“Why don’t you ever wait when I tell you to wait!” Nathan shouted angrily at me as he kneeled on the wet pasture land at 2500 meters trying to clean his shoes. “Why can’t you wait!”
Unlike just then, Nathan rarely showed his anger. However he stepped accidentally into a mud hole and his shoes and socks were wet and muddy. After trekking up the alpine mountain for 15 kilometers and 7 hours, Nathan was tired, hungry, and had reached his limit.
“But I didn’t hear you,” I shouted back angrily as well. “How can you blame me for something I didn’t do!”
I was frustrated as well.
While hiking up the postcard-perfect Altyn-Arashan alpine valley, we met an Israeli couple that recommend us to go to a group of natural hot springs that were built along the glacier-fed river. When we heard that the hot springs were free, unlike some of the fenced-in ones, we were even more determine to find them. I became more and more excited as I started to have visions of the five of us camping next to the wild hot springs and soaking inside the hot spring at night in the cold mountain air while looking at stars in the night sky in perfect darkness. But after walking for more than 30 minutes along the river, with Annie, Olivia, and Joani waiting down the valley with our backpacks, Nathan and I still couldn’t find the springs.
After both of us calmed down, I encouraged Nathan, “Let’s just look for another few more minutes, past that river bend. Maybe the wild hot springs are there.”
While walking, we met a young Kyrgyz teen and immediately I went up to him and asked, “We heard that there are some wild hot springs along the river. Do you know where they are?”
“Yes! If you go the other way for about 700 meters, you will first come upon two springs, shaped like hearts. Then another 200 meters you will see one shaped like a log. Then another 100 meters there is one shaped like a frog and one in a cave on a cliff,” the Kyrgyz teen replied surprisingly in very understandable English.
Still, I wasn’t sure if I heard the teen correctly. “Heart…log…frog…cave…cliff” I thought to myself. “These springs sounds almost mystical…”
But the information was very good news considering that we were hiking and looking in the opposite direction. If we had kept on going, which was very likely given my usual stubbornness, we would have never found it.
Earlier in that same day, the five of us woke up at 6AM to begin packing for our 3 days 2 nights trekking trip. We slept in a surprisingly American looking local home-stay house with a large orchard filled with apricot, plum, raspberries, apples, and pears. We had to wake up early in order to repack our bags for the long hike. Each person knew to put the camping essentials in our small day pack and to put the items we don’t need in our large backpacks.
“Can you say again what we need to bring in the small backpack?” Joani asked.
“Just like our camping trips at the Great Wall in Beijing, Lake Karakol in Xinjiang and at Lake Song Kol last week, bring tent items, sleeping bags, flashlights, stoves, swimsuits, and rain coats,” I repeated again.
“Oh…I suggest to pack long john this time as it was freezing at Song Kol,” I reminded myself. “Don’t bring anything that is heavy and non-essential like your iPad, laptop, chargers…maybe Nathan can bring his iPad mini in case we want some entertainment at night!”
“We will go to the bazaar at the town first to buy all the food we need before we catch the marshuka (bus in Russian) to the trailhead.”
With these instructions, each person automatically began to pack and repack our things. The room quickly looked like a war zone full of zip lock bags in all sizes as we spread out our things all over the beds and floors to shift between packs. It was a mess…but an organized mess. The packing was finished quite quickly as each of us felt like the nth time we had done such drill.
At the bazaar, the children knew exactly what they needed and wanted for provisions after many harsh lessons from our previous camping fiascos. The basic principles were light and filling – with some little luxury items! Armed my birthday gift stove and alcohol-fueled aluminum can stoves, we had even more choice of what we can cook!
“We will need to carry at least four big nan bread for lunch while we hike and two meals of pasta for evenings,” Annie proposed.
“We still have five cans of meat with buckwheat from our Song Kol Lake that our friends generously left us,” I reminded. “We can open one can per meal.”
“Let’s get good meaty sausage like the ones brought by Boka and salty smoke cheese brought by Rahat. They will go well with nan bread and pasta!” Nathan added. “Also, let’s get some dry fruit, like raisin and dates. Remember how good they were on our trek at the Xinjiang?”
“Cookies. Don’t forget about the cookies. Last time when we had them, we were thankful that we didn’t listen to you and bought them!” Joani said with a sly smile.
“We need instant noodles of course. It will give us good flavors for the hot soup. The one with the blue package tastes the best. But don’t tell grandma…you know she does not like that,” Olivia laughed as we completed our menu for the 3 days.
So equipped with camping gears, layered clothing, and camping food, we headed off for the alpine trek. Unlike the previous mountains in Kyrgyzstan that we saw, which were covered with just pasture land, the Tian Shan mountains south of Karakol had giant four to five-story high fir trees, shaped perfectly as cones, as if we were hiking in among the trees of the Chronicles of Narnia. Annie reminded us the significance of the Tian Shan mountains as it stretches beyond Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and China and we prayed before we began. There were many wild apricot trees along the beginning of the trail and we had fun picking and eating the apricots at the same time. These apricot became our fiber and vitamins in our meals.
So late in the afternoon and seven hours after our start, we came together and decided as a family to hike a bit more until we reach the hot springs and to camp there that night instead of staying at the river bank where we were.
“Look at the cute hot springs!” I cried out and motioned everyone to come for a look. “The two hot springs are really shaped like hearts and right next to the river.”
Joani and I couldn’t wait to get into our swimsuits and jumped in right away, but it was already nearly 8pm and soon it would be pitch dark. We knew we need to quickly put up our tent and start cooking our meal.
“Olivia and Joani, you are in charge of setting up the tent, putting in the floor mats, and organizing the backpacks. You two have done it many times before. Nathan and Annie, please go and fill all the water bottles from the small creek for cooking and drinking. I will get the stove fire started,” I barked out the orders.
With these instructions, again every person busily did that task they were assigned. While the water was being boiled, Nathan opened the can of meat, Joani cut the sausages, and Olivia peeled the smoked cheese. That evening, we ate with out feet soaked inside the heart-shaped hot spring, listening to the roaring sound of the glacier river.
“This is a five-star campsite!” Nathan exclaimed.
After dinner, again, we all divided up the cleaning work. Nathan and Annie washed the pots and utensils. Olivia and Joani put away the food and utensils. I packed away the stove and fuels. Although the glacier river was ice-cold, being next to the hot spring meant that we had hot water to wash our dishes. What a camping luxury!
The next day, we left our tent and went hot spring dipping in each of the five hot springs, one by one. The “log” hot spring was the hottest as it was very well enclosed almost felt like being in a sauna. The “frog” hot spring was decorated with cute eyes and a crown and had a perfect view of the river. The “cliff” hot spring was most difficult to reach, but it was also the deepest one.
At the “log” hot spring, since it was just one step away from the icy river, we played a game of who can submerge in the ice-cold river the longest before jumping back into the hot spring.
“Ahhhhhh….Oooooooo….Ahhhhhhh…Oooooooo,” our screams rang throughout the river gorge, except for Annie who braved the cold by concentrating in silence, in the same way she took in the pains of birth contractions.
“45 seconds!” Nathan yelled out. “Mom won again!”
While we were enjoying our fun hot spring experience, I conceived a grand plan that made me wanted to just keep jumping up and down.
“What do you all think about if we come here again when it is dark and watch the stars in the night sky while keeping warm inside the hot spring?” I proposed excitedly. “It is only a 10 minute walk.”
“We can watch movies with my iPad Mini inside the “log” hot spring. It would be exactly like a theatre with surround sounds!” Nathan said excitedly.
We couldn’t wait until the sun went down that day. That night turned out exactly as we had planned. We watched on the iPad a Chinese animation series, 狄青, and a Canadian sci-fi series called, Stargate. We had to tie a rope to the iPad cover to make sure it does not fall inside the hot spring. Then we laid with our eyes glued to the night sky counting the shooting stars.
“Ooooooo…I saw one!” Olivia shouted.
A minute later, Nathan also shouted, “Ahhhh…over there.”
“Look at that slow moving star. It is actually a satellite,” I explained.
“We can’t leave here without every person having seen at least one shooting star,” I then declared.
By the end of the evening, we each saw at least several bright shooting stars with Nathan and Olivia seeing the most.
That night, as we walked slowly along a narrow dirt trail back to our tent, I felt a sense of satisfaction.
After we had the stove for only two weeks, we were now able to trek, tent, and cook hot meals on our own as a family without a guide and without relying on guesthouses. There was a new sense of freedom — to go where we want to go, to sleep where we want to sleep, to eat what we want to eat, and to play how we want to play.
We have truly become an independent family trekker!