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Kyrgyzstan: Hunting ibex in the Tien Shan mountains

Stalking feral goats in Scotland this was not. Hunting mid-Asian ibex in remote Kyrgyzstan is as far removed from climbing a Munro after a Billy as you can get. Riding with Kyrgyz nomads on the Old Silk Road for 10 days, sleeping in caves, drinking horse milk and surviving on basic rations would prove to be both a mental and physical challenge. A year in the planning, this extraordinary trip would eclipse anything I had done before.

Over recent shooting seasons, my passion for sport has developed from winged game with a shotgun to larger game with a rifle. It’s not that I have turned my back on driven bird shooting in the UK (far from it), but I now also relish the chance to hunt animals living on the edge of their instincts in their natural environment. For me, this is tremendously exciting and I have consequently visited some fascinating places I would otherwise never have seen. And Kyrgyzstan represents the most exotic destination of the lot.

The most dramatic hunting backdrop in the world?

At present I am physically up to it – hopefully for some years to come – and I have found great enthusiasm for mountain hunting. High in the mass of rock, drops and danger, it is possible to hunt scores of strikingly different goat and sheep species in almost every mountain range on the planet. Incredibly, there are around 40 species of the goat genus to hunt worldwide, including eight sub-species of chamois and 14 sub-species of ibex. And not to be outdone, there are 46 different subspecies of the sheep genus to track. This means for an adventurous chap like myself, with goat and sheep species combined, I will have the chance to hunt differing species around the globe until my knees give up.

Bearded beasts of the soaring mountains

My hunting expedition to Kyrgyzstan was motivated by the possible bounty of an unusual and beguiling trophy, the spectacular mid-Asian ibex (Capra sibirica alaiana). These knuckle-horned, bearded beasts live at high altitude in relatively low numbers in the mountain ranges of mid-Asia, including the Tien Shan Mountain range in Kyrgyzstan on the western border of China. Ibex are ruminant ungulates and the mid Asian sub-species is the largest of all with magnificent horns sweeping back to their saddles in an impressive and majestic curve. It is possible to obtain hunting permits for them in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as well as Kyrgyzstan. There are minor differences in body size and horn length within these ex-Communist republics, with the largest horned animals being regularly harvested in Kyrgyzstan. Good-length horns can measure 41 to 45 inches; with the very best exceeding 50 inches. The hunting season varies by country but is generally from September through to February.

A gruelling journey

It was dark when I landed with my cargo into Bishkek. I had arrived in the early hours, jet-lagged to the hilt. Kyrgyzstan is six hours ahead of the UK and flying east is always grotty for me. This combined with no sleep on the plane completely wiped me out. The friendly Kyrgyz customs officers cleared my rifle with ease, and I was met at arrivals by my cheerful young interpreter, Asman, and his boss, the hunting outfitter Rinat. We set off for a further 10-hour journey south-east towards the higher peaks. With nothing in the gloom to keep them occupied, my heavy eyes yielded to my tiredness and I finally drifted off.

Kyrgyzstan’s lonely landscape.

A few broken hours later, I came round to some dramatic scenery, the likes of which I have never seen before. The potholed road snaked a steady gradient, rising along the base of a valley. The clearly visible goal was a pass awkwardly nestling between two jagged mountains on the horizon. Arid and parched scrub covered the valley walls with weary looking grasses desperately holding on. Every so often we would pass some skeletal cattle on the roadside seeking out growth that had not yet been sucked of its nourishment. Near the cattle, solitary yurts stood with gently smoking chimneys. These charming structures are the traditional dwellings of the nomads in central Asia. I suddenly felt a long way from home, with my only reference being Michael Palin’s travel documentaries and photographs from National Geographic.

Scanning for ibex – it took six days before the chance of a shot presented itself.

After seven hours, our first proper port of call was Naryn, a small city in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountain range. We were stopping to collect my hunting permit and licence issued by the Kyrgyz hunting federation based there. The government closely controls the hunting of mid-Asian ibex in Kyrgyzstan. This control ensures the animals are managed effectively for the overall benefit of the species and not commercial gain. Paperwork in order, we travelled the last three hours to base camp on roads better classified as basic dirt tracks. The final half hour in the Land Cruiser sent us along a dry melt-water riverbed littered with boulders that gave the suspension a thorough test.

A base camp buzzing with activity and gunfire

Finally, I caught a glimpse of some acid green buildings perched in a clearing with towering rock faces surrounding them on all sides. Drawing closer, I could make the structures out as two old railway carriages propped up on sleepers with the wheels removed. This was base camp. Our approach was greeted with a frenzy of activity and the camp boss, cook and taxidermist all came out of one of the cabins to help unload my bags into my overnight carriage lodgings.

A check of zero was crucial with shots at ibex rarely less than 250 yards. The echoing booms of a Mauser M-03 in .300 win mag signalled to my five nomadic guides that I had arrived in camp. Curious to meet me, they galloped on horseback from their yurts further up the valley to the makeshift range. Dressed in a strange mixture of traditional wool, felt clothing and Western tracksuits, their weathered faces beamed with gold-toothed smiles. They were warm and gentle-natured and absolutely fascinated by my high-tech equipment.

A blissfully simple life

The nomads move from the lower ground to the luscious valleys higher up in the mountains in the spring after the snow has melted. They remain there with their flocks and herds until October when the cold weather returns. Of the 5.2 million people that populate Kyrgyzstan, 10 per cent still live in this basic and straightforward way. The lack of internet, telephone, credit cards and processed food means they live in what appears to be blissful simplicity, where providing food for their families and keeping wolves away from livestock are their only daily concerns.

Cooking doesn’t come more al fresco than this.

The nomads had brought with them a dapple grey horse, which was to be my steed throughout. Named Kyok-at, meaning ‘horse the colour of the sky’, the young gelding was thankfully highly experienced at traversing steep mountains. For this type of terrain, it is impossible to use anything but horses – vehicles, however sophisticated, just will not cut it.

High altitude hunting

Low with jet-lag but high on excitement, I struggled to sleep at all the night before we started hunting. Despite taking the anti-altitude sickness drug Diamox, I was already feeling the adverse effects of being at 9,000ft. I was experiencing sporadic pins-and-needles in my lips and feet but felt confident the tablets would off-set any further symptoms that might cut short my adventure.

We saddled up and rode out for eight hours to the core hunting area called Moldo Bel, which took us through yet more breathtaking scenery. In fact, it made landscapes featured in films like The Lord of the Rings look pedestrian. Along the route, the guides took turns to scout, scanning the higher reaches of the cliffs for ibex. By mid-morning we had seen our first group of females, which showed the promise of this area. Each day, the hunt followed the same pattern of scanning from a lower level, then riding above to hunt down to them. Ibex are never naturally predated from above and when pushed will always run higher, so our hunting technique made sense.

By the end of the first day’s hunting we had reached a high plateau where we made camp for the night in a cave. Our evening meal consisted of cold tinned sardines and dry pitta together with hot Kyrgyz tea. This basic diet was all that was available until we bagged our prize and some more interesting protein became available. The overnight temperature dropped to -10 degrees, testing my mettle when the call of nature meant I had to leave the comfort of my sleeping bag at 3am.

Got good insurance?

The next four days were full of sightings, wild goose chases and physical exertion but no real chances. Although beautiful, the high altitude environment is hostile. We were living on our wit’s edge and our lives were in the hooves of our steeds. A devastating fall was only a small slip away. Thankfully, the horses and nomads gave me extreme confidence in their ability.

The most promising sighting of a mature ibex came on the morning of the sixth day. Three animals were resting in the shadows on a ledge some metres beneath the skyline of the mountain. It would take all day to get above the trio of bearded beasts, but this would offer a mighty firing position if only the ibex would stay in position.

To get to the top of this mountain was without doubt the hardest thing I have ever put my body through. With the thin air at 12,000ft, my heart felt like it was going to explode. My breathing burnt my lungs and chest. The terrain was so steep that we were forced to dismount the horses and climb, hand over hand, up the sheer rock face. How the horses followed us, I have no idea. This was the first time my mind had wandered to the Global Rescue field medical evacuation insurance my sporting agent had recommended as a must-have for a hunting trip of this nature.

Grouse surprise

My lead-filled limbs were relieved when the brutal climb was nearly done. A couple more oxygen-sapping steps took me over the top of the vertical scramble. Before my lungs could pull any light air in, a pack of 20 dusty birds, camouflaged until they moved, exploded like a box of match heads combusting their way across the falling gradient. To my amazement, I heard the unmistakable echo of grouse. Not the soundtrack I had quite expected at high altitude in the Tien Shan Mountains. These wily birds were in fact a pack of Pallas’s Sandgrouse, and my goodness they flew well. These gobby little game birds rocketed off, hugging the contours of the mountaintop like miniature spitfires, pivoting their wings on their bodies on a low flying sortie. My eyes soon lost sight of these feathery specs amid this vast panoramic landscape.

A tense wait

From a few hundred metres away, the fittest scout came galloping back towards us, having located the three ibex we had been pursuing. He pantomimed with his arms for me to get my gun ready and follow him, then ushered me towards the drop he had been overlooking. A big moment was coming. Peering down at the ibex, they were completely unaware of our presence. Undetected, I was able to select the most mature from the group. The animals were starting to naturally stir as the light fell. The ballistic calculator on the new Leica HD-B binoculars calculated the exact number of clicks I would need to adjust my scope, based on angle, barometric pressure, temperature, distance and the ballistic curve of my bullet.

The author gets ready to shoot.

This cutting edge technology would give me the best chance of making my first shot count after six days of hard hunting. I ranged the animal at 305 metres and set the trigger on the Mauser. The reading on the binoculars told me to dial in eight clicks of elevation so that my point of aim matched my illuminated crosshair. The wait was almost unbearably tense but with the mathematics done and the animal in a suitable position, I clenched my fist and gently squeezed off the trigger. The 150-grain Hornady Interbond bullet offered back a thudding, positive report as it struck the beast firmly. The ibex lurched forward onto some shale and fell further down the mountain out of our sight. For safety, our recovery of the carcass would have to wait until the morning, as it was too dangerous at night. I hoped my shot had been conclusive and we would find my animal in one piece. The signs were good but it was still an agonising wait until morning.

After another cold night in a spike camp, daylight finally arrived. We hurriedly made our descent to the scene of the previous night’s excitement. The shale was one of the most dangerous surfaces I have ever hunted over. Sheer drops all around meant we were forced to move slowly and surely to ensure none of us slipped. After some hair-raising minutes we arrived where the beast had stood. The strike area was flicked with the evidence of a good shot, and over a ledge we could see the ibex wedged by its 42-inch horns in a stone funnel with a 500ft sheer drop below it. A sense of relief and satisfaction surged through me as I had cleanly killed this magnificent creature and it had not fallen all the way to the valley floor. Five of us then carefully hoisted an entire 150kg beast, horns and all, to the top of the cliff so every part of the animal could be used. The whole experience was quite overwhelming and I now could not wait to get back to camp to call my wife with the news via the satellite phone.

The meat and horns were loaded onto our horses, reminding me of a familiar Scottish scene where garron ponies are used to transport red stags off the hill. A triumphant six-hour ride back to camp was rounded off with a well-needed protein rich ibex heart and lung stew that was washed down with some ropey Russian vodka. This concluded a truly epic hunt, unquestionably the best of my life. It was such an incredible experience that most of it sounds made up in the cold light of day back in the UK.

The team are all smiles back in the comfort of the yurt after a successful hunt.

Although more reasonably priced that you might expect, this expedition is not for everyone. An appetite for adventure, good physical fitness and no need for luxury are bare minimums. But if that sounds appealing and you are after a unique sporting experience, I would strongly recommend setting yourself a proper challenge with an amazing reward at the end of it.

Kyrgyzstan – a moderate Muslim republic

Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, is located in central or middle Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, it is bordered by Kazakhstan (home of Borat) to the north, China to the east, Tajikistan to the south-west and Uzbekistan to the west. Formerly a Soviet state, independence was declared in August 1991. The country is now culturally diverse with clear influences from the western world, its immediate geographic neighbours as well as its Soviet past, amusingly highlighted to me by the enormous selection of vodkas in every petrol station. With political corruption rife and a heated bun fight between China and Russia over the abundant mineral resources hidden within the mountains, Kyrgyzstan faces some major challenges in the coming years. Be that as it may it is a safe and moderate Muslim republic with no more risk to foreign travellers than a trip to anywhere in Eastern Europe or Turkey.

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