Hunting the Exotic Argali in Kyrgyzstan

The author and his hard won argali ram.
The author and his hard won argali ram.

To me, argali are the most striking of wild sheep. Their wide, heavy horns and massive bodies signify their status as true mountain aristocracy. Within the argali classification I would place the Alti argali at the top, with its huge bases and mass extending the length of its horns. Close behind would be the Marco Polo with its normally greater length, but more slender bases and mass, followed in order by the Hume, Hangay, and Gobi argali. Nothing in North America compares with those five.

The Tian Shan argali of eastern Kyrgyzstan is on a smaller scale than its five cousins. A good ram will go about 45 inches while an outstanding one will measure about 50 inches and have bases surpassing 15 inches. While its horns are much smaller, its body closely matches the Marco Polo or Hume in size.

This fall I had the “itch” to go for my sixth argali. Caprinae Travel handled the arrangements for my hunt and I first met their representative, Resit Kaan Ozmen (Reshid), when we flew on the same plane from Istanbul to Biskek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Weatherby Foundation’s incoming President, Alan Sackman, and his wife, Barbara, were also on our flight on their way to Kazakhstan before coming back to Kyrgyzstan for Tian Shan argali.

Kyrgyzstan is one of America’s closest allies in central Asia and a clear indication of that relationship was the number of US military cargo planes at the Biskek airport. On the tarmac there were many more military designated planes than commercial aircraft. It will probably continue that way until the situation in Afghanistan is resolved.

My hunt took place southeast of Issy Kul Lake and about 60 miles from the Chinese border. Issy Kul is Kyrgyz for “warm lake” because,

Issy Kul lake.
Issy Kul lake.

although it is about a mile high, it never freezes. The year-round temperature is about 70˚F and is the result of more than 80 mountain hot springs and streams flowing into the lake with none flowing out. The salty water is a very clear, deep blue, and the Issy Kul is one of the largest and deepest lakes in the world.

Ancient legends abound concerning the lake and surrounding valley. The local elders say that Genghis Khan’s son, Batyr Chagatai, buried his father and most of his treasure in the deep waters of the lake. Three times in the late fourteenth century the Uzbekistan conqueror Tamerlane came to the lake’s coast during the course of his many campaigns.

Afrer driving for an additional five hours we made it to the hunting area of Jetogizky near the village of Akshirak where Reshid and I ArgalihuntUraltruckhuntforever041514were introduced to my guide, Omurbek Kurmanaliyev, and his 18-year-old assistant, Uran Aksbekov. We were told we would be hunting in the Myzbulak Mountains at altitudes of 10,500 to 12,000 feet.

The mountains, while high, aren’t particularly steep. The climate is very dry and other than scraggly patches of grass, vegetation is almost nonexistent so we used the undulating terrain to provide cover.

In camp, I checked the sighting of my rifle at both 100 and 200 meters. There was no bench rest, so I had to shoot prone. I was using a .300 Weatherby that Mark Bansner made, equipped with a Schmidt and Bender 3 X 12 Klassic scope. Prone shooting is not one of my favorite positions because it seems I always have trouble finding the proper eye relief. This time was no exception and although the rifle was spot-on, I was left with another case of “scope-eye.”

The first day we hunted out of base camp on horseback and saw no sheep. We did see about a half-dozen ibex, but I already had one from my first trip to Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s. I told Reshid I would take one if it was exceptional, but the ones we saw were just representative.

Uran was not impressed with my equestrian skills as I followed him up and down the mountains. Numerous times he turned around with a sullen scowl on his face and motioned for me to speed up. As far as I was concerned my horse was doing just fine.

The next day, we spent six hours going to spike camp. That afternoon we saw three groups of rams including one group of three that included a 48 incher. The sound of our horses spooked them, however, and the only shot I had was a running one at more than 600 yards looking directly into the sun, so I passed. Uran told Reshid I should have taken it and that “he could have made it without a problem.” Sometimes young guides have a lot to learn.

On day three, we went from one end of the valley to the other. We saw several groups of rams including one group that we spooked when the wind changed direction and they picked up our scent. I took a shot at what I thought was the biggest ram as it scurried up the mountainside 350 years away. It was a clean miss.

We  spotted a very large group of more than 20 rams at about 2,000 meters just above the valley floor that included one that Omurbek said was at least 46 inches. By then, the horses had arrived so we saddled up and rode downwind from the sheep after crossing a small river. The sheep spotted us on the way and scattered in small groups.

We rode one-third of the way up the mountainside and then dismounted to go the rest of the way on foot. Soon Omurbek was on his hands and knees crawling toward a lower ridgeline with me right behind. When we got there, I could see three rams about 340 yards out. Omurbek placed my rifle on my daypack and lined it up with the sheep. He told Reshid that, “he lined it up with the large ram,” but that information didn’t get passed onto me until later. I took the rifle and placed it against my shoulder. The view through the scope was now of the smallest ram of the three. The sheep were acting very nervous, and I had to shoot quickly. I scanned the other two rams and took down what I thought was the biggest.

The ram was 43 7/8 and 41 7/8, not 46 inches, but it was an old monarch of the mountains. Did I shoot the wrong ram or was it a typical case of “ground shrink?” I don’t know, but we hunted hard, and I was satisfied.

I had the sheep, but it wouldn’t be coming home with me. USF&W will not issue an import permit for the Tian Shan to Americans although Kyrgyzstan will issue export documents. It is hard to understand the USF&W’s stance in that I saw numerous sheep during my time in the field.

Getting back to Biskek was a challenge. The snow made travel through the mountain passes problematic. We had to go through Sook Pass (13,200 feet) and Barskon Pass (12,500 feet) as well as several others at lesser elevations. The Russian jeep was left back at headquarters and Reshid arranged for a Ural, Russia’s equivalent of a Mack truck, to transport us to Issy Kul. The Ural dwarfed its little sidekick, the jeep.

Before we left for Biskek, I took advantage of the sauna at hunting headquarters. I was a bit ripe and really needed to bathe before reentering civilization. The inside of the sauna was like a Turkish bath, and it was necessary to put my clean clothes and towel on a chair outside the sauna to keep them from getting soaked. Naturally, as soon as I stepped outside in the open after bathing, a Russian jeep loaded with locals drove into camp. I was paralyzed like a deer in the headlights. The only thing I could do was grab for that tiny towel and wave. As an American tourist you might say I was “showing the flag!”

You never know what kind of experience you’ll have on a hunt!– Ed Yates

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