When we booked the tour last night we had no idea we would be taking our lives into our hands. But here we are, halfway up a mountain above Burabay. If the rope is loose Anička will drop a few hundred metres before the pine trees break her fall.
The negotiations were conducted in Russian in a small hut in the centre of Burabay. This meant I had no idea what was being discussed, but Anička passed on details as she talked to the salesperson.
We had the options of a relaxed walk to healing pools or the “extreme” option – a hike up a mountain.
Neither of us realised our mistake until we hopped out of the marshurutka bus at the base of the mountain. We were handed a set of harnesses each and told we would be putting them on after a fifteen minute hike.
Out of breath at the base of the cliff, we climbed into the harnesses and checked our karabiners. Our guides told us there were six routes up and we would be taking the easiest.
We started up with some simple bouldering through the crannies to the first ledge and the second.
Then a rope dropped down a steeper nook. We were given brief instructions, in Russian, on how to climb with it. Without attaching to the rope we went up one hand over the other.
Then, after some more bouldering, we stopped to catch our breath. Pasha, one of the guides, hopped over to where the edge of the ledge met the wall. A rope hung from about three metres above him.
The rope curved around the cliff from where it was attached. Now Anička is holding on with her feet planted against the face, leaning back over nothingness. The ropes tight as they hold her weight, she slowly edges round and disappears out of sight.
I attach my karabiner to the loop at the end of the rope and climb. When I reach the ledge it is barely wide enough to place my whole foot on. I hang on for dear life as the karabiner is swapped from the loop to the rope I must traverse. Pasha places his hand on my back and motions for me to lean back. I must allow the rope to take my weight otherwise my feet could slip. Slowly, slowly I’m going as fast as I can. My knuckles are white as I struggle to move each hand.
Rounding the curve of the wall I see that there are two more sections. I reach the end and climb another few metres to where Sasha is waiting. Then I must go out onto the cliff face again. First, I hug the wall and turn my head into a small cave on my right. I stare into the blackness. In through the nose; out through the mouth. Sasha is telling me to relax. He has realised I have no head for heights.
A few minutes later, the next ledge comes into sight. Anička is waiting and I fall into her arms.
I am given a second to catch my breath before we make the final ascent. Up another rope, unattached, across a narrow boulder with nothing on either side, up a few rocks and I am sitting cross-legged in the centre of a large slab. I stare at my feet unable to look at the view.
Anička rubs my back and calms me down. As the panic leaves I begin to take everything in. Kokshetau mountain rises behind us, a great forest is on our right and a huge lake covers the rest. Burabay is truly the pearl of Kazakhstan.
We clamber around the slab for perhaps half an hour. Our guides sit on the very edge, take selfies with us and point out various landmarks. Then it is time to go down.
For me, going up is the problem – I can never see the route and think I am going to fall. Now I learn that the way down is where Anička struggles. Once we are on the ledge that was so horrible to reach I can see that we are to abseil down. I tell Anička. She replies: “What!?”
Again, we are given instructions in Russian and I tell Anička that there is nothing to worry about. If you let go of the rope it is impossible to move.
We attach ourselves to the ropes and at the same time begin to move backwards towards the edge. I lean back and start walking. I drop over an overhang and in thirty seconds I’m on firm ground. I look up and can’t see Anička. She hasn’t crossed the overhang. I wait and wait and still there is no movement from the top of the cliff. I turn to Pasha and say: “Harasho?” “Good” in Russian.
After another few minutes two pairs of feet come into sight. Anička is coming down in tandem with Sasha. As she crosses the overhang she loses her footing and screams, but keeps coming. As she reaches the bottom it is her turn for a hug.
Down more ropes we reach the tree-line without incident. We are unhurt, but for a few scratches, safe and alive. We are exhilarated.
Thinking that is it for the day’s excitement we hop into the marshurutka bus. It sets off down the road towards Burabay at a clip and crests a blind hill. A Russian 4×4 is parked sideways in the road. With a toot of the horn we screech to a halt. The 4×4 turns, pulls off and slows to a stop again.
Impatiently, the bus driver leans on his horn and guns the engine to overtake. As we pass the 4×4 it turns into us. A Russian wing mirror spins on the ground while the two drivers scream insults at each other.
Back in Burabay we buy two Kazakh beers and walk through the forest to the lake. For three pounds we can hire a pedalo for an hour. Our sore legs take us about one hundred metres out. We allow the wind to take control and crack open the beer. Amazed at ourselves and our ability to trust in these guides we had never met, we enjoy the glorious view from safety.
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