This was a post I did back in July at Peoples' Voice, the blog site of the NGO Forum on the ADB, which I've headed since June 2008. I think it's still interesting...
REBORN AT 2,700 METERS
High note from Kazakhstan
We were already at the foot of the mountains early in the morning. We sped out of Almaty and from a higher vantage point we could see Medeu, the famed Soviet-era ice skating arena.
There were high places in front of us, built of stone and soil and wood and living things. We were supposed to climb it, and we did, though not everything turned out the way they were supposed to, at least in our minds.
It was a curious troupe. An Indian nature lover and a Filipino asthmatic, with a group of determined but largely fit folks. Later on we would be called the Ketchup Boys by Clara the bubbly Czech. I would call myself Old Man after the long slog, and not even my daughter would disagree. On the trek down, each step felt like a metal kebab skewer was being stuck half way through my knees. Each step, and it felt like I made a bazillion steps. I could only laugh insanely, since my left ankle -- sprained badly a week before I arrived in Astana -- got injured again on the way up. So "Old Man" is fitting, though "Turtle" sounds a little more dignified -- slow though swollen knees are obvious.
Ketchup-2 - he would acquire another name after a week. He became Circa once he hurtled beyond the outskirts of Dushanbe in Tajikistan. It means goat, which he loves dearly. On his plate with knife and fork. Or his hands.
A day after the climbing ordeal, Circa and I would pretend, as many boys do, that it was actually nothing even though our joints were still revolting against any movement a week after the event. We pretended that what we did was both as difficult and happy as a joyful opera song. And I think it was. The soil beneath our fingernails added to the sense of communion, and it was a shame that the dirt was too easily cleaned.
They say campaigning together is like climbing a mountain together, and it's true. But climbing a mountain together is also like campaigning - you need traction virtually 60 seconds each minute along with a disinterested ear to hear your complaints or your words marveling at this or that scenery.
And so up we went, Circa and Ketchup-1 with the gang of CEE-Bankwatch -- great company each one of them, even though the sense of humor was rather different to our ears occasionally. Up, up the Kazakh mountain traversing the great Tian Shan range.
It was funny at first while I started stretching my muscles in preparation for the hike. In my mind it was going to be fine. I could see the snow-laden tips and wherever I looked, I looked mostly upwards. It was not going to be one of those mountains in the Philippines, which, to anyone from Central Asia, would look like a furry hill.
With a grunt and a smile, the group started lurching forward and I caught Circa looking at me in a rather panicked way. And I returned his look with one that said "Yep. We're screwed."
After the first ten steps, while no one else was looking, Circa walks by my side and whispers to me what was already on my mind.
"We will not make it," Circa hisses. "You and I are huffing and puffing sir and we haven't even begun."
Of course. I nod in agreement. Gravity for the flatlander is really a drag. Even nodding feels tiring.
Twenty steps later, I slow down and Circa catches up. He points ahead and whispers another thing that has also crossed my mind.
"Sir, you notice that there are now three kids who have joined us? One is pre-teen and the two others seem to be four years old and three years old. Look," he whispers, nodding to the front subtly with his head, "the kids are hopping and skipping. I will be ashamed if we stop..."
He let's the sentence trail off long enough. Before I could blink, it became clear that the fear of shame was stronger than the fear of cliffs and suddenly Circa is twenty, thirty paces ahead of me.
I catch my breath under an immense pine. After a swig of water, I am looking up again and I am scrambling at weeds, leaves, branches, tiny mushrooms, pebbles, soil, worms, cacti -- anything that I can grab -- to keep from crashing downwards.
The feeling of an asthma attack creeping up, which hilariously sometimes induces in me an asthma attack, stopped recurring after an hour. Apart from the brain, which can sometimes be unreliable depending on air and fluid intake, I think the lungs are organs of the body that learn quite fast.
I remember how I fell behind from time to time, but I don't think I was ever last. Not that it mattered. Sometimes I'd see Circa in front with his camera in his hands but obviously not taking any photos. I asked him a number of times if he was winded, just for the sake of asking, and he always replied -- his chest heaving, his eyes wide open -- that he was just taking pictures.
Above me, I could hear the kids talking to their mother, who from time to time would carry her smallest child in order to avoid the thorny plants and tall, cutting blades of grass. But the kids were nimble as goats and they ran across think trails with no rails except for ankle-high shrubs. They laughed their hearts out at the flowers or insects they came across. I related to their joy completely.
It was an enchanting place filled with amazing vistas. There were places where the horizon was split into hues -- deep blue sky, a long and thick horizontal swath of lavender blooms and the dark green of pine. In my mind I remember clicking "save as screen saver," so I could conjure again the different scenes during the most trying and boring conferences in the future.
Onwards we trodded the uneven ground.
Thanks to winsome Sveta, who was carrying two mattresses on her back-pack -- a knapsack that appeared to be taller than her (and which contained a stove, gas, water, liquids, fruits, among other supplies) -- there were no mishaps. There were only smiling faces in the end.
Circa and I eventually made it to the mountaintop, which is a nice term. "Top" is what we call the place where we all finally stopped and made camp, which was three hours after we first started our ascent. I want to use "peak" but it sounds too melodramatic.
Have you ever celebrated the discovery of oxygen? We did, at the 'top'.
We broke bread beneath a small cluster of pine trees as rain began to fall. The sun disappeared and temperatures plummeted a bit. Everyone passed around pastries grabbed from the breakfast table in Hotel Kazzhol. Tea was brewing and people huddled together closer.
Stories about everything and nothing began to flow, mostly in Russian. Circa and I kept a small fire going while we played with the kids nestled inside a fabulous hollowed out trunk of a tree.
From out of a bag came a bottle of Ukrainian brandy, which went quite well with the bread and cheese and sausage (and oxygen). It became my winter coat. I was not cold.
I was told we were about 2,700 meters above sea level and my knees answered in the affirmative.
Below me, the sound of a river, alive and flowing and coursing ice water like a swollen vein of the mountain, fed by the region's immense glaciers.
A waterfall and a few hours later, we decided it was time to go down. And it was downhill from that point for the turtle, who was the last to arrive.
Circa laughed at the old man. But the next day Circa noticed that he had left behind the joints of his legs in the mountain. For three days he walked around as if he had no knees. Like a stiff goat zombie.
P.s. Actually, Circa was almost nimble as a goat. He was performing strange push-ups above flowing water and he even carried one of the kids on his shoulder down a steep cliff to get water from a nearby stream. Anatomically, it was the old man who had a knee problem, but since he is the one who wrote the piece, he took a few liberties with his writing. Circa's problem were his thighs, which just froze the next day. For three days his legs did not follow his orders despite all his attempts to defrost himself. #
P.s. Ok, let's be even more honest. Another group had actually left much earlier and they made it to the snowy parts of the peak, with a small lake to boot and, amazingly, with little clothing for cold weather! Clara, Rustam, Sergey and the famed Georgian Water Hockey Olympian Mr. Lemon-Ketchup-Dato! Dato and Clara were actually just in shorts and by the time they got back down and reached our 'lower' camp, Dato was freezing (while Clara was yawning like she climbed mountains everyday...).
We flew a kite last Sunday for peace in Georgia, and for peace as well in Cotabato, Philippines. Like real peace, and not the peace of warmongers and politicians. I hope the winds of the kite have made it to Tbilisi, and also to Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Cotabato too.