it – but they are discreet enough this morning. And soon the rangers come out from the hut, calling us for breakfast, their call echoing in the valley.
Breakfast usually consists of tea or coffee, bread, sausage and cheese; but this morning, jam and chocolate are part of the feast. We all know today is the real start of the expedition. After breakfast, the rangers prepare the horses while we prepare our bags and ration the food. In three teams, we will be covering the two main valleys of Sarychat-Ertash to set up in total 35 cameras traps, which will stay in the reserve for the next three months.
I will go East, with Urmat Solokov, a 29 year-old ranger.
We are the first to leave. Caramel and Padiera, our horses, carry the camping equipment and the food, while the 7 camera traps we will set up at an altitude of between 2200m and 3400m are in my backpack. It’s the second time in my life that I ride a horse elsewhere than in a riding stable. Quickly, we end up riding down canyons, going up steep slopes and crossing frozen rivers. I wish I had words to describe the beauty and the immensity of the landscapes around me. So many textures, so many colors, and this silence that makes you feel loud even though there is only the sound of the hooves on the ground.
Urmat speaks only Russian and Kyrgyz, and my Russian is limited. We have to wait for the lunch break to discuss a little bit. Discussing is a big word though, as we mainly speak through key words and sign language. But we manage to get to know each other, and the most important is that we understand each other’s jokes. So everything will be fine!
We set up four cameras on this first day. Since 2013, SLFK and Snow Leopard Trust have been working in Sarychat-Ertash, carrying out the first long-term snow leopard population density study ever done in Kyrgyzstan. To set the cameras, we look for ideal marking sites or places where snow leopards would typically walk by.
A marking site is usually characterised by boulders with a hanging rock face. Snow leopards usually use these boulders to scratch their shoulder or head before turning around, their back facing the rock, and urinating on them to mark them. These sites are optimal for us to identify the cats afterwards, as they tend to spend more time in front of the camera, showing different sides of their body. This is important to us since every individual has a unique rosette pattern and it is by analyzing these patterns that we identify the individuals.
After setting the cameras, it’s time to set up our tent. Tonight, we’ll camp between trees, by the main river. We leave the horses and go down a small cliff to be sheltered from the wind. Urmat is taking care of the fire while I put up the tent. I can feel that we rode our horses for 8 hours today. We eat a Chaï Ramen, some sort of instant noodles, by the light of the fire and our headlamps. Snowflakes start falling and everything is quickly covered with a white layer. It tells us that it’s time to go to bed. Before falling asleep, Urmat imitates the wolf, hoping to get an answer. But the valley is quiet. Only the sound of the ice moving on the river and of the snow covering the tent are perceivable. And soon Urmat’s snoring.
In the morning, I wake up with my face wrapped in my scarf and with my hat halfway down on my face. As I remove the layers from my face, I realize my sleeping bag is frozen and that there is snow all inside the tent. The condensation has turned to snow, as we forgot to open the condensation vent in the tent. Beginner’s mistake! As I get out from the tent, the view is magnificent. The sun is shyly rising, spreading beautiful light on the river. The temperatures are very low this morning. Most of our food is frozen, but we manage to make a nice breakfast. In these moments, a warm tea becomes all you need. We pack everything, and off we go to what will become the most beautiful and intense trek I have ever done.
The sun is now higher in the sky, and Sarychat-Ertash’s wildlife starts to make an appearance. Mountain hares, various birds as well as fresh marks of foxes, wolves and ibex are visible in the snow that covers the icy river we ride on. Soon, I observe my first group of argali. These endangered sheep, widely hunted for their magnificent horns, are calmly grazing on the sunny slope, looking at us with an obvious curiosity.
Since we left the camp, we have already gained about 600 meters of altitude. The horses are out of breath, so we take a break. I am also breathless myself. Not only due to the altitude that I am still adapting to or because of how technical the ride can be, but because of the beauty of the landscape. The sky has this pure blue, and the mountains shine with a fresh layer of snow. The air is cold, but the sun heats up the little bits of my skin not covered by my clothes. More groups of argali and ibex are visible. Urmat and I are vigilant, since the presence of prey means greater chances to see predators. As ibex and argali are snow leopards’ favorite prey, we are all ears and eyes. I suddenly see something running across the slope facing me. Long tail, big individual, fast runner. I call Urmat, all excited. But he doesn’t manage to see it. A snow leopard? Perhaps. But by being both blinded by the sun and by not having enough time to observe the elusive animal, we can not be sure. But the adrenaline is here. Snow leopard or not, we feel lucky to be there. “Krassiwi, bolchoi krassiwi” I keep saying in my rusty Russian. He nods and smiles.
Riding the horses becomes difficult and we must get off and do parts of the trek by foot. The bags become lighter as we set more cameras.
A magnificent frozen lake is making us forget the difficulty of the trek. Or at least me. Urmat is used to these landscapes. As we hike up a 70° angled slope made of snow and sand, I try not to look down and to see the 200m drop going straight down to a canyon.
My horse is behind me. He is struggling as well. We both keep sliding down. I don’t even hold him anymore. I feel his head against my back to encourage me. I look at him and he looks the same as when the ice broke beneath his feet as we were crossing the frozen river. It’s steep, it’s difficult and with the altitude everything seems harder. When we arrive on the top, I don’t even hear Urmat, I can just feel my heart’s pounding.
I sit down and Padiera comes up next to me, putting his head near my face before going back to Caramel to take a rest.
I think we both got scared. After setting a camera on the ridge line, it’s time to go down the same slope, but on the other side where there is no snow. We still struggle a bit less. Suddenly we see a group of about 40 ibex, 100 meters away, looking at us. The males feature magnificent horns. With the females and the kids, they are grazing on the same slope as we are, curious about why we do not manage to get down the slope easily. After all, this is easy terrain for them.
Finally the hardest part of the trek is done and while the horses are left free in the high grass of the plain, Urmat and I enjoy lunch in the sun. It’s warm. We take a rest. And then we go for the last ride of the day, leading us back to the hut. What was supposed to be an hour’s ride becomes three hours. The wind has started blowing as the sun is setting, making the temperatures drop drastically.
All I can feel is the smell of smoke from Urmat, riding ahead, probably trying to warm himself up. I want to tell him that it will not work, but my face is so numb that all I can do is blink. I don’t even see his head sticking out from his jacket. He looks like the Headless Horseman.
We have to cross the river. But by now the ice has melted. The water is freezing on our horses’ legs, and suddenly they go faster. We reach the cabin in the dark, with only the bright moonlight helping us to see where to go.
Once sheltered, we cook a warm plov and quickly retire into the arms of Morpheus.
The next day is warmer, and after setting a last camera, we ride North to meet up with the five other members of the team, whom are riding back “home” to the mud-hut. We start galloping across the vast plains and it feels good to meet up with everybody. We tell each other the adventures we have experienced. The two other teams have had even colder temperatures than us. It’s with warmth and lots of laughters that we share dinner in this small hut and soon fall asleep, our heads full of new beautiful memories.
Our final day in Sarychat is marked by a morning full of adrenaline. Kuban, Suraiya and I set three more camera traps in a valley where a snow leopard is watching us. Its marks on the snow are fresh. It’s here. But we can’t see it. Kuban is staying at the back of the valley with the binoculars to keep an open view. Suraiya is following the fresh tracks while I try to get higher up in the valley to get to a viewpoint. But as time is passing, we know the snow leopard has probably followed the group of argali that went over the pass to the other valley. We head back to the hut. Arksat has prepared lunch for everybody. Urmat and Miska have already started to head back to another valley where another ranger lives, and where we will also stop to get a final warm tea before the 14h car ride back to Bishkek.