William Mackesy’s account of this walk
We were at Tash Rabat in early May 2000, when these backwaters were fascinatingly if at times alarmingly undeveloped. We approached from China, crossing the border at the isolated Torgart pass, where we met our guide, Sasha, and our driver, Yuri, both former Russian soldiers. Sasha, lugubriously humourous, had been an engineering officer and clearly loved the mountains. A flaking ochre 1950s triumphal arch celebrates, Ozyimandian style, this utterly remote meeting point of the two former communist powers. On one side, a neat Chinese checkpoint; on the other, cold boy soldiers, all fair haired Russians, were lounging, smoking, outside what looked like the body of an oil transporter, into which a doorway and a glassless window had been cut. It must have been unthinkably cold in winter.
From a high plain dotted with grazing herds of ponies, you turn onto a scarcely visible track, to ford the river and enter an unpromising looking gorge, which widens into a most beautiful, grassy valley dominated by the high Tianshan looming at its far end.
We reached the domed fort-like building, sat heavy on its hillside, and dropped to the custodian’s croft with its little yard behind it, the deep mud from the sheltering livestock testifying to the hard winter which had just been got through. We explored the caravanserai and clambered up the springy turf above it in welcome sunshine.
Supper was a meal we were to become used to: processed cheese, tinned pate, jam, tomatoes and cucumbers, taken cross legged on the floor of the croft’s living room. The family consisted of a wrinkled herdsman, his dumpy, apple cheeked wife and their two daughters, both clearly highly intelligent, the older a pretty, shy teenager who was shortly off to boarding school several days’ away, the younger an exceptionally confident, curious urchin, who dismembered my wife’s sponge bag with great deliberation the next morning. On their dresser, beside the fading family photos, was a perfect model of a Venetian gondola.
We retired to our surprisingly roomy yurt, which a yak dung stove kept warm all night. The outlandish grunting of a large herd of yak woke us early next morning. A tough, weather-beaten Kyrgyz on a cheerful looking pony was driving a large herd up past us. These heavy, shaggy creatures are surprisingly timid, and scattered at the sight of us.
We staggered out into a bright day of sun and small, fluffy, Magrittey clouds. After a breakfast of, yes, processed cheese and jam, we set off up the valley floor, which was at first lumpy with grassed-over boulders. The stream was lower than the previous afternoon, when it had been swollen with that morning’s snow melt. Everything was vivid and we felt intensely alive.
We passed a herd of hardy looking ponies, so intent on their new grass-guzzle after the long winter that they hardly bothered to look at us. The grass hillsides, vivid green down by the settlement, subsided to tired khaki as we got higher and the snow had melted more recently.
Around a corner, we came across more yak, which gazed at us stupidly, then leapt sideways and fled, bucking and farting, up the valley ahead of us. Further up we traversed a huge sheet of snow, under which the stream gurgled.
Rounding another bend and meeting head on the full magnificence of the At-Bashy range, it was inarticulacy time. The Cadogan Guide described the Tash Rabat valley as “so perfect it leaves you flailing for superlatives”, which is true, so I won’t embarrass myself by doing that here. What a view.
As we tackled the steep hillside above the stream junction at their feet, we really felt the altitude for the first time; having started the day before at Kashgar, only a little above sea level, we struggled painfully, with frequent pauses for gasped breath.
The path became easier and we traversed a grassy hillside through the harshly beautiful high Tianshan scenery. Down and over the stream, we started the slog up above a steep valley to the pass, which was hidden round a corner of the high ridge. After another 20 minutes or so, we reached the first patches of snow, then the snowline and lunchtime. We gorged on processed cheese, tinned paté and bread, sitting on pallid, winter-leached grass, the only sounds the weak gurgle of the stream and the harsh cry of a bird of prey as it circled above our hillside.
With a steep slippery melting snowfield ahead, the final push to the pass and the huge view south across the lake were not to be ours that day.
We retraced our steps, relieved no longer to be gasping upward in the thin air, and revelled in the valley as it opened below us. After the utter loneliness of the high range, the caravanserai and its little white house in their bowl of lush, yak-speckled pasture looked almost metropolitan. The inquisitive little girl from the croft had come up to join us and we sat together on the final ridge in the weakening afternoon sun and drank in the beauty and emanations of the place.