Monday, 10 November 2008
And the journey down...
So having arrived at 12.30 on Saturday when the first snow flakes were beginning to fall, it then snowed hard all day and all night and was still snowing when we woke up on Sunday morning up at the Observatory.
We had planned to stay for the morning and have lunch, then head home. But the snow was lying so thickly on top of everything that we actually wondered if we would get down the mountain at all.
At breakfast, the jolly fat cook asked us casually if we were driving a jeep. Not strictly speaking a jeep, we said, but a Landcruiser car. "Is it four wheel drive?" she continued, and nodded sagely when we said it was. Then another lady from the kitchen came and asked us if we were still planning to stay for lunch, and we told her that we thought perhaps we ought to just get going through this snow. A look of great relief came over her face (I think perhaps they were also worried that they might have this odd British family to stay for a few days awaiting rescue), and she shot off to bring us the bill. Then she said, in a thick, rural, Kazakh/Russian accent "Go now, make haste, fare thee well, foreign travellers, ye know not what these mountains have in store for ye". But since our russian is patchy I just made that bit up!
Anyway, we took the hint and I packed up as quickly as I could, while husband pushed the 12 inches of snow off the bonnet, got the engine started and had a go to see if the car would actually move on that much snow, or just stay still with its wheels spinning.
I suspect that there might have been a problem even starting the engine, as the temperature outside was minus 9 degrees on our thermometer, and so whether or not he and Oleg had to defrost the gas I am not sure. I do know that there was some kind of conversation between the two of them, because husband told me that Oleg had said the descent would most likely be "difficult". If that did happen, I suspect he did not tell me in order not to alarm me further. I was still under strict instructions not to whinge about being scared that we were all going to die, and so had to keep my mouth shut.
So finally, we loaded up and started off at a stately 4km/hour through a landscape that was entirely different from the one we had arrived in the previous day. A total white out on all sides. Everything covered in a thick blanket of snow, but fortunately, the tracks of the last car to leave on Saturday night were still slightly visible and so we could follow the track.
We drove at walking speed down the hill, not knowing if the car would slew off the road and down the large ravine to the right or left. The road was ridiculous. Those reading this who are hard-nut off-roaders, hats off to you, because you have to have nerves of steel to do some of this stuff (or disposable pants on! ha ha).
Driving with the lake in our sights was marvellous, though. The sun was just beginning to break through the clouds, and the snow was falling lightly, the mountains were just pristine with the freshly fallen snow still dusting all the trees so it really looked like the top of a Christmas cake. Just beautiful, and we were really aware how lucky we were to be seeing this view, as not many people will be able to get up the track from now on. The lake was grey and still, silent and frozen, like a mysterious jewel in the middle of these vast, frozen inhospitable rocks.
We were making our way with such care, but we knew that at any point the car could lose its footing and that if it started to slide, we would be in real trouble. To get down the mountain, you have to cross about seven or eight rickety bridges that take you over streams and rivers and criss-cross a huge water main which runs from the lake into the city of Almaty. Going over the first one of those was probably the most heart-in-the-mouth moment of the trip. we had to approach it from a difficult uphill angle, and then cross most of it with the road hidden from view by the upturned bonnet, so basically driving blind. But once we had negotiated that and a few other turns, we basically knew we would probably be fine, as long as husband concentrated really hard.
After a few hundred more metres we stopped to let the girls have a pee, and then the girls and I walked behind the car, reducing the weight and making it much easier to handle. The sun had come out and the snow, mountains and scenery were truly breathtaking. It was dead quiet because the car was travelling so slowly, and surrounded by glittering snow and blue sky, even with a couple of eagles circling above us at one point, the whole morning was unforgettable.
Can't wait to go back in Spring.