Seek and hide

The only way to see the real Central
Asia is to travel as a wandering dervish.
Arminius Vambery. Journey to Bukhara.

"We have a helicopter!" our chief said happily, entering our room. We stopped chewing and tried to make room for him among the piles of peaches and melons. It was good news. We'd been staying in that hotel for five days, and our stomachs couldn't stand this kind of abuse any more. I always hated coming back to cities, but the cities of Soviet Central Asia (known as Middle Asia in Russia) were an exception. They were as crowded, polluted, and dusty as any others, but at least they had bazaars.

That year our trip started in late June. Nights were still cold in the mountains when we reached a remote area just south from Alai Valley in Kyrgyzstan, a broad sage-covered plain that separates Pamir from Tien Shan. Our goal was to study one of the wonders of Central Asia: high-altitude butterflies.

...You are climbing up a steep rocky slope from some small Pamir river. Higher and higher, one hour after another. You can still see the river meandering far below, but your tent and yurtas (circular tents) of Kyrgyz nomads are no longer visible. The grass is getting low, it hides under rocks or looks like thin moss cover. You are already above other ridges, and you can look over them, to see more and more mountains in every direction. The sun is almost overhead, mean and fierce in the dark-blue sky. Finally you get to the crest. Nothing grows there except for lichens and tiny green pillow-like plants in rock crevices. A glacier flows from a nearby snowfield and disappears behind a distant outcrop. Across the broad gap of the valley, icy walls of high peaks shine in sunlight. Behind them a sharp-pointed giant rises to seven thousand meters; white flag of snow blown from its summit hangs in the air. Freezing wind howls between rocks, licks the snowfields, tries to throw you down. Nothing else moves there, only once in a while a lammergeyer would glide by, watching you with its red eyes, so close that you can hear its feathers creaking. But if you are in the right place at the right time, you have a chance to see a miracle.

Suddenly a large white butterfly appears out of nowhere, makes its way through the chaos of black rocks, slides on spread wings along a snow-covered slope, flies over your head, letting you see its red and blue spots, and darts away, sailing upwind in a seemingly impossible way, hiding from gusts behind the cliffs and hovering low over talus screes. A tiny cloud blocks the sunlight -and the butterfly closes its wings and drops down to hide between the stones. You wait for the cloud to move away, but it apparently got stuck between two air currents, and keeps rotating, keeping you in its shadow. Finally it evaporates, the stones warm up again - and the butterfly shows up for a few more seconds before disappearing again. And you can't believe that it just was there, in the world of frozen rocks and cold gray ice.

After a few weeks in the mountains we got back down and hitchhiked to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. It was the third year of Perestroika, and ethnic conflicts were springing up here and there already. But it was still possible to travel more or less safely, fighting local bureaucracy with methods developed during the Soviet era.

Our next goal was to get to Lake Sarez. That little-known lake was formed in 1911, when an earthquake caused a large part of Balun Mountain to fall into Bartang River gorge. The slide buried Usoi village with seven hundred people and created a 400-m tall dam. Within a few years the lake reached 70 km in length. The river eventually began seeping through the dam, and has been doing it ever since. Some geologists claim that the entire dam is unstable and may be destroyed by the next earthquake, sending a wall of water down Bartang, Pyanj and then Amu Darja rivers, washing away countless villages and cities along the way. But Sarez is not only dangerous, it is also the most beautiful lake in the world, and probably the most difficult to get to.

Hiking to the lake takes many days and a lot of rock climbing, but even getting there by helicopter is not easy. It takes the chopper more than an hour to make its way trough Bartang Gorge, which is 3,000 meters deep but so narrow that only a helicopter can fly through, not an airplane. Only in two places there are spots of flat land below, each with a tiny village speaking its own language. Crazy winds of Pamir are a constant threat: any sudden gust can throw your helicopter towards the canyon walls, already so close you can spot larks hiding in the grass. You pass Revolution Peak, and suddenly see the dam. It looks a bit like like Hoover dam, but is more wide and built of giant boulders instead of concrete. A network of filtered water streams covers it, flowing down to merge into Bartang, the Mad River.

And then you get over the crest of the dam, and there is the lake, like a large fjord surrounded by mountains and glaciers. Most high-altitude lakes have beautiful colors, but I've never seen anything like the water of Sarez: it is like the sky somewhere at the Arctic coast in spring, when the air is cold and sweet as melting snow, and flocks of tundra swans fly to the north.

There was a weather station at Irht Bay on the southern side of the lake. The lake has no shores: mountain slopes around it are almost vertical, except in a few places at river mouths, such as Irht. Long, very unstable talus screes flow down from the mountains. It takes half a day to climb to the source of such a river of pebbles, but then you can ride it back to the lake in a few minutes in a cloud of dust, using sharp turns to slow down. The view from above is strikingly beautiful: torquoise-colored diamond of the bay, the lake behind it, and glaciers of Northern Pamir on the far side. This is one of the most remote places in Middle Asia, so there is a lot of wildlife around: ibex, snowcocks, pikas, even snow leopards. The lake is full of large snowtrout and other fish.

From Sarez, we returned to Pamir Highway, a paved road that runs from Dushanbe to the deep gorges of Badakhshan (Western Pamir), follows the Pyanj River (and Afghan border) for a while, then turns east and climbs to the high plateaus of Eastern Pamir. Then it turns back north, and after a few high passes crosses into Kyrgyzstan to end in Osh, a pleasant city in the lush Ferghana Valley. In Western Pamir river valleys are so deep that there are riparian forests of willow, mulberry, poplar and Russian olive in some places. In Eastern Pamir valley bottoms are above 4,000 m, and the only two trees are the pines planted in front of District Communist Party Committee building. But the ridgecrests are at approximately the same altitude in both parts, mostly at five to six thousand meters, with some peaks rising above seven thousand in North-Central area and in the Chinese part of Eastern Pamir.

1989 was a relatively cold year in Middle Asia. It felt very pleasant in the valleys, but on the Eastern Pamir Plateau we had to endure freezing nights, and a thunderstorm that instantly flooded our tent. Fortunately, drying clothes was easy there because the air was unusually dry. You hang a shirt on a rope, then another one - and the first one is dry already.

We spent a week among the broad plains and island-like mountains of the Plateau, with its mostly Tibetan flora and fauna. Then we hurried back to Dushanbe. High-altitude butterflies fly for only a week or two each summer, and some of them only show up once in two years. The dates change every year depending on the weather, so it is always a gambling, and there's never enough time. We set a record, hitchhiking from Eastern Pamir to the city in two days. It takes up to a week sometimes.

The bazaars of Dushanbe, Ferghana, Kokand, and particularly Osh are probably the best place in the world to buy fruit and vegetables. The season for cherries, apricots and strawberries was mostly over, but there were still mountains of melons, ridges of peaches, hills of almonds, and plateaus of tomatoes. People of the West, where fruit varieties are mostly selected for long shelf life, have no idea what real plums or persimmons taste like. Not to mention tomatoes the size of a child's head, grown in Syr Darja valley. Not to mention tiny flat peaches from Samarkand, or honey apricots from Isfara, or kelmes-kerchi ("die but try one") melons from Charjow in Turkmenistan. Not to mention what it feels like to lie in bed some warm night after four weeks high in the mountains, reading Kipling, being surrounded by Rablesian piles of fruit, eating melons bought for fifteen kopecks ($0.09 in 1989) each...

We enjoyed it all for five days but didn't want to stay in the city forever. We were running out of time. One more week, and there will be nothing to do in the mountains.

Five years prior to our expedition, a group of amateur "cryptozoologists" was hiking in Girkan Range in search of yetis. Their chances weren't good, because there's no such thing. But one of them, Victor, got lucky. He caught a beautiful butterfly, took it to Moscow, and showed to our chief, a well-known expert on Middle Asian butterflies, who instantly recognized it as a new species.

Next year they tried to catch a second specimen at the same site, but couldn't find any. They realized that the butterfly, like some other high-altitude species, could only be found once in two years, because it took a caterpillar all summer to grow. They came back for the third time, but there was too much snow, and they didn't see anything: apparently, the butterflies were flying in inaccessible rocks high above. One more trip, and nothing again. The summer of 1989 was their fifth time at the same place, and the last hope. If we couldn't find the butterfly, it would mean that it's already extinct, or that the first specimen was a vagrant from some unknown place, impossible to locate in hundreds of remote valleys and ridges along Tajikistan-Uzbekistan border.

That's why we were so happy to find a helicopter. It was paid for by Ethnography Institute, and was supposed to fly in an opposite direction, but the pilot was an old friend of our chief.

It was a scenic flight, too: over the rocks of Anzob Pass, into the mysterious Yagnob Valley, where a tiny isolated tribe speaks a dialect of ancient Sogd language dead elsewhere since the 6th century, through Kuhi Malik gorge, famous for its "fiery caves" where coal deposits have been burning for thousands of years. We could already see the strange shapes of Fun Mountains above the blue cup of Iskanderkul (Alexander the Great's Lake), but the helicopter suddenly turned to the right, and landed in a small village in the canyon known as Iron Gates in Alexander's times.

We had no earphones and didn't know what was going on. The door opened, and panting locals carried in bloody stretchers with someone whose teeth were knocked out, and coat dotted with tiny holes. Was there an ethnic conflict we haven't heard about? No, it was just a geologist, victim of an accidental explosion of a dynamite charge. We flew all the way back to Dushanbe, waited for two hours until the ambulance arrived, trying to keep the poor guy stable and conscious, and then made a second attempt to get to our destination, the headwaters of a small river not shown on most maps. We got there just in time to put up the tent before nightfall.

We had some hard work to do. Every morning we had to climb almost a thousand meters from our camp to the rocks where the butterfly was supposed to live. We spent hours patrolling tiny patches of grass, running across moving talus slopes, looking under every stone in search of larvae. Himalayan snowcocks got so used to us that they kept grazing as we were walking around. Rock doves whistled by, sliding from their nests in the rocks above to the meadows far below. Pallas' sea eagles, who come to the area in August from their Indian breeding grounds, soared overhead. We tried to get a better look at them by pretending we were dead, but it didn't work until we figured out that they could detect eye movement from above. We put on sunglasses and were able to attract them very close.

After two weeks we got to know all local residents personally. There were three sheep shepherds near the river, five families of marmots on the slopes, three pairs of redstarts under the rocks, and one pair of forktails at the small glacial lake from which the river was flowing. We were running out of food, fuel, and fat deposits. And out of time, too. We decided it was too late, and were planning to leave the place in two days.

Then they appeared. One day there was none, next day at least twenty. They were twice the size of a monarch butterfly, white with scarlet, blue, and black spots. Their bodies were covered with thick hoary fur. Their flight was so fast they looked like swifts, buzzing over black rocks and blue lakes full of tiny icebergs. We photographed them, and later collected one old female which had already laid its eggs.

We knew we'd never be able to publish all the details of our discovery. The article would include the description, but only the general location, not the exact site. Otherwise commercial collectors would drive this species to extinction within a few years. There were no more than fifty butterflies in the area, and we had no reason to believe there were other populations elsewhere. This place will remain a secret forever - I don't think anyone will ever find it again.

We celebrated our victory with the shepherds. They killed a sheep, and told us lots of stories about the sexual practices of Tajik people. The Ethnography Institute which had provided our helicopter could be proud of our research. In exchange, we gave the shepherds some exciting information about love and sex in Moscow.

We hiked for three days to get to the first village. First through blooming subalpine meadows, then through juniper parklands, and finally through gorgeous forests of walnut, cherry-plum, and Sievers' apple, the wild ancestor of domestic apple. Some of these trees have fruit as sweet as any cultural variety, but it takes a lot of tasting to find a tree with good fruit.

The most exciting part of hiking in these mountains is ovrings - trails built of stones and mud, suspended on poplar sticks fixed in rock cracks. Ovrings are built on vertical rock walls by generations of local people, and sometimes you have to walk on these shaky installations for miles, watching the raging river far below.

As soon as we reached the first village, we got a ride from a truck driver who said it was his birthday, and according to local custom he had to grant anybody's wishes that day. He drove us and a lot of other people all the way to Dushanbe for free, and delivered everybody to his house. We asked to take us right to one of city bazaars.

The expedition was over. My friends took a plane to Moscow, and I decided to spend a few more weeks in Middle Asia. Being a university student, I had unlimited amount of free time. And it was late August, so I had two more months of summer weather left, at least in the lowlands.

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