Backpacking in Kazakhstan: Negotiations at 10,000 Feet

Backpacking in Kazakhstan: Negotiations at 10,000 Feet

By Jessica P. Hayden

Rush hour in the Tian Shan Mountains - photos by Jessica Hayden
Rush hour in the Tian Shan Mountains – photos by Jessica Hayden

We had been backpacking through the mountains of Kazakhstan for nearly two days when our horse took off. Not that it was unexpected. The man riding it had been warning us for the last day that he would leave.

This was part of the bargaining process. He had promised to carry our tents to the Kyrgyz border and now he wanted his money. The problem was we were only half way to our destination.

This wasn’t the first bump in our trip – our crew of five had slept in a field of ragweed, hiked through rain that quickly turned into driving sleet and politely had to turn down horse sausage from our guide, which he offered as a mid-day snack.

But we felt excited to be trekking though these mountains, so far away from anything with a modicum of resemblance to civilization.

Remote and Challenging Mountains

Fifteen years ago, the Tian Shan mountain range was inaccessible to most backpackers. Located in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the region was once registered as a restricted zone. American adventure seekers needed not only a passport, but also special permission from the Soviet authorities to set foot in these remote and challenging mountains. And overcoming Soviet bureaucracy was often a goal more unattainable than Everest.

Snow in July in the Tien Shan Mountains
Snow in July in the Tien Shan Mountains

Today foreigners can now explore the peaks and valleys where great Soviet alpinists once trained, not to mention a place where British and Russian spies once vied for control. As we scrambled up rocky slopes and overlooked thousand-foot cliffs, it was hard not to image that we too were playing some Great Game ourselves.

The three-day hike would take us from just outside of Almaty, the crowded and busy capital of Kazakhstan to peaceful Lake Issik-Kyl on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border.

One of the draws of this particular route is the opportunity to visit the three lakes that can be found along the way, each creatively named Colsai Lake numbers 1, 2 and 3. The azure colored water appears almost unnaturally blue, but in the summer heat the chilling glacial waters can be a welcome relief to overheated hikers.

The infamous horse man
The infamous horse man

Haggling and Begging

Amidst all of this natural beauty, there we stood: five Americans and one Kazakh rider who had packed about 40 pounds of our gear into the saddlebags on his horse.

He refused to continue. We refused to pay until he did. We haggled, we begged. We threatened to leave his payment at the border. He turned to leave with our tents, food and sleeping bags. We realized we were screwed.

Let’s face it, Americans are generally not good at the give and take of bargaining, a process that is common from La Paz to Istanbul. In our world of “see-sticker-price, pay-sticker-price,” we’re afraid of either being insulting by offering too little or getting ripped off by paying too much. It takes practice, and when you are at 10,000 feet and still have a day of hiking to go, you’re not in the best negotiation position.

Reaching the summit
Reaching the summit

In the end, we folded. The now infamous horseman unloaded our gear and took off, into the vast expanse of the Tian Shan mountain range. We quickly realized, of course, that we had more than we needed. Sitting down among our now discarded bags, we ate an enormous lunch (better in the belly than on the back) and then managed to stuff most of what remained into our packs.

As we turned to leave, I looked behind at our donation to the wild: a few heads of cabbage, a loaf of bread and some fruit. While we left it thinking a few animals would be happy to discover the unexpected treasure, my guess is our not-so-friendly horseman returned for the loot.

Sense of Accomplishment

The next day wasn’t easy with the extra weight, but there is a certain sense of accomplishment when you hike through the mountains carrying everything you need with you, on your own. When we arrived in Kyrgyzstan, we were dirty and tired – but we had made it and it felt good.

A mountain stream in the Tien Shan Mountains
A mountain stream in the Tien Shan Mountains

As the world shrinks and it becomes easier to find signs of home, far from that very place, it is refreshing to travel in a part of the world that can truly challenge your sense of comfort. And trust me, by the end of the third day I would have given anything for a nice oversized leather chair in an air-conditioned coffee shop.

While tourism is starting to pick up, foreigners have yet to flock in numbers to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This means visitors will find some western amenities, but won’t encounter run-of-the-mill tourist traps. Away from the European crowds and the trains filled with American backpackers, Central Asia offers travelers a different kind of adventure, whether it is negotiating the intricacies of post-Soviet bureaucracy or the side of a mountain.

And if you see a Kazakh on a horse, glibly counting his money, give me a call.

Jessica Hayden Jessica P. Hayden is a freelance writer who covers a range of issues including travel, politics, foreign affairs and law. Her work has appeared in Slate, Transitions Abroad, TravelMag, and numerous other publications. She also contributed to a book on investing for teens published by the Motley Fool. Visit her website at
Read more stories by Jessica Hayden:

Istanbul: City of Superlatives

Ephesus and Gokova: Two Turkish Treasures

Kashgar, China: The Market at the Top of the World

Bukhara, Uzbekistan: Modern Adventures on the Ancient Silk Road

Culture and Carpets: Discovering Turkmenistan Through Its Art

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