Reading about little known
expeditions or tales of travels old and new to the Central Tien-Shan
cannot fail to imbue one with the spirit of travel, of pioneer
Piotr Petrovich Semenov Tian-Shansky and Gotfrid
Merzbacher are two of the best-known explorers of the Central
Tian-Shan. Their specific goals and ways of achieving them differed but
their overall aim was the same: the discovery and exploration of the
Semenov: geographer and geologist, botanist and entomologist,
statistician and economist, traveler, organizer and historian. In the
summer of 1856 he, and a small team of Cossacks, started out on camels
from the town of Verniy (Almaty) on an expedition to the Central
Tian-Shan. Then a little known member of the Russian Geographical
Society, he returned in 1857 a world famous scientist.
P.P. Semenov was the first European to reach the
northern Tien-Shan. The reports of his explorations exploded the
popular hypotheses of A. Gumboldt: there were no volcanoes in the Tian
Shan and the main ranges lay in a latitudinal direction. He described
alpine glaciers and refuted the opinion that the Chu River flows out of
the saline Lake Issyk-Kul. He was particularly keen to discover more
about the unexplored peak Khan-Tengri, which at that time was thought
to be the highest point of the Central Tian-Shan.
Nowadays there is a road through the Ak-Tog pass, on the edge of the
Terskey Ala-Too range connecting the Karkara gorge with the Sary-Jaz
valley. From here the whole beautiful panoramic view of the Sary Jaz
range is visible, topped by the yet higher peaks of the Tengri-Tag
from this point in 1857 that P.P. Semenov experienced the unforgettable
view of the enigmatic Central Tian-Shan. He described the spectacle
with the words: “… directly to the south of us
towered the most majestic mountain range I had ever seen. It consisted
entirely of snow giants about 30 to my left and right. The whole range
including the mountain giants was covered by unbroken blanket of
eternal snow. Right in the middle of these giants, one sharply-pointed
snow-covered pyramid stood out by virtue of its enormously high
altitude, which seemed from the pass to be two times higher than the
other peaks…” “Khan-Tengri!”
he exclaimed - a geographical mistake that has only recently been
corrected. In vain did local Kyrgyz try to convince him that the peak
was Kan-Too (Kyrgyz for Bloody Mountain) - he did not listen. He had
obtained his geographic knowledge of the Tian Shan from the works of K.
Ritter and A. Gumbolt and they, in their turn, took their information
from Byzantine missionaries and Chinese sources. Aware that the highest
point of the Tian Shan was Khan-Tengri, P.P. Semenov had no doubt that
this huge pyramid dominating the snow giants was indeed it.
Discoveries made by P.P. Semenov were not only of
scientific importance but also politically invaluable. He was awarded
the gold medal IRGO and the order of Vladimira 4th degree, and was
assigned by the powers that be the surname Semenov Tian-Shansky. His
exact descriptions of the unprecedented expedition inspired another to
explore the region…and to make the second case of mistaken
description of Khan-Tengri made by Semenov-Tian-Shansky had so caught
the interest of a famous German mountaineer and geographer Gotfrid
Merzbacher that he too decided to find out the exact location of this
peak. As a result of two expeditions in 1902-1903 and 1907-1908 he
managed to reach the foothill of the legendary peak and to make a
detailed map of the Tengri-Tag ridge.
The route of the second expedition took Merzbacher from the Sary Jaz
valley through the pass of Tuz (meaning 'straight') to the Inylchek
valley. Though not aware of it at the time, he had discovered one of
the biggest high-altitude glaciers on Earth, the glacier of South
Inylchek (59km in length).
He pitched camp on one of the grassy slopes (on the left of the
Shokalsky Glacier Merzbacher's Glade), and saw for the first time a
high-altitude lake, which later turned out to be two lakes. One
contained floating ice blocks and was later named after him.
here the goal of his expedition was visible the Khan-Tengri Peak. It
still required a great deal of effort to reach the foothill of the huge
white pyramid. Its predominant position and the belief that this was
the highest peak in the region meant that Merzbacher did not notice
another higher peak nearby. A pity especially as the second summit
could clearly be seen on the panorama of the Kokshaal-Tau ridge that he
presented to the Russian Geographic Society. That peak was later
'discovered' by Soviet topographers and was named Pobeda (Victory) Peak
On his way back, Merzbacher saw to his surprise that the water in the
lake had disappeared and the icebergs now lay on the slopes and the
bottom of the drained lake. He could offer no explanation, but soon the
reason for the mysterious disappearance of water became well known.
However neither Semenov-Tian-Shansky nor Merzbacher nor indeed
successive expeditions solved the riddle of Khan-Tengri (Kan-Too) and
Pobeda and they remained an enigma until relatively recently.
Access to the region of the Tian Shan is very difficult. This meant
that for many years after Merzbacher no close observation of the
Khan-Tengri and Pobeda Peaks was possible. The latitude location of the
Kokshaal-Tau and Tengri-Tag ridges means that both peaks cannot be seen
at the same time from far away. Thus from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan it
is possible to see only the peak of 6995m which Semenov-Tian-Shansky
peak of 7439.3m with the modern name of Pobeda (in Chinese 'Tomur') is
seen very seldom and only from the neighboring peaks. Due to its
configuration (it tops a huge massif and has no principal summit) the
Pobeda Peak does not stand out against the other peaks, especially not
the Khan-Tengri Peak. However from China it can be seen very well (the
Swedish explorer Sven Hedin observed it once) and it towers over the
peak of 7010m (the real Khan-Tengri).
It is a curious fact that the two highest peaks located in close
vicinity were both known for centuries to the different Turkic nations
as Khan-Tengri ('master of the sky').
The discovery of the Central Tian-Shan is not finished yet and probably
never will be. New people are keen to visit this amazing area, to make
their own expedition, to make their own discoveries about the area and
about themselves. Their journeys are different from the first
explorers', but no less interesting and enigmatic.
Today the days of travel from Almaty by camel caravans are gone. It is
possible to fly to Bishkek and drive to the starting point the village
of Jergalan. The route of the early explorers leads through the Terskey
Ala-Tau range and down to the Sary Jaz valley, through the Tuz pass,
across the Sary Jaz range and down to Inylchek valley to the mouth of
the South Inylchek glacier.
Here everything remains as it was almost a century ago when G.
Merzbacher came upon it. Only a few details: marble blocks, giant
stones with inscriptions (Chon-Tash) a memorial to climbers who have
died, tractor tracks and the odd car, bear witness to the modern world
of the Central Tian Shan. If you are lucky, you will witness the
mystery which puzzled G.Merzbacher the disappearance of the Merzbacher
lake. The answer to the phenomenon is clear once you see the gigantic
fountain of water, regurgitating from beneath the tongue of the
The route continues along the left
side of South Inylchek glacier moraine, for which it is necessary to
cross the glacier. A strange experience, it is said, to be surrounded
by such an endless area of ice and mountains. At the end of a day's
walk a small green glade appears - the so-called Green Glade (sometimes
mistakenly called the Merzbacher Glade), nowadays a convenient resting
place for visitors.
The real Merzbacher Glade is located near where the Shokalsky and South
Inylchek glaciers meet. Here modern travelers take the central, sealing
wax-red moraine of the South Inylchek glacier. This is the shortest way
to the foothills of the Khan-Tengri and Pobeda Peaks about 2 days of
It is not known where the base camp of G. Merzbacher's expedition was.
At present, in the area where the Zvezdochka and South Inylchek
glaciers meet, five to six camps are set up by Kyrgyz and Kazakh tour
companies in July and August. However this does not prevent climbers
from seeing Khan-Tengri and the surrounding mountains in the same way
as Merzbacher. The way back is usually by helicopter. For 30 minutes
one is treated to the unforgettable 'movie' of the Central Tien-Shan.
Then after 4 hours drive you will see another world the warm, blue
world of the lake Issyk-Kul … and everywhere - mountains,
mountains, mountains. They are with you as you climb the steps of the
plane and remain with you for a long time as the memory of the