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Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008
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To the Foothill of Khan-Tengri

by Nicolai Schetnikov

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 exploration.

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 Central Tien-Shan.

P.P. 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 range.
It was 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 identity…
The 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.

From 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 (7439 m).
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 called Khan-Tengri.

The 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 glacier.
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 walking.
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 Tien-Shan.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #3

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