Published on June 16th, 2022 | by Kayak Session
Kyrgyzstan’s Sary-Jaz River with Adrian Mattern
If you’ve never heard of the Sary-Jaz, you shouldn’t be ashamed – it’s not the Nile, the Amazon or even the Danube or Mississippi. But it IS a Class 5 river – that means serious whitewater. It begins at the Engilcheck glacier at the foot of Khan Tengri in far eastern Kyrgyzstan and flows through the Tian Shan mountain range into China. Far out? To say the least.This places it in one of the most remote and difficult-to-reach regions on the planet, within some of the largest and most inhospitable mountains in the world. It has only successfully been paddled by a handful of kayakers, meaning there’s also limited information about the rapids, conditions and exit routes. Sounds like fun – but only if you’re someone like Adrian Mattern, who’s spent most of his life in a kayak.Check out the documentary in the player above to see how he got on.
Mattern began kayaking in a freestyle boat, the kind typically used for different tricks in the water. Since he was only eight years old at the time, it was the only type of boat that would fit him. He quickly fell in love with the sport, eventually making it to the freestyle world championships, before realising the structure of freestyle competition simply wasn’t working for him. Making a full 180 on his paddling career, he reoriented his focus to where it is now – creek boating and expeditions. Since then, he’s run some of the biggest and most remote whitewater on the planet, explaining his choice by saying: « No more rules, no more boundaries, the only rules are what you can or cannot do. »
Enter the Sary-Jaz – a river where there’s almost no information and almost no rules – save two: don’t mess up and don’t accidentally paddle into China.In terms of pure adventure, the Sary-Jaz is about as pure as it gets. Coming into the Sary-Jaz expedition, Mattern and the rest of the team knew it would be difficult from the start, but the Class 5 kayaking was the least of their concerns. With essentially no opportunity for rescue or assistance while on the expedition, the team had to be fully prepared for anything.
As Mattern recalls, “If you want to come to this place, you have to be ready… every mistake can have big consequences.” This meant months of planning and sourcing gear to fit inside already heavy kayaks. In fact, according to Mattern, “the kayaking is actually one of the easier parts”. The harder stuff? Just about everything else. The first challenge was getting to the river. Travelling with a kayak is notoriously difficult – often including lies to airline workers and intricate stories about what’s in your bag, just to get the boat checked in – and then simply hoping it makes it all the way to the plane. If the boat makes it to the destination with you, usually that would be the end of your struggles, but not somewhere like Kyrgyzstan.
Enter Mattern’s new best friend: Dima. An ex-Soviet smuggler now working as a driver and all-around facilitator for expeditions such as this. Breaking down the language barrier, finding food and supplies and driving the over 12 hours from Bishkek to Engilcheck. The expedition wouldn’t have been possible without him.It was quite a lot of work to get on the water, but the adventure was on once they were there.
Serious white water, incredible landscapes, epic camping spots – the Sary-Jaz and the Tian Shan mountains offered it all. Over approximately 11 days, the crew covered an estimated 180km, stopping to camp when they were tired (or just whenever they could find a safe place to get out of the river). Throughout the course of the expedition, they also had every aspect of their white-water skills put to the test. With a combination of tight gorges and wide-open sky, the river featured all sorts of different types of challenges – and incredible landscapes. As Mattern puts it, « Sometimes there [are] vertical walls left, and right and the river is like six-foot-wide, other times it’s just mountains left and right ».
But it was after they made it down most of their paddling route that the real trouble began. Mattern and his team quickly realised that their planned exit, to hike up a nearby creek, was not going to be possible – what they had thought would just be a calm creek was full of rushing water.Spending the following days camping at an abandoned weather station, they surveyed the landscape and considered possible exit, or one might say, “escape” routes. Their options weren’t good. They scouted the nearby mountains to no avail and hiked further down the river to assess if they could continue paddling. This was their best option for three days – but it was still not a good one. The rapids were runnable, but that wasn’t the problem. If they continued, they would have kayaked into China, where they would have probably been arrested for illegally crossing an international border.
Finally, one of the team members managed to make it across the flooded creek and fix a rope to the other side. This allowed the team to slowly, but safely, cross the creek and begin their ascent into the mountains and towards civilisation – hiking for three days straight, 12 hours each day, boats in tow, they made their way home, or at least to the nearest dirt road.Throughout the hike, Mattern frequently asked himself, « Why? » A reasonable question when you’re trudging through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Why does he choose to put himself into these situations? When reflecting on his thoughts leading up to the expedition, he explains, « the only thing I knew before setting off… was that it will most likely be the hardest thing that I’ll ever have done physically, maybe also mentally. »As the hike came to its end, Mattern began to come to an answer to his question. Finally landing on this: the contrast between struggle and success helped him to value life and keep pushing his goals further. “It just showed me that I need that in my life, that I need to reassure my motivations and ideas and aspirations about the sport, about my life, about what I like doing, to push through that to know who I am and what I want to do, and this was perfect for that.”Want to experience it all for yourself? If you haven’t already, just watch the film at the top of the page and come along for the ride – it’s a wild one.