In July, Justin Stevens went on a unique 18-day expedition to Central Asia's Celestial Mountains
Is this what landing on the moon would be like? Just after disembarking from a Russian "Hip" helicopter with its breathtaking views of the Celestial Mountains (or Tien Shen), we have been left at South Inylchek base camp in Kyrgyzstan on a glacier. The panorama is ice, rock and mountains - these are the closest views of the highest peaks in the Tien Shen (most notably Pobeda at 7,439m and Khan Tengri at 6,995m). It's like something you might have seen in a school textbook or an issue of National Geographic and thought "Well, I'll never be anywhere like that. That's for other people." It's now official, I am one of those "other" people.
Our Russian guide, Sasha, is perfectly at ease with it and, ever the entertainer, is juggling with some of the glacier's rocks while we are awestruck and excitedly taking photographs as we try to take it all in...
Pete Woolston, a maths teacher from Claremont Fan Court school in Esher, says he is going to catch a few rays. What a good idea. I unpack a ground mat. How cool is that? I'm sunbathing on a glacier at 4,025 metres. One night later, it is so cold that I have my duvet jacket on over another three layers... and still feel cold.
Mind you, it had not all been stunning views and sunbathing. To get to this stage our group, initially comprising Sasha, our Russian guide, Zarina, the interpreter, four teachers - the aforementioned Pete, Nick Pietrek, a history teacher from Aldenham school in Elstree, Pauline Thomas, an English and history teacher from Westonbirt school in Tetbury, and Dave McCririck, a biology teacher from Sir E Scott school in the Western Isles; six porters (including a very good cook), horses and myself have had to go through a testing, but rewarding week of trekking, walking up to eight hours a day.
As a novice trekker, I found it was a great way to experience the country- once you've adjusted to the routine of early starts, a quick wash in an ice-cold stream, and packing your bags before breakfast in the mess tent (thankfully, we didn't have to put up the tents).
The trek through the lower Celestial Mountains threw up a mixture of beautiful, clear mountain streams, birch forests, passes, stunning valleys, and breathtaking Alpine meadows bursting with flowers that you would pay a fortune for in your local garden centre.
There was also fun to be had in the numerous stream crossings - usually we jumped from one rock to another, praying you didn't make a mistake and end up with a wet boot and soggy sock.
However, despite the welcome and smiling faces in the two yurts (circular domed tents used by nomadic people) that we visited, nothing will convince me to ever try mare's milk again as my heart has never yearned for a warm drink that combines cow's milk with cider.
This trip was an experience of firsts - I had never ridden a horse before, been in a helicopter, walked at such an altitude - luckily, I was only short of breath when we first arrived at South Inylchek base camp and generally coped well with the rigours and thinner mountain air. I had never travelled in a converted ex-army troop carrier and, to be honest, never want to again as six hours in a cramped rust bucket was not pleasant, although it did carry us to Issyk-Kul Lake, which was a delight with its warm and clear waters surrounded by snow-topped peaks (pictured), and I'd never tasted mare's milk.
Everyone agreed that it was an amazing trip, but often gruelling and scary - walking for four hours without a nearby water supply in intense heat, being trapped on top of a mountain in a blizzard while our guide tried to sort out the horses, crew and us, some walks were too long, and the night cold descended making hypothermia a possibility. The thing is, we were sensible and confident enough not to panic, but things could have been different with a group of students and these issues must be addressed to benefit from such a wonderful trip into the unknown.
BEFORE YOU GO
You will need visas for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Check with the expedition organiser. You must be in reasonable physical shape. Begin your training a month before you leave, such as long walks, jogging, cycling and swimming. Check with your GP and organiser about vaccinations. Packing is tricky. Luggage must fit in a set size bag (check with the organiser) as porters and horses will be carrying this and other equipment.
The trip was organised by Himalayan Kingdoms, tel: 01453 8444400; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.himalayankingdoms.com. Price: pound;1,650 excluding flights from London to Kazakhstan, based on 10 students and two teachers