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!

Tien Shan: group 1 trailblazers

The first of four expedition groups has finished, with the team arriving back at Bishkek on Saturday late afternoon. Together with Bek and Beka, the local NABU guides, Guma (cook) and Volodya the citizen scientists Christa & Manfred, Simone & Uwe, Christiana, Lothar and Stefan (Germany), David, Kurt, Tessa and David (UK), Michele (US) and Guillaume (France) spent another wonderful week in the mountains full of research work, adventure and fun.

Right now the valley meadows are carpeted in flowers of all colours, everything is lush and green and moist. Most days are sunny and warm, streams of snowmelt feed the Karakol river and soon the sun will have cleared the Karakol pass road from snow. In the first week, our camp stood solitairy in the vast valley but it seems that on 1 July the summer pasture season started and the herders, one after the other, set up their yurts.  Herds of sheep, goat, horses and cattle came into the valley, our neighbour Kanat moved in a couple of days ago and invited Volodya, Guma and myself for a welcome visit.

On our surveys we’ve been concentrating on snow leopard hotspots – locations where their presence has been proved in the past. Large snowfields still cover the upper parts of the side valleys, none of the former camera trap locations is yet accessible. Nonetheless, we set up four camera traps, two each in Kashka Tor and Isyk Ata as high up as possible. We went out in three or four smaller teams each day, recorded snow leopard prey species and other interesting mammals, birds and petroglyphs. Every evening during the daily review, Volodya assessed dozens of pictures, mostly of scat and footprints, and marked all findings in the overview map before taking over the completed datasheets. Our study area is divided into 2 x 2 km cells for statistical reasons, a scientific methodology that is used widely.

Here is a brief summary what we achieved over eight survey days:

  • We covered 36 cells, 11 of them three times, 15 twice and 10 once
  • We identified 34 bird species, four of them new additions to the bird inventory we have created over the years
  • There were 41 recordings of marmot, 6 sightings and 17 indirect ibex signs (scat, track), 4 recordings of snow cock, one of wolf and one of hare
  • We recorded 23 petroglyphs showing the historical significance of the area
  • We recorded 5 species of butterfly

We collected data on all but one day. That day we saw bad weather approaching from downvalley – thick and grey and unfriendly. We went out all the same and were rewarded for our folly with heavy rain and snowfall. Volodya’s team made it back to camp around 10:00 before they were hit (well done, Volodya!), team 2 & 3 returned shortly after, dripping wet from a very cold rain & snow shower. The kitchen yurt offered shelter, hot tea and a shot of vodka to warm up the body system while wet clothes, boots and rucksacks were spread around the stove in the drying yurt, which soon became a steaming sauna. When the rain stopped later on, the involuntary day at camp had become a full-blown party including dancing, singing and a hilarious yoga lesson led by Stephan later on.

Only team four (Christiana, Michele, Lothar and Bek) were still out on their mission in Pitiy valley, on the Eastern side of Karakol pass – or so we thought. No sign of them until 17:30 when, in accordance with our safety procedures, a search party went off to look for them. On the way up to the pass, we received a radio call from Christiana and returned to camp. And there they were telling about the adventures of getting wet during a river crossing, heavy snowfall and vain attempts to drive the car back up and over a pass on snow covered ground. Driving all the way around the mountain range was the only option to get back to camp, and that’s what they did: a full 6 hour drive! The team’s reunion was worth a celebration that lasted until late at night…

Thank you, team one for being the trailblazers and reccee team on this year’s Tien Shan expedition. Many thanks for your support, time, sweat and exceptional team spirit that made the last two weeks a unique experience. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Safe travels to wherever you are heading. I hope to see you again some time.

Team 2: I am looking forward to meeting you on Monday morning at the Futuro Hotel.

Tien Shan: Wilderness and Kozhomkul the Strong

I can write today, because we are at Suusamyr for our day off. We’re attending festivities celebrating the 130th birthday of Kozhomkul the Strong. Legend says that he crossed the mountains a long time ago in winter and when his horse couldn’t get any further because of the deep snow, he took it on his back and carried it over the mountains.

In the real world, work is going well in the mountains. On our surveys we have spotted ibex, marmot, golden eagle, found wolf, fox and other scats. Every day we saw sunshine interrupted by the odd rain or haze shower. The clear nights are cold, but the starry sky totally makes up for it. Karakol pass is still blocked by snow.

This morning all the peaks surrounding base camp had a fresh layer of snow on them. Because of this, only a few herders have moved into “our” valley – we have it to ourselves and the wilderness that surrounds us.

More from us when group 1 returns next week. Only a few pictures for now…

Tien Shan: Setting up base camp, mostly

Base camp is set up, mostly. The truck heroically made it to our bace camp location high up the Suusamyr valley. We found it undisturbed and beautiful. The local people say summer is coming late this year and we haven’t seen many yurts of herders being set up yet. The Karakol pass is still under a deep layer of snow. It was sunny and warm during our six hour drive, but cold enough for a down jacket after sundown.

Bek and Bekbolot will be the two members of Grupa Bars with the first two teams. They did a great job with loading the truck and driving it up safely. With us will also be Gulya, our cook – probably the most important person during the whole expedition 🙂 All together we  set up two yurts – the kitchen and a common room – and have left the third yurt for the first team to set up upon arrival. While Gulya, Volodya and Bek stayed back at camp to finish setting up everything, Bekbolot, Amadeus and I are now back in Bishkek for more shopping, organising cars and picking up the first group up on Monday morning.

We will start our journey to camp soon after some short introductions and familiarisation with the cars for the drivers.

Enjoy your last day off and come well rested and prepared! 🙂

Bekbolot and Bek in the truck
Setting up base
Setting up base
From left to right: Bek, Volodya, Amadeus, Gulya
The road to base
The road to base, with traffic jam 😉
Setting up the yurts

Tien Shan: Getting ready

Volodya (the expedition scientist), Amadeus (expedition leader group 3&4) and are in Bishkek and getting things ready. We have retrieved the camp equipment from a container set up in the backyard of the NABU offices, and checked tents, yurts , car equipment, water filters and all the hardware we need to run our camp far up the mountains.

A NABU conference room is now our impromptu office with all the paperwork laid and sorted out on a big table – datasheets, maps, clipboards, etc. We have gone through activities, schedules and procedures, charged the radios and batteries and prepared the GPSs. We have purchased a few electronic and additional items for the medical kit. More equipment is coming with people on group 1 (thank you for hauling it all to Bishkek for us!). Together with our cook Gulya we will go for a serious food shopping trip tomorrow and hopefully two of our spacious 4×4 cars will be enough to take everything back in one go!

Then Thursday evening  everything has to be loaded into the truck and taken into the mountains to set up camp 1 for group 1. Once set up, Gulya and Volodya will stay behind and I will come and collect group 1 for your time in the mountains, so get excited!

The weather has been pleasantly sunny and warm, but the temperatures will rise to hot (i.e. above 30 degrees over the next few days). I was told that it’s been a wet summer so far, so please come prepared.

NABU backyard
Impromptu office
Amadeus (left) and Volodya. We like the new hair/beard-style Amadeus 😉

Tien Shan: Opener

My name is Malika Fettak and I will be leading the first two groups of this year’s snow leopard expedition in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Malika Fettak

I am looking forward to returning to Bishkek, the mountains and all the lovely people we will work with. Our partner on the ground is NABU Kyrgyzstan and more specifically the ‘Grupa Bars’, a four-person snow leopard patrol who will support us in the field in groups of two.

Dr . Tytar (right) and two members of the Grupa Bars

Dr. Volodymyr Tytar will be the scientist on this expedition. Originally from the Ukraine, he has been working on snow leopard research in different locations for decades and has been involved in our Tien Shan project from the very beginning back in 2014.

Dr. Tytar

Groups 3 & 4 will also meet Amadeus DeKastle as group leader who will take over from me after the first half. Over the next week Amadeus & I will prepare the equipment & paperwork, set up camp in the mountains, do the shopping, have meetings and briefings with helpers, partners and staff.

Amadeus DeKastle (c) Noel van Bemmel

I am about to arrive in Bishkek and meet Amadeus and Volodya. As we meet, here’s some admin for group 1: Please note that the meeting point at 8:00 on Monday morning remains at the Futuro Hotel as per the description in the dossier. From there we will drive in convoy (four cars) out of the city and into the mountains. We’ll need a couple of drivers to volunteer to drive one of the vehicles after a basic introduction to the (automatic) cars (a comprehensive off-road driving course will be part of the training at camp.) Please have a think about it already so that we can sort it out quickly when we meet.

I hope your preparations are going well. I’ll be in touch again soon from Bishkek. Once I’ve purchased a local SIM card I’ll share my local mobile number with you (for emergencies only).

That’s it for now, best wishes

Malika