Day 391 – Southern Kyrgyzstan: Searching for Horses
To Osh, with a Cycling Interlude
Approaching hour fourteen of the drive from Bishkek to Osh, the bickering began. Two mountain passes and a vast, snow covered plateau divide these the two main cities of Kyrgyzstan. With our fingers we wiped the dust from our eyes. They unveiled a new country in Osh. The weather is warm, the people more conservative. The city wears a blanket of calm. Cocktails and cafés were luxuries left behind in Bishkek. A hundred pounds of gear fills the room of our hostel. The warmth of the spring was deceptive; the mountain passes held onto their snowcaps. Our days were full. We visited a university where we shared our project with international students. We ironed out a few gear issues like finding kourpatchas, or padded car seats, to add to our saddles, and we visited the region.
Osh borders Uzbekistan, the country where we left our bicycles in a friend’s garage at the beginning of the pandemic. Unable to cross the border ourselves due to Covid restrictions, an international smuggling scheme took form to get our bicycles from the capital city of Tashkent to the border at Osh. A taxi from Tashkent drove our bicycles the 8 hours through the Uzbek countryside. There the boxes a middle-aged woman with a passport and a negative Covid test received them. In turn, she stood in line at the border for three hours before wheeling the boxes onto the Kyrgyz side and into our open arms. Paying her a passage fee and many thanks, we shoved the cartons into a van, and the yearlong separation finished. The whole operation cost €65. There is no place for our bicycles on our horse trek, we assembled the bikes with love, and pedalled around Osh with grand smiles painted across our faces. Once again they’re stashed in a friend’s garage, but this time we know when we’ll be coming back for them.
Alaman Ulak, the National Horse Sport
In the jaïloo, summer pastures, small matches of horse games take place. It’s only in winter and spring, when the weather is mild and people are living in the lowlands, that it’s possible to catch big matches. Word of mouth is the only way to find horse games. No man who spoke a bit of English was safe from Ashley quizzing him about the location of horse games that weekend. Golden sunrise broke over us as we searched for a taxi stand to the Alaï region. “Gulcha?” we asked to a driver. A nod. “Kahncha-dahn?” Three euros fifty.
Arriving at an empty floodplain, we’d beat the crowd, and the riders. As the minutes ticked away, riders streamed down from all sides of the valley. Within an hour over 300 horse and rider teams were galloping across the rocks to play Alaman Ulak, the national sport of Kyrgyzstan. If you've read "Les Cavaliers" by Kessel, you know this game by its Afghani name, "buzkashi." Its origins date back centuries: when a shepherd killed a wolf, riders would play keep away with its body celebrating the kill. Today a wolf isn't killed, but instead a sheep or goat slaughtered. Riders must capture the carcass and carry it on their horse to a designated spot.
Observing, we fruitlessly tried to understand the rules but there are no teams, no boundaries, and no fouls. The game is brutal for both horse and rider. Anyone in the melee is subject to kicks, slaps of the whip, shoves, bites or tumbles. The sport is rough, and few horses left the playing field without bloody mouths. For all the repulsive qualities of this game, we saw riders taking pains to prepare their horses for the match. Homemade bell boots, tendon boots, and breastplates adorned the horses to protect them in the fray. Before and after playing, riders covered their horses with fleecy blankets to help them cool off and made sure to offer them water. It's not the type of riding sport we're used to. Nor one that we want to try. But the strength and speed of the horses and riders, and the grittiness of the game impressed us. To see a battalion of riders galloping across a floodplain is like watching living history. A witness to traditions almost unchanged over hundreds of years.
To the Forests of Arslanbob
Leaves burst out of buds on the trees in Osh; it was time for us to move on. Four hours bouncing in a packed taxi up the mountain road from Osh brought us to a bright and clean guest house, our base camp for the horse trek. Arslanbob village was a welcome breath of fresh air after six weeks spent in cities. Sprawling at the base of the Babash Ata mountains, the world’s largest walnut forest covers the valley walls on both sides.
A man named Hayat runs the town’s CBT (community based tourism) chapter. Ashley began to list out our needs: a hot shower, a discreet family, a stable for the horses, wifi, when he interrupted. “There is no wifi in Arslanbob! But if you must use the internet, you can make a hotspot with your phone. I think you will stay with Mashkhur and his family.” Heaving under the charge, another taxi driver loaded our gear into his jeep, and drove us to Mashkhur’s house. Mashkhur is the town’s English teacher. He and his family were surprised but pleased to hear we’ll be staying a month in their home. Our quarters are separate from the rest of the family. Three strides from our window the river rumbles day and night. We felt at peace staying with this calm and harmonious family. Included in our board is dinner, and we ate our weight in plov.
Fruit trees are bursting into bloom, but the walnut trees are holding onto their buds a little longer. The village is principally Uzbek ethnicity. It is Ramadan, the pace of village life here is especially relaxed. Agricultural fields and foothills around the village have become our stomping grounds. The bottom of the valley rests at 1500m. A brief hike up into the foothills or the agricultural fields and one can pass 2000m. There is still snow. We’ll be waiting longer before we can leave. The most important part of our trek is staring us in the face: it’s time to buy horses.
The Horse from Oogan Taala
The sun had yet to crest the horizon when we met Faysi, our guide, to visit a neighboring village bazaar. Faysi speaks robust English, and guides tourists in all types of sports: hiking, ski touring, camping and horse trekking. He’s helped tourists find horses to buy before. To his frustration, he realized that we’re particularly exigent tourists; not any horse will do.
12km down the valley we arrive at Oogan Taala. Fifty men mill about, examining the dozen sheep and goats for sale. There are no horses. After waiting a few minutes, Faysi shakes the hand of a man with a tanned and friendly face. Loading up into his car, we drive to the outskirts of the village. A handsome bay stallion stood tied, waiting for us to try. Displaying no confirmation flaws, in good weight, with a kind eye and nice gaits, we promised to think about it. Experience tells horse travelers never to buy the first horse you see.
Returning a few days later to Oogan Taala, Ashley spent a half hour riding the bay horse, to make sure he’d hold up to the work in the mountains. His energy and appetite for work convinced us he would be the right horse for Quentin, and we agreed on the price of $800. We’d found the first member of our team.
The Horses from Uzgen
A week passed without finding the other two horses. Sometime it's best to try things the local way, though rising at 3:30am can only be jolting. Our beds were still warm when we loaded up into a rented truck heading for the Uzgen bazaar near the Uzbek border. One of the largest bazaars in the country, horses of all ages, shapes and colors paraded past, and we eyed them all. Confusion reigned. Sellers don’t park their horse in a fixed spot and let prospective buyers come look. Instead, they swirl around the bazaar, walking, trotting, even galloping through the crowd. A potential buyer must grab the rider or horse wherever he can to get their attention.
A lovely buckskin met our criteria, until the owner revealed that he was three-legged lame. A black horse around seven had a demure attitude. Quentin looked between his legs to check his confirmation. He discovered a fresh gash, open and dripping crimson blood. Before sitting on any horse, we had Faysi ask the seller to see beneath the saddle. Horse after horse had open and oozing sores on their backs. Their owners shrugged it off; if the horse keeps moving forward, what harm is a saddle sore? And if their backs were not wounded yet, that was because they were only three years old.
Through the mayhem, Ashley spotted a little bay horse, skinny and calm. His soft eye perked up, and she approached, opening his lips to check his age. Five years old. He was so bony that you could have taught a course on the equine skeleton using him as a model. No saddle sores. Under he marched off at an amble, the fast walk that’s almost a trot that Kyrgyz shepherd horses are famous for. There was potential, and the price was right: $650. With a flashy handshake, the little bay became ours, and we loaded him up into the truck.
The fray reabsorbed us. Quentin spotted a chestnut stallion. His mouth splayed wide open while he danced away from the lashes of his rider. Ashley inspected the horse, noticing that the bit was too low, hitting his teeth. This accounted for the gaping mouth. The saddle sores on his back were more scars than sores; hair was growing back. He had a mischievous look, but was polite and fast undersaddle. “Okay Faysi, it’s time to talk price.” The seller wouldn’t budge, so we walked away with the chestnut for $850.
Wads of cash handed over to the old owners, horses loaded in the trailer, our truck rumbled away from the bazaar. We are now the owners of three Kyrgyz stallions, our herd is complete.