THIS VALLEY, THESE MOUNTAINS, this country: It is all remote, but it was widely believed to be safe. As Lonely Planet's guide to Central Asia encourages, "Most travellers vote Kyrgyzstan the most appealing, accessible, and welcoming of the former Soviet Central Asian republics," touting the incredible peaks of the central Tien Shan and Pamir Alai ranges. Tourism, the book continues, "is one of the few things Kyrgyzstan has to sell to the outside world." Certainly Rodden, Caldwell, Dickey, and Smith had been welcomed warmly here, and their expedition, backed in part by The North Face (which sponsors Smith and Rodden), had not ventured far off the beaten climbing path. In fact, I had climbed here myself in 1995, on an earlier expedition sponsored by The North Face, with Lynn Hill, Alex Lowe, and Conrad Anker. We found a pastoral scene of verdant meadows and a scattered population of seminomadic Kyrgyz—Islamic subsistence farmers who come here in summer, tending yaks and cows. We also found a slew of virgin routes on the stupendous walls of Peak 4810, Peak 3850 (so called for their heights in meters), and Russian Tower. Two Russian teams and another American group were also there, having helicoptered in from Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, and none of us encountered any hostility.
The next four years were equally calm, and Kyrgyzstan gained a reputation as Asia's hottest mountain playground. As recently as August 1999, the outfitter Mountain Travel–Sobek took trekkers to the same base camp where the climbers were kidnapped. But the frontiers of adventure, those last undiscovered and unspoiled places, are often the frontiers of political instability and civil conflict. They are often unspoiled not only because they are geographically remote, but also because they were historically frozen in place—for more than 50 years in Kyrgyzstan's case—by the geopolitical dictates of the Cold War. And now, as former outposts of the Soviet empire become hot zones of regional tension, they can also become dangerous to travelers. Fearing trouble, Mountain Travel–Sobek canceled its Ak Su trek this summer. And as Lonely Planet Online does warn adventure travelers heading for the boondocks of Kyrgyzstan, "There's a great temptation to hop off the bus in the middle of nowhere and hike into the hills, but this is not recommended if you value your life."
Indeed, Central Asia is a political powder keg—so much so that U.S. State Department officials refuse to even discuss the remote border regions of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan on the record. But one official lists a Balkans-style litany of troubles: a five-year civil war that has killed 50,000 in Tajikistan; a weak Kyrgyzstan army; a repressive Soviet-style Uzbekistan government whose policies inflame the fundamentalist Islamic opposition. The most unstable element in this cauldron is war-torn, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, now the world's greatest narco-state, churning out 4,600 tons of opium last year—even more than the Golden Triangle. Afghanistan is widely believed to be where militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—the climbers' captors—get their training. Funding is handed out in the form of heroin. Rebels sell the drugs through pipelines to China, Russia, and Europe, and use the proceeds to buy arms from Russian, Chechen, and other sources. Much of this contraband is funneled across Central Asia's porous mountain borders, through high valleys like the Ak Su and Kara Su.
The IMU is a 1,200-man "cross-border, multinational fighting force," says Ahmed Rashid, author of the recent book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Mostly Uzbeks, the group's ranks include Afghans, Tajiks, Chechens, Pakistanis, emissaries from Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, and Filipino revolutionaries. The IMU, its Sunni Muslim membership having been repressed first by the Soviets and now by Uzbekistan's president-for-life, Islom Karimov, seeks to overthrow Karimov, who has detained up to 50,000 Muslim men from the country's Ferghana Valley. The ultimate goal is to create an independent Islamic state in the valley—one that, like Afghanistan, would adhere to the strictest eye-for-an-eye Sharia religious law. Led by Juma Namangani, an Uzbek warlord, the IMU operates out of the high mountains of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which embrace southwestern Kyrgyzstan from north and south. The Ak Su lies between their mountain stronghold and Ferghana, the object of their desire.
On August 23, 1999, IMU guerrillas poured over Tajik passes in the Pamirs into southwestern Kyrgyzstan, attacked Kyrgyz soldiers, and seized four Japanese geologists. The hostages languished in Tajik camps for 64 days until their release. The Japanese and Kyrgyzstan governments claim that no ransom was paid, but as sources in the U.S. State Department and the independent Central Asia Institute confirm, several million dollars may have changed hands.
If ransom was paid, then the climbers who flock to the Ak Su would represent an irresistible cash crop. And since the Japanese incident, the State Department insists, it has posted explicit warnings on its Web site about fighting and kidnapping risks in the area. When Smith, Dickey, Rodden, and Caldwell left the States on July 25, the site displayed a "Public Announcement" dated June 15, 2000, and, as it does for every country, a "Consular Information Sheet." Dated November 17, 1999, Kyrgyzstan's sheet cautioned U.S. citizens "to avoid all travel west and south of the southern provincial capital Osh." But these alerts stopped short of a full-fledged "Travel Warning," which advises Americans to avoid a country completely. The climbers read some, but not all, of this advice, and they interpreted much of it as outdated. They did not contact the U.S. embassy when they landed in Bishkek. Their Kyrgyz travel agent, Ak Sai Tours, made no mention of danger, nor did the helicopter crew that flew them to the Ak Su, nor did the Kyrgyz soldiers who checked their permits.