Few sights can rival that of seeing a group of nearly 200 argali scamper in one big heap towards the safety of a nearby mountain top. Enveloped by the rolling mountains, some slopes are a vibrant gold, and others desolate white. Sarychat, in Kyrgyzstan, is truly a special place. I was fortunate to be in this “gem of the snow leopard world”, as some may call it, in October 2017 for a project to estimate wild ungulate population using the scientifically robust Double-Observer method.
I vividly remember sipping copious amounts of tea as we reached the rangers’ hut at the edge of the reserve on a rather frigid near winter night. Our host, Tamirbek (aka Tesha) introduced us to his fellow rangers, Asghat and Mirbek (aka Mischa). All were from the neighbouring Ak-Shyirak village.
Subsequent days were spent by us surveying valleys in pairs (a key aspect of the double-observer method) for two of this landscape’s jewels, the argali and the ibex. For four of these day I found myself partnered, either by luck or fate (or a bit of both) with Mischa. The able horseman that they are, the Kyrgyz rangers, especially Mischa were adamant that they could get anywhere on horseback. While that may be true, I wasn’t too sure if you could hold a steady hand and scan for ibex, particularly in the rocky and rugged side valleys. Each morning, when Kuban would give us directions, Mischa would try and signal towards the horses and I would dismissively point at our legs, with a smirk on my face. My inability to converse in Kyrgyz and his inability to speak English, meant sign language was our dearest friend.
Mischa, against his will would comply and set off with me on foot. I would smile and give him a thumbs up and he would roll his eyes and return one… all in good spirit! One particular day as we surveyed the Sarichki valley, one of Sarychat’s longest valleys, Mischa and I sat by a stream to take a break. Mischa realized that we had another 8-10 km (after having walked ~9km already!) to go before we neared the end. Trying to lighten the mood (or perhaps give himself some motivation!), Mischa, plucked a piece of thorn from a nearby Caragana bush and pretended to poke it in my thighs. We was trying to signal that this will make me jump right to the end, without having to walk! Though its application was flawed, it did give me a hearty laugh.
It amazed me how much Mischa and I conversed. Apart from my occasional pointing of fingers onto the mountains and blurting out “Teke (male ibex in Kyrgyz)” and his deep throated “Good”, I think Mischa and I communicated more on the basis of our shared love for the wilderness. In words that aren’t necessarily audible or articulated.
Sarychat is a place isolated from the world. No settlements, no people, just vast wilderness. The near 800 count of argali and 1200 count of ibex in an area less than 600 sq km is a testament to that. These numbers are some of the healthiest across the high Asian mountain. A huge amount of credit and appreciate for this needs to go to rangers like Mischa. They live and breathe everyday with the ethos of ensuring places like Sarychat remain as wildlife havens. Nonetheless, every once in a while, heroes need to be taught to stand on their own two feet, right?