National Geographic : 1997 Nov
hissing boiler swirled around the room's bare lightbulb, and the sweat streamed down Sergei's bushy red beard and broad chest. Nicknamed Boroda, or "beard," Sergei was the group's philosopher and sage-as outgoing and warm as Yuri was dark and joyless. "Sometimes we need to go out in nature and find some difficulty and say, 'Wake up!' to our internal energy," he said, dousing himself with a bucket of icy water. "We face difficulties that test us, but even they are a gift from God. It's all experience, and it's up to you to make what you will of it." WE ROLLED OUT of Taraz in a hired van the next morning while the roosters were still crowing. Crossing into Kyrgyzstan a half hour later, our driver, Misha, geared down for the climb into the Tian Shan. At 11,300 feet the road became impassable. We had four hours of day light, six hours of hiking ahead, and snow was begin ning to fall. As we prepared to hoist our packs, two figures on horseback appeared, descend ing from the heights. They were Kyrgyz hunters, dressed in greasy fur coats and pack ing battered carbines. From the look of their bulging sad dlebags they'd had a successful hunt. Their whippet-thin dogs growled at us suspiciously but kept their distance. "We're crossing the pass and could use some help with all of this," George hailed them in Russian, gesturing at our enormous packs. "Forget it," the men said. "We're not interested." "We can pay you. We have money and food." The hunters looked back at the pass, now obscured by blowing snow. "Nah, we don't need anything you have," they said, wheeling their horses and trotting away. The storm soon closed in with a vengeance. Yuri decid ed to cache the heaviest gear and return for it the next day. Yet even with lighter loads, the going was slow. "This is why we should have brought pack animals," George said, trudging across the glacier. Growing up in Latvia, he had developed strong opinions about the Russian psyche. "They're forever creating their own problems and taking pride in powering through stoically and with great strength. You always hear about them, 'First "IT'S A SIBERIAN SUPERPUMP," says Sergei Ushakov (left) of the "dry bag" the team used to trap air to fill the bublik. At the river the two inflatables-canvas-covered bladders-are carefully lashed to a birch frame (top left). Once launched, the bublik glides easily over boulders (right). "It's like an army tank for water," says interpreter George Aukon. "It goes everywhere."