Day 345 – Boarding for Bishkek

Boarding for Bishkek

 

It unfurled like a dream. Each of the three boxes containing our gear weighed 500g less than the limit. The gate agents in Marseille didn’t ask questions about why we were traveling. In Istanbul, the flight attendant turned a blind eye to our excessive hand luggage. The border control on arrival glanced at our PCR tests and waved us through. Without believing it was really happening, we found ourselves in a taxi at sunrise, speeding into Bishkek, the capital city of the Kyrgyz Republic. To the east, an enormous red sun rose over the plains, and to the south, the snowy Ala-Too mountains loomed on the horizon.

Habits we’d forgotten return to us in a heartbeat: savoring a cappuccino in a café filled with people, eating in a restaurant filled with people, navigating the alleys of the bazaar to do our grocery shopping, also, filled with people. After a violent summer wave of Covid-19, the Kyrgyz population considers itself immune to the virus, and the official numbers are incredibly low. Life has returned more or less to normal.

Among the grandiose Soviet architecture that marks the government and public buildings, a new Bishkek grows out of the ground. New buildings dot downtown, and the population (average age: 26) feels dynamic and cosmopolitan. A handful of “alternative” bars inhabit unlikely places; you can drink an exceptionally well mixed, exceptionally inexpensive Old-Fashioned underneath a parking lot, in a converted house, or on the ground floor of an abandoned administrative building. Could Bishkek clamp the title of “cheap artistic haven,” that once belonged to Paris and Berlin?

On a Monday afternoon, a taxi drops us at the headquarters of Camp Alatoo, a local NGO dedicated to building conservation efforts and local development side by side. Half frozen puddles crunch under our boots. Over tea and candies, Aliya, the director and Zhyrgal, the head of pasture and forest management, share some of their projects with us, and we explain ours.

Later, with Zhyrgal, we settle down together to study their database of GIS maps. His colleagues Ruslan and Nurgazy call in from the Djalalabad office to weigh in on which mountain passes will be clear by the time we begin trekking in mid-May. Our route “validated,” we head off to our next preparation task, and this one requires a field visit.

 

Rot-Front and Tokmok

On a Tuesday evening, we arrive at the bus station an hour early to ensure we snag a seat on the marshrutka, or minibus, destined for the village of Rot-Front. At the end of the 19th century, a community of German Mennonites arrived here seeking religious freedom and fertile soil; a German-speaking minority remains today. More recently, in 2001, a new, smaller minority arrived: the Guillerm family. For almost two decades now, brother and sister duo Yann and Hélène have safely trucked riders out for horse-trekking adventures in the region around Lake Söng Köl that last a fortnight. Aware that Kyrgyzstan is on the bucket list for independent horse trekkers like us, Hélène offers a crash course from zero to hero for riders who’ve never even sat on a horse to become independent trekkers. Since this isn’t our first rodeo, we skip the full package, but recruit Hélène to help us with some essential tasks: shoeing, immobilizing, and saddle fitting.

The difficulty of finding a skilled farrier in Albania is a memory that stuck with us, so for this trek, we want to be autonomous. While in France in 2020, we learned how to trim and care for a horse going “barefoot,” (horse language for unshod). But the rocky terrain that awaits us here in Central Asia means that our horses will probably need shoes. After a night spent exchanging stories from the trail, the next morning we load up into Hélène’s indestructible Oazik truck heading to the winter pastures. Frozen earth lies below a few inches of snow, the spring grass still awaiting the thaw. A shepherd named Kolia lives on site watching over the horses, and with his help, we herd the twenty-odd horses inside the stables, grabbing one chestnut gelding in the process. With exceptional politeness, the Jaïloo lets us trim his hooves, nail on a shoe, and take it off without losing patience.

The right angle and balance are the most important aspects of trimming a horse’s hoof. Horses effectively walk on their toes; their hooves are like their toenail. Trimming too much hoof can leave your horse in pain and off balance. Nailing on a shoe also requires some skill. If you hammer the nail straight into the hoof, the nail will enter the soft part of the hoof. Not only does it hurt but can also lead to infection.

Our toes frozen, and stomachs rumbling, we break for lunch before diving into the second project of the day: immobilizing a fussy horse. Horses in Central Asia live in herds most of the year. When their owner needs a mount to herd his livestock, he’ll swing a rope over whichever horse is closest, saddle him up and ride him for the day. Because of this, the horses are less domesticated than European horses; they aren’t used to having their feet picked up or manipulated on a daily basis. For our safety and theirs, we decided to learn how to immobilize a horse using a few meters of strategically placed rope. If the horse struggles or tries to lash out, his range of motion is limited, and the only resistance he faces is his own force. Unlike our future horses, Hélène’s white stallion Poussière is a perfect gentleman, and we’re able to practice tying the knot several times before giving him a pat and checking the box on our skills list.

All that remains is saddle fit. You can liken good saddle fit on a horse to a good hiking backpack, if you also imagine that inside your backpack you’ll carry live weight, with pressure that changes as you hike up or down mountains. Bad saddle fit not only causes discomfort, it can result in open sores, putting a halt to a trek until the wounds heal. The typical saddle here is meant to be used for a couple hours at most, not days on end. Hélène and Yann bring us to their saddlemaker Eumur, who builds sturdy, well balanced saddles. Unfortunately, he has a long waiting list and wasn’t able to make ours in the short amount of time we had to wait. Luckily, Hélène & Yann have many of his saddles and offered to sell us a pair that are only one year old. These saddles have a metal frame, wooden tree with cushions, and a leather seat. For about €90 each, we collected almost new saddles complete with clips for our saddlebags, breastplates, girths, cruppers and bridles.

Our last Sunday in Bishkek, we drive to Tokmok, which is the home to the largest animal bazaar in the country. It’s a slow day, only about 200 horses are here to be sold. The air is charged with the smell of manure, adrenaline, and testosterone. With the arrival of spring, stallions are the most common horse for sale. To keep new blood in their herds, Kyrgyz farmers change stallions every few years in the spring time. The horses are mostly tied to iron bars planted in the ground, jostling each other incessantly and paying little attention to the humans they might step on, or kick, in this stressful environment. Here, a horse is tried out by the prospective buyer hopping on bareback and going for a gallop through the mud, weaving through the chaos. A handshake seals the deal.

In the tools corner of the bazaar, we purchase triple stitched halters, saddle blankets, military issue saddle bags, a rasp and sturdy nails. The shopping process feels a bit like a bride preparing for her new husband; we’re collecting everything we’ll need for our new partners.

 

Heading South

Outweighed by our luggage, we send our boxes down to Osh ahead of time in the backseat of a taxi making the trip, fingers crossed they wouldn’t disappear on the route. Trust is a muscle you must exercise regularly on adventures like ours. At dawn a few days later we flexed this muscle again as we put our lives in the hands of a short-sighted driver to make the journey to Osh. Only 350km as the crow flies, Osh is a 14 hour drive from Bishkek, crossing two mountain passes at over 3100m (+10,000ft). Around the Too-Ashuu pass, the wind blows snow into the road, reducing it to one lane travel with very limited visibility. But we can’t close our eyes; whenever the air clears, we’re gifted with a breathtaking view of rolling alpine highlands, a plateau covered in snow and the definition of desolation, at least in the winter.

Approaching the Toktogul reservoir we sense the change in atmosphere. Close to the Uzbek border, many communities here are a mix of Kyrgyz and Uzbek people. The hills are already green with spring grass, the road is dusty, and traffic is bad. An hour before Osh, we’re both losing our minds and our patience with being trapped in a car. A dark city greets us; the electricity is out almost everywhere, our hostel included. Too tired to care, we inhale a pizza and crash into bed. Tomorrow, we begin phase two of the preparation.