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Published: August 2nd 2019
You are going on holiday where...?!
I have had a niggle for a while to go and explore some of the vast mountainous terrain that I have gazed down at from 30 thousand feet while roaming around the plane like a caged tiger on day time flights back from Tokyo (why on earth aren’t there nighttime flights, so I don’t have to waste the whole day?! But I digress....). The snowy peaks below stretch for an eternity, with little evidence (from that height at least) of any habitation at all. The in-flight map indicated that the region was some of the ex-USSR countries, the “Stans”, in the middle of a part of the world I have never been anywhere near.
After reading up a bit on the region, I narrowed down the best options in terms of ease of travel (essential for a two week self organised trip), and availability of out door activities, to Amalty in Kazakhstan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. To maximise the holiday time around work the best airline option was Aeroflot, which I last flew with as a penniless student about 30 years ago. Thankfully the airline has made a few improvements in the intervening years.
Half the passengers weren’t chain smoking toxic filterless cigarettes, in fact there was barely a whiff of stale cigarette smoke; the airline stewardesses no longer look like rejects from the ladies shot putting team, with garish makeup failing to mask the shadow of a moustache; the drinks trolley now even offers up perfectly quaffable substances instead of some toxic syrup that tasted like the cola concentrate from a Soda stream machine (an 80s home made fizzy drink contraption in case you haven’t had the misfortune of coming across one of them); and the seats no longer appear to have been salvaged from defunct school buses. So far so good.
Moscow airport was similarly unrecognisable. On my previous visit it appeared to be stashed full of homeless people sleeping under bundles of clothes, the only food available was inedible pigswill and one of the many birds flying around the interior shat on the only vaguely edible thing I could locate (stale bread and curled up sweating cheese of some description) just as I was about to put it in my mouth. Clearly a message. Needless to say I continued my unintentional fast that day. Fast forward to 2019 and I
was probably the person who most closely resembled a homeless person as I tried to catch a few winks under my sarong; and the the most inedible food available was Burger King. My how I would have traded anything for one of their disgusting burgers while there thirty years ago....
Almaty was a great entry point for the region. The city is modern and clean and if it was not for the soviet style architecture one could easily mistake it for a city in Central Europe. There are numerous parks and wide pedestrian boulevards, lined with trees and water features doubling as playgrounds for the local kids. In the pedestrian area, every 50 meters or so were street performers, varying from a seven piece string band to breakdancers, to entertain the ambling crowds.
It is fairly easy to navigate so long as you remember that the tourist map puts South at the top, apparently because that is where the mountains are, and they belong at the top. I got pretty confused when cross checking against the map in Lonely Planet before I worked that out. The next couple of days were spent hiking in the mountains a
mere 30 minutes drive away, and meandering around the city in the evening. My lack of Russian language skills (written or spoken) made things a little challenging at times but after spending some time to learn the Russian alphabet and a few Russian words it became a lot easier to work things out.
Arrival in Kyrgyzstan
After three days in Almaty, it was time to move on. The best options for travelling the 200km to Bishkek were either minivan or shared taxi from the bus station. In the absence of any relevant Russian speaking skills the minivan option seemed like the easier to work out, as I could now recognise the word in cryllic script for Bishkek, so I could spot the counter selling the bus tickets to that destination. Just before getting on I started chatting to a Swedish chap who was also on the bus, us being the only two who were obviously tourists. He had managed to snag a spot in the front on account of his long legs so I took the middle front spot. Given the lack of air conditioning this was a blessing as it became blistering hot as the morning progressed.
During the journey we also got chatting to a sweet Russian girl from the middle of Siberia, rather surprisingly called Suzanna, especially as she looked part Chinese/ part Mongolian. As she spoke excellent English she explained the fact that we had to get on a different minivan when we crossed the border - information that clearly didn’t register as I left my rucksack on the original minivan as I headed to passport control. Thankfully someone came running after me with it before I got too far. On arrival at Bishkek bus station, she helped us navigate changing money at a non-rip off place, and to locate the minivan to the next destination on my agenda, Bokonbayevo. This town promised to be quite off the beaten track, on the Southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul and close to mountains. But the main appeal for me was the availability of mountain bikes to rent, and some good local routes.
This leg of the journey was a much more “local experience”. I was clearly the only foreigner. However the other passengers seemed like a friendly enough bunch. There was one elderly toothless, particularly gregarious fellow who seemed determined to battle away at conversation
with me in spite of the fact that my recently acquired 30 odd words in Russian probably outnumbered the words he knew in English. It was akin to being in an exceptionally noisy bar, where two people chat away for hours on end not having the foggiest what the other person is saying but nodding and smiling and pretending that they do.
After four hours or so, having spewed a few passengers out en route, we arrived at my final destination Bokonbayevo. The previous night I had booked a place to stay but on arrival I realised that I had not jotted down the name or address of the place. There was also no WiFi available in the vicinity. Hmmm. Not great planning. Having established that the tourist information place was shut, I decided that the best option was to head to a hostel where there was most likely to be an English speaker to see if I could work it out from there. I agreed to pay the taxi driver 100 som to take me to my accommodation (about £1) but gave him no instruction about where that might be. He took me to a hostel and waited
around while I logged on WiFi to find out where I had booked, before taking me round the corner to my final destination.
My first reaction to the place was “really?!!!!”. It seemed half built with a chap literally cementing in breeze blocks at the front gate and the skeleton of a yurt, with no cover, in the front garden. Not quite what I thought I had signed up for. However, the family seemed sweet and the room was spotless and there was a comfy swinging chair in the garden, so I soon chilled out. After freshening up I took a wander downtown. It is a bit of a dusty two horse town, with unpaved streets, pretty ramshackle single story buildings and nothing that looks like a restaurant so I stocked up on beer, bread and fruit. During my wandering I came across the place that I was planning to rent the bike from, where I was informed that all the bikes are rented out for tours the following day so that wasn’t going to be an option. Hmmm. Time for plan B. So there will be yet more hiking on the agenda for tomorrow and then potentially an
earlier than planned escape from this place the following day. By all accounts Karakol should have a bit more going for it....
It turns out that Plan B was B for brilliant. After sleeping very well, I had a hearty breakfast of coffee, fried sausage and egg, and pancakes stuffed with something similar to ricotta cheese - enough to see me through a good day of hiking. I established that I needed to get a taxi to the trail head so I asked the guest house owner to book one for me. A ramshackle vehicle showed up, but it didn’t sound like too many bits were falling off so off we set up a very lumpy bumpy dirt track along the Boz Salkyn Valley. After about 10kms we turned off the valley road onto a track that led to the yurt camp at the bottom of the jailoo (summer pasture). This, apparently, marked the start of the trail.
I asked the family of nomadic herders which way the trail was, and the papa queried something back. Needless to say I had no idea what he was asking so I said “Da” i.e. “yes”. He then waved ambiguously
up the mountain. So off I set, following various animal tracks in the hope that I was heading in the right direction. Fairly soon I had to make a choice about which side of the stream to stick on. The better track appeared to be on the right hand side, the more forested side of the gulley. So I decided to follow that. After a while the forest became denser and the track became harder and harder to locate. I tried to stick to horse hoof prints instead of cattle ones but after a while they all petered out. I was lost. Not just a matter of getting off the beaten track, more a matter of getting off the track altogether! As there was no way through when going up I decided that I needed to back track down the hill. After fighting my way through the undergrowth, with a palpable sense of relief I spotted a track again. Following this track led me down hill towards a crossing point for the stream, so I tried to see if I would have more success on the left hand side of the valley instead.
I decided at this point to
aim for the 3850m Tashtar-Ata peak, which rose steeply on the left hand side of the pass. There was no trail and the terrain was a mixture of tundra, rocks and scree, so it took about an hour of zigzagging and scrambling to get to the top. The view, once I got there, was sensational. The yurts at the trail head were minor pinpricks in the valley below, and another small ridge rippled before the sapphire blue of lake Issyk-Kul. Beyond the lake it was possible to decipher a strata of snowy peaks just below a similar looking line of clouds. From the top I had to head back down a few hundred meters to get to the pass, where I could see the faint line of a trail. This delivered me onto a ridge which I could traverse around before heading back down the valley on the right hand side, hopefully with more luck than my attempt to ascend that way. I could see a reasonable path descending down from the ridge, for the top section at least, so that gave me something to aim for.
The view from the pass and the ridge was truly awe inspiring.
On the far side from where I had come there was a 1500 meter drop to the wide expanse of the Kyrchya Valley, home to a sparse smattering of farmsteads accessed by nothing more than a couple of dusty tracks. Beyond that the foothills gave way to the towering snow capped Terskei-Ala-Too ridge, which stretched extensively in both directions. On traversing the ridge I came across the first people I had seen since leaving base camp - a family of four Canadian trekkers with a couple of guides and a very reluctant pack horse. They were doing a two day trek with an overnight yurt stay. I didn’t get the impression that the teenaged daughter was particularly embracing the experience.
The route down was a bit more apparent than it had been for my attempt at it on the way up. But even so I did loose the track a few times and on occasion had to scramble through thick bushes. However, I eventually made it back down to the lower jailoo, where there were the strangest cows I had ever seen, with fluffy, almost equine tails and shaggy derrières. I later discovered they were Tibetan yaks. From there
I made my way to the dirt road which connected Bokonbayevo with a couple of local villages.
As it was 10kms to Bokonbayevo - too far to walk at that stage of the day - I flagged down the first car that was heading in that direction, about fifteen minutes later. They pulled up and I climbed into the back seat of the somewhat dilapidated station wagon next to Mum and two kids. A glance over my shoulder revealed four moon faced kids in the boot, while the driver was accompanied in the front by a very friendly English speaking chap. He seemed to be a big fan of London, not least of all Arsenal and Chelsea football clubs. Being able to talk about football seems to be a useful backstop the world over. On arrival in town I gave them what I later discovered was much to much of a tip (at half the cost of the morning’s taxi) even though they didn’t ask for anything. At least I know the going rate for next time. On checking in at the CBT travel company, I have discovered that mountain bikes are back on the menu for tomorrow, so
I can give my poor legs a break from all this hiking.
Back to Plan A
I headed to CBT as soon as it opened at 9am. Luckily the tumultuous storm of the previous night had completely passed, leaving fresher air and slightly milder temperatures, just nudging mid-20s. The bike was ready and waiting - a sturdy (i.e. heavy) Giant. I adjusted the seat and took it for a quick spin dodging the taxis and minivans touting for business at the bus station across the road. It seemed to be in pretty good shape, so I deposited my rucksack, handed over my passport as deposit, as according to the details on the website, gold teeth, sheep or wives are no longer taken as deposit (OK a wee bit of exaggeration there).
According to the trekking map it looked like I could do a loop starting up the road that I took for my trek the previous day and then head left over the ridge to the lake, and back along the main road. Then as that looked a bit short (OMG the misplaced confidence in my mountain biking ability!), I thought I could do another quick
flip part way up the valley I had looked down on from the ridge on my hike the previous day. So off I set along the sandy, rutted dirt road, up a gradual incline, slowly, oh so slowly. After passing a couple of graveyards with elaborate gravestones about a kilometre out of town the landscape started opening up with pastures at the lower gradients, then fir forests (which I now find somewhat less charming after my experience of getting completely lost in them yesterday), and then the mountains beyond. Vehicles only passed every 15 minutes or so, so the fact that I got engulfed in dust every time they did go by wasn’t too much of an issue.
The one thing that did start to grate on me was the road surface. When it wasn’t rocky, hard packed and rutted the sandy sections seem to have taken on a corrugated formation, so it was like riding cobbles - unrelenting Paris Roubaix pave - for mile after mile. My idea of pure unadulterated hell. Thanks to the complete absence of traffic I was able to weave backwards and forwards across the road to try and avoid the worst of the
ridges but it was more than a little detracting from the wonderful scenery I was surrounded by. From what I could recall of the map, my planned loop turned left opposite the right hand turn to the previous day’s trail head. This left turn headed up a steep rough incline past a farm in the direction of some yurts at the top of the pass.
I stopped to take a photo. Just as I got moving again a local chap descending from the hill started shouting at me and running towards me. He looked a bit disheveled, very aggressive and quite possibly a bit drunk (even though it was only about 10.30am). The likelihood of having any sort of reasonable conversation given the lack of any common language, and the fact that he just looked quite scary, led me to pedal like stink to prevent him getting too close to me. That certainly got my old ticker pumping like crazy!
After about fifteen minutes I reached the yurt camp at the top of the hill. There were about four yurts but not a soul to be seen. There was a sign for parking and the camp was condoned
off by a wire fence. I skirted around the fence and then found a vehicle track the other side, so it still looked promising as a route down to the lake. I bombed down the grassy tracks enjoying the absence of rocks or corrugated sand. The route then narrowed and the vehicle tracks disappeared altogether. Another case of an evaporating trail. I got off my bike and hunted around to see which route the cars may have taken. There was nothing but a narrow gully below that could only be traversed on foot. Hmmm. Time to push my bike back up the hill again. It did strike me at that point that maybe the dodgy guy was just trying to tell me I was going the wrong way, to give him the benefit of doubt. Ah well. I’ll never know.
Back at the still abandoned yurt camp, I consulted the map and realised that the turning for the route over the pass was actually at least another 10kms further down the road at the next village. Luckily Mr Aggressive was nowhere to be seen for my return journey. I then continued back to the valley road along to the village. By this stage two and a half hours had passed, and as there was no obvious road across the mountains between me and the lake, and my few attempts to get any information from the locals had failed, I elected to head back to Bokonbayevo the way I had come, before detouring down to Ton, a village over looking the lake. Aside from one little mechanical issue that I managed to fix, thanks to my rudimentary understanding of how a bike works, this passed without incident.
Next stop, Karakol
Karakol is a buzzing metropolis compared with the sleepy backwater of Bokonbayevo, as it is the main town in the region and the gateway to the villages and to trekking in the Tian Shan mountains, so quite a good place to be based. One the first day I went for what I thought was going to be a couple of hours trek, but by the time I got all the way out of town and past the over grazed lower pastures up onto the ridge overlooking the town and back about seven hours had elapsed since I set off. However, there was nothing too interesting to report - just my usual inability to find the trail (at all, even though I had purchased the trekking map of the area, and was not aware of having gone off course), and going a bit off piste on my way back into town. So I’ll take the opportunity, instead, to explain a little about the Central Asia transport systems, from what I have gleaned so far.
My first experience of public transport was in Almaty was catching one of the numerous city buses to get up to the ski resort for some hiking. I jumped on a really crowded bus, on which all my fellow passengers were getting an Oyster card equivalent stamped. I didn’t have one so I am slightly ashamed to say I free loaded for that ride as I didn’t want to get off and have to wait for the next bus. On the way back I realised that one can actually pay the driver as an alternative to having a pre-loaded bus pass. So once I had the hang of that it was all quite easy.
Given the lack of trains or coaches, for public transportation out of town one has to rely on minibuses, known as marshrutkas, or shared taxis, which are usually about double the price. Marshrutkas are highly likely to have malfunctioning air conditioning and as babies and small children don’t count towards any capacity limitations (if indeed there are any) they can get exceedingly crowded. There is rarely a schedule so they wait at the origin until they are full enough for the driver to think it is worth getting going. They then stop numerous times along the route to pick up anyone who sticks their arm out, and to drop off any existing passengers. It is essential to try and snag one of the prized front seats if at all possible. If that is not possible, in my view, the seat by the exit door is worth getting as the benefit of the extra legroom outweighs the inconvenience of having to move regularly as passengers alight or exit the vehicle. I would only use these for long popular routes as the wait will be short and the cost of alternatives is expensive.
The next option is the shared taxi. They work on the same principle in that they do not set off until they have sufficient passengers. However, I did discover that if you really can’t be bothered with the indeterminate wait, you can negotiate a a rate with the driver to get cracking with only a couple of other passengers. This obviously makes you enormously popular with them as you have saved them time (not that I think there is too much of a premium on that in these parts), and more to the point you have allowed them to have the luxury of space. The additional benefit of paying the premium rate is that the driver will then drop you exactly where you want to go, instead of at the local bus station. Shared taxis also pull in for every person who sticks their arm out so it is quite a stop start trip even if you have subsided the spare seats. This (with the no-wait premium) is my preferred option for reasonably long routes.
If you are in a town you can just get the guesthouse to order you a taxi, with a rate he/she has specified, to save the hassle of negotiation. But then, if you are in the middle of nowhere, the only feasible alternative is good old fashioned hitching. Stick your arm out and anyone who thinks they can pack another person in their jallopy will pull over, rearranging the existing occupants to make space for you. The main issue is that you may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to getting clearance over the deeper ruts in the dirt track, but from they seem to have a pretty relaxed about the crunching and scraping of the under carriage. I have consulted a number of people about the going rate for these trips and from what I can gather 10 - 50 soms should be fine depending on the distance (definitely not the 500 som I paid!).
Now where’s the effing path gone, again?!
While based in Karakol, decided to go for a two day trek up into the Ak-Suu mountains staying overnight at a camp up in the mountains. As I was flying solo, I purchased the trekking map for the region in order to plot an appropriate route. The map looked great. There were some routes clearly marked and graded on a scale of one (easy) to five (very difficult). The routes that were available to me, for the short duration of my trek were all graded one (easy) or two (moderate), where moderate routes required some physical fitness (tick), promised trails in good condition (lots more on that later) and moderate distance or elevation gain (no problemo). I decided to attempt to blend sections from two different routes, covering what was advised as three day’s worth of hiking in two days, on the basis that typically the advice is normally pretty conservative (from my limited experience in other parts of the world).
On the first day, I chose to take the 18km route starting at Karakol ski resort at 2200m altitude, ascending over Kok-Jar pass at 3600m, before descending to Altyn Ashran camp at about 2400m. As that didn’t sound like much I thought I could then see how far I could get to Lake Ala Kol, which is supposed to be one of the popular trekking destinations and looked quite pretty from the photos. The lake was nearly 20km from the camp, but in my naivety I thought I may possibly be able to make it to the top of the pass overlooking it to at least glimpse a view of the lake before heading back to base.
It was a rough taxi ride up to the resort after we left the asphalt behind at the entrance point to the National Park. The resort was deserted, in stark contrast to Chimbulak in Kazakhstan. There were a couple chair lifts, that looked in passable shape, and several runs carved out through the fir trees. Apparently the rather limited lift system is supplemented by CAT vehicles and also some well trained horses which tow you up the mountain on your skis or snowboard, deposit you, and then turn round to trot back down to the base of their own accord. Sounds like something worth trying back home if I am down in Somerset next time there is a big enough dump of snow! Further up the valley old Aeroflot MI-8 Helicopters are put to good use providing some of the world’s cheapest heli-skiing.
I set out, up the hill on the right hand side of the river as there was a distinct trail that initially followed under the ski lift, and then up a ski run before skirting the forest, never far from the river thundering below. After about 20 minutes ascent, I spotted a yurt camp in the distance, on the other side of the river high up on a bluff. Uh oh. I recalled from the map that the route I was supposed to be following should pass through a yurt camp two thirds of the way up the climb, but I was on the wrong side of the river and there was no evidence of any bridges for crossing it. I then consulted the map and it looked like it should be possible to cross the river further up the valley, even though there was no bridge.
Some way further up the trees thinned out and the valley broadened. The river was still a raging torrent, albeit not so wide. I tracked along close to it, trying to spot a place to cross. There were a few places where the channel split with an island in the middle, but wherever I could get to the middle it was too wide to jump to the far side so I had to back pedal again. At one point I tried using a rock mid stream as a steppingstone but it was too slippery so I only narrowly evaded getting a dunking. Several kilometres further up the river spread out where a number of tributaries joined it. Each of the gullies of fast flowing snow melt were just about narrow enough to hop across with the aid of a couple of large dry rocks in the middle of the flow. I finally made it across. Yippee!
No longer focused on trying to cross the river, I cast around to spot the yurt camp I had seen earlier. Alas it was nowhere to be seen. This would have been a great time to engage a bit of grey matter: had I closely consulted the map, instead of just giving it a cursory glance, I would have noticed that the river and valley had split by this point so the yurt camp was likely the other side of the ridge on my left hand side, which would mean that I was now heading up the wrong valley. But I didn’t. I just continued plodding on up the valley, despite the fact that it increasingly resembled Mordor, with jagged granite saw teeth crags giving way to fields of leaden scree and boulders interspersed with tundra, the only vegetation hardy enough for the environment.
At some point I knew I had to cross the ridge that loomed up on my left hand side, before reaching the snow covered glacier at the end. If there was supposed to be a pass, it looked pretty darned impassable. However, I didn’t let that deter me. I decided to head directly up towards the section that dipped slightly between a couple of angular rocky outcrops. The sparse tundra eventually gave way entirely to rocks and scree, and patches of slippery loose shale. Once I set on this direct route up it became impossible to see how much further the top was, so I kept pushing on, stopping every ten minutes or so to gasp for oxygen in the rarified air. Eventually I summited the ridge, but my relief was short-lived as I peered over the other side to see not an inviting valley stretching out below but a minor dip and then another higher ridge listing diagonally away from me.
The small descent was fairly easy to navigate, and the climb up the next summit no worse than what I had just come up. On my way there I determined that if there was not any evidence of a jailoo on the other side that I would turn round and back track the way I came. I finally crested the top, and thankfully stretching out far below me was the jailoo. But my raised spirits were instantly dampened by an assessment of what I had to negotiate to get all the way down to the summer pastures. Just the other side of the very top was a narrow strip of snow and then a sheer plummeting slope of packed gravel. It crossed my mind that Darwin’s theory might just be about to catch up with me.
I climbed over the snow, which was soft, and cautiously tested the packed gravel the other side of it with my foot. There was no give in it at all. It was like being at the top of a precipitous slope of sheet ice, which plunged down 500 meters to a jamboree of craggy boulders below. I scanned the ridge to see what my best option was. On the left hand side as I looked down was a rocky gully where I would at least be able to get a foot hold. Facing the mountain, clinging on with hands and feet I crabbed gingerly across to it, feeling overwhelming relief on arrival having dodged the chance of suffering a lingering death, with my eyes pecked out by one of the eagles currently wafting overhead on the wind currents.
The next hour and a half were not easy. I regularly lost my footing on the loose, sharp rocks, falling down hard on my backside on several occasions and lacerating my hands. Once I relinquished the benefit of altitude it became increasingly hard to decipher the best route, so I frequently had to back track after finding myself overlooking an impenetrable gorge, or down a sheer rock face. There were a number of deep burrows strewn across the mountain. I was aware that black bears lived in these parts, so I was a bit concerned by the curious squeaking haw that I heard periodically, too guttural to be made by a bird. Further down I spotted a family of bounding marmots scampering away from me, making that same rasping noise - clearly the culprits.
Eventually I made it down to the pasture where I could finally just walk, without carefully checking every place I put my foot down. Happy days! There was still no identifiable trail - just a few meandering animal tracks - so the route was not at all obvious. On the assumption that I was in the right valley, I now had to find the river, then a bridge across it, which should position me a couple of kilometres below the camp where I was going to spend the night. By this stage I had learnt to question my assumptions, but unfortunately one still has to make them...
Near where I was hoping to find the bridge there was a decrepit cabin which I skirted around. A young girl popped out and asked me where I was heading. When I said Altyn Ashram she said she was going there too, and would I like to go with her. Naturally I jumped at the chance of having a guide, and therefore not getting lost yet again. Natalia lived in the cabin with her father who worked up in the jailoo in the summer, and then decamped to the village for the rest of the year. At sixteen, she had already started working in the holidays as a guide so her English was excellent. We spent the 30 minutes or so to get to the camp chatting about life in Kyrgyzstan. Altyn Ashram was heaving with people by comparison with where I had come from, i.e. about eight to ten people were meandering around.
It is possible to get transport up to the camp instead of negotiating the most direct 15kms trek, or the crazy route I took, with the main pulling point being the hot springs, of which there are two options - the one where you pay or the natural version. I elected to try out the latter as it was closer to where I was staying. The route to get there was a precipitous goat track hugging the cliff alongside the river. Luckily I timed my arrival perfectly as one of the two hot tubs was vacant when I got there. Essentially each hot tub was a cross between a military bunker and a hobbit hole, built into the cliff face above the churning river, full up with fairly warm brackish water in which you wallow. At a push you could probably fit about four people in each of them, but luckily no-one tried to join me.
The guest house I was staying in was barely a step above camping as the generator was broken so the solar power back up was only sufficient to light the common area. However, it was a fun evening sharing tales with fellow travellers.
The next day I set off along a riverside path, at right angles to the river I had tracked along the previous day, with the sky above looking moody, and a few ominous rolls of thunder in the distance. Periodically I caught a glimmer of lightening on the other side of the pass. I counted the length of time between the flashes and the drum rolls. The time lapse seemed to be diminishing from initially just over four seconds to close to just three. The sky in the meantime was darkening as though the sun had given up on the day in spite of it being only 9am. Suddenly the heavens opened and I was pummelled with razor sharp hail. I quickly fished the plastic bag type cape that had somehow acquired back home. I would certainly never purchase such a crime against fashion, but as there wasn’t even a Kyrgyz herder to see my hodgepodge ensemble I couldn’t give a damn. And truth be known it was pretty effective at keeping me and my back pack nice and dry. As quickly as the hail started, it stopped, and the sun came out so I could strip of the plastic cape and head on up the unrelenting climb.
As I was planning to do two day’s trek in one, I decided to be sensible this time by setting myself a couple of ground rules to prevent getting into another crazy situation like yesterday: (1) If there was no trace of a trail, even just a faint animal trail, I would not go that way; and (2) if I didn’t summit the pass (the one with a jailoo below) by 12.30pm then I would turn round and descend via the camp I had just come from. I nearly stuck to the rules. There was a vaguely decipherable animal trail up until the scree section. A red arrow on a rock shortly afterwards instilled in me a sense of security about being on the right route, and therefore led me to break that rule. Although having bemoaned the absence of any route markings with a fellow trekker some days later, we agreed that the red arrows on rocks were probably painted by an evil kid who wanted hapless trekkers to head in completely the wrong direction.
I also got to the summit of the pass only about 15 minutes (a mere rounding error) after the deadline, with the thunder rolling around me again, which was a bit scary given my location at the top point of the pass, but thankfully it was not accompanied by lightening this time. I peered over the edge with a degree of trepidation, following the experience of the previous day. Yippee! There, far below was clearly a jailoo and I could even see the yurt camp and the bridge which were indicated on the map. Things were looking up.
The scree at the top had a bit of give in it so I could half stride, half slide my way down the top section for about 200 meters, which was quite fun. But once again as I descended the route became far less obvious. The Houdiniesque paths continued to vanish with aggravating regularity so I had to use fallen trees to cross deep crevasses, and had to retrace my steps on several occasions as the track ended in impenetrable gorse. By the time I had made it down to the jailoo the yurt camp and the bridge had disappeared, to join the endless disappearing paths. However, I did eventually make it down to the valley floor. The valley walk which had looked so attractive at bird’s eye view from the pass was (by this stage, not at all surprisingly) not so easy to navigate when I was down there.
There were numerous tributaries to cross and wide stretches of black peaty bog. After trying to skirt around the first three or four bogs I gave up and started stomping through them, attempting where possible to jump from tussock to tussock, but frequently landing with a loud squelch into the glutinous muck. I heard subsequently about one poor trekker who set out from camp on a multi-day hike one day, only to return to the same camp after dark covered in black muck up to his thighs and only wearing one boot. Clearly the bog won that battle.
Eventually I reached a forest path, that made for an easy but long walk down the the village below. Apart from one run in with an aggressive looking bull, that passed without incident. On reaching the road I waved down a car with a couple of young boys in it, playing load hip hop music and trying to be cool. I negotiated a mutually agreeable rate to take me back to Karakol for a welcome shower, some wholesome food and a well earned crash out.
Horse riding in the jailoo
The only thing I had pre-arranged for this trip was a two day horse trek from Kochkor up to Son Kol lake where a National Horse Games Festival was taking place. In the country where the horse is king, that definitely sounded worth checking out. On arrival at the CBT Kochkor office I was assigned a guide, Mervin(or something that sounds a bit like that). He wore a Soviet workers cap at a rakish angle and had a cheeky grin. I made a point of showing him pictures of someone jumping over a huge hedge on a horse and explained that that was the type of riding I was capable of doing (omitting to add that nearly 30 years had elapsed since I had jumped anything half the size). “Ah” he said, “so you are a professional”, which I somewhat misleadingly agreed to.
I skipped the offer to double up with some others as I thought that might limit the opportunities to go fast. We drove about 45 minutes in a clapped out Lada to get to the starting point where there was a yurt, a few fellow tourists awaiting their steeds and a few locals with horses. After my guide had chatted to the man with the horses I was told to wait as these horses were no good for me if I was a “professional”, they had to get a fast horse from a neighbouring Kyrgyz herdsman. That sounded promising!
One of the locals showed up later with a small thoroughbred-type horse. I was told he was a Kulak breed, bred for racing. Apparently he was very hard to stop, which is a common problem with most of the horses I grew up riding, so I shrugged and said that’s ok. After I jumped on they asked me to trot out and back just to check I could make the horse do what I wanted to do rather than vice versa. I evidently passed the test so Mervin hopped aboard his steed and off we went. We soon went bombing past some other groups who had assumed the nose to tail formation of a typical horse trek. I was instructed that we could go fast down the hills, but not when going up as we are at high altitude so the horses will tire too quickly. So the day was spent blasting down the hills, getting increasingly out of control, and pottering slowly up the long passes, looking out for eagles and marmots.
On one flat out gallop on a winding path along the side of a series of hillocks the sheepskin that was slung over the top of the saddle (a welcome bum-comforter) started slipping making it harder to keep my seat in the right place. The route was peppered with marmot burrows, so it was a bit hair raising as we veered off the track as I tried to yank Kymys (rhymes with humus), as I had christened him, to a stop, as he could put his hoof in one of the holes, sending me flying out of the front door. Not ideal given the lack of a helmet and proper riding boots, as trainers are far more likely to get caught in the stirrup, resulting in you being dragged across the gorse strewn terrain until the horse eventually comes to a halt. We eventually skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust and I hopped off to straighten up and secure the sheepskin. Mervin’s horse was a bit slower, being weighed down by all the baggage, but he seemed a bit concerned that I had had a scare, but I just grinned and assured him that everything was absolutely fine.
After the pass the valley broadened out into a grassy meadow with a number of river crossings to negotiate. While I was carrying a day pack on my back, Mervin had all the other luggage slung either side of his horse just behind the saddle. Through some of the deeper rivers the bottom of my backpack got a good dunking, so it was just as well there were only my mucky hiking boots in the bottom section. Just before getting to the yurts we detoured to a spot where you could swim in the river. I found out afterwards that this was effectively the day’s shower option, so I was glad to have braved the icy water.
On arriving at a yurt camp towards the top end of an expansive grassy valley, we dismounted and the horses were unsaddled, had their front legs hobbled together and were left to roam for the night. On occasion they have been known to make a beeline for home, apparently hopping up to 10kms during the night, which can make it quite a challenge for the guide to locate them in the morning.
I was shown to my shared yurt accommodation. There were four mattresses on the floor for a Polish couple, me and my guide. The toilet was a long drop some distance from the yurts, as is typical in this country. This one had particularly shaky planks to perch on either side of the hole, buzzing with flies, so if the need strikes in the middle of the night I definitely won’t risk doing my business in that treacherous pit. After a tasty dinner, washed down with copious bowls of tea (quite a ritual here), I skipped the option to imbibe any Kymys (as in my horse’s name) having tried it the previous night. It is fermented mares milk, the local, allegedly medicinal, liquor. The flavour was really smoky and a cross between sheep’s milk and gone off milk. Something that only needs to be savoured once, in my view.
I slept exceptionally well, with the only disturbance in the night the ehh-haw of a donkey. They sound like they are being strangled, and quite frankly if he had carried on much longer I might have got out of bed to do the honours.
The second day started with a very long steep climb over the pass that led to Lake Son Kul, so we were treated to great views of the lake on the descent. The terrain then flattened out so it was great for going like the clappers, which set off a couple of steeds piloted by nervous beginner riders as we rocketed past, which didn’t make us too popular. As we chatted about the horse games the next day we hatched a plan to see if I could participate in the kiss chase event as Mervin thought my horse would probably be plenty fast enough for it.
The lake side yurt camp was huge in comparison to the four or five yurt groupings I had come across before. It was a hive of activity as hordes of people had evidently rolled into “town” for the festival. This time there were seven of us sharing the yurt - the Polish couple from the previous night, a Slovakian couple and an older (well maybe not that much older than me...) couple from Belgium. Once again there was no shower in evidence so I went for a swim in the lake to clean off. It was a bit too cold to put my head in the water too, so my hair was resembling an oil slick by this stage. Dry shampoo is clearly a worthwhile bit of kit in this environment. Thankfully none of my yurt-mates were snorers so it was a pretty good night’s sleep again.
The festivities commenced at ten(ish) the next morning, with a demonstration of how to build a yurt and then various other cultural spectacles such as dancing, music, cooking and handicraft displays. It was pretty touristy but quite interesting and a good opportunity to bump into the various people I had met on my travels. Following lunch back in our respective yurt camps the real fun, the horse games, kicked off with Ulak Tartysh, which is essentially a bit like polo, but played with a goat’s carcass. This has to be picked up and deposited in a tyre, effectively the goal at each end of the pitch. The goat’s carcass has been specially prepared by being jumped on, to break the animal’s bones, and then soaked in water over night. So it is heavy and floppy, and quite difficult to pick up off the ground especially when the player is being buffeted around by the opposition and has to dodge a sea of churning horse hooves, and a couple of opportunistic dogs who fancy a bit of goat meat for dinner. There were four teams and they played 15 minutes in each direction, with regular halts for the players to argue with the referee about some minor infringement.
As I was settled at the side of the pitch chatting to some of my buddies, Mervin came to find me and said it was game was on - I could compete in the game of Kyz Kuumai. So I went to find Kymys to warm him up for the event. There would be one local couple participating before me and my pursuer (a local Kyrgyz chap) so I could at least get a sense of how the game worked. The rules were that on the first run the girl starts from 10 meters ahead of the boy when the whistle goes and then both gallop like the clappers, with the boy trying to get close enough to kiss the girl by the time you pass the “polo” goal. Then if he fails they switch starting spots, so that the girl pursues the guy trying to beat him (not the horse) with the horse whip. Before we were up, the umpire seemed a bit concerned about me participating, reiterating that it was dangerous. It didn’t look that dangerous to me so I assured him I was definitely still up for it.
Soon enough it was time to get into position, in front of the hordes of spectators lining the side of the pitch. I had revved up Kymys beforehand so he was raring for action. The whistle blew and I urged Kymys forward with a sharp kick and a “chi-chi-chi” noise, and a crack on the backside with the crop. He leapt forward instantly into flat out gallop. The local guy pursuing me didn’t get close by the time we reached the end of the pitch. But Kymys then carried on flat out into the distance with me sawing at his mouth in an attempt to stop. After doing an enormous loop round I managed to bring him back to a trot, in order to get into position for the reverse leg, in which I started 10 meters behind the chap with my whip at the ready. At the sound of the whistle we flew into action in hot pursuit of my counterpart in the game. I just managed to land a whack on his back, probably a little after the official finish line. Kymys well and truly showed his racing pedigree, as we were declared winners.
Following that little kick of adrenaline, I hopped off and resumed my position as spectator, to watch some other entertaining games including one where two opponents attempt to wrestle each other off the horse, and another where the riders attempt to pick up banknotes while galloping at full pelt past a pile of money. After the games had finished we headed back to the yurt for dinner and then the party kicked off with some more local dancing, the lighting of the bonfire and dancing to a mixture of local and western music. All generations and numerous nationalities, from all corners of the globe, danced into the night, only punctuated by brief power outages of the DJ’s generator.
The following day I transferred by 4WD back to Kochkor, then straight back to Bishkek in a shared taxi with some of my new buddies, before very sadly heading back home to the UK the day after. Thus ends a fantastic introduction to this wonderful part of the world. If one thing is certain, it is that I most definitely will be venturing back to Central Asia again. Soon.
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