Introducing Central Tian Shan
This highest and mightiest part of the Tian Shan system – the name means Celestial Mountains in Chinese – is at the eastern end of Kyrgyzstan, along its borders with China and the very southeast tip of Kazakhstan. It’s an immense knot of ranges, with dozens of summits over 5000m, culminating in Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak, 7439m, second-highest in the former USSR) on the Kyrgyzstan–China border, and Khan Tengri (Prince of Spirits or Ruler of the Sky, 7010m), possibly the most beautiful and demanding peak in the Tian Shan, on the Kazakhstan–Kyrgyzstan border. Locals call the latter peak ‘Blood Mountain’, as the pyramid-shaped peak glows crimson at sunset.
The first foreigner to bring back information about the central Tian Shan was the Chinese explorer Xuan Zang (602–64), who crossed the Bedel Pass in the 7th century, early in his 16-year odyssey to India and back. His journey nearly ended here; in the seven days it took to cross the pass, half of his 14-person party froze to death.
The first European to penetrate this high region was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semenov in 1856 (for his efforts the tsar awarded him the honorary name Tian-Shansky). In 1902–03 the Austrian explorer Gottfried Merzbacher first approached the foot of the elegant, Matterhorn-like Khan Tengri, but it was only climbed in 1931, by an Ukrainian team.
Of the Tian Shan’s thousands of glaciers, the grandest is 60km-long Inylchek (Engilchek), rumbling westward from both sides of Khan Tengri, embracing an entire rampart of giant peaks and tributary glaciers. Across the glacier’s northern arm, where it joins the southern arm, a huge, iceberg-filled lake – Merzbacher Lake – forms at 3300m every summer. Some time in early August, the lake bursts its ice-banks and explodes into the Inylchek River below.
Along with the eastern Pamir, the central Tian Shan is Central Asia’s premier territory for serious trekking and mountaineering. Several Central Asian adventure-travel firms will bring you here by helicopter, 4WD and/or foot right up to these peaks. Even intrepid, fit, do-it-yourselfers can get a look at Inylchek Glacier.