– “Where are you from?”, someone asks during breakfast.
– “From Latvia.”
– “And you?”
– “Well, technically, I’m from Latvia, too.”
Ilya was born to a Jewish family in Jūrmala (beach resort city), spent the first ten years of his life in Latvia, then moved to Israel. He knows but a few words in Latvian, however, he can name all of Jūrmala’s train stations, and recalls the feeling of being near the sea. He stays in a hostel room opposite ours, and is apologizing for returning home at 3AM yesterday. He was attending a Kyrgyz wedding, which was a lot of fun. “Yeah, we also had a wedding invitation for yesterday night”, I say as I shoot a judging glance in Ivars’ direction. After chatting to Ilya we return to our room and ponder what to do today. No big plans – guess we could visit the market and climb a hill near the town, they say it’s a pleasant view.
As we’re browsing the Internet, there’s a knock on the door. It’s Ilya: “Hey, I read online that there are some interesting caves near Osh, and I’m planning to go there. Would you like to join?” We exchange looks, shrug our shoulders, and after a few seconds say “Why not!” We’ve enjoyed the charm of the city, a hike in the nature sounds just about right.
We pack, and grab a taxi for a half an hour ride to the bottom of the hill, where the path to the caves begins. There we meet a handful of locals who try to convince us that it’s way too late to go up today. But today’s all we’ve got! And, yes, a guide is necessary. I’m not a big fan of guides, so I ask if we can possibly make it to the caves ourselves. “Got ropes?” Of course, we don’t. One man shakes his head and says it would be foolish to go alone. He gives us a phone number, and we arrange a guide to arrive in 15 minutes! All of us have traveled the Stans long enough not to take this timeframe seriously, so we ask for tea and light snacks as we wait.
Just as we finish our meal, Danila arrives, 45 minutes later. A short 66-year-old man with unevenly dyed black hair. He wants 1000 soms (20 dollars) per person. We consider haggling for a moment but decide to leave it. The taxi driver joins us for the trek.
Danila hands out our gear, grabs the rope, and we’re set. If anyone asked then, why we need the carabiners and climbing gear, I’d guess a) to descend into the cave b) we’d pass by a cliff and need a rope to secure ourselves.
The road goes through a plain, then turns upwards, becoming more and more narrow. Everyone has to stop to wait for me from time to time because I can’t keep up with the men. Eventually we get to a place where movement on all fours is required to get over large rocks.
After a while of crawling like that, Danila asks everyone to get their gear. And points to a steep wall: “We’ll climb there”. Whaaat? No, no we won’t! I won’t! It’s practically vertical! I’ve never climbed in my life. I’m already tired from the way here. I’m too clumsy/weak to do it. I have to theoretical, much less practical knowledge in rock climbing. These and ten other thoughts rush through my head, some of them escaping through my lips.
Just yesterday during dinner I was telling Ivars that I think he risks less than me when traveling. He takes the opportunity to tease me – who’s the risker now? But I’m not in the mood for jokes – I’m scared shitless. Spontaneous adventures is one thing, risking your life – another. Then again, I want to see the caves too, instead of going back or waiting here.
I allow Danila to sort out the gear while I’m all ears for his and others’ advice on climbing. The short man rushes up the wall like a monkey, ties the ropes and throws them back down. Ivars goes first. It looks as terrible as I’d imagined. Ilya is next. The rope falls down again, the taxi driver locks my carabiner. I stand next to the cliff with my heart in my throat. Ok, calm down, there’s no way back now. I go step by step, as the guide is pulling me up. I have no idea how to climb yet, I mainly try to do it with my hands, which supposedly isn’t right. I hear people shouting advice from above but I don’t care if it’s wrong – I just need to get up. After a couple of minutes of superhuman efforts I am there. The guys congratulate me with big grins.
Next stage. A narrow path runs by the cliff, and underneath it – not really an abyss – but if you fall, serious injury or forced repatriation guaranteed. Periodically the path disappears altogether, and a few cracks in the rock are all you have to move forward. Danila shows us every single move. We have no security ropes here – only our own agility.
We approach wall number two. It’s somewhat lower, but smother and steeper. Another superhuman moment, but I get over it. Finally, we’re at the cave. Danila removes the metal plate covering the entrance, hands out our headlamps, and we go in. Initially it’s a cave like any other – pretty entrance hall that gets more and more narrow until you’re crawling on your stomach and eventually reach something I’d call The Tight Place.
Our guide goes first, I’m next. Seeing the little man barely squeezing through, I announce that I’m definitely getting stuck there. “Ah, come on, fatter people have made it, let’s go!” You start with putting in your outstretched arms, then proceed to imitating an earthworm to make your shoulders and (my biggest challenge) hips go through. But miracles do happen, and after a while of twisting and turning I slip out the other end. The next hole goes straight down, and jumping in it brings you to the second hall. That’s where we all meet – dirty, exhausted, with shining headlights and eyes.
To get to the third hall, another Tight Place awaits. I’m about to crawl in it, but change my mind spontaneously. My leg’s in cramps. If the guide pulls me by my outstretched arms, my previously twisted shoulder could be dislocated again. And if I exhaust myself any more, I might not have enough stamina to get back down the cliffs. I tell the guys to go on without me, I’ll wait here and relax.
Making sure I’m dead serious, they instruct me to stay put, and one by one disappear into the tiny hole. I’m left alone in the dark with a photo camera, and a mobile phone much brighter than the slowly fading headlight. I quickly drop the idea of returning alone – even though I’m pretty good at finding my way in caves, right now, in darkness and solitude, all of them look alike, and getting lost in a remote hole would be pretty dumb. I sit on a comfy ledge (probably a million years old stalagmite) and pass the time taking photos. Then I turn off the camera, the headlight, and hide the phone.
Suddenly it’s dark and quiet. But not the regular kind. Absolute dark, absolute quiet. Panic arrives first. What if something happens to them? What if they leave via a different route? What if I’m lost already? Totally irrational thoughts. After hanging on a while and seeing it won’t work, panic spits on the ground and leaves.
The Cosmos comes next. Peace. Time stops. All and nothing happening simultaneously. You are all and nothing. You are the darkness, you are the quiet. Then song arrives. Out of nowhere, someone starts singing “Pūt, vējiņi” in my voice, filling the space with vibrating sound. The vibration is you. Other sounds respond to my call, and I hear the boys returning in the distance.
We meet, but not in the same dimension. I hear what they’re saying only partly – it’s good I stayed, it was so narrow, Ivars’ pants came off squeezing through a hole and barely getting his hips through (mine wouldn’t have any hope). Suddenly Ivars is talking very fast about fear, heights, claustrophobia, and overcoming one’s self. “The cosmos, the cosmos,” he keeps repeating. I get it, and I don’t. They show me impressive photos from the last hall. I see them, and I don’t. Half of me is still in the dimension of quiet and does not want to return. I’m more than certain I had to stay here alone – that was the very moment I climbed these cliffs for.
But we do need to go back, so I disrupt my own reverie and push myself through The Tight Place once again. The previous fall now turns into a climb. You’re standing in a slippery hole, and you have to get up. After five minutes of struggle I do get my body to the top, twisted in a weird angle. The rest is a piece of cake. We are so dirty we don’t bother about it anymore. We greet the daylight with true joy and pride in each other. We’re covered in mud, with bruised hands, elbows, and knees.
The boys confess that panic sneaked up on them too, in different situations. Being outside, they’re delighted about the adventure. I’m still reserved because I’m thinking about the way back – will getting down be harder than coming up? Luckily, it turns out to be much easier. Relaxing your body in the right position, all you have to do is let the rope slide through your fingers. I’m even able to look at Ilya and smile for a photo. The second wall is effortless too, and it’s all downhill from here. My mind and body calms down. This is a real “here and now” exercise – you focus only on the next step. Bump, hand, crack, foot. Three points of support, and a constant search for the fourth one.
On the bottom of the hill there is a half-open metal gate. On our way up, we had to squeeze ourselves through, now we pass without touching it. The gate hasn’t moved an inch, but has become wider. That’s what I think, walking through it. Ilya thinks the same. Ivars thinks the same. We’ve all become a little wider after this day.