Remembering a trek through Central Asian highlands where glaciers look like spilled milk – and where they irrigate actual dairy farms, too.
Today’s ‘Fieldwork Friday’ photos come from Kyrgyzstan, where I ventured in 2018 during a trip along the ancient Silk Roads crisscrossing Central Asia. Over the course of a three-day trek, with my Kyrgyz guide (who spent his winters working in a reindeer meat processing plant in Yakutia, Russia, as one does), I hiked from the mountain town of Karakol up into the Tian Shan mountains to picturesque Lake Ala Kul. The turquoise body of water sitting at 3500 meters is fed by high-elevation glaciers known as the “Water Tower of Central Asia.”
The day I made it to Ala Kul, the skies were thin and gray. Hiding behind clouds, the sun failed to illuminate the lake with the iridescent shade that had been promised by oversaturated photos. Yet against this backdrop, the craggy mountains were all the more dramatic. A frozen glacier flowed down from a peak, nestled between two ridges. Somewhere, a troll was crying over his spilled milk.
Central Asia’s icepack is shrinking even more than the global average. While glaciers worldwide have lost 7% of their ice mass since 1961, the Tian Shan glaciers have shrunk 27%. The decline of ice here, as in other icy sub-polar, high-altitude regions like the Andes and Alps, is problematic for all of the farms that have sprung up over thousands of years, fed by glacial meltwater. In many ways, they face the opposite problem at the Arctic, where climate change is improving the potential for farming.
Descending from the mountain later that day, I stopped at a family’s dairy farm for some yogurt. (You might remember my photos from a blog post I wrote in 2018.) Quite literally, the family harnesses the milky ice to create milk, letting the cows ruminate and the horses chew to work their magic in between.
The ice-covered Tian Shan mountains, one of the world’s longest ranges, stretches from west to east some 1,500 miles from Uzbekistan across Kyrgyzstan and into the arid deserts of Xinjiang, China. Glaciers are an indispensable water source in places with little rain. This photo over the mountains and deserts taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station provides a phenomenal perspective on the intertwining of snow and sand. So, too, do the florid words of 19th-century Russian geographer P. P. Semenof:
“If to this extraordinary dryness of the air in the Celestial Mountains be added the intense heats and powerful heating of the broad plateaux by the scorching rays of the sun, accompanied by cloudless skies and a rare atmosphere, a natural explanation will then be found for the height of the snow line being at 11,000-15,000 feet.”
As the ice retreats into the heavens of the “Celestial Mountains,” as Tian Shan means in Chinese, it may unleash hell below. The collapse of the Soviet Union produced many more borders in the region, which complicates water management. With glaciers running dry, climate change may have especially pernicious geopolitical effects.
For millennia, the storied Tian Shan glaciers have fed pastures and farms and oases from which Silk Road traders and camels drank. They have also watered the vines of succulent melons, their flesh the color of faded sunlight. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), whose control of western China enabled easier access to the Tian Shan mountains, these giant fruity orbs were packed carefully into ice cut out of the glaciers.
By 2050, half of the Tian Shan mountains’ frozen storehouses will be gone. These fearsome ice masses formed the “limits of the known world” to the Russians. What brave new world will arise after their disappearance?
Certainly, Central Asia post-glacial rebound will bear little resemblance to the forbidding lands encountered by Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang some 1500 years ago, after journeying some 10,000 miles from 629-645 AD via routes far icier than they are today. He wrote:
“Going 300 li (60 miles) or so to the north-west of this country, crossing a stony desert, we come to Ling-shan (ice-mountain). This is, in fact, the northern plateau of the T’sung-ling range [Tian Shan mountains] and from this point the waters mostly have an eastern flow. Both hills and valleys are filled with snowpiles, and it freezes both in spring and summer; if it should thaw for a time, the ice soon forms again. The roads are steep and dangerous, the cold wind is extremely biting, and frequently fierce dragons impede and molest travellers with their inflictions. Those who travel this road should not wear red garments nor carry loud- sounding calabashes. The least forgetfulness of these precautions entails certain misfortune. A violent wind suddenly rises with storms of flying sand and gravel; those who encounter them, sinking through exhaustion, are almost sure to die.”
Xuanzang’s Record of the Western Regions, written in 646 upon commission by the Tang Emperor. Translated by Samuel Beal in 1884.