Sunday, July 22, 2012

Land of the yurt and the gerbil - Travels in Kyrgyzstan Part Two

Deliriously species-rich meadows above Bokumbaevo; pale yellow is Pedicularis littenovii - a semi-parasite.

our second full day at Chong Kemin, a valley in the north-east. Totally off the beaten track. We're staying in a guesthouse which is the first in the area. a bit like a Nepali trekking guesthouses, all rather improvised, The village is very poor, people seem to have nothing beyond the basics. Poorer than Romania or Bulgaria. Hardly any cars, very battered old Ladas. Boys on horses gallop around.
Linum olgae

Later today we went further up the valley and walked up a side gorge, primed to look for Linum olgae, a perennial flax found only here and only seen in flower by a handful of botanists, “the snow leopard of central Asian botany” as Brian put it. Catherine and I were in the lead, it took her about 2 mins to spot something pink, I got out the binoculars, thought it worth the scramble, so up we went, an incredibly steep hillside. I was sure it was a linum from some metres, shouted down and soon they were all coming up, even the older ones – about 4 are around 70. Catherine, Cassian and I went further up and we found thousands of the flowers, a very pretty pink in fact whole hillside covered with them.
A yurt. We have one in our garden too, but the originals are made of felt over an ingenious collapsable lattice framework. The top crown piece, analagous to a keystone, appears on the national flag.

We nearly lose Catherine when she screams and disappears, having partly fallen into an enormous hole, nearly 25 cms across and a metre deep. Clearly dug by an animal; apparently there are giant marmots in this area.

Extraordinary number of beehives on flatbed trucks below dramatic red rocks reminiscent of Sedona (Arizona). Nomadic Russian beekeepers who live in cabins next to their charges are a real feature here. We fantasize that they are are old USSR hippies of some kind. There doesn't look like so many flowers for them, as there is heavy grazing.

yurt-kitchen at our yurt camp in Song Kyl

Walk started from yurt camp in very picturesque but heavily grazed area, not the first place which feels more like Switzerland than central Asia. The group seems to go at an agonizingly slow pace: it is true that walking with botanists is like walking with a four year old. Much getting down on the ground on all fours to photograph tiny little plants. Eventually three of us decide to break away and just march up the track up the mountain as far as we can. We find some very interesting plants, and look longingly through the binoculars at the other side of the river at the ungrazed vegetation on the other side, I debate whether we should wade the river, but decide it is too dangerous. I understand how the old plant hunters took ridiculous risks sometimes. Luckily we find some little islands with ungrazed plants which we can wade across to: they are like little reserves of incredible plant species density. Its difficult to know how much grazing damages wild plant communities; in the short term it probably doesn't but it makes it very difficult for botanical exploration and associated eco-tourism. In the long-term many taller species may be eliminated. It's only going to get worse here – usual problem of too many people in the world eating too much meat.
Trollius dschungaricus and friends

Health of group generally better, much sharing of bowel-data.  A walk through extraordinarily eroded semi-desert habitat, in rain !! Rest of day typical english summer day crap weather, cold and wet. …. Then we go to town centre and half an hour wandering around an utterly depressing decrepit place. One nice shop, a grocers, everything stacked up on shelves behind counters, with biscuits for sale by the pound and other time-warp eccentricities. I feel a bit like I have walked into one of those museums where everything is made up like it was the 19th century.
All the buildings in an advanced state of disintegration as most of the cars. Toothless old man in local headgear grabs Elly and gestures towards the mountains, presumably saying something like “come to my yurt” .

Little girl, big grass: our redoubtable Kyrgyz fixer Meerim Kozhoshova with Achnatheum splendens, a rather magnif grass we saw in many locations. Great garden and landscape potential.
This country is full of ruins. Most of the industry collapsed after the end of the USSR, and the whole infrastructure is crumbling, though thankfully schools look ok. and the odd house seems to be having money spent on it. Odd bits of dereliction everywhere: strange tanks and pipework rusting by the side of the road, roofless factories, large industrial yards growing weeds, roofless old collective farm buildings, even a sports ground full of weeds and a few sheep. And – by the side of the lake, a vast ?theme park, with concrete yurts and murals along a very extensive wall, goes on for at least 0.5km, turn the corner and the entire site is full of weeds. The only new buildings are the wretched banks. Only the main roads paved, residential areas are gravel and mud.

The Ala Meddin valley, outside the capital Bishkek.
When we get back a sauna is ready for us, so at least we can wash in lovely hot water. Fantastic felt rugs on the floor of our rooms and very nifty home-made beds.
Before supper some of us wander around the streets, admiring local building techniques, almost entirely based on adobe bricks, rammed earth or cob, as indeed they appear to be everywhere. The new eco-builders' paradise?
Catherine Janson discovers that Allium caeruleum greatly improves mobile phone reception. A highly distinctive species, widespread but never found in quaniity. Cassian Schmidt looks longingly up the Ala Meddin valley.

Took a long time to get anywhere but unbelievably worth it when we did. About 2000m+. Few paths as such so a lot of walking across fields and gerbil-chewed steppe. Someone says that DNA analysis has shown that Black Death started amongst gerbils here. Fantastic views. Landscape on a truly massive scale. Eventually we get to some very good patches of wildflowers. And another. And another. In fact they keep on getting better, a truly incredible mix of species, every patch you look at you see something else. Then we spot some pink in some rose scrub– it is Linum olgae again, 200 kms south-west of its only known location to date! We end down the bottom of the hill along a stream where the flowers are even better – in visual terms, an amazing dense mix: Codonopsis clematidiea, Veronica sp. Pedicularis littinovii, Galium boreale, G. verum, Aster alpinus, Onobrychnis sp., Artemisia spp. (several), Astragalus sp., Scabiosa ochroleuca, Dracocephalum sp.,
Achnatherum splendens, Phlomis pratensis, Geranium collinum., Leontopodium sp.
Linum olgae - again! in the most species rich meadow i have ever seen. Blue is Codonopsis clematidea

Everyone snaps away furiously. We are in a kind of dream; everything is so perfect, so fresh, the light is soft enough for good photographs, indeed a thunderstorm rumbles away down the bottom of the valley. The range of truly incredible plant communities we have seen today is quite unbelievable.

Ligularia macrophylla was the theme plant of the trip for me. We saw it in so many locations, a real damp soil indicator. It an east-Asian element in a basically Eurasian flora.
Further meadows down in the valley are visually even better. Hallucinogenic. Oddly much of the visual impact is down to species native to Britain: two Galium, the vetch Vicia cracca, the little umbellifer Pimpinella saxifraga, an Origanum and a Hypericum almost identical to our O. vulgare and  H.perforatum. There is almost no grass though, and the unfamiliar species such as codonopsis, pedicularis and ligularia add an exotic touch. Makes me think we could achieve something similar at home.

Bokumbaevo in the sunlight is not so bad. Groups of young men hang around Ladas and Moskovitchs and other products of the USSR's half-hearted domestic car programme. Many have various bits missing (the cars not the young men). Entire families disgorge from the front seats of others, with goods stuffed in the back. A Lada 4x4 pulls a trailor with one cow entirely occupying it.
A group of elderly men in traditional felt hats play cards on a car bonnet. Meanwhile a distinguished looking old man walks by; he is wearing a jacket with all his war medals, including a big red star with a hammer and sickle.
The Song Kul plateau, a kind of mini-Tibet, at 3000m and surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Very heavily grazed but the route to the loos in the yurt camp was through drifts of Edelweiss.

We came down from the Song Kul plateau partly by foot, being dropped at the pass and then walking down the road, botanizing as we went. According to Brian it took us 5 hours to go 3.5kms! A lot of alpine rarities at the top, things under the height of my ankle don't interest me so much so I spent a lot of time watching marmots through the binoculars. They clearly do not like eating Phlomis pratensis, so the hillsides are full of them. I spot a white one, the first we have seen amongst millions of the plants. A shout sends the rest of them scrambling up the slope. Marmots have to retreat for some peace and quiet.
Below the alpine belt is an area of meadows totally dominated by two geranium species: G. collinum and G. pseudosibiricum. I would say they comprise >80% of the biomass, with some alchemilla and a few other, and only the occasional grass. The hillsides are literally pink with them, for a belt of around several hundred metres high on this western side. I can honestly say I have now seen more geraniums than all the others I have ever seen in my life put together and that is saying something. There's another belt below this which is dominated by a pale yellow semi-parasite plant growing in grass, so whole hillsides are pale yellow: Pedicularis littinovii. Some discussion about how such an enormous biomass of parasite can survive without eliminating its host – the grass. Like the familiar yellow rattle on a mega scale.
"Its the next ledge up Bettina! Don't step back though!" The pass up to the Song Kul plateau had a very interesting range of alpine zone plants, much grazed by marmots in places.

Cassian, Bettina and Brian scramble up some very steep slopes to look at interesting alpine rock/scree merging into meadow flora. I spot something blue through the binoculars and direct her, “left a bit, then up a bit, right, watch the cliff edge”. Its just another Dracocephalum, of which we have seen a lot. Such attractive plants, but ungrowable in Herefordshire.

Geranium collinum, G. pseudosibircum with Phlomis pratense and Persicaria nitens - by the million.

There are more pictures on a Flickr site here.


Susan in the Pink Hat said...

Oh my goodness. I'm becoming increasingly envious of your trip. Watch out for those marmots, though. My book on the Black Death says that the plague strains among those marmots at plague ground zero are much more virulent than the permutation circulating among rats.
Also, your link to other photos haven't worked in this post or your last one.

Brian Kabbes said...

Noel, only because I was so lucky to be in this group of botanists, I can believe how beautiful it all was. Otherwise I would assume that your magnificent pictures must have been photoshopped. But know they aren't, we were so lucky to hike through paradise. Love your account, love the photo's.

Agnes said...

It seems like you had a nice trip:) I love the photos.

carolyn mullet said...

I'm overwhelmed by the rich diversity and beauty of the meadows. Photos are lovely. Trip envy!!

sensiblegardening said...

Wow, and I thought our wild meadows in the spring had flowers. An absolutely beautiful scenic area. I'm wondering if the Codonopsis there smells as bad as ours in N.A., almost can't have it in the garden.

Sofia - Winterstays said...

Traveling to Kyrgyzstan is one of my dreams, it looks and sounds like an amazing experience.

Xavier Allemann said...

Magnifique! magnifiques champs fleuris qui dévalent les montagnes, magnifique nature intacte,,,Noel, les photos sont superbes! merci d'avoir rendu compte de ce voyage pour les jardiniers qui cultivent leurs plantes chez eux ; - )