We left Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, around 7 a.m. In some time, we were driving along the sky-blue waters of the Issik-Kul lake. The views were amazing. Soon, we left the lake behind and ascended up the mountains. Barskoon pass was green and covered in forests. After we hit 4200 meters above sea level, the scenery changed to alpine tundra. The landscape felt similar to Iceland. Almost black mountains, covered in snow, little lakes covered in ice. Even the sun looked cold up there.
On one of the turns, we saw border patrol soldiers whose car had broken down. We let them use our satellite phone to call for help. I thought to myself: If you are alone, you can literally die here. At this part of the route, we had only met two cars. Our spirits were high because we helped these guys. Our mood did not last long, however. While ascending another pass, our car started to overheat. Then our gas pedal stopped working. Can you imagine going up the mountains on this narrow off-road path where on one side it’s just a free fall down the mountain?
Somehow, we made it through the pass, relying on Kuban and the rangers’ memory of the road. I was relieved when we finally arrived at a little hut with light in the windows. We’d driven for almost 16 hours.
We started our first official day at 5:30 a.m., watching wildlife and sipping coffee. It was the most magical morning I have ever experienced in my life. We spotted a herd of female ibex with their kids very close to our cabin. The sun was shining on them. They stood and watched us quietly. Then they ran down the hill to the river with so much grace, integrity, and beauty. My heart was racing. It was so beautiful!
We managed to collect the first three camera traps that had been installed during an earlier trip. We could not wait to see the images. On the second camera trap, the last images taken earlier that morning were of a snow leopard! Its face was covered in fresh blood presumably from a successful hunt. It was an amazing feeling knowing a snow leopard had walked there just a few hours before.
We were in and out of storms on horseback after that. I was thinking Wow! These mountains are harsh! I cannot even imagine what it’s like during winter. Beautiful but also scary environment. You feel powerless and so small.
The next morning, everything was covered in snow. We took binoculars and cameras and went looking for our horses. They like to roam around during the night, so you have to look for them in the morning.
We had to pick up two more camera traps across the river and up the mountain. It was extremely hard to hike but the views were spectacular. Kuban pointed out snow leopard scrapes, poop, pee marks. I honestly could not see the scrapes at first. Kuban is like an eagle, spotting wildlife and its signs so fast.
I was amazed by everything! On the way back we took a different route. Riding our horses, we wiggled around huge rocks, turning left, turning right, up and down, we could not see anything beyond them. I thought to myself maybe dragons live here. It was a perfect place to shoot something like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
Of course, such expeditions are not perfect. Unfortunately, some of the camera traps were lost either to animals dragging them away or poachers. This is always disappointing because you lose important data and so much effort goes to waste, or you suspect illegal hunting might have taken place.
The next morning, we packed all the camera traps, our tents, sleeping bags and headed out – taking a leap of faith in our car. Once again, we had major issues with the gas pedal, but fortunately we made it back to Bishkek.
I used to think I only liked mountains covered in greenery. But the high mountains have their own charm.
One might sometimes see nothing more than barren brown mountains but I was mesmerized by the wildlife and landscape. I acquired so much respect for the mountains of this area, called Sarychat, because they have their own character, though it’s not always an easy one.
This was truly a lifechanging experience. I have a different level of appreciation for the work of rangers and our field staff. I knew it would be tough but experiencing it firsthand opened my mind. Rangers and researchers face many dangers like crossing rivers when water is high, avalanches in winter, rockfalls, strong winds and snowfall in just one day, or meeting armed poachers. It is a lot of hard work and effort. Yet, despite all these challenges, they continue working for wildlife conservation.
I wish all people could experience this at least once in their lifetime. Seeing wildlife so close and getting a small taste of the rangers’ life, I felt so honored for being part of snow leopard conservation. I am proud of working alongside strong and dedicated people. I felt a sort of reassurance about our work, like I was on the right path. We need to protect these landscapes because there is so much beauty and life in these mountains. I will never forget this expedition and will always cherish these memories.