Highway to Hell and back
It was 5:30am and our minivan absolutely cramped with us and hunting gear was covering a dusty road to Bishkek. The Sun was just raising on horizon making the dawn reddish. An amazing morning and the way to get back on the track to Tian Shan mountain again. After unplanned but very nice overnight stay in Istanbul we were ready to get some action in mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Mid Asia to meet the air from China and Tajikistan.
In the minivan were: Craig Coote from http://www.tier-one.eu, the one who knows the taste of Kyrgyzstan, Rob Gearing from http://javelinbipod.com, very experienced outdoorsman, David Wright from http://www.fieldsportschannel.tv, one of the best cameraman and producer ready to record our trip, Avat my right hand for business and great friend from Kyrgyzstan and the driver who loves Spanish pop songs. The last but not least was me, Tomo Svetic from http://www.artemis-hunting.com sitting in the passenger seat with more comfort than the others. Being tall sometimes helps. We all knew well that the trip to our base in mountains would be long and that the wide curvy road what was centuries ago the part of the Silk route to China would take us there eventually. We were tired but in good mood and in high spirit. Two hours into our drive passed quickly and we were ready to have some traditional meal beside the road. The restaurant was newly built in modern Kyrgyzstani way with traditional dishes. Some of us decided to eat Beshbarmark, soup with noodles and sliced meat while the other went for traditional stew called Kuurdak. 30 min stopover helped a lot to move on towards our next stop. The road was becoming more deteriorated the more we drove to the South. We were passing some mountain passes really up to 3000m high and on our way we could see herds of cattle, horses and sheep. Lots of nomads were living here in their jurtas or wagons producing meat, cheese and milk. Their lifestyle hasn’t changed a lot for many centuries and every year after the snow melts they would come here with their livestock waiting for new snow to come when they retreat to their villages far away. We always stop to try some traditional salty cheese Kurut and horse milk. For Rob and David this was part of our initiation so Craig made up the story about dried horse testicles which everybody had to eat on their first trip. Despite horrible story about the cheese guys ate it convinced that they were eating dried horse’s testicles. After that there was no doubt that the team was ready for anything on this trip. Naryn was the first city where we stopped to get our hunting permits from the officials and get some extra supplies for the camp.
Camp at 3000m
After 8 hours on the road and 2 off road we were finally in our camp for the first night. The camp is based at 3000m altitude and the two old green wagons were going to be our base for the night. In our wagon we had 4 comfortable beds, table and 5-6 chairs, stove and just enough space to put our luggage and rifles between our beds. It was late afternoon, the air was getting colder quickly and we had to use our time to check our rifles and our range finders. Rob brought his sweet Blaser R8 Professional Success
Leather in 7mm Rem Mag and spare barrel in 308 Win and Craig took his “Hammer of Thor” the mighty Custom made rifle in 300 RUM we used 2 years ago for Ibex hunt. We had enough ammo to play and in this valley surrounded by mountains it was easy to shoot any distance we wanted. Rob had Swarovski scope on his rifle with ballistic turret while Craig was using the Zeiss V8. At 100m both rifles were straight on the target so we moved to distances 300-800m using Leica Geovid HD-B rangefinders. The software inside calculated everything for us giving us exactly the number of klicks for every distance. At this altitude your bullet drop shifts significantly, basically you shoot higher than expected, your bullet keeps the speed better and it is easy to shoot over your target. Leica’s worked brilliantly and we managed to hit targets easily up to 800m with both rifles. Off course, David was busy filming us and had spent most of his time around us asking questions and making short interviews. We were pleased with our shooting results and it was time to get in the wagon for dinner. Our host Janibay prepared the table and put for us all the basic but tasty food. Cheese, tomatoes, salami, apples, bread and some French salami Rob brought with him just in case. Everyone brought a bottle of alcohol and in the camp was always a few beers, vodka and some soft drinks. The atmosphere inside our wagon was great and fuelled by scotch our stories were becoming more and more interesting. Off course, we were drinking in moderation so 1 bottle for 4 of us was great treat to makes us sleep better.
We all slept well despite Rob’s and mine snoring. Only macho guys like us snore a lot so I guess David and Craig were just jealous when complaining about our snoring. After our breakfast we put all our gear ready to be shipped to another base. Guides promised to come at 6am but in this part of the world, for nomads the time is very relative thing. They were late but we were prepared for it because in these mountains 30 min could be 1, 2 or more hours. They know what to do and we trust them. Their Japanese 4x4s were good enough to take us safely to the second base for the rest of the hunt. It took us a few hours driving off road to get to our position. The weather was changing non stop and we experienced first snow flakes. It was nothing serious but it made me thinking because the last thing you want is to get stuck in these mountains. Few hours latter we hit our final base. Small warm and comfortable house, two wagons and a toilet were only buildings in this part of Tian Shan mountain. The closest house was 2 hours driving from here and we all knew that we would go much further than this today but on horses. We put our hunting clothes on, all the necessary gadgets and stuff into our rucksacks and we couldn’t wait to start riding our horses. After we had a traditional meal of Marco Polo sheep meat it was time to leave. All the horses outside were geared up and ready too. Before I arranged this trip I told to my team in Kyrgyzstan that we want experience and adventure at first place so it had to be hard. The start was hard but for David only because guides decided to take him riding for first 12 km or slightly less than 8 miles while the rest of us went in 4×4 to get to our meeting point. 1 h later a cloud of dust showed where David and guides were. They were riding fast and we all wondered how David was coping in his saddle. Actually he was good, shaken and slightly sore but good and it was than time for all of us to get on our horses. Every horse had a name after some movie star or sportsman fighter so the names were Jackie Chan, Van Dame, Bruce Lee and mine was Tyson. I got actually the strongest and smartest horse because it’s not that I was the biggest guy in the group but also on the last trip I had the dumbest horse in Kyrgyzstan. I really deserved this upgrade. Rob’s horse wasn’t smart or maybe he was only intimidated by coconut oil smell Rob was using. Anyway, all packed up we were riding through valley crossing many streams and rivers before we started climbing up. The weather turned quite badly and cold rain with Northern wind was a good test for our expensive clothing and boots. It was late afternoon when we entered the canyon leading up to the mountain and high rocky peaks and we didn’t want to waste any time resting horses before getting to the position for our spike camp. Riding uphill was really nice and not too steep at this point, the scenery changed a lot and on the ground we could see old horns from Marco Polo sheep and Ibex killed mostly by wolves long time ago. Our main guide Aman stopped suddenly and asked us to get on the ground. This was our first encounter with Ibex on this trip and for Rob and David first ever. It was a herd of 30+ animals, mostly female with young and there were few 2-3 years old males fighting and jumping around. David filmed them and we enjoyed observing them but they weren’t in our interest so we moved on pushing them away over high peaks. They were flying uphill and every time I ask myself how do they manage. Just below their position was our place for the night. Ekes, the guide, started the fire while Ulan and Aman were taking saddles off the horses. We joined in helping them with making tents and preparing for the night. It was a good feeling to stretch our legs finally and eat something warm. Noodle soup and plenty of tea were greatly appreciated by everyone and we were all pleased with our clothing because despite some rain we were dry. I don’t know how late it was when we went to our tents but it was so nice to spend that evening around the camp fire looking at the stars which are much brighter here where the light pollution is non existent. I shared the tent with Rob and David tried really hard to move form us which was good for Craig too because two of them didn’t snore. Actually Craig snored sometimes but it was more girly sound.
FIRST, SECOND and THIRD CHANCE
The morning was quite fresh and the ground covered in frost. Our tents and rucksacks were covered in frost too, the short grass rustled under our feet, horses moved quite far uphill, guides were getting out slowly from their bunks. The most adventurous part of the trip begun. Aman and Ulan went to chase our horses, Ekes was setting up the fire and our breakfast, the rest of us prepared our gear and made few photos with raising sun on the East and peaks of snowy Tian Shan mountain peaks in the background. 1 hour later finally we were ready to go after Ibex. We decided to leave the tents, most of our gear behind and go to observe few valleys where Ibex like to be at dawn and morning. For 45 minutes we rode uphill getting to 3500 m high ridge with an amazing view of the valley where our camp was and peaks on Chinese border. On our left 1200m down hill in the shade was heard of Ibex, some good trophies and females were grazing on frosty grass. It was easy to spot them and in few seconds all of our eyes were focused on them. David was using few cameras to get this moment captured and the rest of us were glassing the herd and looking for the biggest one. Aman the main guide asked me if I am happy wit the size of some trophies because after all I had to be sure that we get the quality I wanted. 3 were well over 100cm which is great size for any hunter and the plan was that the first chance will take Rob Gearing, myself the second chance and that Craig would take his trophy after we had ours. Even though it is not what I do because after all I should be the last and it was my job to secure their success on this occasion I was hunting with friends and amazing people so to us didn’t matter what would be the score at the end. Ekes took Rob for a promising long stalk but the terrain didn’t give them good cover so they had to walk around firstly down hill and than uphill. From our point we could observe hunters and ibex at the same time and it was nice to observe the whole stalk which turned out to be quite challenging. Rob and Ekes couldn’t see Ibex and they needed to get to the higher ground to get into more dominant position above the herd so they disappeared in the rocky peak 2km from us. The wind was almost negligible but was changing direction every few minutes but still it was more than enough for Ibex to scent them 1000m away. The Ibex herd went West, downhill and Rob with Ekes climbed way too high uphill but we couldn’t tell them so we packed up our gear and moved on horses further to the West in the valley were Ibex herd crossed the stream beneath peaks. Now we were below the peak where Rob was. He spent hours climbing and stalking with Ekes while we rested on the ground drinking tea and sunbathing. Our guys arrived exhausted and in quite bad shape but smiling because Rob loved hard climbing and Ekes was happy that he guided someone who can follow him. Basically both of them laid down in a cold stream to refresh themselves before they shared some tea and biscuits with us. It was mid day and plenty of time for another try on Ibex so once again we geared up and rode high uphill to get to one of the spots above big long canyon. Whatever we did than or on any other hunt had to be in order. Aman and Ekes went high up on the left to glass the ground on the south, the rest of us were glassing and taking some camera shots from a breath taking position. We were lined up glassing and commenting how exciting and beautiful the scenery was. The area infront of us was a massive, rocky and grey slope full of sharp ridges and Ibex tracks on the slopes. Galloping horse with Ekes on broke the quietness and Craig and I knew that feeling when your guide is galloping with good news. They spotted few good size trophies higher but the plan was to leave horses behind and climb above the Ibex on foot. It was quite hard work following our guides and Rob had very hard stalk earlier but we were all waiting for this moment. We split in three teams. It was still Rob’s turn to get the first Ibex so he went on long steep stalk over the mountain ridge way above the Ibex, Ulan had to go to a high point to observe Rob and Ekes while Craig, David and myself followed quickly Aman. It was a difficult and quick descending to get into position to spot the herd and than prepare for the shot after Rob’s. We were sliding, falling and torturing our legs badly with our gear on our back and in our hands. It was exciting for all when we finally got to the very narrow sharp ridge slightly above the herd but at 900m from them facing southwest. The position was good and we could see Rob high up stalking and looking for the shooting spot. Having Sun infront wasn’t the best position because of few reasons. Firstly the glare from our scopes, binos and camera could betray our position, the air was dusty and mirage noticeable which makes long range shooting more difficult. At least the shooting angle wasn’t more than 15 degrees downhill. Ibex were calm, some grazing and some resting in the shade. It gave David plenty of time to record them properly and to us to observe the quality of the trophies. All of them were 105cm or more with the biggest probably 120cm which helps to make decision quickly if needed because no matter which one you take will be mature, old and great size trophy. 45 minutes later Rob showed again on horizon behind Ibex on opposite side from us and Tajikistan border in the background. We never figured out what had happened at that moment but the Ibex started moving towards us sensing Rob and Ekes. The wind looked good to us but maybe they rolled over some stone making a noise or maybe it was glare of Rob’s head. Anyway it was again race with time for us running further down hill to get into position too shoot because for Rob this stalk was over and the Ibex were running towards us. It was my turn to shoot and my excitement was high despite being sorry for Rob. The idea was that after Rob shoots they would move towards us giving me the chance to take the second trophy from the herd. After running quickly finally we managed to stop to take position to shoot. Aman put my Blaser rucksack infront of me for the rest and I had in my hand heavy Craig’s rifle in heavy calibre. The position to shot was very difficult to aim properly, my heart rate was too high and I knew that I must not miss this chance. Guys were focused on very jumpy Ibex and I was fighting physically to stop sliding down the slope. There was no grip for myself and the dust filled my nostrils, the rifle stock was without the grip and heavy rifle was sliding from my rucksack. I was sliding too. It was more than 40% angle on that slope so the gravity worked well on myself and the rifle. It took me a minute maybe to finally put my crosshair on one of the biggest Ibex standing broadside at 420m. The air around Ibex was still full of dust after their run and mirage was quite challenging while the Sun was killing my eyes. Craig was my spotter giving me the right number of klicks on the scope and I dialled up for the given range. I managed to stop my body sliding but my heart rate was still high so I excluded all my emotions, excitement and thoughts focusing only on the bullet impact. I had to turn down my magnification on the scope to 8x to stop shaking the crosshair and also to give myself wider field of view in case of the follow up shot. The moment came to pull the trigger and I did it at the same time when my feet lost the grip again. The shot was just above the spine of the Ibex I wanted. At that moment it is important to not to panic and be ready ASAP for the second shot. Normally hunters stop in disbelief and mentally block giving their query to go off. I reloaded instantly and aimed again but this time at the ibex facing me in a slight angle, just enough for a confident shot. I pulled the trigger and the Ibex collapsed instantly showing big splash of hair on his back where the bullet Accubond 200gr exited. The celebration was just for few seconds because now we wanted for Craig to take the second trophy. He took his rifle from my hands following Aman while David was running behind them filming. It was a very long difficult and dangerous run again. For me it was the moment to relax and focus on Craig. Ibex herd went down to the canyon maybe 500m and than disappeared for some time while Craig and David were still battling the ground but now uphill. Finally Ibex showed up on the other side of the canyon but too far from any of us. Now there was nothing to do but to meet all where my trophy was laying down. Again, steep, sharp and loose rocks were dangerous to climb down but it was the shortest way to get there for all of us. To David and Craig it took 20 min or more to get there and I was there 10 minutes after them. The trophy looked amazing and we were all happy that at least one is down. Rob and Ekes joined us shortly really exhausted. Ulan was also climbing down on foot leading horses to get all the meat from this slope. Climbing back where we started was the hardest work but with slow pace we managed in 1 hour or more to cover 800 m to reach the top of the ridge and our horses. Sweaty and tired, burned by Sun and covered in dust we went all the way back to our tents to spend our evening there.
Next morning, we woke up at 6, tired but feeling great. It was a new day and new challenges ahead of us. We weren’t in rush slowly drinking our tea and having a breakfast before packing up for the long ride to snowy peaks at 4000m or more. We left my trophy and the meat in a small cave at the bottom of the cliff above our camp. It was very cool inside and it had the effect of the fridge.
Riding to the next position was long and very dangerous at some points. The narrow path 4 inches wide on the steep slope above the canyon was scary but actually the for the horses this was a routine walk so we relaxed and joked about the whole thing carefully keeping only our tips of the boots in the stirrup just in case that we have to jump of the horse quickly if the hore starts sliding down hill. It was late afternoon when we reached the peaks under the snow where the air was much colder and the wind was freezing our faces. We left our horses behind to get slightly higher on the ridge. On the other side we saw in a distance many Ibex, mostly female and young and the terrain was in their favour so all we could do was to watch them. Rob, David and Craig went with Aman and Ekes Uphill to another ridge, much steeper. I was with Ulan and horses. 45 minutes later we noticed that all the guys on the ridge are taking their positions so I went quickly uphill to be with guys. I didn’t want to miss this moment. When I got there Rob was already aiming downhill at an amazing trophy with herd of 10 animals around. Craig was giving the instructions on klicks and wind and Rob was trying so hard to make himself comfortable to shot at 698 yards at very steep angle. David was with his camera positioned well filming the scene and waiting for the shot. Rob confirmed that he is ready and he squeezed the trigger. The sound broke the quietness and the bullet ripped through the air killing instantly the Ibex he wanted. The excitement was loud and we were all so happy. It was Rob’s first Ibex ever and his longest and the most difficult shot on alive animal or any other target. After the shot suddenly on the opposite mountain we saw more than 50 animals in 4-5 groups running uphill. The second one was down and one more to go so we went down hill to retrieve the Ibex. When we got there it was night already and we were tired, cold and excited. Everyone made an effort to set up the base for the night quickly. Actually we couldn’t wait for the next day to start and see the Ibex properly in the daylight and see Craig taking another beast.
The morning came quickly or we didn’t sleep that long but the sunny frosty days always put a smile on hunter’s face. After the tea and breakfast around fire we were talking photos of the ibex watching our guides butchering the animal. The plan was to take everything back to our second camp where we were based the day before. It took us few good hours to get back there. We set up the tents and fire to have something to eat. It was early afternoon and enough time for Craig to go out. To make it easier for everybody Craig went with Ekes and Ulan to chase his luck on Ibex while 3 of us with Aman stayed in the base to indulge ourselves in Ibex fresh grilled meat. We took good chunk of prime cuts and prepared the fire. Rob put some slate stones into the fire and the feast started. The meat sizzling on red hot stones was delicious with a hint of smoke from some sort of juniper bush. We ate a lot and experimented for long time with the meat and it was dark when the rest of the crew came to join us. Unfortunately, Craig wasn’t lucky that day but not bothered with it either so we made a plan for tomorrow. We had cca 60-70 km to cover on horses packed with gear and extra 8 bags full of meat and skins (cca 200kg) with long horns so with the first light in the morning we would split in two groups.
We all started early in the morning our journey to different locations. Craig and Aman to one direction to chase Ibex while the rest of us went to collect my ibex and go to the camp. Horses were tired and Craig took mine horse for the job because it was the strongest. On many occasions we were walking downhill to make it easier for horses and to be honest it was easier for me to walk than ride at that point. We managed to collect my Ibex 5 hours later and it was interesting that birds knew where we left the meat. Big eagles managed to move some stones over 30kg and to get some meat from the bag. It is amazing how powerful they actually are. The skin looked ok which was good. Short break helped us to get some energy to keep going further. Once we hit the valley and the river in the flat country horses became so agile again. They knew that their favourite food and place is only few hours ahead. We were crossing all the rivers joking all the time and thinking about Craig. Craig had enough food for a day, we emptied all our boxes of food and we were looking forward to a nice meal, few drinks and especially shade because we had some sun burns. Once we got there we were happy that we finished the hunt uninjured and with great success but our thoughts were with Craig and Aman.
Craig came back to camp next day after mid day. He was knackered and his part was the most difficult beside Rob’s. Unfortunately, he came back empty handed after missing even bigger trophies than ours on 3 separate occasions due his faulty scope. Despite this he was happy because for him the adventure and hard work is what counts the most and he already bagged enormous Ibex on the previous trip we had. This hunt was a real test for us as well as for the equipment we used. Our cars were ready just before the dusk and off we went straight to Bishkek. The journey back was an adventure to be told and a modern hotel in Bishkek was like a heaven at 5am that morning. We slept for 3-4 hours and for 2 days and nights we didn’t stop exploring the city and its amenities. Avat was with us organising our time and beautiful Daria was responsible for exploring the lifestyle in Kyrgyz way.
It was a hell of a trip and hell of experience. It was hard, tiring, exhausting rewarding, it was a highway to hell and back. We can’t wait to do it again.