06/20/21 – Crossing Regions in Central Kyrgyzstan
Cheat Codes and Cow Shit
“Ashley if I am honest, I don’t suggest a path to ride, I suggest a truck.” These were the words of Kalyinur Satarov, a riding guide who had hosted us for the past three nights in Toktogul. His mother, a retired French professor. His brother, the president of Kyrygzstan’s horseball federation and a breeder of Tchaar horses, the genetic ancestor of the Appaloosa horse. We had reason to trust their judgement. “There is not any grass, and you’ll be often alongside the highway.” The truck cost the equivalent of €20 to skip those 50km. The questions we refer back to at each difficult decision arose: ‘Are we here to ride every kilometer of Kyrygzstan, or are we here to enjoy riding beautiful parts of Kyrygzstan with our horses? What’s best for the horses?’ The decision was easy. We’d take the truck.
At nine Emil arrived with the typical Chinese work truck just large enough to squeeze the horses inside. Prudent and careful, Emil drove down the highway like our horses were Olympic champions, taking every effort to make the transport comfortable for them. He honked the horn of his truck as he pulled away from Sargata, and we embarked south.
Our first large steppe and a small pass separated us from the Kara Su river, the next water source. Fat grey clouds swept over the steppe, pushed by a sharp cold wind that cut into our faces, but not a drop of water fell. The earth felt abandoned and parched. The horses picked up a quicker rhythm. They also did not wish to spend the night here either.
All day we climbed toward lake Kara Su. The sun marked four pm when it finally it lay below us. Milky, emerald, sky and robin’s egg: the blues of the lake twirled ever changing in the sunlight. The edges of the lake were steep, and a thin trail circumnavigated it to the eastern shore. Eyeing the sparse grass and human trash on the western shore, we began to debate. “If we go, there is definitely better grass on the other side.” But Quentin replied, “It is another 8km, two hours at least by the looks of the trail. If we go, we’re going for it.” We go for it. For a hiker, the trail would have been a pleasure. For a horseback rider it was too steep and narrow to enjoy. We abandoned the idea of reaching the other side that night, and agreed that the first place flat enough to stick a tent is where we’d stop.
The weather changed as the trail evened out on the only flat swath of land, about halfway across the lake. Dark clouds rumbled, and we saw a pair of shepherd’s tents already in place where we’d hoped to camp. The tongue of last winter’s snow stretched down the small valley almost reaching the shores. A pair of cow carcasses lay decomposing; they must have slipped and fallen weeks ago. One shepherd emerged from a tent and explained to Quentin that the trail stops here. “Go back, and go around the other way,” pointing to the trail across the lake. Creeped out by the disarray of the shepherd’s camp and the cadavers, we made a u-turn. An almost flat place a few kilometers back became our campsite. The grass was good. But the flat place was where cows lay in the summer sun to escape the flies. It was a bed of cowshit. Laughing to keep from crying, Quentin crawled into his sleeping bag and repeated “Living the dream in Kyrgyzstan. Living the dream.”
Snowy Barrier to Naryn Province
Up the plateau a family kepts their summer datcha, and once we’d had tea together we explained to them the route we planned to take. “There will be snow at that pass,” noted the father. The mother mimed shivering to make sure we got the point. “We’ll be ok,” reassured Quentin.
A rush of wind picked up as we approached the pass, so strong we had to fight the horses’ urge to turn their rumps to the wind and walk sideways along the trail. Ahead lay a 60m segment cover in snow. Could we cross safely? We descended from the saddles to lead the horses over the slippery patch as more snow fell. Before crossing, Quentin shouted into the wind: “If there are more passages like this, or more dangerous ones, we must turn around and wait for the weather to clear. Ashley barely heard him; the words were swept from his mouth even as he shouted them. Then he began walking.
Ashley carried Tian’s reins in her left hand, Chai’s lead in her right and began to follow. All three slipped and slide across the snowy part. Each time a horse lost his footing and slipped, it threw Ashley off balance, and she hit the snow twice. The steadiness of Tian saved her from sliding down the slope. Quentin reached the other side, and left Fidel, who observed the comedy from through his thick forelock. Grabbing Chai’s rope, Quentin helped finish the passage.
“My hands!” cried Ashley
“Mine too. Take your gloves off and blow on them.”
Ashley had not bothered to pull out her winter gloves from deep in a saddlebag before the pass and instead put on her horse shoeing gloves. The plastic of the glove’s fingers had frozen to her fingers and peeling it off, a thin layer of skin was also sacrificed. We agreed to continue. Ten minutes later, the pass was behind us and the brightest sun came out. All the clouds disappeared, and the snow stopped. If not for our soaked shoes, we would not have believed the storm we’d just come through even existed. Before us, the province of Naryn stretched out its welcome in bright greens and yellows.
The pass marked the border between the two oblasts, and we felt the anticipation of a new region excite our senses. A small gift from luck, we shortly heard the conversation of marmots announcing our arrival in the valley with their distinct “chirp, chirp, chirp!”
The steppe began outside Kazarman. Pastures still green but beginning to burn covered the landscape. It was eerily empty; all the animals and people had left for the jaïloo, or summer pastures. A blue Soviet era cabin stood empty two kilometers off the road. No one was there to mind if we camped in its shadow.
One mountain away from the mining hamlet of Makmal, we stumbled into a lush jaïloo, sparsely populated. We arrived early, but stayed for two nights. It felt like decadence incarnate to sleep late, and not pack up the tent. The horses were drunk on green grass.
Crossing the next pass, red walled canyons splayed out before us, dotted with green pastures. Further down, tawny hills and no grass. But something enticing appeared: the valley and village of Kosh Döbë. Dry and tawny, the homes of the village are all made from mud and hay. The streets stood wide but empty. It felt like the setting of a western film, only in the Far East. To the south, the massive Jaman Too mountains towered at more than 4500m. A young man hanging outside the local shop asked where we’re going. “Arpa.” His eyes widened. “Not today! Come stay at my house and rest. Then you can go to Arpa.” We didn’t need to discuss if we’d accept the invite: a rest and resupply is just what we needed before we try to reach Arpa by passing through the mountains. For the next three weeks, the team would grow by three: Quentin's three cousins Céline, Bruno and Julie were in route to join us.