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Land-cruising through Kyrgyzstan


The landlocked, mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan is one of the former Soviet Union’s most unspoilt, beautiful and mysterious states. 

The name alone evokes romantic images of the days when the Great Game was played out amongst its snow-capped peaks and flower-filled high pastures, of weather-beaten nomadic shepherds tending flocks from their remote yurt villages, of bleak passes and remote borders. 

But the country was swallowed up within the vast, bleak, utilitarian conformity of the communist Soviet Union; only finally freeing itself in 1990, impoverished and rife with ethnic tension.  Since then, Kyrgyzstan has become an enigma to most travellers:  a remote outpost of the former Soviet Union, tempting, tantalising, yet largely unknown – ultimately not a ‘must see’ destination.

Bishkek

Our first port of call is Bishkek, having crossed the nearby land border from Kazakhstan. 

Bishkek is a delightful city for the weary traveller, not least because it offers virtually nothing by way of cultural or architectural interest.  This means one can rest and recoup here without any sense of guilt about having missed some vital cathedral, museum or other notable relic. 

Bishkesh by night

The city has benefited from a recent and much needed facelift, including its now number one attraction, the remarkable fountains in the main square that are accompanied by an impressive sound and light display. 

By day, the square is an expanse of concrete surrounded by imposing civic buildings: uninspiring relics of the Soviet era.  But by night, Harrods-style coloured lights illuminate the buildings and huge fountains dance in symphony with rousing choruses of Kyrgyz-influenced Verdi and Mozart bellowing from huge speakers. 

The effect is amazing – so simple, yet effective.  Such a facelift would definitely liven up Trafalgar Square.

Into the Tien Shan

Having decided that the only real way to experience this country properly is by horse, we drive south to Koshkor where we arrange a trek to Lake Song-Kul, a lofty 3,000 metres up in the Tien Shan Mountains, through the local Community Based Tourism (CBT) centre. 

Dawn over the Pamirs

CBT is a relatively new initiative in Kyrgyzstan, designed to improve remote tourist facilities whilst directly supplementing the income of rural dwellers with foreign dollars.  Kyrgyzstan is way ahead of its Central Asian neighbours in this respect and the benefit to locals and visitors alike is already visible.

We sleep in a local homestay prior to our departure for Lake Song-Kul the following morning.  Homestays are a relatively new CBT initiative, and are exceptional value: £7 per person buys us dinner, bed and breakfast in a local home.  Facilities are basic but the homes are spotless and richly decorated with thick felt rugs on the floors and walls; the owners are very friendly and they give us an opportunity to experience a snapshot of local life.

We eat a sumptuous supper of local specialities: peppers stuffed with mutton and onions, fried aubergines wrapped around local cheese and tomatoes, and a delicious selection of unset, syrupy local jams with fresh bread. 

Democracy?

Over supper, we chat to the only other guest, Andrea, an Austrian girl in her mid-thirties who has been working here for the international Election Observation Committee. 

It seems the summer elections were a sham: although Kyrgyzstan professes to be the only democracy amongst the C.I.S. countries, Andrea tells us the result was a foregone conclusion and the incumbent president won with a supposed 86% share of the vote. 

Intimidation and arrests of opposition party members and officials, plus actual rigging on the day were all seemingly carried out with barefaced openness and contempt for the international observers.

It seems that, despite its best intention, corruption, autocracy and official malpractice will be with this little country for some time yet.  But it is not hard to understand why when one considers some of its neighbours:  China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – hardly shining beacons of incorruptible governance, let alone democracy.

Yurts and horses

Kyrgyz mother and child

But we’ve come to this country for the incredible mountains, and the people who live in them.  From Kizart, an hour and a half’s drive west of Koshkor, we saddle up on a selection of slightly scrawny Kyrgyz ponies and with Marybek, our local guide, head into the Tien Shan and towards the beautiful yet and largely inaccessible Lake Song-Kul.

After we leave the dusty village, the scenery grows more dramatic as we climb; first through peaceful alpine meadows full of wild flowers, then following sparkling clear streams bringing meltwater down from the peaks, before finally picking our way through  rocky heathland near the 3,200 metre high pass that leads into the Song-Kul valley.

A capricious climate

Alas, the only thing predictable about the Tien Shan is the unpredictability of the weather.  As we climb, the wind suddenly turns icy cold and whips up a ferocious hailstorm, which typically reaches its climax as we try to steer up a narrow, unprotected ridge to the pass. 

It is a profoundly miserable experience for pony and rider alike, and as we eventually cross the pass, our legs, hands and faces numb and stinging, there is little humour amongst the four of us. 

But as quickly as the hail arrives, it leaves:  suddenly we can see the glint of Lake Song-Kul glistening in bright sunshine before us and as we descend through gentle, grassy valleys to the lakeside, we soon warm up, dry out and cheer up. 

The nomadic life

As we approach our yurt (traditional, portable Kyrgyz homes consisting of a circular timber frame wrapped in layers of tightly woven felt) village we pass numerous shepherds on rugged ponies, tending herds of goats, sheep and horses.  Livestock in Kyrgyzstan outnumber people by three to one; up here it is easy to see why.

The village comprises about half a dozen yurts, dotted over around a square kilometre of close cropped mountain pasture.  They are both picturesque and wonderfully unobtrusive, like giant field mushrooms protruding from the grassland.

This is our home for the next two days, and it is a relaxing and idyllic place to pass the time.  The food is plentiful and generally good: hearty mutton stews with bulgar wheat and noodles washed down with endless chi and the rather less appetising kymyz (fermented mare’s milk), all accompanied by delicious fresh flatbreads and more homemade jams, together with the unappetisingly pungent local fermented butter. 

Headless goats

On our second day here, we are lucky enough to witness some local horse games, these games are now played infrequently these days and it’s a real treat to see them. 

The principle game, called boz kashi, involves the entire male, mounted contingent of the village (excluding only the young, the elderly and the drunk) attempting to wrestle a recently slaughtered and decapitated goat from one another and to place it directly upon the ‘goal’, a felt rug laid out in the middle of the ‘pitch’. 

In this instance, the pitch comprises of a reasonably flat area in the vicinity of the village, and play takes place in front, behind, out of sight of and sometimes right through the middle of the assembled spectators.  It is a hugely exciting game to watch, played at full gallop and requiring enormous strength, skill and courage from the players to pick the goat up in the first place, let alone try to hang on to it. 

It is a free-for-all, every man for himself.  Originally, the winner used to keep the goat for supper; now it is shared amongst the village and the players play for ‘honour’ or a little money. 

the game of boz-kashi

Our thrill at watching the game is often matched by moments of utter hilarity as the increasingly drunken older members of the community, fuelled with fiery local vodka, hurl ever more furious abuse at the players whilst simultaneously trying to commentate on proceedings to the local, rather resigned looking women.

This is one of our real highlights so far and reinforces our decision to brave the unpredictable and brutal climate of these mountains and gain a better insight into real Kyrgyz life. 

Kyz Kuumai (kiss-chase)

After watching the boz kashi, I’m coerced by the now staggering elderly locals to participate in the other local tradition, kyz kuumai: a kiss-chase game on horses.  A young man chases a girl on horseback; she is given a three length head start and a superior horse.  Should the man catch her and manage to kiss her, she may be required to consent to various levels of conjugal obligations.  However, if the man fails to catch her, then the chase is replayed in reverse and she has the chance to catch the man and whip him for all she is worth. 

Alas I had overlooked the second part of this game; unsurprisingly, I fail to catch said girl and in the return chase have to use every ounce of skill, courage and energy which I possess to twist and steer my pony away from her flailing whip. 

Once I catch her eye: the gentle Kyrgyz countenance has disappeared, replaced by a determined, primeval expression that means business.  I escape with just four lashings, but the assembled crowd are delighted and, amongst the few foreigners at least, I am briefly a hero.

Taking the highway

The recently completed Bishkek – Osh Highway, links Kyrgyzstan’s two largest cities.  The road sweeps over 3,500m high passes, alongside rocky gorges filled with azure rivers, around mineral rich hills of striking whites, reds and blacks, and through dozens of calm yurt villages, where we are greeted with friendly bemusement by locals riding their hardy Kyrgyz ponies.

View from the Bishkesh – Osh highway

Although traversing this country by horse gives one a better feel of the remote rural nature of the country, the road network is so quiet (we pass the occasional Soviet-era Kamaz truck and beaten up Lada, but little else) and the terrain so dazzling that not being on horseback doesn’t really matter.  The scenery in the Tien Shan is so incredibly varied that every valley, pass and gorge we pass through has a totally different feel to the last.

Heading ever southwards on a series of winding and often unpaved roads, we feel as if there are no more variations in scenery that this remarkable little country can offer us, yet as we near Jalal-Abad we are suddenly debouched from the mountains into the scorched yet highly fertile plains of the Ferghana Valley.  Immediately the rugged mountain scenery gives way to ripening crops and dusty fields, a shock to the system after the refreshingly cool and multicoloured mountains.

The most remote village?

After staying in Osh, home to Central Asia’s largest and oldest bazaar, we head south east, back in to the mountains and towards Sari-Tash, one of the remotest villages in the country, straddling the intersection of the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges.

Sari-Tash consists of a handful of houses, one shop, one guesthouse, one filling station and a fork in the road: left goes to China and right goes to Tajikistan.  There are no Kyrgyz villages beyond here, yet we’re still at least four hours from either border.

Despite its remoteness the guesthouse is welcoming and reasonably comfortable; we spend our final night in Kyrgyzstan in high spirits with a couple of other overland travellers who are ‘taking the right fork’ to Tajikistan in the morning.

Here, in this remote yet stunningly beautiful outpost of the country, the sense of adventure that has been with us throughout the whole country feels even more acute, and over a welcome Shymkentstoye beer or two it’s easy to conjure up images of past escapades during the Great Game…

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