Polly Saskia Crathorne sends us a report on Roof of the World Regatta on Lake Karakul in Tajikistan.
"Before heading back to university this term I got the last minute, and rather unexpected opportunity to go to central Asia to participate in the Roof of the World regatta; a world record attempt for the highest altitude sailing regatta ever. This unique and, frankly, bizarre event took me to Lake Karakul, nearly 13,000 feet up in the wilds of Tajikistan. This is arguably the remotest location in the Pamir region; only accessible from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan via the Kyzl-Art mountain pass or a pot-hole ridden five-day journey from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
I acclimatised for three days in Sary Tash, with the organisers of the event. There were rumours of border closures and restrictions on the issue of international visas; which had meant a lot of competitors had pulled out. But we took the risk and headed into the snow-capped mountains on a road with only one destination. As we left Kyrgyzstan and the Alay valley behind and headed up to the Kyzl-Art pass (at 14,050 feet) the road conditions deteriorated dramatically. We spent forty-five minutes at the border, during which formalities in all four offices - customs, drugs, police and army - were carried out, but then, we were in.
Once in Tajikistan and after sharing a celebratory breakfast bar, we headed for the lake. After a breath-taking 50km drive, we rounded the base of another mountain, to suddenly see all 380 square kilometers of Lake Karakul stretched in front of us. It was such a relief to see that the lake wasn’t frozen - as most of the year it is under ice. There was only one problem - not a breath of wind! The five-day window we had for the event suddenly seemed very small.
I was caught by total surprise that evening when the wind suddenly came. I raced down to the shore and quickly rigged up. My first tack on the lake was absolutely thrilling. The rawness of nature up there as well as the fact that I was the first person to ever kitesurf on the lake, made for an unbelievable session. The village where we were staying is nestled by the shore, and several locals came to take a look. It was such a thrill to introduce these wonderful people to the sport of kitesurfing - a completely alien concept to them.
The kitesurfing itself was challenging which made it all the more exhilarating. The winds were wild and felt different here than at sea level - thinner and gustier. The water temperature of the lake was ridiculously low as Karakul is fed by glacial melt (and was due to freeze the following month).
Over the next few days, other competitors trickled in, and we ended up with a motley crew of five. We managed to get some sailing on the lake everyday. Over the week, we got into a routine. The day would start with low winds and rice porridge made with Yak’s milk. In the mornings, I used the time to wonder round the village making friends with the children, managing to get over the language barrier with the help of a little gymnastics. We taught volleyball on some days, one of the kitesurfers was a professional player and had bought some kit with him for the village school. Then, in the late afternoon the winds would come from seemingly nowhere and we would get onto the lake. Afterwards we ate Plov (rice and broth) in the homestead, owned by Sedat and her family. And if we were lucky, we got a banya – a traditional Russian steam bath heated by a wood burner. After being in the freezing water of the ‘Black Lake’ there was nothing nicer than ladling hot water on yourself from a steaming tub.
On the third day we took a trip to the northern end of the lake where it is closer to the source of the freezing water and the lake is deeper. I was lucky to have my NP Lucifer dry suit; otherwise I couldn’t have spent more than five minutes in the water. Three vessels were out, NP's Kathrin Bogwardt (ranked number one in the world for racing), a sailor living in Tajikistan and me. We raced and freestyled together until it got dark and we could no longer feel our hands. The lack of oxygen meant we got out of breath very quickly when it came to doing tricks. Unfortunately, because of her fast ascent to this altitude, one of the competitors fell ill with altitude sickness, a reminder to all of us how serious the conditions were up here.
Each day the crowds on the beach grew and on the last day we had three hundred people on the shore. Even the Tajik border guards had made the journey down from the pass to see what the fuss was about. The mayor of the town reported that he had never seen so many villagers of all different ages outside together before. It was a truly spectacular sight. Kathrin and I taught over 50 boys and girls how to fly a kite on the salt-encrusted shores. While on the lake itself, boat rides in the safety dingy ensued, with some men opting to wear helmets while others stuck with their kalpaks (traditional felt hats)! When I went for my last session on the lake, the shores were lined with spectators despite the threat of snow in the air. The winds were strong and the crowds cheered as we rocketed up and down for the last time.
So now I have another world record to my name; participant in the highest sailing regatta in the world and the first person to kitesurf on Lake Karakul as well as the first (and youngest person) to kitesurf across the English Channel.