Part 1: Trekking The World’s Most Dangerous Road to Altyn Arashan and Bumping into Unexpected Visitors
It was minus twenty degrees outside and while flipping through our Central Asia guidebook, we chanced upon a natural hot spring at Altyn Arashan and we knew, that our plans for the next two days were settled. The idea of a hot spring in this blizzard was heaven to us. We contacted the owner of the hot spring and met up with him to discuss our plans. The owner, Valentin, was a scruffy old fella with a persistent cough who assured us while smoking a cigarette that it was no problem for us to proceed with this trek despite the cold weather. He also mentioned that it was an easy trek and it shouldn’t take us more than 4 hours to reach the hot spring.
So off we went the next day, optimistically with a backpack that carried only a 500ml water bottle and some snacks. We did not pack lunch as we assumed that we would reach by 1pm if we took four hours to complete the trek. As for the water, it was no problem as we could always refill our bottles with snow later on (or so we thought). After trekking for awhile, we began to understand why this road was given the title as the “world’s most dangerous road for motorists”. The road was severely uneven with potholes of varying sizes almost every few metres! With the snow, it was trickier as it was slippery and the snow disguised the uneven surface, which made it harder for drivers to know where to avoid. There were also 2 small rivers that we had to cross. No wonder our guidebook mentioned that walking might not necessarily be slower than driving.
Any hope of hitch-hiking was dashed after around 2 hours of trekking and still not a single soul or vehicle in sight. Just as we were resigning to our fate that no other person in his sound mind would pass through this route during winter, we suddenly heard the roaring engine of a vehicle drawing closer to us. We couldn’t believe our ears and was unsure if we heard correctly or was it from the gurgling river next to us. We stopped in our tracks and waited for awhile before a pickup truck appeared before us. We were delighted and immediately stretched our hand out to flag it down and signaled if we could take a lift from them. Two of the guys had to reach out their hands to pull us up into the back of their truck where there were remnants of wood shavings and hay, and also a very stale and funky smell. There were about 6 guys at the back of the truck and later we found out they were a bunch of woodcutters on their way to work! Islam, the guy on my left in the photo below, could speak some basic English and told us that every day, they would drive up to the mountain around this time to cut wood and then return to the village after dusk.
We chatted with the guys and one thing that really struck a cord in us was their immense love and pride for their country. Islam said that he didn’t know what heaven’s like, but to him, living here in Kyrgyzstan with the beautiful mountains and forest was like heaven to him. The truck soon came to a stop after twenty minutes and Islam informed us that it was their break time and invited us for some tea and bread together with them. We had our break inside a small communal brown wagon with a traditional stove at one end, work boots neatly lined at the side and a table with some used utensils in the centre of the wagon. There were also a few axes and saws lying at a corner and a row of mattresses for the workers to rest at the end of the wagon.
It felt so good drinking hot tea in this chilly weather. By then the snow has gotten much heavier and we were so grateful that we were holed up here, feeling really warm and cozy with something to eat and drink especially since we did not pack any lunch. Islam started sharing with us stories about the dangers of the mountains. He said that in the mountains, there are plenty of wolves and wild boars which will attack humans if they see them. Especially when it snows, the wolves will start to roam around and search for their next prey. Exact words from him, “many snow, wolf will come. Danger to human”. That really scared us as while trekking, we did come across several dubious looking footprints, which looked like it might have belonged to a wolf.
Lunch break was soon over and we climbed back onto the pickup truck. By then the snow has gotten even heavier and the wind was howling! Visibility was almost zilch and we could hardly open our eyes! The truck started moving and shortly after 5 minutes, it stopped. Islam said that they’ve reached their destination and they will be alighting here for their work. We were disappointed as we thought that we could at least hitch-hike for a longer portion of our journey and wasn’t expecting to alight so soon. We were shivering in the back of the truck when Islam casually mentioned that the radio was playing a song by “Enrique Iglesia”. Excitedly, I asked if it was the song “Hero” and then he laughed and said, “No, no hero. You are the hero, for trekking through this snow to Altyn Arashan” as his crew and him bid us farewell into the vast treacherous blizzard…(to be continued)