Horsing around in Kyrgyzstan

Published in The Australian March 2006

TWO words I must learn to say to the horse are chu, which means go, and drrrrrr, which means stop. Thanks to my guide, Almaz, those are the simplest Kyrgyz words I will learn in the next few days’ ride. I will also learn that small, sturdy Kyrgyz horses know a few things about travellers from a very different horse-powered world.

We head out from Karakol, the frontier town cum administrative capital of Issyk-Kul province in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Our plan is to follow the Karakol River south, then cross the mountains and follow the Arashan River towards Karakol, with side journeys depending on the weather and time. Much of the areas we will travel through will be national park or nature reserve.Along with Almaz (whose name means diamond), we have an assistant guide and, at the edge of town, another of his friends joins the ride for a day; the three Kyrgyz cowboys sit easy in their saddles, laughing with each other as we head out.

My co-trekkers, Leyla and Peter, are newlyweds from Los Angeles who have previously camped and backpacked their way across China. Almaz has picked them up outside one of Karakol’s many bars. They say his business pitch was a bit like Kyrgyzstan: offbeat and irresistible.

Twenty minutes on the road and the Karakol Valley panorama opens out: hills that roll up into the summer pastures and down into the gushing Karakol River and up into the snow-creamed mountains of the Tien Shan or Celestial Mountains. These mountains bordering China and Kazakhstan are part of a spectacular chain arcing around the southern flank of Central Asia, western China and the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent.

Our horses carry food, tents and swags. My horse, Brown, barely acknowledges my chu command but he knows how to chew and is a sharp off-road snacker: a deft swipe at the high thistle and a quick droop of the head grabs a thatch of grass. He quickly establishes himself as a follower of the pack, never a leader. Brown is the kind of horse that effortlessly showcases riders, such as me, who lack authority. That I once rode cattle horses in NSW counts for little.

We are quickly immersed in the rhythms of nomadic life as two seasons cross over. It’s autumn harvest time for apples, pears, grapes, berries and the best tomatoes I’ve tasted in years.

Near the river a family is cutting lucerne, winter fodder for their animals. It’s also the tail of summer and wildflowers are in retreat from the hills. So are the shepherds, and during the next few days we pass many of them (and their dogs) whistling and herding sheep, goats, cows and horses, fattened up on the jailoos, upland summer pastures, down towards what will be their winter shelter.

We take a late lunch near the river, pale green from the mineralised snowmelt. Almaz boils the Kyrgyz billy, spreads a picnic lunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, naan bread, local cheese and pressed meat, apples, biscuits and chocolate. Two horsemen burst on to our idyll like a sudden mountain storm, shout a few words to Almaz and our three amigos leap up and rush to the horses that are foot-tethered to pegs 10m away.

Within seconds we can see why, as about 20 horses swarm down the hill and in among our own.

The three amigos are hanging on to our excited animals by whatever they can grab and there is a scramble of equine sniffing, snorting, rearing and kicking before the intruders are pushed across the river.

Having disturbed our lunch, the wild bunch’s owner joins us to eat. He wears a black-and-white kulpak, the Kyrgyz high felt hat that looks like a starched version of Peter Pan’s cap. A few minutes later an American backpacker dawdles in. In the Kyrgyz tradition of hospitality, our table — or campfire — is open to many guests during the next few days.

The days are shirtsleeve warm. We are climbing but not fast or high enough to worry about altitude sickness. However, an hour from camp at Ai Too I am yawning for air as we crest 2300m above sea level. The camp-following American backpacker makes our camp at nightfall.

The mercury slips below freezing some time in the early morning when I wake and, outside my tent, I see a star-blazed sky with the familiar constellations of Orion and the Big Dipper. Next morning the full glory of Ai Too unveils as the sun slogs its way up and over the ranges. Chiselled mountains circle the valley floor and the Karakol River loops through in a slow crawl.

As we break camp, a dozen hikers with walking sticks stroll towards the river. Germans, I surmise. Days later in Karakol, I meet some of them: members of the Narrabri Walking Group from northwest NSW who have just finished a three-week hike.

The Kyrgyz and other Central Asian nomads force me to rethink the modern idea of trekking. Our three days would be a blip in the movement of many Kyrgyz, a Turkmen people with a long history of being pushed by other nomads, such as the Mongols, into empires and countries farther west, finally into Anatolia. Those who stayed on the steppes had to evade or escape the dreaded Mongols, and Almaz’s people probably started migrating south from the Yenisey Basin in Siberia to the Tien Shan more than 1000 years ago.

The mountains and valleys are crammed with fir trees standing like silent sentinels; now and then there’s a burst of autumnal yellow poplar and bronze maple. W e scale a steep mountain where the horses plod along a trail lightly etched into the side. Vertigo is a glance away. It doesn’t pay to look down into the riverine valley below. Our horses’ hearts are pounding following the climb. We lunch amid long yellow grass, the last of the summer buttercups, edelweiss and pink peas. Leyla collects lavender as we all gaze at the distant waters of Issyk-Kul, the deepest alpine lake in the world and the second largest after Titicaca in South America.

Night camp is at Kok Tor on a jailoo where — now land can be bought — Almaz has picked up a few hectares. Shepherds from a yurt up the hill come to eat with us. One brings a very handsome piece of antler, no doubt from a fine deer.

“He needs a few dollars and wants to know if you would like to buy this,” Almaz says. “You could make a beautiful knife out of it.”

Many of these shepherds subsist in Central Asia’s poorest country without th e resources wealth of their neighbours, and now an early winter threatens. We drink coffee and I agree the antler is beautiful and explain the quarantine laws of a distant country.

Almaz translates and puts me at my ease: “Yes, of course your country won’t allow you to have this.”

Next morning, I am up early and watching a remarkable sight on the distant hill. In the brilliant morning light hundreds of goats, sheep, horses and cows file out of their night pens and, like ants on ephedrine, race to the the rolling plain below, sometimes herded this way by fast-moving dogs, sometimes diverted by a horseman.

Almaz tells me he studied tourism management at Karakol University at about the time the Russians withdrew from Central Asia after nearly a century, taking money, resources and skills with them. Things were hard and there were no tourism management jobs, he tells me. “But I had to feed my family, so I became a guide.” I t seems the perfect solution; I have seen Almaz behind a desk and he begins moving and twitching on his chair after about five minutes.

On our final day we aim to camp at the famous Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa). It rains lightly, snow clouds roll over the mountains. I am dreaming of the hot spa. I hike through a park with Almaz pulling a reluctant Brown behind him. My horse has stopped snacking on the run, in favour of stopping dead. People are piling haystacks and women are drying stone fruit for winter.

We follow the Arashan River, losing it as we climb, finally making the steep road descent into the valley well before nightfall. Tamara, a Russian-Kyrgyz from the guesthouse, comes out to greet Almaz, speaking in Russian.

Within an hour I am in a concrete slab-and-wood hut where river water has been diverted, warmed and is dribbling into a small pool. An up-market spa it is not, merely heated heaven, and my limbs are loosened and mind relax ed before our last supper.

The following morning I hike to Almaz’s village on the outskirts of Karakol. There are more villages and people than we’ve seen in three days.

Could it be only three days? Transported somewhere as gorgeous as this, with its natural rhythms, time expands. Almaz is welcomed back into the extended family like a long-lost son, and he nurses his own son with palpable delight. He promised us kaymak (fresh cream) and his mother has just made some, which we pile on bread with lashings of jam and eat it with tea.

As Almaz shepherds us on to the minibus to Karakol, I notice the horses are still saddled in the yard. They’re knee deep in hay and they’re chewing.

Kyrgyzstan has tourist agencies specialising in soft to extreme alpine trekking and sports. July to early September is the best time to travel. In May and June, spring weather is pleasant but mountainous areas will still b e snowed in.

Community Based Tourism offers homestays with local families at very reasonable costs. Its website also includes links to other reputable agencies providing trekking, social and cultural tour support. More: www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg.

Australian passport holders can pick up a visa on arrival at Bishkek airport: $48 for 30-day single entry. If you are trekking in other Central Asian countries, explore multiple-entry visas.


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