Geography and geology
From the dusty plains around the town of Tokmok, we travelled south into the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains alongside a glacial river. This was lively and fast-flowing and in some places had carved out a narrow gorge, but in general the valley floor was relatively wide, allowing numerous dwellings to exist on both sides of the river. Lower in the valley, we passed several outcrops of very soft red- and orange-coloured sedimentary rocks. Approaching base camp, the river became braided and shallow enough to cross without getting wet feet, but it is clearly a permanent feature. Although melting was prolific on the glaciers every day from mid-morning, there was no noticeable change in river discharge related to the time of day. We found no potable water above base camp: the river emerged from the bottom of the moraine there and must have been fed largely by basal melting.
The geology of the area was more or less as expected, consisting of mixed sedimentary and metasedimentary rocks. Fine and medium-grained sandstones were common around base camp and in the valley to the south-east; further up the main valley, slate was more abundant. Without thorough investigation, it was impossible to get an idea of geological structure as there was very little bedrock visible – mostly it was deeply buried under moraine, scree and snow. The moraine was ubiquitous, but varied widely in nature. In the main valley, it formed an undulating tongue along the top of which soil and vegetation had developed. The sides, particularly further down, were still largely unconsolidated. The vegetation disappeared near to the glacier, to be replaced by piles of rock and dried muddy depressions. The side valley to the west (leading to the second glacier system) was also partly grassy, and ended in a steep headwall of relatively fine, very loose scree. In the valley to the south-east of base camp, a higher proportion of the moraine was in the form of large boulders and there was little vegetation. As a general theme, the moraine extended well onto all the glaciers, often quite thickly, so that it was impossible to tell where they really ended.
The glaciers themselves could not be described as beautiful, and crossing them proved frequently unpleasant, particularly on the descents when snow became slushy and underlying ice began to melt. As the map suggests, the glacier in the main valley originated in several distinct areas, separated by substantial rock spurs. The bottom section was dry, while upper sections were snow-covered. In most cases the snow covered both the steep glacier headwalls and the upper flat sections, but the westernmost arm (the approach to Peak 4383) was dry right up to the headwall. The approach to Point 4215 was extremely crevassed, although crevasses were a danger everywhere. The small glacier to the south-east of base camp was similar to the main one; mostly wet but dry at the bottom. This was the only notable case where we found the map to be inaccurate: in reality, the moraine was much more extensive and the area of visible glacier was much reduced. The glacier system in the valley to the west was wet as far as we explored it, and much more continuous in its upper reaches than the main valley. Bergschrunds for all glaciers tended to be located partway up the headwall, but we came across none that were impassable (at least while the snow was solid).
Flora and fauna
There were few trees in the valley, the lower sections being too dry and dusty and the upper section too high. They became more common as we approached the end of the road, and there was a small section of coniferous forest from shortly before the last house to shortly afterwards. Beyond this, ground vegetation was quite varied, and at our ‘transit camp’ we had to flatten broad-leaf plants at least a foot high in order to make space for the tents. As we got higher up, these plants gave way to short grass – much better for camping on. There were many wild flowers including aconites and gentians, particularly beside the stream and in the meadows which covered the moraine, though we lacked the knowledge to identify all of these. A species of onion grass was abundant in the meadows, with large chive-like leaves and spherical white flowers. We also spotted edelweiss on a handful of occasions, always relatively high on the moraine where few other plants grew.
As expected, we saw no signs of the endangered snow leopard. Nor did we see any ibex, but there were several skulls and horns high on the moraine, and we learnt from valley locals that the area is sometimes visited by foreign parties hunting these animals. Our most frequent interactions with local wildlife were the marmots whose home we temporarily invaded. There were marmot holes all around base camp, as well as further down the valley and on the vegetated moraine. The marmots were shy at first, but by the end of the trip they were more or less ignoring us and going about their business as usual. We identified them as Grey Marmots (Marmota baibacina), which are widespread in the steppes and alpine meadows of Russia, Central Asia and China. There were no positive sightings of the rare Menzbier’s or Long-Tailed varieties that are also native to the area. As well as the marmots, we caught rare glimpses of several smaller rodents, but never got a good enough look to identify them. There were also several large birds that had clearly made the valley their home. On being shown pictures of one, Michel, a Belgian wildlife guide whom we met during our week travelling, had no hesitation in identifying it as a bearded vulture. There may also have been other species; some of the behaviour we observed (hovering, scanning the ground) was suggestive of birds of prey such as eagles, although bearded vultures are known to attack live prey as well as scavenging.