So now we were down to three, Joe, Stas, and I. We took a shared taxi a few hours up north to get to a lake named Iskanderkul. The first few hours were all highway winding through the mountains, while the last hour was rough dirt track carved out into the rock. Our taxi kept stalling out going uphill, and then he'd do this thing where he'd put it in neutral, let it roll backwards a little bit, and then while it was rolling backwards he'd get it started. I'm not actually sure how it worked, but I do know that you do not want to be rolling backwards on a gravel road near the edge of a cliff! After some sphincter tightening restarts we finally made it to the downhill part and cruised down towards the lake. We found some old cabin style accommodation reminiscent of a summer camp.
We headed down to the lake but mannn was it cold. It was kind of cloudy so no of us made it further in than knee deep. Extremely nice scenery though. After that we headed towards the waterfall, which was half an hour away. They have this iron gating built into the rock and overhanging the ledge, which gives you a nice view of the falls, but it also feels sketchy as hell! Joe refused to even step foot on it.
The next day we had some sun and went back down to the lake. It has a magnificent green hue when it's in full sunlight. Don't ask me what causes this. We had our fun diving off the pier and staying in the water for a few minutes at a time, before the extremities when numb. It almost feels like you have to take a swim to fully enjoy this kind of nature.
As midday rolled around we had lunch and then it was time to day goodbye. Stas and Joe would be heading back out and going up north, where as I wanted to get some hiking in, so I had planned a multiday trip into the mountains, starting from Lake Iskanderkul. I had left the rest of my luggage in Dushanbe and had only the hiking essentials with me. This is why I like carrying all my camping gear. I don't do it often, but I can just wing a multi-day trip whenever I feel like it. And Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are perfect for that kinda thing. So we said our goodbyes and I started down the road around the lake, which would eventually turn into the trail.
The road finished at a small village and then turned into a narrow footpath, leading up into the mountains. I didn't have a good paper map, but I did have an app called maps.me which is by the most useful app when traveling. Bar none. You can download the map of your location to use offline and use the gps, so you know exactly where you're at all times, even without wifi. The maps are so friggen good that they even include hiking trails in the mountains. I'm hiking on an off the beaten track trail in northern Tajikistan, and maps.me still has the hiking route info! It's honestly amazing. It had all the major hikes in Kyrgyzstan too.
After hiking for a while the trail ended at a river and picked up on the other side. The only problem was this river was moving fast! This wasn't your ordinary, take off your shoes and wade your way across type river. Now the rule of thumb for fast moving water is not get any deeper than your kneecaps. Wherever I tried to cross the water was up to my knees after only a few feet and I had to turn back. Getting in up to my thighs would be really really dumb, especially being solo.
I wandered up and down this river for probably two hours looking for a good spot. At one point I had made it 90% across the river, only to find the channel getting deepest and swiftest right next to the opposing shoreline Agh! Finally I found a low overhanging tree that was on the other side of the river, spreading over the deepest part of the channel. And it was split into 2 large branches so I was able to wade halfway through the river and the pull myself up in between the two branches and then shimmy my way across, which is kind of tricky with a big backpack on. But I made it nonetheless! Not the smartest thing I've ever done, but It would have really sucked to turn around. I ended up hiking another hour or two and setting up camp in a valley near the river.
The next it was time to get up and over the pass. I walked a few more hours in the valley and then finally the trail veered off straight up into a crevice in the mountains. No more easy hiking! The trail was more or less a pile of medium sized rocks, with many of the rocks them loose, so finding a secure foothold was never guaranteed. It was steep enough in some spots that it became a scramble at times. Eventually the big rocks faded into small ones, and the hike became a very steep scree hill. So many times I'd take a step, the rocks would slide out from underneath me, and I'd slide down back down, sometimes behind where I started. It was so steep that I was on all fours, basically just trying to bear crawl up the slope without being washed back down again. It was honestly some of the most exhausting 'hiking' I've ever done. Never before had I moved up at such a slow pace, while exerting that much effort. This made hiking up a sand dune look like a cakewalk! But after god knows how long I eventually made it to the top of the pass and was rewarded with some spectacular views. It was a lot snowier on the other side!
At this point I was praying for an easy journey down the other side, but as I surveyed the landscape, it became quite apparent that that was not gonna happen. The ground was more or less frozen, of course with loose gravelly rock sitting on top of it. Besides straight up ice, there is nothing easier to slip and slide on when you're going downhill as loose gravel on hardpan. Plus my hiking boots got torn up scree running on previous hikes, so I was now using my crappy Nike gym shoes that had very little good rubber left. Yikes.
I proceeded extremely cautiously, basically on my butt and on all fours, making sure to find good footing, lest I start a rockslide. It was pretty scary. It was steep and if I did start a rockslide I'd most likely get scraped up really good at best, with a sprained ankle or broken ankle not out of the question. Finally I took a lazy step, with the rock I stepped on sliding out from under me, and I slid probably 10 feet down the hardpan before coming to a stop. Fortunately I just had a few cuts and scrapes on my wrists, elbow, and thigh. Could have been worse!
The further down I got, the more big rocks there were, which made it easier to get better footing. So after maybe two hours of this slow process I finally made it down the steep part of the pass. I crossed a snowfield and then from there terrain was mix of small rocks, gently running water, and slushy ice. The fun never ends on this hike. After navigating the ice it was another rock field, with massive rocks piled up on one another, some of them secure some of them loose, the perfect recipe for a sprained ankle. At this point I could see the lakebed where I wanted to camp, which was good news because the sun was going down fast. After another half hour of rock hopping I was down the lakebed to set up my tent, completing one of the most strenuous hiking days in my life.
After crashing hard that night, the following day I was up bright and early and looking forward to some moderately downhill hiking, on an actual dirt footpath. And I was not disappointed! It took a while for the sun to come up over the mountains, so I had some very comfortable, easy, downhill hiking, with nice views of the sheer rock faces from within the valley. About time! It only took me a few hours to get down to another beautiful greenish looking lake, this one containing a bunch of tents of mainly Russian tourists. I hopped in the lake for a quick dip in the freezing water. It was worth it! From here you could continue on the trail to some more alpine lakes or go to the campground that is connected by road back to civilization. I opted for the latter.
Of course there was no way to get a ride out of the campground and no phone service of any way to contact a taxi. So after a few hours I ended up just going on foot down the road. It was actually very pleasant scenery with a small village here and there. Eventually a 4x4 passed and I was able to hitch ride down the mountain. Although I almost which I hadn't because we passed through some of the most beautiful mountain villages on the way down and my desire to be able to get out and take photos was almost overwhelming. Ahh, you can't have everything I guess. Back on the highway I found a shared taxi back to Dushanbe and was back in town by dark. Mission accomplished!