By the end of the 5 day horse trek we undertook in the hills of Kyrgyzstan James would have lost yet another thing. So far, on our overland trip from Kathmandu to London, he had lost 2 hats, 2 books, numerous pairs of pants (exact number unknown), toilet paper at critical moments, an investigation was still ongoing to his involvement in the loss of my headtorch and one………………………. horse.
Kyrgyz rural life is based around horses, so to fully experience it we would have to hire mounts and ride into the mountains. We headed to the fantastically organised Community Based Tourism (СBT) Association for advice on a suitable trek. Our requirements were a 5 day trek, no camping or self-catering if at all possible, quiet ponies, spectacular scenery, a knowledgeable guide and the chance to see local rural life. They recommended a jailoo (settlements that spring up during the summer at the best pastures) hopping trip around Song-Kul lake in the Tien Shan Mountains staying with families in their yurts.
Two days later everything was organised and we caught the bus to our starting point of Kochkor in Central Kyrgyzstan, and about 4 hours from the capital, Bishkek. In Kochor we stayed with Mrs Guljat for the night. She was part of the CBT homestay network and after several months on the road, staying in hostels, cheap hotels and camping, we gladly let her mother us as she provided home cooked meals and an immaculate, cosy home.
The following morning we met our guide, Milan, outside the local CBT office and set out in a taxi to where our horses would be waiting for us. The car showed promise to begin with but 10 miles in it spluttered to a halt. Some handy work under the bonnet and we made it another 200m before rolling to a halt again. Four breakdowns later (and a total of 10 so far in Kyrgyzstan) and the problem was finally located to the fuel pipe. After much swearing, which James wouldn’t translate instead saying, “and that’s an expletive and so is that….”, we eventually got going again and made it to Kyzart Pass.
“The car showed promise to begin with but 10 miles in it spluttered to a halt”
At the pass we were introduced to our trusty steeds for our trip. The two ponies had totally unpronounceable Kyrgyz names so we called them Jeffrey and Steve. Jeff was a 4 year old bright bay whilst Steve was an iron grey 10 year old stallion. We managed to clamber aboard and with our guide in the lead headed into the green hills. We rode past colourful traditional Kyrgyz caravans surrounded by flocks of fat-tailed-sheep and herds of horses and cows and continued up and over a 3500m pass and then down the other side.
The hills were flush with spring grass which softened their curves like the skin of a peach. We were in sight of our first night’s yurtstay when there was a rumble of thunder and it began to rain. Within minutes the rain turned to hail and then the heavens let rip with hazelnut sized hailstones and thunder and lightning crashing overhead. Steve and Jeffrey swung their backs into the wind and refused to move. Fortunately we were near a cluster of farm buildings with a little lean-to barn. Our guide evicted the cows and we took shelter until the worst of the storm had passed.
“then the heavens let rip with hazelnut sized hailstones”
That evening we snacked on a traditional spread of cream, jam and round flat loaves of lipioshka bread torn into chunks, washed down will gallons of tea, before dinner of the rice dish plov. This meal routine would be repeated throughout our trek but varied with fried fish fresh from the lake and sometimes with the fermented mares’ milk. Breakfast usually consisted of semolina or rice pudding. The diet is so heavily based around milk, mainly horse milk, products that anyone who dislikes milk or has a an allergy would struggle. This posed a bit of a problem for James, who has an extreme aversion to milk; the result being double portions for me and near starvation for him. That evening we read before bedding down for the night in the guest yurt; where thick bed rolls and heavy blankets on the floor made our beds. Gazing up from my warm bed I studied the yurt roof. At the centre the wooden spokes of the roof frame are brought together like a wheel to what is called the Shangrak. The Shangrak is highly symbolic and although much of a yurt is replaced and repaired over time the original Shangrak should remain and be passed on from generation to generation. The red and yellow Kyrgyz flag has a Shangrak at it’s centre. I drifted off.
The following day we rode over a second 3000m pass and got our first glimpse of Song-Kul lake framed by snowy peaks in the distance. The spring flowers were in full bloom, yellow buttercups, blue forget-me-nots, purple violets and white edelweiss covered the ground making it look as idyllic as it sounds. These were the summer pastures for the Kyrgyz and their herds. It was early in the season and yurts were still being built as families moved all their possessions up into the hills. But their herds were already at home, fattening up on the fresh new shoots; horses dotted the pasture as far as the eye could see.
Over the next couple of days we circumnavigated the lake stopping for lunch at one yurt then staying at another after a couple of hours riding in the afternoon. The air was so clear that we could often make out our destination which would then take 5 or 6 hours to ride to, never seemingly getting closer to the dismay of our aching cheeks. We watched the storms roll in across the lake. Sometimes they would hit us, sometimes not. One morning our guide gave a 7 year old boy a lift to his herd of horses. The boy made polite conversation with James and asked the name of his horse. “Jeffrey”, James replied, “Jeffrey”, the boy repeated. A few minutes went by and then the boy said, “I’m sorry what is your horse called again?” Still puzzled he said, “I’ve never heard of a horse called Jeffrey before.” Milan, who had a great sense of humour, was chuckling to himself.
We stopped for lunch on the penultimate day at a yurt at the side of the lake, amazed to see a couple of shaggy two-humped Bactrian camels grazing. A drunk man staggered over to us and tried to introduce himself. He grabbed James’s hand and decided that they should get to know each other better through the medium of wrestling. James eventually managed to extract himself, rather dishevelled.
On the final night we stayed with a wonderful family in their homely yurt. Gran, Mum and their 6 children (4 girls and 2 boys) were fantastic hosts. A riot nearly broke out when they worked out how to use James’s ipod touch. Before long, dozens of sticky fingers were pressing every icon simultaneously. Of particular amusement was the imitation police siren with flashing blue lights.
“Jeffrey hadn’t shown any signs of being a trouble maker”
We were sorry to be leaving the following day but packed up our stuff ready to go. However there was no sign of Milan and our horses. Eventually, Milan returned with Steve and his own horse but there was no sign of Jeffrey. When the 5 year old boy in the yurt heard about the missing horse he saddled his donkey immediately, recruited his 3 year old sister and they both set out to join the search. James was rather concerned that two under 6s and a donkey were being trusted with the search for Jeffrey but, luckily, their big sister called them back for breakfast. Jeffrey hadn’t shown any signs of being a trouble maker, in fact he had shown very few signs of anything, plodding and munching his way through each day. However, despite 4 hours of searching Jeffrey could not be found. This meant that James had to walk over the final pass back to the village of Kyzart where a final lunch was waiting for us. Milan phoned Jeffrey’s owner to see if he had returned home. He hadn’t. “What did he say about losing his horse?” I asked, concerned. Ever the man of few words, Milan replied, “Find him,” and shrugged. Our hosts assured us that Jeffrey would be making his way home and there wouldn’t be a problem. The consequence of our late arrival was that we spent another night at Mrs Guljat’s in Kochkor; which was no bad thing.
Do this trip yourself:
Kyrgyzstan is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Central Asia. It is a truly beautiful country.
Visas – Good news! British citizens now no longer need a tourist visa for visits up to 60 days in Kyrgyzstan. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/kyrgyzstan/entry-requirements
Community Based Tourism (CBT) can help organise treks by horse or on foot. http://www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg/index.php/en/
Is Kyrgyzstan safe? More good news. Although not in the Song-Kul/Kochor/Bishkek area which is in the north and central regions of Kyrgyzstan, there were some troubles in the south of the country particularly in 2010. This led to the FCO issuing travel warnings for the areas affected. Things have been settling down since and as of this month FCO removed all warnings. Up-to-date information and more advice on travelling in Kyrgyzstan can be found here https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/kyrgyzstan and it is always sensible to safeguard against petty crime.
If you would like more advice on travelling in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia or travel in general why not join one of my travel workshops?