This exciting, detailed and honest account of hunting for ibex in Kyrgyzstan will give you plenty of insight into the ups and downs of an international hunting trip. Practical information is included, if you feel inspired to plan your own adventure.
I hadn’t got much sleep. It was a combination of the altitude affecting my sleep pattern, an early night in anticipation of a very early start and the snoring of my guides in our very small cabin. But mainly it was due to pain. The previous day I had been confined to camp suffering with a horse riding related injury to my nuts, which were just about starting to feel okay. The 3am mobile phone alarm went off – an Imam call to prayer, with an Islamabad drum and bass backing track!
I wasn’t looking forward to getting back into the saddle but the day before my friend, Uhuru, had shot a beautiful 110cm ibex, so I was full of hope. In addition, the previous evening one of my guides had ridden up to a valley close to the cabin and had spied a large group of male ibex – and, I gathered from his broken English, there was at least one good trophy amongst the group.
I didn’t have much of an appetite but managed a few spoons of watery porridge, a mug of sweet black tea and a couple of swigs of Fanta. Uhuru decided on a lie-in but wished us luck – the Islamabad-beat Imam on continuous snooze had managed to wake him up despite his efforts to ignore us.
I climbed onto the horse and we headed off in complete darkness. Although the ride was short in comparison to the rides on previous days of the hunt, the climbs were steep, and river crossings in the dark tested me, as someone who had ridden before on overseas hunting trips, but had mainly been exposed to riding lanes and bridleways close to home on spoilt, lazy English ponies. I followed sparks from the horse shoes of my guide in front as he rode across rocky climbs, and reflected on how lucky I was to be experiencing such an adventure.
My guides tethered the horses behind a rock, unrolled a blanket and went to sleep until the sun came up. I sat watching the black sky full of stars melt to milky blue and then the gradual appearance of daylight. It was cold. Very cold. Dressing in layers had worked except for my feet which were feeling numb. As light appeared one of my guides sneaked up a rocky rise and scanned with his glasses. He popped back and indicated that there were ibex there, and then went back to sleep! I gathered it was just a waiting game. We needed better shooting light and then it would be all about picking my shot.
As it got lighter in the valley I pinged distances with my rangefinder and glassed ridges. Every possible ibex spot looked to be at an impossibly steep angle and a stratospheric distance. The previous day Uhuru had pulled off his shot at 200 metres. My rangefinder was telling me that everywhere an ibex could be would be at least 750 yards away (I was working in yards, my guides in metres). I did what all hunters do when they have too much time on their hands: I started over-analysing bullet drop, wind speed, effects of upward or downward shots. I tried to recall the data printed on the box of rounds that I had fished out of the gun cabinet, whilst remembering that I was already zeroed high and the test group that I shot before we rode to the cabin looked smack-on at 300m. I then planted the kiss of death on the whole situation by imagining the steak that I would have when I got back to civilisation; the bath in the hotel room that I would upgrade myself to; and oh, of course, the place where I would hang the trophy of my monster ibex.
I saw a group of female and young male ibex at beyond 800 yards. As yet I hadn’t seen our nominated target. I was hoping that I wasn’t expected to pull off some ridiculous shot. It was still early in the hunt and I had convinced myself that unless it was the last day I would not pull any triggers beyond 400 yards.
Sound travels quickly in the mountains, and I have been on enough hunts when the pin had been pulled and everything went wrong, to know when the game was up. A fall of rocks and a clutter of hooves indicated that the group of ibex was much closer than I thought, and that they weren’t stopping. They came into view – more than 20 ibex running up the cliff face, climbing vertical rock faces like spiders. Had they winded us or seen us? The wind was in our favour and we were well shielded. My guides frantically pointed out a quick moving blur across the rocks. It was a snow leopard. We watched the snow leopard’s hunt end much as ours had… in failure. We then packed up, saddled up and rode for the cabin.
I am not the luckiest of hunters. I have hunted enough to know that eventually we all draw blanks, but I seem to have drawn more blanks than most. Often through bad weather, being too early (or too late) in the season, or just buying a bargain hunt that really was too good to be true. I have also had stalks skunked by ramblers whilst in Scotland. But, as I rode out of that valley back towards the camp, I had a big smile on my face. Firstly, my nuts weren’t hurting for the first time in a while; secondly, we had seen ibex; and thirdly I had seen one of only 400 estimated snow leopards that are thought to live wild in Kyrgyzstan. Not too shabby a day in the hunting field.
The Long Ride In
Kyrgyzstan is a vast, rugged and inhospitable land. We had arrived several days earlier in Bishkek on a Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul. Our connection times were tight so we had scheduled a day in Bishkek, to see something of the city, but also to allow for the arrival of our gear on the following flight, should it not have made it. Everything ran to clockwork and our bags, guns and ammunition arrived on time at the VIP arrivals terminal at Bishkek airport. Uhuru and I sipped espresso whilst all paperwork was dealt with. Uhuru recounted his story of seeing a similar service being offered to Whitney Houston at Heathrow, and we both agreed that this was the way to travel!
Realising that Bishkek, like many ex-communist cities, has little to offer the visiting tourist other than cheap cigarettes and Lenin statues, we decided we ought to try every draught beer we could find and sample the best Moldovan wines on offer. Neither the wine nor beer was much good, but I kept saying to Uhuru, ‘I have a good feeling about this trip’. I had had four alpine hunts in the past two years, of which two had been unsuccessful due to lack of game, injury, weather or all three. Our interpreter, Dasher, told us that we would be collected from our hotel in the morning at 8am and we would then have a 12-15 hour drive to base camp. Only five hours of this would be on tarmac. That evening I charged my iPod – and regretted having not updated my music library for some years.
The drive to base camp seemed to pass more quickly than expected. For much of the first half of the journey the roads were good and even the initial climb into the Tien Shan Mountains was well graded, due to the Canadian gold mining company operating in the area. We drove in a comfortable mini-bus as far as the gold mine, before transferring to the obligatory Russian jeep.
After hours of bumping around to dubious 90’s dance tracks on the iPod, we arrived at our base camp. It was nothing fancy – a series of portakabins, a long drop (with a less smelly one for client use) and some uncomfortable beds with dusty bedding. Uhuru and I took pictures to show our wives that we were not ‘on holiday’ as they kept suggesting when we were given our pass to travel to Kyrgyzstan.
That evening we had a meal of boiled meat and rice, and drank lots of vodka and Moldovan wine. The camp manager said that many hunters didn’t make their first hunting day due to hangovers, and stated, ‘Vodka saves more animals than any government.’ I jotted this in my journal and thought that it should be stencilled, 90’s-student-style, across my trophy room wall.
The following day we woke early with hangovers and drove two hours to the valley where we would check our rifles. I had brought my Blaser R8 in .300 Win Mag, and Uhuru brought a Blaser R93 in .300 WSM. We set a target up at 200 metres and sent rounds down range to see if our zero had shifted. Mine shot a little high but was probably about right for 300 metres. Uhuru made the mistake of chasing rounds around the target. But either we gave our guides sufficient confidence that we knew what we were doing, or perhaps they just worried that we would run out of ammo!
We drove further to a remote mountain pass where we waited for our horses. I know a number of people that have hunted in Kyrgyzstan and all commented that fitness was less important than being familiar with sitting in a saddle for a very long time. A German friend had suggested cycling shorts, which I had opted for, and they certainly prevented blistering and chafing. I did have a fitness regime before the hunt and ran, cycled and walked in my Meindls with a weighted pack. I also had a few riding lessons.
Our horses arrived and we saddled up. I took a ribbing for wearing an M&S purple v-neck for the ride to camp, whilst Uhuru was in full Sitka with a dash of Ridgeline. We rode over some of the most impressive country I had ever seen and hit almost 15,000 feet whilst riding alongside a glacier. The first few hours were enjoyable, and when we saw our cabin come into view we assumed that all of the stories of Kyrgyzstan ibex hunts had been hunters’ bravado as is so often the case. We unsaddled, drank some Yorkshire tea from Uhuru’s flask and set up our sleeping bags in the comfortable garden shed that was to be home for the next few days. We had clocked up 15 miles in the saddle at this point, whilst carrying all of our gear on our backs. Sitting around drinking vodka and talking nonsense seemed like the next logical step!
Oh how wrong we were! We were just about to pour another cup of chai when we got the signal to saddle up and that we were going to hunt. Little were we to know – and our guides’ English wasn’t good enough to tell us – that we were about to ride much further than we had already. We rode across treacherous country and through freak snowstorms. It rained heavily and we didn’t have any water with us. My nuts had taken hours of gradual knocking when my guide thought it would be good to give my horse a good slap on the rump. It lunged forward, as did I in the saddle. The pain was quite excruciating, and the ride back to the cabin in the dark and rain was a fairly painful and miserable experience. When I finally got off my horse I threw up from the pain and continued to do so for most of the night. This was not what I had in mind when I had ‘had a good feeling’ about this trip.
The following day the alarm went off early, Uhuru went out but I slept-in to recover. I lay in bed until noon worrying that, if there was something wrong with me, the only way out was six hours plus on a horse. And then we would have at least 10 hours until we got to medical help at the Canadian gold mine. I decided to throw myself into the cold glacier filled stream to at least take my mind off the pain, and this worked… briefly.
Uhuru rode into camp with a magnificent ibex that he had shot. Having sent around a few emails to friends who had done this hunt, we had both said that we would be happy with 110-115cm ibex. He had shot a beautiful 110cm male with a long beard. He recounted his stalk, and I was determined to get out on the horse the following day in pursuit of mine, despite my balls feeling as though they had been trampled on by the five horses we had in camp. That afternoon we drank lots of vodka. And it cured me… I think!
Uhuru and I had discussed what our trophy aspirations were and that we wanted to get the most out of the adventure. You never set out to shoot early in a trip, but having come home empty handed a number of times, and also having shot some stonking trophies on the first day, I know that you take your luck when you can. On our trip in 2013 Uhuru had shot an amazing Dagestan Tur, but he did so in the last few hours of the hunt. On this trip Uhuru was also suffering from the saddle, and probably had some doubts about whether my health would recover to hunt on, so he was keen that we shot something and got back to base camp as soon as possible.
It was that evening that my guides went and scouted the ridge described at the start of this article. They came back to camp optimistic. We were going to shoot, and then we would all be out of here and back to civilisation!
Re-evaluating our Strategy
After the snow leopard incident, we divided our time up. Uhuru, two guides and I did an epic ride up the valley to scan various possible areas for ibex. We saw a large group, and through the spotting scope saw that there were shooters amongst them. In that same valley we saw lots of skulls of ibex and marco polo, which at least showed us that trophy hunting pressure was minimal and that trophy off-take didn’t have any effect (other than positive financial benefits) on the community and the game.
Concerned that the wind was howling up the valley and that we wouldn’t be able to get a sensible shot, we headed back for camp with the intention of coming back to that valley the following morning. On the ride back to the cabin our horses found another gear and we found ourselves galloping across the plains, feeling that we really were living in a wild west adventure. I couldn’t help but sing the theme to Rawhide. Back at the cabin the senior guide overruled our decision to head back to the valley we had just returned from. He had scouted the same group that the snow leopard had beaten us to that morning and said those ibex were the best in the area. We were told to set our alarms for 3am.
We woke to the Islamabad-beat prayer call once again, and wolfed down watery porridge and Fanta. We rode into the valley in darkness and left the horses 2km from the point where we had waited the previous day. In darkness and wearing far too much, I huffed and puffed my way to the ambush location. Here we waited until sun-up. It wasn’t long before I got the thumbs-up from Ruslan, our chief guide, that there were ibex feeding. This was the green light I needed. I crawled forward and peered through my binoculars – a group of 20 or so ibex, all male, were 400 metres away. Their coats were lighter than I expected, but it was still early in the season, so the cape was in transition between summer and winter. Ruslan said that he thought he may be able to get me in to 200 metres. We began to leopard crawl forward, much the same as you would on the hill in Scotland. However, we realised that we would be too exposed. I was comfortable shooting out to 400m with a steady rest, so gave the thumbs up that we should try.
I found the ibex in my scope and wound it up to x20 power, knowing that in doing so I would limit my chances of a follow-up shot through a reduced field of view. I waited for the ibex to turn broadside and I squeezed the trigger. The slaps on the back and the high fives indicated that we had got our ibex.
I walked to my ibex and was stunned at the size of the horns. I have been lucky enough to have hunted ibex in Mongolia and Switzerland, but this was my best one to date. More so because of the many stories surrounding it: a snow leopard, a Francis Macomber moment on a deserted mountain range, wondering if I would survive the hunt (call me an old Hemingway romantic), plus the fact that I had had a successful trip after more than a couple of duds. My ibex measured a very respectable 120cm, although the size of it didn’t matter. I had overcome difficulties and had sweated, shed vomit and a few tears to get that ibex. It signified all that mountain hunting is about – hardships that sink into fond memories and respected trophies… after time!
We skinned the animal and packed out all of the meat. We then drank vodka to celebrate and packed up the cabin. The ride back to base camp seemed longer, and in the extreme midday sun I burnt like a true Englishman, but stopping at the highest point of the glacier for a bottle of Moldovan wine served out of a split Fanta bottle will remain with me as one of my greatest hunting memories.
Unlike some mid-Asian countries, the guides are willing to get you closer and the game is relatively plentiful so bring a rifle that you can shoot well to 300 metres, and still has some knock down power at that range, but don’t be intimidated by the distances quoted by booking agents. I opted for .300 Win Mag, but any mid-range magnum would suffice.
I used .300 Grain Federal Fusions, 150 grain. They weren’t my preferred choice but it was all I had in the gun cabinet and there was no availability of anything locally that I was happy with. They worked perfectly. Ibex aren’t a particularly large animal to put down, but due to the distances you do want to anchor them.
Optics – a frustration is that the guides often don’t have good gear, so if you bring good optics they will often use them. They are generally finding the game for you, but it can be annoying. Our guides had a spotting scope but the rifle scope that I had was more effective (5-30×50 Swarovski Z6).
As well as my M&S v-neck, I wore Swazi trousers, a Sitka jacket and layers. I packed a set of decorator’s overalls for snow camo but it wasn’t needed.
We flew with Turkish Airlines who were fine. They were less organised at Heathrow than British Airways (BA) would be, but the cost of transporting rifles and ammunition was less than BA.
A note of caution is that if you plan to travel back early (as we did) then change fees can be very expensive, so it may be worth buying a flexible ticket – this applies to any single species hunt in my experience, especially in regions where there are limited tourism opportunities.
Due to EU regulations it wasn’t possible to bring our trophies back in luggage, so they needed to be sent later, which is an additional cost that you should consider.
My mid-Asian and Russian hunts are always placed in the hands of Profihunt. I consider them my go-to team for hunts in this part of the world. It is not an expensive hunt by Asian standards, so if you are up for a challenge, give it a go.