Alongside a new formed friend from my hostel, Stefan, I stepped off the crowded city bus into a much more natural setting. The location was called Medeu, and was just overlooking the city Almaty, Kazakhstan. All around, the scenery was lined with green trees, lush valleys, and mountains taller than anything I've ever seen (excluding Georgia). It was 11am and we were about to attempt a climb that took the group who initially told us about it nearly 12 hours to complete. We took this as a challenge to accomplish the whole trek in half the time, hence our mid day start. Fastening my shoe laces, I looked at the route ahead of us. We were either about to prove our athleticism and/or our foolishness depending on our outcome. Regardless, I was excited and a bit jittery from the three cups of coffee I just had during the bus ride.
We hit the trail and immediately came upon an incline steep enough to stare us in the face. 'This is a good little start. Get the legs warmed up' I said to Stefan who chuckled a bit, thinking this would level off soon. However, an hour later, all laughing had stopped and was now replaced by floods of sweat. As if to punish us for our hubris, the mountain never relented and the slope remained just as steep as ever. None the less, we were still crazily determined to cut the time of our Australian friends in half (I forgot to mention before that they were Aussies) so we powered through. Like panting dogs after a mail truck, we passed people left and right, never stopping to rest (though occasionally taking pictures).
Two in a half hours in and with my shirt now fully saturated in sweat, I came across something completely unexpected. I couldn't believe my eyes, but there, standing right on a high ledge was a giant swing, like the kind you'd see on a playground, with people on it. It was set up in such a way that if one person were to let go, they would likely go sailing into the abyss, but apparently that didn't stop the people waiting in the hour long line that had formed behind it. Stefan and I agreed that this would be a good spot to have our first stop, drink some water and, in my case, eat a few packets of dehydrated instant coffee (yes, I know I have a problem). Five minutes and a few pictures later, we hit the trail again and ascended into the clouds.
Despite the mix of fatigue and thinning air, I began to feel excited. Not three hours had yet passes and it seemed as if we were nearly there. However, the whole view ahead was shrouded in fog, rendering it impossible to fully estimate just how much was left. Time after time, I kept saying, "It's probably just over this ledge," only to find yet another incline. Stefan just laughed off my optimism as we continued. That's when we saw another climber descending. We politely greeted one another, adhering to the customs imposed by society, before diving into the important question.
"How much longer to the top?" inquired Stefan.
"About 20 minutes, but... it's a bit rough."
Ignoring the second half of the sentence, I perked up. "Sweet! Just 20 minutes! We're gonna shatter the Aussies' time!"
Onward we went, but not two minutes later, we realized what he meant by the second part. The peak was now in sight, but the whole path was lined with sharp, jagged rocks. 'Damn, I'm getting to old for this,' I thought while neglecting the fact Stefan was double my age. (Yeah, I forgot to add that earlier. He's in his 50s and has no trouble keeping up with an overly caffeinated 26 year old. Pretty impressive.) Nonetheless, we powered up. Hands were scratched, toes were stubbed, and sweat fell, but soon there we were. Top of the 3300m (11,000 ft) peak, looking down below at the valley and city of 2 million. The hard part was over and the clock read 2:20, which meant 3 hours and 20 minutes from the time we started.
Savoring the view, we devoured a quick lunch that consisted of two baked potatoes and granola for me, dried apricots and croutons for Stefan. Ten minutes later we began our descent, two and a half hours to cut our friends' time in half. Recklessly, we decided to sacrifice the well-being of our joints and turned this descent into a bit of a jog. Several onlookers looked at us, wondering if we were insane while a few laughed and shouted cheers. Even some wild horses showed their support by running alongside us (although they may have just been after the food in our backpacks since one of them bit mine a few times).
One hour passed with only a couple of humorous yet painful falls. We were cruising past other climbers at such reckless pace, many chose to stop and stare. We could actually do it. Cutting their time in half was attainable. Time to focus and descend like a hawk. Another 30 minutes went by and the end was in sight. We we came upon the final path, victory seemed at hand. Bursting out of the woods, we saw it. Right at the place we began, the 4:30 bus sat, engine humming and ready to leave. We were about to do it! 5 hours and 30 minutes in total, just needed to secure a spot on the bus for confirmation. We sprang on just as the doors were closing, elated and ready to celebrate... but unfortunately the mood soon became sour.
As it turned out, the bus was so overly crowded, several security had to push people on in order to get the doors to close (sort of like the Tokyo metro). We were packed drugs on a mule. No room to move, no air conditioning, and (to my absolute horror) multiple screaming babies. There would be no celebration on the bus. Only suffering. We won the challenge were and rewarded with a 30 minute rolling nightmare. 'I will be drinking tonight,' I thought to myself, 'but it's no longer because of the mountain.'