Каякеры на Сарыджазе

Glacier to Gobi Expedition

Каякеры прошли весь Сарыджаз.

No Turning Back

Paddling from glacial conditions to the unforgiving Gobi Desert, American paddlers Middy Tilghman, Andrew McEwan, and Simon Beardmore attempt a whitewater kayak expedition on the Inylchek and Sarydzhaz Rivers in Central Asia\'s isolated Kyrgyzstan republic. Once part of the Soviet Union, the country is now open to Western explorers. The 2005 expedition demonstrates a method for extending the reach of minimalist, self-contained whitewater expeditions into isolated and remote areas.

On our third morning on the Kyrgyz Republic\'s Sary Jaz River, we faced our first life-and-death decision. The river flowed into an unnamed canyon guarded by vertical cliffs and surrounded by 23,000-foot peaks. We scrambled for hours, trying without success to scout the powerful whitewater hidden beyond the canyon\'s ominous opening. We knew only two things for sure about the river below: about 60 miles downstream it would cross into China, fan out and evaporate in the Gobi Desert, and it had claimed the lives of two Russian rafters in as many expeditions. 

We slipped into our heavily loaded boats and inched as close as we dared to the lip of the canyon\'s first rapid, straining for a glimpse of the maelstrom below. Finally out of options, Andrew McEwan peeled out into the unknown. He flashed the all-clear sign from the crest of a massive wave and Simon Beardmore followed. Now it was my turn. I nosed my kayak across the eddyline and felt the current sweep me into the canyon.   

As we settled our nerves below that first big drop, the weight of our decision left us breathless: We had dropped into a cliffed-out canyon with no exit but this untried river. That first canyon proved benign by Sary Jaz standards, offering miles of powerful Class IV and few surprises before spitting us out above the cliff-shrouded entrance of the Ulchatski Canyon.

In the days to come, paddling into inescapable gorges became part of our routine. Spending eight days in Chinese custody, on the other hand, was anything but.


Adrenaline Rush

On August 24, 2006, after dragging our kayaks-slash-gear-sleds for three days through a sun-baked Kyrgyz River valley, our three-man team reached the foot of the Inylchek Glacier. That evening a ferocious sandstorm cleared the skies, and the next morning we began paddling at the foot of the glacier, soon passing a confluence that more than doubled the river\'s flow to about 3,500 cfs of frigid, silty meltwater.
At the first horizon line, the Sary Jaz made clear that it does not play by the same rules as other big-water rivers: I pitoned in a mid-river channel that should have been deep in a river of such volume. Seconds later, the river back-endered me on an eight-foot wave face. That was lesson No. 2: The Sary Jaz is uncommonly powerful, even in the least likely places. I rolled up and sprinted to the river left, struggling to avoid a hole big enough to swallow a school bus.

Our fourth day on the river began at the mouth of the Ulchatski Canyon with a mandatory portage. To reach it, Andrew first had to sprint across the river, wedge himself between the cliff and a rock, and then fling himself onto shore. If he failed any part of that sequence, he would slide backwards into the rapid that had killed a Russian rafter in 1997. After expertly sprinting and flopping, Andrew secured his footing and caught Simon and me as we wedged ourselves into that same precarious slot. Portaging in the rain, we marveled that on the Sary Jaz, a normally routine action like getting out of our boats to portage required all of our skill and sent our adrenaline surging.

Once safely on shore, we got the first glimpse of what lay downstream: This massive river dropped like a steep creek. We spent several long minutes just staring at the water, watching it do familiar things on an entirely unfamiliar scale.

Then we hefted our boats - loaded with 12 day\'s food, climbing gear, and a few minimalist camping essentials, each weighing about 100 pounds - and began a long carry around, over and under four-story-high boulders. After the portage we romped down several miles of Class IV-V whitewater, and then finished the day with an extended scouting mission. To cover as much terrain as possible, Andrew scouted the near section, while I looked farther downstream.


The River Wild

Reconvening at camp, we agreed that both sections seemed runnable. But only Simon slept peacefully that night - tendonitis in his left ankle had prevented him from scouting and seeing what lay ahead. Andrew tossed in his sleeping bag, wondering whether the Sary Jaz\'s freakish geology nullified his 20 years of river-running experience. As he tried to sleep, one persistent question overpowered the whitewater\'s chest-shivering roar: Is it really possible that a river of 3,500 cfs could squeeze through a canyon 10 feet across, drop between giant pulsating boils, and be runnable?

While Andrew fretted about the whitewater, I worried about rocks. Cliffs had blocked my effort to scout the canyon\'s final section. We\'d have to paddle into it and then scout the remainder of the gorge. From upstream, I had spied the only vaguely possible point of egress: a small finger of marble that stuck out from the canyon wall. Earlier, Simon had said a three-foot cliff was all it would take to prevent a kayaker from getting out of his boat, stranding him in the water. Uncertainty nagged me. From a quarter mile away, what did three feet look like? Once out of our boats, would we be able to climb out of the canyon and scout, or would we be forced to descend blindly?

The next day emptied our adrenal glands. We peeled out into the gorge and immediately found everything to be significantly larger than we had anticipated. We were struggling simply to stay upright, as boils surged off the rock walls. One erupted beneath me, tossing me the full 20-foot width of the canyon.

Soon we reached the narrow chute that had cost Andrew a night\'s sleep. Fighting for some control, he timed his move to coincide with the low surge, but he miscalculated. Two surging boils swallowed Andrew and his boat, plunging him deep into the chaos at the base of the drop. Resurfacing like a breaching submarine, he sprinted wildly toward an oasis of relative calm - an eddy surging three vertical feet. 

Struggling to stay upright with every stroke, Simon and I charged down the drop and into the eddy. Then I peeled out and feverishly scanned for our exit point. The morning\'s rain had made the marble finger slippery, but fortunately it was less than three feet tall; we were able to clamber out of our boats and climb to the rim of the canyon. From our new vantage point we stared downstream in disbelief: The canyon churned with enormous waves and holes, narrowed to ten feet, dropped through several violent curling holes, and narrowed again to six feet. Even more unbelievably, we all agreed that it was runnable.


Backenders and \'Giant\' Water

We paddled through surging waves and shifting holes that ricocheted off the canyon walls. Each of us cleaned the 10-foot constriction, but when I reached the six-foot pinch the whitewater devoured my boat, slamming me into the river right wall. Andrew watched my wipeout and overcompensated, smashing into the left wall. As Andrew and I struggled in viciously swirling eddies, Simon cruised through with a moderate centerline. When Andrew and I finally broke free and joined Simon in an eddy below the canyon, he was laughing - he said that now he understood why Andrew and I had been fidgeting all night. Andrew and I were relieved that our decision making had not failed us all.

The Kyrgyz-Chinese border lay 10 miles ahead, just below the deep canyon the river cuts through the Maybash Ridge. Our plan had been to take out at the end of that canyon and hike back through the mountains to the glacier, but Simon\'s worsening Achilles tendonitis made that impossible. The injury forced us to continue into China, though the tantalizing prospect of another unexplored gorge certainly made the choice more palatable.

We paddled into our third blind canyon of the trip knowing that we would emerge in China and hoping that we would be able to return discretely to Kyrgyz territory before the Chinese authorities discovered our trespass. 

We entered the Maybash Canyon on the expedition\'s ninth day, after six days of hard paddling. The entrance rapid was un-runnable, and portaging it required traversing a narrow ledge 40 feet above the river, rappelling to river level in a vertical tube eroded into the sheer canyon wall, and then blindly seal-launching backward into a rapid and whatever lay beyond. It was a combination of risk and skill that tested our abilities on land and in the water.

Our tests went beyond the physical to the verbal, as Simon noted that night in his journal. \"Our constant use of the word \'big\' to describe the river features had rendered the adjective somewhat obsolete. Thus, when Middy returned from scouting and announced that the rapid was big, I didn\'t give it much thought. Just sneak around the big boulder, past the big hole on the left, and over the big reactionary at the bottom. Three minutes and as many backenders later, I understood what Middy really meant: giant.\"

After this rapid, which quickly earned the name Simon\'s Backender, the Maybash Canyon faded away and the mountains began to open. In the distance we could see the river cutting its final gorge through the last ridge of tall mountains. We knew this canyon had never been run; based on the 1,000-foot pink rock walls rising straight out of the water, we surmised that it may never even have been seen from river level.


Captured by the Chinese Police

The final canyon\'s whitewater featured more pushy big waves and holes but required no portages. None, that is, until the river surged against the walls, folded over itself, and disappeared underground. It seemed to us that the river could not resist springing one final surprise. After portaging this 100-foot land bridge, we paddled on and savored the river\'s otherworldly whitewater and geology. After several miles of continuous big water, the walls faded away, and the Gobi desert stretched out in front of us.

Arriving into the farming community of Xegil, we stashed our boats along the riverbank and walked into town, hoping to find a quiet ride back to the Kyrgyz border. No such luck. Unkempt foreigners are a rare sight in this remote border town; Chinese officials seized us immediately.

The Sary Jaz is, not surprisingly, an unofficial port of entry, meaning that the Chinese visas we\'d secured for just this eventuality were void. They locked us in a jail cell for a few hours, and then took us out for some bureaucratic fun. After a medical exam and late-night interrogation, we found ourselves surrounded by four Chinese officers, each shouting \"You make Chinese law, you must punish!\" This sounded promising at first, but clearly the statement had lost some nuance in the translation.

Finally, after eight days under constant guard - on the second day, the Chinese had moved us from the holding cell to a sort of hotel arrest in the nearest large town - we paid a hefty fine for the privilege of being deported. As we bounced toward the border in a tiny truck crammed with police officers, Simon reasoned that the fine and jail time were better for him than the Achilles-swelling six-day hike that we had planned. In the back seat, Andrew daydreamed about the hiking we had missed, while one of the guards nodded off, slumped face down onto Andrew\'s back, and began to drool.


Heading Home

The Chinese handed us over to the Kyrgyz Border Patrol with great ceremony atop a beautiful mountain. As officials saluted and passed our passports around, we eyed the Kyrgyz authorities for any signs of how we would be received. A scruffy Kyrgyz officer got into our pickup and directed the driver to descend to the Kyrgyz Border Patrol station. The officer then picked up a battered Kalishnokov assault rifle, chambered a round, and trained it emphatically at the three of us in the backseat. As we descended the bouncy road, we wondered how sensitive the Kalishnokov\'s trigger was. After a serious whitewater expedition and eight days in Chinese custody, none of us looked much like James Bond. But no matter how compelling that argument sounded in our heads, none of us dared to point out that fact; we didn\'t want to tempt a trigger-happy response.

But after a thorough search of our belongings at the station, the tension eased. For the next several days the Kyrgyz proved themselves to be nothing but friendly and effective as they conducted thorough background checks, used our experiences to run anti-corruption stings within their own forces, questioned us over beers, and shared with us photographic evidence of yetis. Eventually, we landed in the capital city of Bishkek, where Kyrgyz officials gave us our passports, firm handshakes, and this sound advice: \"Don\'t go back to China.\"
The next day Simon flew out to begin graduate school, arriving a day late with an incredible excuse. Andrew and I returned to the mountains for two more months of whitewater, taking with us many expensively acquired lessons. First, and most obvious, is not to provoke a hard-line Communist regime. The second is that if you must provoke that regime, paddling one of the planet\'s most challenging, beautiful, and unusual rivers is as good a reason as any.

(ref  http://www.gore-tex.com/remote/Satellite/content/community/adventure-diaries/glacier-to-gobi-expedition/6)

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