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This trip was sponsored by Biosphere Expeditions
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KOCHKORKA, KYRGYZSTAN — Our convoy of vehicles comes to a stop in the highlands of the Tian Shan mountains, a mountain range just off the Himalayas, and we’re about to embark on a citizen science expedition tracking snow leopards with Biosphere Expeditions.
Who is Biosphere Expeditions?
All the activities are geared towards collecting important information about the wildlife in the valley (how many of which species, where and when, etc.). This information is then analyzed and published in a scientific report, which will help scientists guide and improve further conservation and protection efforts in the area, which is threatened by encroachment, poaching and other factors. It’s all about protecting the iconic snow leopard.
So ... what's all this for?
As the crow flies, Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is only 50 km from base camp, but the journey around the mountains takes six hours by car. Or in our case, Toyota Land Cruiser.
We’re here in late July, at the height of summer. Though wildflowers grace the valley, we experience all four seasons during our two-week expedition—often within the same 24-hour period. In the mornings, we layer on long underwear and fleece jackets to ward off the chill; by midday, we’re in T-shirts and shorts; and in the evenings, we huddle in the ‘warming yurt’ to chase the chill of a late afternoon thunderstorm, complete with gale-force winds and hail. My zero-degree sleeping bag keeps me toasty all night long, though I find myself tucking my head into my hooded sweater as an extra measure.
Our team is made up of biologists, conservationists, and citizen scientists from all over the world. Some come from an anti-poaching control unit, others from university, and still others from adventure wilderness areas with a penchant for snow leopards. Most, though, are non-professional laypeople who contribute their time and funding to the cause (more on how you can get involved later). We’re all here for different reasons, but we’re united in our love for these big cats and our desire to understand and protect them.
During the day, we break into groups and conduct surveys. Often, this means hiking up steep valleys searching for signs of snow leopards and their prey. None of us expected to actually see a snow leopard, as the local shepherds don’t even see them and they’re in the valleys all summer long. However, we saw plenty of marmots, which are a primary food source for snow leopards. We also saw signs of argali sheep and ibex, which are large prey for snow leopards.
Particularly hardy groups climb even further, where you’re most likely to spot prey, scat, or footprints. If spotted, the team deploys camera traps. Ours was the second expedition group, so our team checked traps the previous group left. If there weren’t any good pictures on it, we’d relocate the trap.
A Typical Day Looks Like This:
6:30 am: Get up, change, use the porta potty (a hole in the ground surrounded by a wooden structure), wash your hands using the water designated for handwashing.
7 am: Breakfast provided by Gulia in our main yurt. After eating, if it’s your turn to do dishes, you’ll gather them and wash them with a partner. Pack a lunch and collect our equipment from the supply truck.
8 am: Depart for surveys with your designated team. We hike up valleys, look out for prey and their signs, and have lunch on a boulder or grassy spot next to a mountain stream. Fitter teams will check camera traps at high altitude and replace or move them if needed. Many times we got to marvel at petroglyphs (figurines chiseled into rocks thousands of years ago) found in the valleys.
I’m not as fit as most of the group, so I typically took a walkie-talkie with me and hung back to go at my own pace. This way, I ended up going further than if I had to hustle up a mountain and give up halfway because I’m exhausted. I was able to hike a few minutes, rest for five or ten seconds, and then keep going. I’m convinced I was the queen of spotting marmots because of this—as a solo hiker I could catch ’em by surprise.
5 pm: Return from survey, put gear away, charge walkie-talkies and GPS units.
6 pm: Debrief in the main yurt. We share which cells we surveyed and mark them on the map. What did we find on our survey? Review the next day’s plan and sign up for teams.
7 pm: Have supper. After, I immediately retire to my tent because I’m exhausted. The first few days I went to sleep immediately. After a few days, I’d stay up for an hour to read on my Kindle or use my iPad to edit my manuscript. I always managed to fall asleep before the sun did, though.
What does basecamp look like?
Base camp comprises a main yurt, a kitchen yurt, and a warming yurt. Behind these is some higher ground, on top of which sit all our tents. A river runs right next to camp, and across it is another yurt with a shepherd and his family, as well as their livestock.
How do you take care of hygiene at base camp?
There are tubs to do laundry and dishes, and we even had a very spa-like experience with our showers. Sure, you’re using a bucket to wash, but the wooden structure smelled of pine and pretty green leaves press up through the slats at your feet. Pair that with the tranquil sound of the nearby river, and you’ve got yourself a heavenly experience.
What about the elevation?
At such a high elevation, you might worry about acclimatization. I was the only one of the group who had any issues with that (that I know of), but that’s likely because I had previously had long COVID. I kept an eye on my o2 sat, and while it remained much lower than a medical professional would prefer during the entire stay, I felt fine for the most part. Just a migraine the first few days.
Did you meet locals?
As a journalist, my favorite part of our expedition was interviewing local shepherds and their families about eco-tourism. I was the interviewer, while fellow citizen scientist Margot transcribed answers. Though I took Russian in school, most of the families speak Kyrgyz, so we had expedition scientist Taalai interpret for us.
We asked questions such as:
- Do you have the resources to host adventure tourists in the valley? If so, what would that look like? Someone pitching a tent nearby? Or someone staying in your yurt? Can you feed them traditional foods?
- Can you show tourists the elements of a yurt, or how to make traditional dairy products such as koumiss and kurut?
- Do you know any traditional songs you can teach tourists? Can you play traditional instruments? What about teaching them traditional games?
- Can you organize an ulak tartysh game (see below what this is)?
We were surprised to hear that every family thought eco-tourism was a good idea, and only one of those thought it’d be better lower in the valley where there’s more to see and do.
Did you get a day off?
During our day off, we got to witness a real ulak tartysh game, which is kind of like polo, played on horseback, but with a dead goat instead of a ball. After, we went to the valley chief’s yurt next door and enjoyed a meal of sheep and beshbarmak (or “five fingers,” because it’s meant to be eaten with your hands).
Another day the weather was terrible, so we drove two hours to Naryn, where we toured an old school that’s now a museum. One of the citizen scientists had a Wi-Fi hotspot, and you don’t get any reception until reaching this town. We were all able to check in quickly with our families this way, and it was such a welcome relief.
On our second to last day, we had a ‘party,’ where we listened to music, danced, and bowled. We filled plastic bottles with river water and used them as bowling pins. It was a really fun way to end the expedition on a high note.
How You Can Get Involved
If you want to donate money to help fund NABU and Biosphere Expeditions including the snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan, you can do so via their website. If you’re looking to participate as a citizen scientist, you can do that as well via their website. You’ll typically find three different Tian Shan departures taking place in July/August every year.