Day 420 – First Steps Across Kyrgyzstan
The soundtrack we’d been missing since we hung up our saddles in Albania returned: the clip-clop of our horses’ hooves as we ambled down the trail. The sun cast warm rays over Black Valley as we rode out of Arslanbob. An hour passed, and we arrived at the top of the pass, an unknown valley spread out below.
The first days brought challenges. Rivers forded, pastures crossed, forests traversed and cliffs scaled. Loose herds of horses excited our stallions, making them difficult to control. The road abruptly ended, blocked by a fence without a gate, resulting in a precarious detour through cow paths along a ravine. Little sleep was had by any member of the team the first nights. The horses were nervous and called out to other horses and each other. We were nervous too, waking up periodically to check on them, to count eyes shining back from the darkness.
At the forefront of our worries was attacks from stallions roaming the countryside. Kyrgyz turn their horses out for the summer. Stories had made their way to us of wandering stallions fighting in the night, and riders finding their horses riddled with injuries, big and small at dawn. When a grey stallion came galloping along the trail to answer Fidel’s call one night at dusk, we shooed him away with shouts and arm waving. At midnight he returned; jolted from sleep, we heard the whinny of Fidel, as well as the answering of an unfamiliar stallion. Our headlamps already by the door of the tent, we flew out to chase the stallion off.
When the first rays of daylight pulled us from the tent, we found a tan faced man sat upon a donkey waiting for us. As we packed, he insisted we join him for “chai,” tea. His sure-footed mount leading us down the trail, we helped him round up his sheep before following him down a skinny path to his yurt. Inside was his wife and one of his sons. Over cream, tea, bread and cucumber and tomato salad, Nurlan asked us how long we’d be staying, one night or two. After some hesitation, we declined his offer, thanked him and continued down the road to Sary-Bee.
After five days and 95km later, the first half of our trek had already exhausted us. We negotiated with a stay at a local’s home and put our horses in his stables for two days. In the nearby town of Majluu-Suu, or “Mailbox 200,” as it was previously called, we restocked our saddle bags with food for the next week. During the USSR, Maljuu-Suu was a city that did not officially exist, a secret location of intensive uranium mines. The valley between Maljuu-Suu and Sary-Bée is still highly radioactive. Residents note a distinct smell on windy days.
Tas-Kumyr: A Dry Spell
No one had been able to tell us which road to take to Tas-Kumyr, so we relied on the satellite. Facing the choice of a secluded spot with uninspiring grass, or a spot with good grass but in view of passing shepherds, we opted for good grass and attentive guard. Horse-theft is not uncommon in Kyrgyzstan. Thieves take the horse straight to the butcher to get the meat price rather than keep it to ride; the moment a horse is stolen, a race against the clock begins.
In view of passing shepherds also rendered us in view of passing herds. A big bay stallion came up to meet Fidel, and instead of chasing him off, we decided to watch the interaction between the horses. Head shaking, striking at the air and squealing from both sides finished in the visiting stud satisfied and sauntering off. He did not visit again that night. The experience taught us that by surveying the interaction between our horses and roaming stallions, the social curiosity on both sides can be quenched and a peaceful night can be had.
The riverbed leading to Tas-Kumyr was bone dry. For hours we walked, the landscape turning drier and drier with each passing kilometer. Quentin believed he’d found a reservoir on the satellite, only to find a mud pit with a few cows licking the bottom of an empty water trough. Further down the valley, we spotted a smattering of mud datchas, or summer houses. A 4x4 pulled out of one as we rode up, and a man in a cowboy hat and open button-down shirt hopped out. Nourslanbek (“Mr. Nourslan”), introduced himself, and showed us where to find water for horses and humans. In the morning, we drank kumis, or fermented mare’s milk, and tea together, before striking out to conquer one of the more daunting days of this leg: crossing Tas-Kumyr and reaching Ak-Su.
Tas-Kumyr is located along the country’s central highway connecting Osh and Bishkek. Crossing cities on horseback is always a bizarre experience, but the day passed without incident. A very friendly and very drunk man named Emil filled buckets of water for our horses to have a drink before we branched out into the desert once again.
The valleys between Tas-Kumyr and Ak-Su border on apocalyptic. The tops of what should be rolling hills are buzzed off by coal mines. The first few hours of the road were met with rumbling trucks and bulldozers, the stream of mining traffic only ending when we reached yet another dry riverbed. The grass was all but eaten away by the livestock and only by riding a kilometer off the trail did we find a spot with a few patches. A green plant with a sharp odor covered the hills and scented our tent, though whether it smelled worse than us and our clothes is still undecided.
In the morning, after a climb, a mirage-like scene unfolded before us: miles of green hills until Ak-Su. By mid-day we’d reached a water pipe that a farmer had cut and funneled into a water trough. Rejoicing along with our horses, who’d not drunk for almost 24 hours, we rinsed off, filled our water bottles, and took a long lunch break in the rich grass near the source.
Hay Theft and Welcoming Homes
Giddy from the sight of so much grass, we aimed for a camping spot with the best view over Ak-Su. The horses ate their fill and lolled in the grass, and we rested with them. Is there greater pleasure than rewarding your horse with a field of green grass after a long day on the road? The full moon watched the camp for us, and all five us of slept deeply. But at 5:30am the sound of someone kicking our tent rocked us out of sleep. The man’s surprise to find two foreigners was met with our surprise to learn that all the green fields around Ak-Su are wild hay fields. We’d slept on the villagers’ future winter hay.
Genuinely apologetic but pleased we’d only been found out the morning after, we offered to pay for the hay our horses had eaten. The man turned down our money but hovered around while we packed up. On the walk down to town he called everyone he knew, recounting his heroic tale of catching the foreign hay thieves and their three delinquent horses. In the center, we hung around awaiting our punishment. A police officer showed up, but he shooed the man who’d caught us away and invited us home for plov, a typical meat and rice dish served at any hour of the day. Not wanting to push our luck, we politely refused and got the hell out of town.
The early start ended up a blessing, as this day would stretch on and on. A 1000m+ climb led us to the pass for Syny village. On the cliffs too steep for grazing real forest still grew, a wide variety of firs, spruce and juniper trees. The rest of the scenery was cause for heartache: mountainsides terraced with 6-inch wide trails from livestock, and no plants remained except inedible purple irises and the occasional scraggly tree.
A storm was forming around the peaks at the 2000m pass. Being pelted with rain and hail, we sat atop our gear with our ponchos sprawled over the edges, like mother hens protecting their chicks. The horses turned their rumps to the storm and lowered their heads. Misery and acceptance enveloped the whole team. The weather cleared, and after riding through a crack in a wall of rock at the pass, we were faced with a very steep and long descent. By the time we arrived at a small plateau six kilometers later all our nerves were shot. But fate smiles on people like us; we were found by a young couple living in a small datcha. Norbek (23) and his wife (18) were bursting with enthusiasm to have us as guests, which spread to us, like a shot of dopamine.
Two days later, the green hills of Batyrbek and the white mountains of Sary Chelek lit up with the sunrise. Knowing the leg wasn’t yet complete, we reserved our energy as we packed for the last 14km before Sary Chelek. Our trail picked up parallel to the Kuzol Ata river and into the valley of the Sary Chelek Biosphere region. Red canyon walls enclosed us and the roar of the river was never far away.