Plastic. You don’t really think about it much as it is everywhere: pinned to sage scrub on the Tibetan plateau, hanging tattered off fences on the Bolivian Altiplano, washing up in waves on the Oregon coastline. And closer to home it’s scattered in every layby the length and breadth of Britain.
You don’t notice it much, until you don’t see it.
It was on the third day of leading a trek in the wonderfully named Celestial mountains, a jagged border that separates Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, that I realised that there was virtually zero plastic litter anywhere. Quite a thing in this day and age.
There weren’t many people either save for a few nomadic families who were grazing their livestock on the lush summer grass.
Sheep, goats, horses, even yaks were lightly sprinkled in some of the valleys, but they appeared to make little difference to the huge array of wildflowers
that lined the feint trails we were following.
I have guided more than 70 treks over the past dozen years to some world renowned wilderness areas, this, however, was by far and away the cleanest landscape I’ve strolled through.
There aren’t too many places where I’d happily fill water bottles directly from the valley streams either, without adding a tablet or two. You get the picture: this place was not only stunningly beautiful it was untarnished too.
Speaking of water I was warned that there would be river crossings – a lot of them – so my Source Gobi Sandals were strapped to the side of my rucksack ready and waiting for stream number one, which we met just after lunch on day one.
I tentatively stepped into the shin-deep water expecting to wince a lot, but the water was bearable, pleasant even. There were a few more streams to cross in quick succession so I kept the sandals on to save time. And that was that, they stayed on my feet every day for the next seven days hiking. I carried my Meindl boots just in case of trouble but so good were the sandals, on all terrains, that they stayed on my feet.
Over the week we crossed twenty-plus rivers – some of them a challenging thigh deep – several high passes, scree slopes, boulder fields, bogs and even a small glacier snout. At no time did I feel that I had the wrong footwear on. I think it helps knowing your own body and how you be in the mountains. It also helps having an oversail of rubber to protect open toes.
This was a trek of two stages: firstly the quieter journey threading through the mountains followed by a hairy helicopter flight up onto the South Inylchek basecamp, a tented village filled with high altitude climbers set for Khan Tengri and Peak Pobeda. The difference between the two stages was only 30 ear-shattering, bone-shaking minutes, but the feel of the two places were worlds apart.
Sure it was breath-taking being up on the glacier amongst the giant peaks – and we were blessed by stunning cloudless days. But at the tented village was clamour, tents touching each other, hordes of folk in transit to higher goals and the worst toilets I have ever encountered.
In the lower green valleys there were days filled with space and empty of people, and I felt calm and settled. And it was nice to be where there is no plastic.