Wildlife photography expedition in the Tien-Shan mountains.

Summer 2020 has been nothing if not unusual. No one expected summer 2020 to be the most stressful and alarming year in recent memory due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Kyrgyzstan experienced our peak periods of the epidemic precisely during the height of summer, in July and August. Hot, long days, when people were at home in quarantine; listening every day listening to the news and worrying about when it would all end.

However,  we’ve slowly gotten used to living together with loss and hoping for the best that (hopefully) lies ahead of us. After the quarantine period, the day finally came when we could go to the mountains to enjoy open spaces, breathe the mountain air into our lungs, and exhale a little easier outside the confines of the city streets.

In earlier September we left for an expedition trip to the far corners of the country, namely, the eastern ridges of the Tien Shan Mountains bordering with the remote Chinese frontier. For 10 days, we enjoyed the untouched nature and fantastic views of mountain peaks and massive rivers- most of which are almost entirely off the radar of tourism.

We met local people, asked about the features of mountains, rivers, lakes, and animals. Everywhere we met mountain goats, Marco Polo sheep, and even wolves. Nevertheless, wherever we asked local people if they have met snow leopards, there were no positive answers. We realized that there are very few snow leopards left on our planet and this predator is very difficult to find in its natural habitat; the animal is mostly nocturnal and takes the hardest-to-reach routes across the mountains. We surely hoped but did not really expect to see these elusive animals of the feline family. But we were in luck. 

On the penultimate day of our expeditions, driving by car along a remote and nearly forgotten stretch of road beyond the furthest border checkpoints, suddenly one of our team spotted two wild snow leopards along the river less than 100 meters away. Not believing our eyes, we abruptly braked and began excitedly reaching for cameras;  we could hardly even stop our hands shaking from the excitement. We did not want to lose sight of them and couldn’t get enough, taking burst after burst of photos as they began to climb a steep mountain ravine and move away from us.

Beautiful remote lakes, massive herds of Marco Polo sheep, and endless vistas of rugged terrain all faded into the background behind this one, quick, moment. For a few brief seconds, we stood eye to eye with the wildest residents of all the Tien Shan, and all the troubles of 2020 were forgotten.

Video by Myrzabek Ozubekov.

 October 20, 2020

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