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A day in the saddle in the mountains of Kyrgystan


The Silk Road Lodge in Bishkek was a peculiar hotel but the staff were extremely helpful. I outlined the itinerary and they arranged for a driver to take me to the lake and beyond with a two day-stopover en-route in the “alpine village” of Kochkor. The manager even called ahead to speak to the folk at the Community Based Tourism (CBT) office there who would make arrangements for me to stay with a family and take in a visit to a nearby jailoo. Which you now have to guess is either a) a prison b) a toilet c) a form of igloo or d) none of the above.

The pretty picture-postcard image of Kochkor, so vividly created by the otherwise excellent Lonely Planet authors, was not merely shattered upon my arrival but obliterated into a billion tiny, worthless fragments. The car crawled slowly along the main street and I peered through the window feeling like a charity worker turning up in the wake of a disaster. The road was wide and empty, silent and ugly. It was a world of junk and rubble where things that used to be were no more.

The beauty of the green, snow-capped mountains in all directions had the effect of accentuating the plight of the sad, dreary village. It was a culture shock I really hadn’t expected and it was only the enthusiasm of the lovely CBT lady that stifled the fast-emerging thoughts of an escape bid. She had fixed it that tomorrow I would be collected at 9am and taken off to a jailoo and today, right now, I would go to the homestay where my hostess awaited.

She was tiny, quite elderly and utterly charming. There are people whose grace and gentleness is such that the absence of a common language is no barrier at all and this lady was most definitely amongst that number. Her pleasant demeanour lifted my spirits, convinced me to make the most of a short visit, and I felt substantially less miserable for an afternoon walk and a pre-dinner nap. The house was impeccably clean and, in keeping with local tradition, the room was decorated with large brightly-patterned rugs across the floor and two of the walls. A pile of quilts and mattresses was stacked in the corner, next to a large wooden dresser that housed old photos and a full series of encyclopaedias behind a glass door. A single, extremely dim light, dangled from the ceiling, soon to be supported by my torch to allow the option of reading. Without doubt I would be warm and comfortable for the night but by day, despite my new found optimism, I couldn’t help but reflect that a typical Central Asian house was rather less cosy than a morgue.

The driver arrived at 9am as agreed. He offered neither a smile nor the faintest glimmer of warmth, and as with a number of people I’d encountered, looked puzzled by my attempts at friendliness. I’m old, I’ve had a shit life and I’ve got nothing at all to be cheerful about was very much his message.

He pointed to the door, led me grumpily to the ancient Lada, bounced us along the potholed sidestreets and silently steered us out of town.

An hour later we were climbing high on a mountain track into a world that seemed too wild and remote to support any form of human life. I couldn’t imagine what we were going to find at the top, all I knew is that we were on our way to a jailoo. Another half hour passed and when it seemed we would be winding up the hillside for ever Mr Miseryguts cut the engine and invited me to disembark.

It had taken almost two hours but the view alone was worth every second. Miles and miles of bright green fields, wild flowers, a storybook landscape scattered with the contrasting colours and shapes of the many animals that grazed in the sunshine. My eyes eventually sorted them into groups of horses, sheep and cows and then followed the thin grey line, the track we’d ascended, as far down as the tiny specks that made up the villages in the distance. The only sign of human life was a yurt adjacent to a sky blue trailer with the word WELCOME incongruously painted on a piece of wood above its door.

Bobby, an unusual name for a Kyrgyz herder I couldn’t help think, introduced himself, his wife, their three grown up sons and the single grandchild. This was it, the jailoo, and lest you plumped for answers a) b) or c) it’s a high pasture where country folk set up camp in the summer to offer their animals a new place to feed. I smiled and shook hands with every human I could see, ascertained that Kyrgyz was their only language (not even Russian, though they did understand my spasiba) and I quickly came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of talking. Then I looked out at the views again, gestured my immense satisfaction at their location of summer camp and started to wonder what else a jailoo visit could possibly entail.

As though reading my mind Bobby pointed me into the trailer for tea and bread with cream and blueberry jam, all of which was extremely pleasant, and a cup of kumys, which was extremely repulsive. I’d read about this national drink, fermented mare’s milk, but at no point had I imagined that this innocent-looking stuff would be quite so disgusting. The closest comparison I can offer would be a mix of white emulsion and turpentine, a toxic, fume-laden cocktail you might find in a jam jar in your shed playing host to a stiff and rusty old paint brush.

The CBT lady had suggested I explore the pastures on horseback and she had evidently conveyed to my jailoo host, by way of an ancient and highly secret mode of mountain communication (probably mobile phone), that I was willing to give it a go. Somewhat reticently, I should add, given that my equine experience to that point had been restricted to a school ponytrekking outing, and that said pony had despatched me back to Mummy with fractured arm in plaster. Anyway, it was too late for loss of bottle, the nags were being prepared for action.

In the deaf and dumb world to which I was fast growing accustomed there was no way of explaining my lack of horsemanship or the burning desire to return intact, preferably within the hour or, better still, twenty minutes. All I could do was put on a smile, feign bravery, climb into the saddle and exchange waves with my old mucker Bobby as his son, my new guide, led the way up the mountain.

The horse walked very slowly and stooped down for a nibble whenever he felt the urge. The sun was warm now, the scenery absolutely glorious and everything in that majestic garden was as rosy as could be. More plodding, more stopping, often more stopping than plodding. And so the first hour passed by.

There was no indication after two hours of indifferent progress that a return to base was imminent. My left leg was cooking to an embarrassingly bright pink below the shorts and I was starting to get hungry, dare I say even a teeny bit bored. It was time to add just a little spice, to start taking the bull by the horns, or the horsey equivalent. So I gave Neddy a sharp whip across the buttocks – known in Kyrgyzstan as a Max Moseley – whilst making loud clicking noises and viciously jabbing his soft underbelly with as much power as my heels could muster. It was time to teach that lazy nag just who was bossing the show.

Whip, click, heels and away we went into a world of utter pandemonium. A rag doll atop a rampaging beast, all I recall for certain was that every three seconds my little peach of a bottom was hurled skywards only to come crashing down onto the crazy animal with the force of an angry ocean lashing the rocks. With every stride I gritted my teeth, let out a pointless curse and tried to prepare for the next violent assault on my coccyx. OW!..ya bastard… OW! ya bastard…OW! ya bastard….A man in a wheelchair pushed down a steep, never-ending flight of steps.

But it did end. In fact, the horse probably kept up the trot for only thirty seconds by which time the balance of power had been well and truly restored. From that point on he ambled and munched and stopped to drink water whenever he felt like and for another three hours we gently toured the mountains. Only once in that time did we part company; he was tied up and rested while I paddled and collected water from one of the many crystal clear mountain streams.

By the time we returned to Bobby & Co my buttocks and patience were both in shreds, I was badly dehydrated and the legs had turned a frightening shade of maroon. Not dissimilar in fact to the colour of the beetroot soup Mrs Bobby had prepared for my homecoming. Once again I found myself sitting in the dining shed for a family slurp, making conversation with sign language and gazing out through the door at the breathtaking valley below. The sociable Bobby seemed happy and playful and even managed to get a half smile out of Mr Miseryguts, perhaps on account of their having spent the afternoon preparing the “day out to a jailoo” invoice that was soon to come my way.

Extract taken from Ten Letter Countries.
9781780880754, £10.00, published 10th April 2012

The Ten-Letter Countries is an insight into the history, geography and politics of twelve fascinating countries through the eyes of The Alphabet Traveller. Each country David visited had 10 letters to its name. It follows on from his earlier adventure, The Four Letter Countries

Both books can be ordered from www.troubador.co.uk or www.alphabet-traveller.com

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