Beside the lake, I laid in a clearing sipping coffee. Up the hill behind me, Savannah was sniffing through green and purple heather, while closer to me, my guide and my horseman were making boiled eggs in a kettle beside a boulder. While I drank the instant coffee, I took in the jagged mountains and the silver water drifting slowly downhill. Kyrgyzstan was likely the last foreign country I’d walk through. Ruminating on that fact didn’t help me enjoy the incredible beauty I was surrounded by, but rather left me with an uncertainty which vibrated in my chest like an alarm I couldn’t turn off.
Since seventeen I’ve known exactly what I wanted to do with my life; walk around the world.
That certainty guided me through dark times and difficulties that would have deterred a less determined man. When I nearly died from a bacterial infection, I never had a doubt as to what I would do once I recovered. When I was held at knifepoint, and later gunpoint, I was left unfazed. But now, gazing at half a dozen four thousand meter peaks, I could barely see their beauty.
How loud did my yearning ring?
When would I be able to enjoy a drink with my friends? When could I sit with my grandparents for Sunday dinner? When would I love? When would I be loved?
I couldn’t arrest my imagination. For months it had been running into the future like a startled horse.
I’d been alone too long. The effects of denying myself close bonds for six years was beginning to warp me.
I thought by the end of my walk I would be indomitable, but instead, I was on the banks of a holy lake, with twenty-thousand miles behind me, and I was as weak as I’d ever been. The jungles I’d walked through, the mountains I’d climbed, the heat, the cold, the fear and the elation; there were no answers in them. I had not ascended to something greater. All this time and I was still only human.
We left after a second coffee and a couple of hard-boiled eggs.
My guide, Husnidin, and I would cross a mountain pass on foot while the horseman would take our two horses the long way around the mountains.
Husnidin was forty-five. In some ways, he looked older and in other ways much younger. His face was leathered from exposure, but his back was broad and his legs like tree trunks. He ripped through cigarettes, yet climbed mountains like a mountain goat. When he was outside his eyes shone with life. The mountains were a childhood friend to him, he knew them and cared for them deeply.
The pass we were taking, Husnidin had taken a hundred times or more.
It reached an altitude slightly below four thousand meters.
The first hill was easy. We followed switchbacks through heather and wild garlic then at the top rested on a boulder overlooking the most beautiful lake I’ve seen. Its waters were sapphire and the mountains behind it layered continuously until they disappeared.
There were some structures at the lake where families came to make sacrifices. The locals say one of Mohammad’s acolytes rested at the lake. To them, with a generous enough sacrifice, the waters are believed to grant anything from wealth to fertility.
“It will be a busy day tomorrow,” Husnidin said. “Four or five families are coming.”
He squinted at the water.
It took me a moment to realize he was referring to the shadows on the lake. Days before he told me that if you spent enough time at the lake you could read its surface and it would tell you the future.
He pointed and outlined where the water was darker along the shores. There were five bumps.
“Good food tomorrow. Maybe plov.”
“Savannah!” He reached over and rubbed her head. “Do you want to stay for plov?” He laughed louder. “She loves plov. Never enough plov for Savannah.”
Another twenty minutes and we continued on.
Beyond the hill, in the shallow valley of the mountains around us, the land was all stone. A few weeks earlier everything would have been covered in meters of snow. And where we were headed there remained snow, but at the lower altitudes was only loose red rocks and the occasional weed.
Husnidin managed the mountain with ease. Narrow paths and loose stones didn’t slow him. The same could be said for Savannah. She darted ahead of Husnidin and only waited when she didn’t know which direction to go.
I, on the other hand, was much less sure of my footing. The soles of the Nikes I was wearing were worn to a porcelain-smooth from eight-hundred miles of walking. On any sort of loose earth, my feet slipped out from under me.
So I lagged behind, treading carefully, while Savannah and Husnidin hurried ahead.
After a few hours, we reached the edge of a glacier. It was tucked like a thick white comforter between the black mountains on either side. The summer sun made the top layer soft and the soft snow made for easy walking. I could kick the snow and make steps for myself.
Husnidin slowed – his backpack was heavier than mine. Soon I overtook him.
Occasionally, I turned back to take in the view.
Below me, the snow gave way to stones and a deep valley cut through the mountains ahead. Above, bright white clouds marked the blue sky. The north sun glowed weakly. At eye level were the treeless peaks.
“Look at that!” I shouted to Husnidin.
Husnidin paused to turn around and take a look.
“Perfect day for a climb.”
Another hour on and we reached a small lake near the summit. It was mostly frozen but at the center was water so blue I thought the lake might reach all the way down to the base of the mountains. I feared the snow around the lake would break so I took a wide birth.
Then we were at the pass and the pass was steep like I never imagined. I couldn’t see where we would descend over the edge.
Husnidin found a place to look down then came back with bad news.
“There’s still snow.”
“What does that mean?”
“We can’t go this way, but we can do two things. Go down the rocks over there. Or cross that snow, and go down the rocks over there.”
I looked across the pass to the rock wall opposite us. It seemed like an enormous Plinko board and I could only imagine myself tumbling down.
“I don’t know,” I said, my gut in my throat. “Can we sit for a minute?”
We sat back from the edge. Husnidin withdrew a few tomatoes and cucumbers from his backpack. I ate them distractedly. The view was spectacular; the town of Arslanbob followed a valley through the largest walnut forest in the world. Wisps of coal smoke drifted off so many homes. The forest was dark green. Far in the distance, the edge of the Pamir Mountain Range could be made out. The six thousand meter peaks were so faint they might have been mirages.
“Are you ready? Wait too long and the wind may start.”
“Let’s do the one farther away. It doesn’t look as steep.”
When Husnidin stood, Savannah leaped to her feet. I followed them around the primary pass and onto a stretch of snow we needed to cross to get to the rocky descent.
In a matter of seconds, Savannah was across. Husnidin was on the rocks not long after.
But I stood at the edge of the snow with my heart thumping behind my eyeballs.
I kicked the side of my foot into the snow to make myself a step, but the snow was hard, almost icy on the surface, and it didn’t give way so easily. I kicked the snow again, this time harder, and made myself a three-inch ledge.
The snow wasn’t particularly steep, but I didn’t trust my shoes and when I looked to my left the snow dropped so precipitously I couldn’t see where it went.
I tried to ignore the steep drop-off to my left and little by little I made my way across, kicking flat places to put my foot each step. But as I progressed, I found myself crouching lower until my right hand was gripping the snow and I could no longer move.
I was halfway across, with fear wrapped around my throat, chaining me to the ground. I’d been held at knifepoint, gunpoint and nearly died of a bacterial infection, but never before had I experienced such complete fear. I was paralyzed. I imagined sliding off the ledge to my death.
My head ached to the point that I was losing my vision. I sunk lower and gripped the snow tighter.
There was no way out.
I glanced up to see Husnidin marching across the snow.
“Don’t do that. Stand up.”
“I can’t,” I said meekly.
Soon Husnidin was beside me.
“That’s more dangerous. You have to stand straight. Don’t lean.”
“My shoes are too slippery.”
“You can wear mine.”
For a moment, I felt a glow of hope. Husnidin had boots that were made for the mountains. They would be a big upgrade from my worn running shoes. But then I imagined Husnidin slipping, and what would I do then? I couldn’t be the reason someone died.
“No.” I said. “They’re too smooth. You’ll slip.”
“Take them off. I’m the mountain goat, remember?”
Carefully and awkwardly, I clung to the ground with one hand and took off my shoes, then put on Husnidin’s. Husnidin tightened my Nikes around his feet then jumped up and down a few times.
“Oh! These are nice! So light. Like air!”
He really was a mountain goat.
“How do they feel?” he asked.
Husnidin held out a hand and helped me stand upright. The fear that had overtaken me a minute before dissolved into something less pernicious. It was still there, but only in my chest now. Husnidin’s boots were far better in the snow than my Nikes. And having him beside me gave me some confidence.
We started forward. I took the first step with great care, but the strong grip of the shoes was reassuring and my next steps were quicker.
I neared the rocks, standing straighter with each step, until finally, I was on solid ground.
“Good lord,” I said. “Give me a second.”
I sat on the rocks and exhaled. The fear hadn’t left me entirely, my legs were still shaking, but I’d made it across the snow.
I looked to Husnidin.
“You know, that was the most terrified I’ve ever been.”
“You did good. Anyway, it’s practice. Next time you’ll be jumping on the snow like me.”
I laughed and dropped onto my back. The sky had never seemed so blue. I wanted to hold it, to possess it, but all I could do was let it wash over me.