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Big Adventure -Week 8 Report, featuring our attempt on Small Chimgan

Khiva - Bukhara - Samarkand - Tashkent - Chimgan 685 miles, (plus about 2000 metres high)

Well, clearly I am not going to keep up with the day by day account of our travels, so let me try to summarise and share a few highlights...

The ancient Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan were truly mind blowing, we were wowed over and over again by mosaic tiles and majolica; minarets and domes, palaces and mosques, madrassas and mausoleums, ancient architects ever more ambitious in the scale and scope of their designs. So many beautifully balanced lines, curves, arches and spaces decorated with intricate geometric patterns (which  I recognised as the sources of the 'altair' colouring books that were so popular in primary school years.)  

Of all the many impressive buildings, the one that blew my mind the most was the Kalon minaret in Bukhara, over 950 years old, when it was built the tallest building in Asia. Our hotel was just meters away, so we passed the minaret every time we came and went, and ate our breakfasts on the terrace overlooking the roof mosque beside it, gazing up in awe at the beautiful structure. Apparently Ghengis Khan was equally impressed, and so spared the minaret when destroying everything else around it. I never thought that I would have anything in common with Ghengis Khan, but there I was looking in wonder at this architectural marvel that he too had admired. 

Whilst exploring the  fabulous interior of Kalon mosque, we met George form Birmingham and Julia from the US, both visiting Bukhara from Bishkek where they are currently spending a year learning Russian as part of their university studies. Encouraged by them, we decided we would try to visit. In both Kazahkstan and Uzbekistan both Jefris and I were able to get visas on arrival; but, rather annoyingly, Tajikistan would let him in without a visa and not me, and Kyrgyzstan vice versa. 

As well as feasting our eyes on the buildings, we very much enjoyed Uzbek food. Once we got to Khiva, menus were once more available at least sometimes in English - all of them featuring the national dish Plov -  special varieties of rice steamed / stir fried over slow cooked lamb or beef, shredded carrots, sultanas, chickpeas  - always gf and df, hurrah! I also quickly became addicted to 'Tashkent Chai' - weak green and black tea brewed in the pot with big chunks of lemon and honey or sticks of unrefined Uzbek sugar. 

Whilst we were being wowed by Uzbekistan, the locals seemed to be equally wowed by Jefris. Everywhere we went people stopped and stared, often asking for selfies: men and women, old and young - clearly no-one had ever seen anything quite like him in the flesh before (whereas I could easily pass as Russian). It really was like travelling with a superstar. Virtually everyone we met seemed kind, friendly and helpful - we felt truly welcomed. 

Our German friends, Reinhart, and sisters Julia and Sina were travelling in the same direction as us, so our paths kept criss-crossing, and we all ended up on the same train from Samarkand to Tashkent. There we said goodbye to Reinhard who was travelling South to explore Kyrgyzstan, and spent a couple of days seeing a little of the capital. By this time we were all pretty much 'tiled out', and after all those stunning buildings, craving more natural scenery. Julia and Sina had done their homework ahead of us, and told us about the Chimgan mountains, a good place to do a bit of hiking, just a couple hours away from Tashkent by taxi, which was pretty affordable for the four of us to share. 

We set off in the morning, and were delighted to arrive at Apache guesthouse, a lovely little family run hotel with glorious mountain views. Great Chimgan, a few miles up the road is a snow covered peak with three ski runs. Small Chimgan, rising just across the valley from us, seemed, according to our maps, to be just a couple of hours climb to the peak. So whilst Julia and Sina set off on a longer cross country route towards The Lake, Jefris and I decided we had just enough hours of daylight left to get up and down, at least back down onto the country roads, if not back to the hotel. It was a  beautiful sunny day, but of course colder in the mountains, and having checked the weather forecast and seen how quickly temperatures were likely to drop as the sun descended, we piled on our thermal layers.

The first hour or so of our climb was fairly gentle; a little way along the main road, and then up country lanes and dirt tracks with many small dwellings and farmsteads dotted either side. Several of these seemed to be guarded by very fierce sounding dogs. One of them ran towards Jefris snapping, luckily when he picked up a rock and it immediately backed off.  Soon afterwards he found a big stick to carry, and every time we approached a barking dog, I stayed behind him. Clearly all the dogs around there have had a lot of rocks thrown at them, as soon as they saw me picking up rocks they backed off.  Passing by one little house, we were invited to stop for goat's head soup - we politely declined. About ten minutes further along, we realised we must have missed the turning for our footpath up the mountainside. Backtracking, we asked around and eventually found the bottom of the track, obscured by a new building plot.

Beginning with a tricky little totter along the top of a steep sided muddy bank, the rough path up the mountainside then quickly steepened. As it was now getting on for 3.30pm, we checked our maps me app again. Apparently the climb to the summit would take about eighty minutes - just enough for us to get up and then at least most of the way down before dusk. We set our sights on a big rock some way up ahead of us, our agreed rest stop. Before long I was huffing and puffing, the blood pounding in my head as I attempted to keep a steady pace. It was a relief to sit down and catch our breath. We had plenty of water with us, but having set off just after lunch, took no snacks with us other than a handful of peanuts and Jefris's cough sweets. The little sugar hit from the latter was welcome, and then onwards and upwards to the next rock. The ground was very rough, and muddy in places - the kind of thick sticky mud that clumps on your boots and doubles the weight of your feet. It was tough going; I could feel my heart pumping hard and had to stop to catch my breath a bit every couple of minutes. Eventually we made it to the next rock we'd agreed on. The climb to the summit was clearly going to take us a bit longer than the map suggested so we ummed and ahhed a bit about whether to keep going, but the rocky ridge now looked tantalisingly within reach, so we decided to press on.

The climb now felt steeper than 45 degrees, and the path was increasingly tricky to find. As we approached the bottom of the rocky ridge, it just seemed to keep getting further away. But we were committed now, so just carried on slogging it out. From a distance, it had looked like the rocky part would be a fairly short and manageable scramble - but of course we should have known better. The jagged rocks were soon rising at precipitously steep angles, the spaces in between them stuffed with slippery mud, and the rock itself surprisingly fragile, with protuding handholds liable to break off. Before I knew it, I was clinging to the side of the mountain for dear life. For Jefris it was mildly challenging going, no real trouble; but after that first piece of rock broke off in my hand, feeling my legs already so tired from the climb, I completely lost my nerve and was fighting the panic; telling myself over and over, 'it's ok, it's ok, it's ok'. It wasn't as though i was likely to fall to my death, but injury was certainly a real possibility, and even just a twisted ankle could be pretty dire all the way up here. My dad would be furious with me. We hadn't followed any of the basic safety rules, we hadn't left ample daylight and we hadn't even told anyone where we were heading. 

At this point, it was clear that the top of the ridge was much further up ahead than we'd been able to see from down below, so as I clung on to the rocks, Jefris scouted ahead, looking for a good place to stop and also a better way down. By now we'd lost all semblance of a path, and there was no way I was going to get down the way we'd come up. After a few long minutes he returned, and piloted me across to a spot where we could at least sit for a moment and admire the view. We'd made it this far just as the sun was sinking down towards the snowy mountain tops on the opposite side of the valley. It was spectacularly beautiful, but, knowing that we'd now have to find our way down in gloom and darkness, I was too rattled at that moment to take in quite how glorious it was. There was no time to lose, we needed to make it down from the rocks in what little daylight remained. Jefris had our little backpack, and offered to take my shoulder bag - containing just my phone and glasses - and pop it inside, but I declined. 

We downed the last of our water and a cough sweet each for energy, and Jefris led me across to what looked he thought looked the easiest way down. Having experienced scree before, I knew that it would be a lot harder than it looked: that loose stuff that piles up at steep angles in mountain crevices, no chance of any foothold, just a lot of slipping and sliding. Jefris opted to say upright as best he could, planting his feet to slide sideways. My broken ankle of last year was too fresh in my memory for me to do likewise, so I went for a bum forward, hands behind, slidy crab crawl. The scree seemed to go on forever. I reckon we had at least twenty minutes of it, which is far more than you want, believe me. Luckily i had brought my leather gloves with me, so at least my hands were safe from getting scraped and frozen. 

At last we reached a resting point, amongst the roots of a little hawthorn tree. It was at this moment that I realised my unsealed bag was light - my phone was missing! It must have bounced out somewhere as my bag dragged behind me. Jefris was furious, as much with himself for not insisting on taking my bag as with me for refusing his offer. As far as I was concerned, it was goodbye phone, It could have tumbled out anywhere on that slope, and most likely got covered by the slip sliding stones. But Jefris set off with his torch, saying he would at least go back a hundred metres in case it could be found. Incredibly he returned just moments later, having found it only ten or so metres behind us - phew!

By now it was properly dark as we continued our descent down the steep and tussocky slope, in search of any kind of path. Coming down is easier on the heart and lungs, but tougher on the old knees and ankles. Eventually we found what seemed like a sheep or donkey path winding sideways across the slope. The going got muddier, our boots got heavier, and we followed the path by torchlight until at long last we recognised the path we'd taken upwards, our two 'resting rocks' still below us. Every now and then we had to stop to declump our boots as best we could, only to get them muddy again. We were nearly back down to the track, just that tricky little bank to traverse again, and then one more heartstopping moment before we got back to the track. A sudden movement and loud noise just ahead of us in the darkness made me cry out in fright, which in turn caused frantic heehawing and galloping - me and the poor donkey had scared the bejeezus out of each other.

Greatly relieved to be off the mountainside, we once more scraped our boots before clomping our way down to the lane, where a little shop was still open. Whilst Jefris brought water and nuts, I found a stick to dig more mud out of my boot cleats. One of two men standing outside the shop came over and offered me some wet wipes to clean my hands, and after Jefris came out we quickly agreed on a price for a lift back to our hotel, where we arrived at about 7.15pm, and  ordered plov for dinner - time for hot showers and a quick lie down whilst it was cooking.After dinner we were joined by Julia and Sina who has also had a bit of an adventure trying to reach the lake, struggling with mud, disappearing paths and finally a tourist resort blocking their access to the lake shore - so they too had failed to reach their objective. 

Surely our mountain adventure was enough of a challenge for one day? But no, when we got online, we were presented with an administrative hill to climb. I say we, but in our very clear division of labour, all computer based administrative tasks fall to me. We'd submitted Jefris's visa application for Kyrgyzstan over the weekend, and that evening we heard that they had declined due to insufficient information - none of which had been asked for on the original form - more on that later, possibly, if I ever get around to it!!!

Love and good wishes to our beloved family and friends near and far, old and new, we hope you're all enjoying the festive season wherever you are! xxx

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