Base camp is now ready for the first group of snow leopard volunteer citizen scientists arriving on Monday. After a week of preparations in Bishkek, the team were ready to head up to our base camp location on Thursday first thing. The Ala-Too mountain range towers over Bishkek, offering an enticing view of jagged snowy peaks, but also a formidable obstacle to anyone wanting to travel to the Karakol valley on the other side – which is where our expedition base sits. Our usual route is over the infamous Camel Pass and through a 2 km tunnel drilled through the very top of this pass. But an accident in the tunnel earlier in the week meant the tunnel was out of action for a few days. Option 2 involves taking a different route from Bishkek and heading up the Karakol Pass – no tunnel on this route but a very steep road winding up the mountain side, almost certainly still snow-bound and too high a risk for our truck. In true expedition style, we came up with a plan C, a third route – taking an especially long and circuitous route involving many kilometres of driving on dirt tracks following all points of the compass. But it would get us to base camp without substantial obstacles. And so our fleet of vehicles set off with confidence, a truck and two 4x4s, one with a trailer. We spent the day following dusty roads winding down steep valleys hugging wild rivers, over sparse sheep-clad hills and always surrounded by huge rocky mountains any one if which could be home to snow leopards.
Finally, after a day and a half of driving, home for the next few weeks came into view. The spot sits in a long, wide valley of endless pastures overlooked by snow-capped peaks. The pastures are the summer home for many herders alongside the few permanent residents. We passed many yurts and herds of sheep, cattle and horses on our long journey up the dirt track. The air is clear and cool, a relief compared with Bishkek. Base camp is right next to the river and partly hidden from the main track.
The team are well practiced at setting up base and it was not long before our yurts, tents and (new for 2022) shower and toilet huts were up. Gulia cooked up our supper and we declared base camp open and ready for the first snow leopard expedition group starting on Monday. See you in Bishkek!