Glacier to Gobi Expedition
No Turning Back
Paddling from glacial conditions to the unforgiving Gobi Desert, American paddlers Middy Tilghman, Andrew McEwan, and Simon Beardmore attempt a whitewater kayak expedition on the Inylchek and Sarydzhaz Rivers in Central Asia's isolated Kyrgyzstan republic. Once part of the Soviet Union, the country is now open to Western explorers. The 2005 expedition demonstrates a method for extending the reach of minimalist, self-contained whitewater expeditions into isolated and remote areas.
On our third morning on the Kyrgyz Republic's Sary Jaz River, we faced our first life-and-death decision. The river flowed into an unnamed canyon guarded by vertical cliffs and surrounded by 23,000-foot peaks. We scrambled for hours, trying without success to scout the powerful whitewater hidden beyond the canyon's ominous opening. We knew only two things for sure about the river below: about 60 miles downstream it would cross into China, fan out and evaporate in the Gobi Desert, and it had claimed the lives of two Russian rafters in as many expeditions.
We slipped into our heavily loaded boats and inched as close as we dared to the lip of the canyon's first rapid, straining for a glimpse of the maelstrom below. Finally out of options, Andrew McEwan peeled out into the unknown. He flashed the all-clear sign from the crest of a massive wave and Simon Beardmore followed. Now it was my turn. I nosed my kayak across the eddyline and felt the current sweep me into the canyon.
As we settled our nerves below that first big drop, the weight of our decision left us breathless: We had dropped into a cliffed-out canyon with no exit but this untried river. That first canyon proved benign by Sary Jaz standards, offering miles of powerful Class IV and few surprises before spitting us out above the cliff-shrouded entrance of the Ulchatski Canyon.
In the days to come, paddling into inescapable gorges became part of our routine. Spending eight days in Chinese custody, on the other hand, was anything but.