Tien Shan: Group 2

The second group has been and gone. The team, Volodya, Guma, Beka and Ismail have arrived back in Bishkek. We’ve been off the radar for a full two weeks up in the mountains.

Team 1: Volodya says thank you so much for the heart-warming goodbye postcard that I passed on to him upon my return to base camp two weeks ago!

Now, let me introduce you to the second team: They were Angelika, Christa, Christina & Nils, Detlev, Jochen and Meike from Germany, Hilary & John from the U.S as well as Mark & Rowan from the UK.

It all began with a bad weather day: rain started when we arrived at base camp late in the afternoon on Monday, and all of Tuesday was a mixture of wet, very wet and a few dry periods. Multiple layers of clothing and an enormous amount of hot tea kept us warm during the training lectures & sessions. In time for our fist survey walk on Wednesday, the sun came out in the morning and from then on it was the same every single day! Most days it was hot, a protective hat and thick layers of sunbloc became essential on our survey walks. After a few days, we were eager for a refreshing afternoon bath in the river after returning to camp, completely ignoring the shower tents. However, the temperature dropped close to zero degrees on some nights, when we found the tents covered in a fine layer of ice in the morning.

On the surveys, we covered the upper valleys multiple times again. They became much more accessible with each sunny day of melting snow fields. Surveys were possible all the way up to the bottom of the glaciers in Isyk Ata, Jaartash, Jor Bulak, Kashka Tor, Kashtor and Chon Chikan. While we concentrated our searches on higher altitudes (3,400 – 3,700 m), Nils, Mark & Rowan became the team’s special force for exploring the high ridges and steep slopes. Our efforts were rewarded with amazing findings: snow leopard tracks & scat, Pallas’ cat tracks and evidence of ibex in many places (see details below).

We installed six more camera traps, two each in Chon Chikan (at the same location we couldn’t reach in group 1), Isyk Ata (close to a snow leopard track) and Jor Bulak (located in between those two valleys). It seems that the study animals have already retreated to calmer (and less accessible) areas, avoiding disturbance from people and livestock. By now the Suusamyr valley hosts a great number camps, herders as well as huge herds of sheep, cattle, horses and even a herd of yaks that roam the side valleys as far up as they find fresh green grass. Quite often we spotted horses and cattle above 3.600 m.

Over the course of the last two weeks, we also went twice the long way down to Tuyuk valley, only to find out that the stream is still impossible to cross. Twice we couldn’t reach the most interesting area just below the glacier. Good luck with this task, group 3! If the weather conditions remain the same, you will be the first group exploring a place that has proved a hotspot in past surveys. Unexpectedly though, Volodya saw two argali (mountain sheep) there – a female with a juvenile roaming the green rolling hills in the lower valley. What an exceptional sighting! Since 2014 only the odd single male argali sheep has been seen, most probably on the search for a partner to establish a new herd.

From the moment the Karakol pass road was reported clear, we included Karator and Pitiy valley on the other side again in our surveys. I am thankful none of the teams got in trouble on the way back – not even the team that was hit by thunderstorm and hail a few days ago… 😉 By the end of week two, we also started with interviewing local people. Detlev, Jochen, Meike, Hilary & John took the chance to visit some of our neighbours in their yurts or huts accompanied by Ismail to help with translating . The variety of people – grandparents to children – and their living conditions – nicely decorated traditional yurt to simple shanty – was eye-opening.

Now, here is the summary of the research results:

43 different cells of 2×2 km were covered (20 of the once, twenty twice and three three times)

Species recorded:

31x marmot
17x ibex
6x snow cock
1x argali
1x roe deer
3x Pallas’ cat tracks (TBC)
2x snow leopard (scat & tracks)

Birds:

45 species including rare sightings of imperial eagle and black kite.  Five new species added to the bird inventory: Eurasian harpe, brown accentor, little ringed plover, variable wheatear, rusty-trumped warbler.

Petroglyphs & butterflies:

38 recordings that will be added to the database

Besides all the work, a UNO game after dinner became a daily routine for some, others simply enjoyed a cold beer after a hot day and the quiet and peaceful atmosphere at camp with the orange sky turning into red just before sunset.

On Sunday (our day off), we experienced another highlight when herders from north and south Sussamyr valley got together for a horse game with us watching. All of this was organised through Bekbolot and Volodya (who is called “grandpa” by the local herders that have known him for years ;)). They did a great job with spreading the word a couple of days before, but none of us knew how many herders would join until we reached the playground at a place called “Aral” in the middle of Sussamyr valley. The scenery we found made us watch in awe: dozens of horses, men of all ages equipped with protectors for the game, dogs that got excited about what was going to happen soon. It was a great spectacle and the “price”, a headless sheep each team tried to pick up from the ground and lay in a specific spot to earn a point, was trampled and beaten thoroughly. After the game the meat was prepared at neighbour Djoldosh’s hut where we enjoyed a traditional Kyrgyz meal altogether. The upper valley winner team was around offering free horse riding … great fun, especially for Hilary and Christina that were gone for quite a while. The meal turned into a party that ended just before the sun set at base camp.

Thank you so much, team 2! I had a great time living and working with you for the last two weeks. Thank you for your contributions in so many ways. None of what we have experienced during the last two weeks would happen without you joining us. Remember the the three Ss: Safety, science and satisfaction – I think we made all of it work out very well as a team!

A day before I leave Kyrgyzstan, I am handing over to Amadeus who will be the expedition leader for groups 3 & 4. Good luck to you and all future participants!

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