My wife Lyssa, and I flew from Austin to Chicago O'Hare to meet up with the group we'd be hunting with. Our first big surprise: Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo will be on the hunt with us. Knowing they're going calms my wife's and my nerves a bit. (At the time Kyrgyzstan is rated by the U.S. State Department as more dangerous than Iraq or Afganistan) Ralph and Vickie are just as they come across on TV, only better. They are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.
Lyssa and I found the hunt at the SCI Convention the year before. We didn't research it as well as I now think we should have, but you can draw your own conclusions as the story unfolds...
Some locals as we come off the plane in Istanbul. My wife had a fit that I was taking their picture for fear that it might offend them. In her defense this is an intimidating time. It's our first excursion into such a forgein culture. We don't know what would set someone off or get us arrested. You have this vision of an AK under every robe.
Look closely. This is a picture of a framed photo hanging on the wall in the Istanbul airport. It probably depicts their special forces' ability to retake a plane after a hijacking, however it was a little unnerving. Apparently interior design is an under appreciated field of study here.
Another of several similar pictures on the wall in the airport. I thought I was going hunting, not enlisting! I start to seriously wonder if the star power of the Outdoor Channel's Ralph and Vickie C. is enough to stop a firefight?
Maybe I've overplayed my hand here.
The airport is clean, modern and fairly westernized. We soon learned that we had seen our last toilet for awhile. From here on it's mostly a hole in the floor. Yep. You heard right. At this point they're still porcelain and have walls. You will be dreaming for such luxuries in a few short days.
You thought I was kidding didn't you. Just in case you don't have one of these at home: The faucet and bucket are for Muslims to wash their feet before prayer, and for anyone to clean up any errant, uh, um, stuff.
We spent a couple of enjoyable days in Istanbul. This is a pic at the huge outdoor market.
You may have noticed that I'm posting this story 2 1/2 years after the hunt. Unfortunately, Guidefitter didn't exist back then, otherwise I would have been much better informed about what I was getting into. The time gap between then and now means that my memory is foggy on some details. Also, we had 2-3 cameras, a video camera and our iPhones. The only pics I'm uploading here are from my iPhone. We carried different cameras at different times on the trip, so there are big gaps in story as far as pictures go. I'll do what I can to fill in with words.
A night out on the town in Istanbul. From left to right, that's Vickie and Ralph C., and my beautiful wife Lyssa. I'm so lucky she goes on these adventures with me, but this trip ends up costing me, as you'll see later.
A band on the street. Talented, but I now get why American bands are so successful overseas.
We toured some really interesting places, including some very historic mosques. Unfortunately those pictures must be on a different camera. However, you're welcome to enjoy this pic of an open air fish market instead.
From left to right: Russ and Irina Smith, a tour guide (I think) and the back of my wife's head. Irina is from Russia, speaks Russian, and is another reason we felt comfortable going on the trip. I mean we will be with the outfitter, and his wife speaks the native language. How bad could it get?
For you folks wondering how I talked my wife into going on this trip, I helped, but Russ and Irina were the real deal closers. I want to be fair here, but to be honest, at the end of the trip we were quite disappointed. This was sold as a 1-3 day guaranteed hunt (it was 9, but hunting can be that way, and guaranteed apparently depends on your definition). A couples trip (it was, much to the women's surprise), with accomadations that included a spa (I saw it after the trip was over. It was in a different camp than we were in). But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Fresh fish cooked over a coal fire. Coal is used a lot and has its own distinct, oily aroma. It's not unpleasant, but it's different. Anyway, during this part of the trip you'll want comfortable walking shoes, cool, comfortable clothes, and don't forget your electrical plug converter for charging stuff.
Here is one cool "view" shot of the city. In many places, like that old wall, you get a real feel for how old the city is. There are also a couple of mosques in the picture. Mosques are everywhere and the call to prayer is at the same time, a little eerie and cool. It's a similar feeling to me, of hearing coyotes, up close, on dark night.
An outdoor shop that sells hand made ice cream. This guy had created a whole show around mixing the ice cream to increase traffic to his stand. It worked great. After watching him perform, you felt obliged to buy one. Yes, it was very good.
This is a pic of some of our group watching the ice cream guy. From L to R: Vickie, Carol (of AMG Arms), Lyssa, Russ, and Ralph C looking as thin as I've ever seen him (aided by being cutoff in the pic no doubt). I can say that, because I too, am gravity challenged.
Our waiting room in the Bishkek airport upon entry.
I think this is a picture of a picture. I just thought it looked like the stereotypical Russian soldier. It's little things like this that remind you of where you really are while everyone is trying so hard to make you feel like you're safe at home.
Going through customs and claiming our guns. A very easy process here. It was much more involved in Istanbul. Follow your outfitter's packing instructions on firearms to the letter. You'll be glad you did when your in a room with no windows, deep in the bowels of a forgein airport, surrounded by armed surly people, most of which can't speak English and look at you like you are smuggling heroin.
Somebody's sleepy. Ralph and Vickie tell us after the trip that they've been hunting 10 months a year for over 20 years, and this is one of the two toughest hunts they have ever been on. On our first day hunting, Ralph got really sick (probably altitude sickness) with a migraine and other symptoms. Other than a nap, he pushed through it. He may not be tall, but you better believe dynamite comes in small packages. I still don't know how he did it. This reminds me, my wife and I brought a compact, battery powered oxygen generator. It proved to be worth every penny for and others, in helping us adjust the first few days.
The hospitality coming in was way different than when we were trying to leave. WAY DIFFERENT. You'll see.
On the bus after landing in Bishtek. I don't remember this guy's name but he was a godsend. He spoke English very well, and accompanied us from this point on. We wouldn't have made it without him. First stop: breakfast! It's my favorite meal besides lunch and dinner. (One of the reasons gravity loves me)
So we get to the restaurant, but it's not a restaurant, its a bar that hasn't closed yet. Outside, before we go in, I snap a pic of this little old lady sweeping the sidewalk with a broom made of straw wrapped tightly around a stick. It feels like we've stepped back in time and behind the iron curtain. Inside, it's obvious that we've just missed the party, but not by much. We get a very good breakfast and celebrate our arrival with shots of vodka at the insistence of our hosts. We later figure out that EVERYTHING is celebrated with shots if vodka is available. Warning: they must export all the good Vodka. The stuff they drink here, well, I think that's how the Marco Polo get a double curl in their horns.
Quick shot out the bus window after breakfast, on the way to catch the helicopter into the mountains. this guy, and many others like him on the road, pile stuff high atop their cars to transport it.
It's hard to tell in this picture but these train cars are ancient (like a lot of stuff here). They look just like the trains you see in the WWII movies.
All right. So remember I said how dangerous Kyrgyzstan was? The main reason is that to get from Bishkek to the hunting area is a 2+ day drive. Depending on who controls the road determines whether your going hunting, or being shown on the evening news back home in a hostage video. We had the option of paying $500 per person to rent a helicopter. It would take 2 hours instead of 2.5 days, and significantly reduce the overall risk of the trip. For some reason when this option was first offered by our outfitter Russ Smith, we had to think about it. In hindsight, it was like being offerd a cage in a tank of sharks.
Now, like me, you may be picturing a shiny new Bell helicopter taking off from the friendly airport. Well, this picture is of the warning sign thats says in Russian: "Stay The Hell Out!". It's a Kyrgys base that's been converted from a Russian military base. I'm pretty sure the only difference between the two, is a piece of paper in a file cabinet in Moscow. We were in this spot for almost 3 hours.
All was not lost though, we were kept company by some nice people with machine guns who didn't seem to appreciate our presence. We were told no pictures and not to get out of the van. I guess my elementary teacher was right. I don't follow instructions very well. I snuck some pictures anyway.
The welcoming party was in full force. After a couple of hours, they were finally convinced to let the women go to the bathroom. At this point the guys would have put on a skirt, but we managed to go too without being shot.
So we've been sitting there blissfully unaware when someone in our group notices a bunch of guys working on a very old helicopter. There are three exactly alike and over time it becomes obvious they are taking parts from the other helicopters and working like hell on the one closest to us, but still a couple hundred yards away. Several of us guys are joking that that's our helicopter and making bets on whether that thing has a prayer of getting airborne. We didn't really believe it was our helicopter. It just irritated our wives and occupied our time while we waited to clear the checkpoint.
You're getting ahead of me...
In this picture you can see biplanes. BIPLANES! This isn't because we've ventured onto the tarmac during an air show, this is the age of every piece of equipment in sight. I sh-t you not! I would've taken a pic of our helicopter, but it's on the other side of the bus. I won't have a good view of it until the bus stops, but then I'll be in the company of the welcoming party, and apparently they don't like pictures of their strategic defenses.
Long story shorter: they finally got the 1960's era helicopter started. We loaded all our stuff up into the troop carrier compartment (yep it's a military plane). My wife has a panic attack (for real and she's not afraid of anything). One of our new friends, Connie Smith, gives Lyssa a "pill for panic attacks". Within 15 minutes my wife was ready to fly the helicopter. Anyway, they take off, get about 10 feet up in the air, and it slams back down to the ground. A guy with a tool box gets out, goes and bangs on some stuff and gets back in. Lyssa is the only person not scared sh-tless at this point, but only because she's commatose. Did I mention there are also about 6 Russian, or Kyrgys guys, (don't know which. If they had labels, I couldn't read them) standing in the cockpit taking selfies? Like to show the people back home that they actually got airborne.
So we actually got into the air. The machine vibrated so bad, you'd have sworn it would fly to pieces. It was like sitting on a screened-in porch in a hurricane, there was so much wind coming through the cabin (no doors or windows were open). We were in the air a little over 2 hours. it was fairly uneventful. To the uninitiated, it might have seemed the tips of the helicopter blades were perilously close to the sides of the mountain as we struggled to make altitude to clear them, but not my wife. She slept the whole way.
Oh, I almost forgot. That's the fuel tank that some of the guys are sitting on. Good thing we had that strong breeze through the cabin or the fumes would have been bothersome.
On the left side people are sitting on a bench made of canvas stretched over an aluminum frame. Much like the the cots I grew up with. If you look close, in the upper left side of the pic there is a cable that runs the length of the cabin. That's what you attach your parachute rip-cord to before you jump out the back. The whole back of the cabin is full of our gear.
No explanation needed. We are trying to get enough altitude to keep from having a movie made about us.
Another big gap here. It got so cold that all of our batteries froze, except my phone which was in my pocket close to my body. By now we have hunted from base camp one day, decided there were no animals and moved to a spike camp about 10 miles away. Each day is 8-12 hours on horseback. You need warm clothes in layers, that you can take on and off. Down low at 10,000 ft it is warmer and you start sweating. Up top at 15 or 16,000 ft, it's cold and you don't want to be wet. We would go up and down different mountains several times per day. BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER! Your sweating on horseback all day, the food isn't agreeing with you, and IF your guide has toilet paper, it is rough as sandpaper. Nuff said? Bring good optics. Only a couple of our group's guides had any. Bring a range finder. Bring a satellite phone. Bring some snack bars, jerky, etc.
We were supposed to be done in 1-3 days. We ended up going for 9 days before we saw anything closer than several miles away. We ran out of food and water after 3 days. We had one of those water bottles with the built in filter. It was a lifesaver. Maybe literally.
This isn't a good picture, but this was the troop truck we slept in at spike camp. There were 3 men and 3 women, each couple strangers to the others, in a space of about 10x6 ft. That's our coal fired stove in the corner used for cooking and heat.
Another shot of our truck away from home. The girls had bugged out of spike camp after 4 days. They'd had enough fresh air, and the outhouse with the hole in the ground was looking pretty good since there was not a tree, bush or rock to get behind to go to the bathroom. Did I mention we had run out of food at 3 days?
On their way back to base camp the guides decide they should hunt. There are 2 guides and 3 girls who have had enough. The girls are spread out, midway up 3 different mountains. My wife is alone on the side of a mountain with 3 shells in her .270. She's thinking of the grizzly bear and wolf tracks we've seen, when a blizzard hits. Now we are from Texas, but I'm pretty sure this would be a blizzard in anyone's book. Winds of 50+++ mph and dumped snow. Lyssa sat through this for a few hours alone, but finally scooted on her butt down the mountain to leave the guide a trail of where she had gone if and when he comes back. She thought she'd been abandoned. Her plan was to follow the stream in the bottom of the valley to base camp since that's how we had come up. When she got to the base of the mountain, she heard voices, and followed them to the rest of the group. They mounted their horses after a good group hug and cry, and headed to base camp. Later she tells me she was scared to death. The non English speaking guide had left her when the storm kicked up to go check on horses (she thinks that's why he left). Two feet of snow piled up around her before she left, but not before questioning her own sanity and thoroughly cussing me for being there in the first place.
Boy is this trip going to cost me.
Lowry Smith and I stuck with it till the bitter end. We are told on the last day, I don't remember how, since almost none of the guides spoke a word of English, that we had to pull the trigger by 9:00 am in order to get back to catch the helicopter out. We ended up pulling our triggers together at 8:59. We topped a ridge and down in the valley were some ewes and these two rams. These are the first rams we've seen closer than 2 miles away. As hard as we had hunted, it took a lot of trust that we would both wait to pull the trigger "on the count of three". If either of us cheated, the other would have wasted 9 miserable days and $50,000. But we did, and we were about as happy as two guys could be.
It's a 43 inch ram. Ok, more like 42 and change. It's not the 55 inch ram which which we were told was average, but after 6 days of sardines, hard roll, an occasional Apple slice, or piece of raw, cured, bacon, he's the trophy I'm most proud of. Turns out the geolocation attached to this picture automatically by my phone, says this ram was shot was China. The closest thing I saw to the Great Wall though, was a barbed wire fence in one of the valleys. In the end, I'm glad the guides either ignored, or didn't understand our strict instructions not to take us into China.
If I could have brought this little mountain pony home I would have. He's the only reason I'm not dead of a heart attack. What these little horses do is amazing. I rode this same horse every day up and down steep mountains. On the sunny side of the mountain was shale that would slide if you looked it it wrong. On the shady side was deep snow and ice that they would fall through or skate on as conditions required. Its one hell of a workout, but nothing compared to what walking even a short distance would be in this altitude.
Vodka (drained fuel from the truck behind I think) shots with more of our party and guides celebrating the end of our hunt. I think the guides were as happy as us it was over. They worked their butts off for us and couldn't have been nicer. They seemed genuinely surprised that it took us as long to get our sheep as it did. Other than the couple in the picture above, Lowry and me, no one else got an animal. The guarantee turned out to be along the lines of "if you pay for all the hard costs of another hunt we will bring you back". For Ralph and Vickie this was an investment to shoot two episodes of their show, an Ibex and sheep show. Ralph did get a shot on the first day, but he was still sick as a dog. Everyone in our group was extremely disappointed in the difference between what was sold and what was delivered. Not just the animals seen and killed; the whole experience.
A welcomed sight back at base camp. My wife entertaining the child of the family we were staying with (base camp). He'd never seen a TV much less an iPad. He was enthralled and quickly mastered all the games in it. We were told this house was a 24 hr drive away from the next closest house. Talk about the boonies! They would run a generator 1-2 hours per day. The house was heated with a coal stove and was comfortable. There was no running water, but a nearby stream and a bucket was our source of water.
The child's mother. She was our cook in base camp, and as charming a person as could be.
More of the family. The men were some of our guides. The one on the far left was the leader of the hunt and guides. We nick named him Foxy because he wore a fox hat when we were hunting. He spoke some English, but since we were often broken up into groups to hunt, most of the time we were without an English speaking guide.
A spread for dinner at base camp. Here the food was good and plentiful. Upon our return we celebrated with Marco Polo ribs (our helicopter was delayed a day). They were FANTASTIC! I still managed to lose more than 20 lbs over the course of the hunt.
Loading up to go back. Can't believe I don't have a picture of the helicopter. My wife, who had refused to get on the helicopter to come here, now threatened to kill me if somehow we missed it. No pill required. We were all so happy to be getting out of there!
Yahoo! It's a magic carpet ride this time around. As Texas governor Rick Perry famously said: Adios MoFo!
Additional passengers on the way back. That's a sack of wolf carcasses we are taking back for our host family so they can be paid the bounty. The one couple in the celebratory picture had seen and killed one wolf. The others had been killed by the family and/or guides when we weren't there.
Did I mention I'm glad to be getting out of here?
Just yesterday I was down there. And up there. And down. And up and down.
Hand harvested and stacked hay. We are closing in on civilization.
You can't tell from the pictures but the buildings look like you would imagine being behind the Iron Curtain.
We landed safely!!! No that's not what our helicopter looks like. I wish it did though.
A truck hauling coal.
Exhausted, we were forced to pay homage to the Kyrgyzstan Minister of Game at a dinner held in his honor. He's the guy that Russ Smith gets the permits from for the Marco Polo sheep. FYI, it's not the tags to kill the sheep that are in short supply, it's the tag that allows you to bring the sheep back with you. After about 3 hours of nonsense we walked out, commandeered the bus, and went to the hotel for some much needed rest between sheets. I'm sure we pissed of some people in the process, but we were totally fried and more pissed off.
This is the "VIP room" where we were held hostage at the Bishkek airport. Yep you heard right. Basically you give them all your money and you can get on the plane. Only problem was we were out of money long before they thought we were. My biggest complaint about the whole trip is Russ and Irina Smith totally abandoned us. Amazingly enough they weren't having any trouble. It was made abundantly clear that they would be on the plane when it took off whether their hunters were or not. That's inexcusable. Luckily I had one more stash of cash. We got on the plane.
At the airport in Istanbul for the flight back. I found these warning labels interesting.
See that smile? My wife and Ralph walking to the plane.
When we got on the plane my wife starts furiously tapping into her phone. I figure she's texting the kids because we've been out of touch so long. She jams the phone in my face and says "that's what this trip is going to cost you"! It was a picture of a white Range Rover. One exactly like it sits in our driveway right now.
Hope you enjoyed the story. If you're thinking about an Ibex/Marco Polo hunt and want to visit, give me a shout. I'm thrilled that Guidefitter exists to help match people up with hunts that meet their expectations. Be a good leader for those that follow you by posting your stories. I look forward to narrating my next hunt while it's happening to bring more helpful details to those who follow me.
Until the next hunt,
Hands down, Best hunting story! Note to self - if Hank asks to go hunting just say No. Just kidding. Awesome adventure tho!
Phew...I feel for you guys and girls!
Great read there Hank and no doubt all readers now understand the value of Guidefitter and to checking out your Outfitter/references and to watching out for the promises!!
Hi Hank. Nice story. Thanks for sharing with this fairytale...
Amazing story and photos!
Yep,I'm sticking to elk hunting! Great detail
Now that's hard core.
Awesome just plain awesome!
Incredible story Hank!