Intoxicated by two red-eye flights and a 17-hour layover in Moscow, I arrived in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, at 5 a.m. The apple trees were in bloom — an uplifting welcome after a long grey winter in the Rockies.
I’d come to this small Central Asian nation to follow in the footsteps of Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventurer who had explored the region in the 1930s. It was an era when few Westerners, not to mention single women, were traveling in the area. Smitten with our Swiss heroine, myself and two friends, Jaime and Ann, an expat living in Bishkek, were headed for the Tien Shan mountains to ski a peak called Sari Tor that Maillart had tackled back in her day, then venture into the surrounding terrain that had yet to be tracked by skiers.
Over a welcome breakfast of French toast and tea, Ann mentioned protests were rumored for that day in Bishkek. But local friends had laughed off the possibility, telling Ann that, if it rained, no one would come. So we continued logisticizing and mapping out errands to complete before leaving the next morning on our two-and-a-half-week trip into the mountains.
Later that afternoon, Jaime and I stood at the window of Ann’s third-story apartment, waiting. The sound of chanting, a repetitive round of Russian, had already reached us, long before the tide of men swelling through the street. Red Kyrgyz flags snapped in the air among raindrops. We watched spellbound as a crowd swarmed a city bus, rocking it like a broken vending machine till all the passengers had tumbled out. They rolled the bus back to the middle of the four-way intersection below, bringing traffic to a halt.
The drum tap of gunfire broke the unfamiliar quiet that had settled as traffic ceased. Located just four blocks from the Presidential building, the White House, Ann’s apartment was close enough to the fray that we could smell the chemical stench of black smoke climbing into the leaden storm clouds. Burning tires? Burning buildings? One guess was as good as another. The Internet, international phone lines and television had been cut, but soon we began receiving Tweets and text updates. Fed up with corruption, nepotism and exorbitant price hikes, protesters were storming the White House, demanding that President Bakiyev resign. We greedily waited for updates to flash across Ann’s cell phone.
Hours passed. We crowded the window like voyeurs at a peep show. A lone cop car patrolled the street with a group of teenage boys running after it, throwing rocks at its back window, the glass shattering into a messy, tangled web. A policeman exited, marching toward the boys as he raised the Kalashnikov’s site to his eye.
“Is everybody ready to duck,” asked Ann, anticipating the potential for stray bullets.
I wasn’t sure whether to turn my eyes and shield my heart from the potential of watching one human hurt, possibly even kill, another, or if witnessing the act would somehow pay respects to the pain and outrage that had driven the boys into this standoff. I thought about screaming or of throwing something down to create a distraction. But I was scared — scared how they’d react to a foreigner inserting herself into their fight. Scared of the consequences. That moment and those questions still haunt me.
As night fell, we turned off the lights, drew the curtains and moved around the apartment with headlamps. The two-and-a-half-weeks’ worth of food, iodine tablets for water purification, gallons of fuel and cookstoves sitting in the living room, sorted and ready for the expedition, provided some level of security. Many of Ann’s fellow expat friends were moving to safe houses outside the capital under orders from their employers. The U.S. Embassy staff had moved to the American air base. But, considering our location on the third floor of a large apartment building and our arsenal of ice axes and crampons, we felt safely ensconced. We watched through carefully-pulled-back corners of the curtains as the streets below flooded with looters. Until sunrise, men of all ages streamed back and forth, carrying their treasures — bags of food, appliances, sporting goods, display racks, potted plants, anything and everything.
International expeditions are synonymous with uncertainty and risk, but the revolution had taken this adage to a new level. The Tien Shan’s snowy glaciers weren’t the problem, but the land between here and there was lawless. So we waited, settling into a storm-day routine, albeit of a different kind, with long cups of tea, naps, reading and, for me, long interviews with the revolutionaries still bandaged and marked with streaks of bright green disinfectant, still running on empty and searching for missing loved ones.
There were so many. Gulbubu, a grandmother whose calf had been peeled open like a banana by a grenade. Sitting next to her rickety hospital bed, I asked, if she’d known the outcome, would she have still gone to the protests.
“I’d do it again,” she said, wincing as the nurse turned her to administer a shot. “I’d lie to my children and tell them I’d be back soon. Change needs this kind of sacrifice.”
There was Ulan, a 41-year-old electrician who hadn’t slept in three days and was subsisting on cigarettes.
“We aren’t thinking about food or sleep; we are thinking about when we will hear about a punishment for the blood of the killed people,” he said, adding that the perpetrators should be punished for seven generations — a reference to the deep tribal ties that bind Kyrgyz to one another and the requisite knowledge Kyrgyz are supposed to have of their family’s ancestry. Later, Ulan asked if I could publish photos of accused gunmen and associated decision-makers back in the United States to help aid in their capture.
And there was Mirlan. When we entered the small café, the old women nipping the morning brandy whispered “revolutionary” to each other, tipped off by the gauze bandage wrapped around his head like an ear warmer. The men caught his eye and nodded their respects. The bandage was from a grenade blast that had ruptured Mirlan’s eardrum and killed his best friend as they helped carry dead bodies out of the melee. Over a plate of greasy piroshkies, Mirlan told me how he’d helped kill one of the snipers captured by the crowd. They beat the sniper to death, then burned his body in one of the many fires raging throughout the city. If anything, Mirlan seemed proud. He had helped destroy a head of the Hydra that was killing his people.
After eight days of sitting out the storm, we received the answers we’d been waiting for — the military and police had declared allegiance to the interim government and the U.S. Embassy determined it safe to travel. Twenty-four hours later, we were alone. Alone in that fear and awe-inspiring way, where each action counts a little more because you are your best and only ally. Quiet white tongues of snow spilled off the mountains and pooled in a broad, wide valley where we set our tent. Peaks rose in every direction and appeared just right for touring, with low-slung saddles at the head of each valley that provided good access to ridges with beautiful lines swooping down the nearly 15,000-foot peaks. High above treeline, the only voice the wind had left was what it pitted against the ocean of snow where our orange tent sat. The solitude and serenity of the place was a quick-acting tonic, and we felt the tension from the chaos of Bishkek melting away. Ten days felt impossibly short. But 10 was better than none, which, while waiting for the military to declare allegiance to the new government, was a distinct possibility. Eager to ski, we skinned to a hill behind our base camp, ready for the requisite sleuthing needed before
We quickly slipped into the rhythm and routine of life in the Tien Shan — our palates reacquainted with the subtle flavor of snow-melted water; moving more quickly at our coordinated routine of managing three people in a two-person tent; and, each day, the skinning became easier as our lungs and bodies adjusted to the altitude. The snowpack was less stable than we’d hoped, so the steeper lines we’d drooled over upon arrival were no longer an option we felt comfortable pursuing. But we kept busy and happy, exploring the different valleys, wandering over the passes, trying to somehow absorb the vastness of such an expanse of mountains void of people and, of course, lots of skiing.
From time to time, we’d talk about Ella Maillart — imagining the amplified wild frontier feeling the place would have had in the 1930s. We’d talk about Bishkek, wondering if anyone else had been evacuated; if Bakiyev had been found and what might have become of him and his inner circle; how many of the injured had died; and whether we’d return to calm or chaos. But, out here, Kyrgyzstan’s socio-political well-being was inconsequential to our skiing.
“Basically, we’ve got 35 centimeters of wind slab on top of 30 centimeters of depth hoar,” said Jaime, hollering up to where Ann and I sat, spotting and recording data from the snow pit she was digging. It was a beautiful line — 2,500-feet of continuous unbroken snow down a 35-to-40 degree face. We’d been so good — easing up on the throttle, skiing low-angle lines and running our decision-making against heuristics designed not only to address subjective things like snowpack, terrain and weather and the devil of decision-making, the human factor. But we were antsy and the test results showed that the wind slab was strong enough that we might be able to get away with it. Eventually, we acquiesced to caution and continued down the ridgeline to the south.
Two days later, our decision justified itself when a slope of similar angle and aspect slid. It sounded like a window shattering, except it kept on as if the entire mountain was made of glass. My skis were off from stamping out camp, and I floundered in the sugar snow like a loser in a three-legged race running through thick mud. Frantically, I tried to marry my snow-clogged boots into my bindings while sliding forward. Rationale about how we’d taken alpha angles was overridden by the primal instinct to survive. The first slide triggered another one on an even larger, adjacent slope and the sound started all over again. But, thankfully, as geometry promised, the debris stopped just short of camp. The mountainside was scoured. The slide had run 800-by-1,500 feet clear to the ground. An additional two slides had been remotely triggered a mile up-valley, and the slope directly behind camp now featured a long, jagged crack, its gentle angle having kept it from releasing. It took a few minutes for my legs to stop shaking.
Three days later, we returned to Bishkek. On the surface, the city appeared normal. Mirlan, Aida (my translator) and I met for breakfast. They wanted to look at pictures of mountains they would never see, and I was eager for political updates. Mirlan had undergone two surgeries to drain blood from his ear, but his hearing was still compromised. Bakiyev supporters roamed Bishkek, and Mirlan had received death threats for his involvement with a youth political party associated with the protests. Despite it, he said it hadn’t changed his resolve to become involved in politics and see the changes through that people had died for. Mirlan was convinced Bakiyev’s henchmen were looking for him, so he and Aida (they had begun dating after our initial interview, but that’s another story) were planning to head for Aida’s home village until things felt safer.
The bandage was gone from around his head, and he was sharply dressed in slacks, a button-down shirt and leather shoes with sharp-pointed toes, but he looked terrible. Dark circles stained his bloodshot eyes. He only paused for air between cigarettes, as if nicotine was his oxygen. As Aida walked me out to get a taxi, she said that Mirlan was hardly sleeping and, when finally he succumbed, he’d cry, thrash about and repeatedly yell his dead friend’s name. She didn’t know how to help. We talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Aida knew about it from the web, but said that people in Kyrgyzstan didn’t talk about that sort of stuff and counseling techniques were outdated. What if it wouldn’t go away? she worried.
Checking my email in an Internet café, I received word that, while we’d been in the mountains, an acquaintance had died in an avalanche in Colorado. She wasn’t the first friend the mountains have claimed, and I know she won’t be the last. Walking back to Ann’s apartment past the tired memorials of wilted flowers and brown stains on the concrete, thinking over the familiar refrain, at least she died doing what she loved, and reliving my own close call with the avalanche, I wondered about our mountain tribe’s acceptance of danger in pursuit of passion. Or any group for that matter, whose lifestyle excludes them from most life-insurance policies.
But what if it wasn’t untouched powder slopes or a remote mountain ridgeline? What if it was a question of justice and the risk centered on a standoff in the concrete of the capital square? Examining the faded photographs fixed to the White House’s gate of young Kyrgyz boys killed by their government, I wondered if I’d have the courage to show up in a similar situation and how many of my cohorts would be there. Could we channel summit fever into fury for the greater good?
But I’ve never been forced to choose and, living in southeastern Idaho’s hills, I doubt I ever will. It’s a luxurious privilege. Examining the newly erected memorial — a small series of concrete slabs on a lawn adjacent to the White House — I couldn’t help but wonder if, despite the riches that a life in the wild has afforded my soul, somehow the luxuries have softened, even stolen from some aspect of my spirit. Would I, would we, have the strength to stand up to a brutal regime? Reruns still played through my mind of that standoff between the boys and police. My hesitation, my silence scared me and makes me wonder if I would.
Molly Loomis’ work has appeared in Backpacker, Outside and Sierra magazines. She is grateful to the Hans Saari Memorial Fund for making this trip possible. For more stories about Molly’s adventures around the world, visit www.mollyloomis.com. She looks forward to getting back to Kyrgyzstan someday soon and meeting Merlan and Aida’s baby. Until then, Loomis can be found on the west side of the Tetons in Victor, Idaho.