25-Aug-2007 – This was the first visit to this confluence. It was a hard nut to crack, but I made it at the second attempt. This confluence lies near the riverbank of the Syr Darya on a huge patch of land delimited by the
river on the northern and western sides and a irrigation canal branching of the huge river on the south and east. The river is meandering lazily through this part of the south Kazakh plain and its coils create huge peninsulas overgrown with shrubs and high grass.
My original plan was to hire a taxi in Türkestan which would bring me to the point on the road between Baltaköl and Mayaqum nearest to the confluence and hike the remaining few kilometers. But this did not work out. I had to turn around at the riverbank on the road to Baltaköl. To my astonishment there was no bridge crossing the river! The map did not show that the road abruptly ends at a small sandy patch. Upon making some inquiries we were told that there is no bridge upstream or downstream within many dozen kilometers. Cars are ferried over the river on a raft whenever 10 cars show up on either side. If not enough cars show up, the weather is bad or the boat towing the raft has a malfunction the ferry service is suspended. My driver refused to cross the river, because he feared to get stuck on the other side. I persuaded him to at least bring me as close as possible to the confluence on our side of the river, which he agreed to do. I got within two kilometers of the confluence this way, which was no big help since I was still on the wrong side of the river.
I turned to my friend Ulugbek for help. He lives in Tashket and was visiting his father in Turkestan at the time. He found out that there is a bus connection to Aquum, the tiny village nearest to the confluence. This particular bus departs once a day from Turkestan, crosses the river at the very same spot I was forced to turn around, and slowly makes its way south stopping at all the villages on the road south beginning with Baltaköl. I decided to take my chances, and took the bus. There was no way I would visit the confluence in time to catch a bus going back to Turkestan so I would have to find someone kind enough to take me in for one night. The bus was a rickety old death trap, overcrowded and stuffed with all kinds of produce. I had to stay for hours upright my feet wedged
between sacks filled with tomatoes. The heat in the rattling tin can was incredible. The only relief was the brief stop at the ferry and a nice chat with a local English teacher who was visiting her relatives on the other side of the river.
I got off the bus at 4:00 PM near Aquum. The GPS showed 9 km distance to the confluence. I had prepared by studying satellite pictures of the area, and had determined that the best approach would be to follow the canal towards the Syr Darya riverbank where a gravel track should cross it. From there it would be a straightforward hike of 1.5 kilometers to the confluence. The canal is between six and ten meters wide, and between 120 cm to 200 cm deep. I met some people who were shepherding a flock of sheep and goats through the river at a shallow passage. I had thought about crossing the canal at this passage but decided against it, because I feared to ruin the camera and/or the GPS receiver in the
process. I asked them about a bridge further down. They told me not to worry, and to just follow the canal another five kilometers. They invited me to stay in their Yurt on my way back. At first it was fairly easy to follow it, but after a few kilometers the pleasant little path running along the canal vanished. Instead I had to fight through a thicket consisting of thorny bushes. The bushes scratched my forearms bloody. I had some long sleeved clothing with me that would have prevented that, but it was unusable in the heat. The many detours I had to make, to get around small branches of the canal took too much time. I had to follow them until they trickled to a swamp or were at least small enough for me to jump. At 7:00 PM I was still three kilometers from the confluence, on the wrong side of the canal and no bridge in sight. I got nervous because I knew the sun would set around 8:30 PM. I eventually crossed the canal at a decrepit rusty steel bridge, which was already half submerged. I had to balance over its handrails, which felt a little like a scene from Indiana Jones movie. At that time foxes and snakes and all the other wildlife began to stir and prepared for the night shift. I planned to sleep at the confluence, because stumble through the thicket in daylight was difficult enough, doing it by night promised to be a very frustrating experience. This also would have provided with the chance to take some more pictures of the confluence the next morning if I had been to late to take decent pictures... I found a cart track that brought me within 160 m of the confluence and was able to take the pictures using the last rays of the setting sun. I was exhausted although I had been hiking less than 15
kilometers according to the odometer. In the end I was not forced to sleep outdoors. I followed the path that brought me near the confluence 300 meters to a clearing where three beekeepers camped in the wilderness. All three, Alexander, Peter, and Michail were Russians and well into their seventies. They provided me with some food and tee and a bed to sleep. Their camp consisted of two or three makeshift huts and three big carriages where the 140 or so beehives were stored. No electricity, no running water.
During the night I was woken by noise and frantic bark of their dogs (which looked more like wolfs to me). One of their friends Polat (a Kazakh) had arrived from a hunting trip. He had shot a young boar that night. Polat agreed to bring me back to civilization with his ancient motorcycle. We drove through the wilderness at an insane speed, he was in front, I was in back, and between us on my knees there was the bleeding carcass of the boar. We had to stop here and there to greet people making small repairs, or topping up water for the cooler. We made a small stop at his home in Baltaköl where he cut the meat and gave me an opportunity to wash my trousers from the blood. After that we crisscrossed through the river area slowly making our way back to Turkestan trying to sell the meat on the way. Many Kazahks are, if at all, not very observant Muslims, but they won’t usually eat pigs meat. So he tried to sell the boar to ethnic Russians who are living in the Syr Darya River area as beekeepers. I was told that this is mostly seasonal work considered to be a rather hard way of making money.
The odyssey ended where it began at the Turkestan bus station. I was happy to get back unharmed except the scratches on my forearm.