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Day 522 – Retreat at Song Kul Lake


The Waters of Song Kul


After spending 4 months crossing Kyrgyzstan on horseback, our ponies needed a break. And so did we. While our loyal mounts reposed in their new home with Hélène Guillerm, Quentin and I decided to take a weekend trip to one of Kyrgyzstan’s most well-known destinations: Song Kul lake. Our dear friend Coco was heading up with a driver, so we decided to grab the remaining two seats in the car and make the journey to this sublime high-altitude lake.


A bumpy ride brought us to the pass and then the plateau. Below lay the lake. Mist hung over the calm waters just offshore. We did our morning skin care routine, splashing the icy water in our faces and inhaling the silence. How strange it felt to travel without the horses.

Chez Mirbek and Nourmira

There are dozens of yurt camps around the lake that welcome tourists; Coco and her guide settled into one right on the shores. But Quentin and I decided to do things differently and find a family to stay with. We were looking for a shepherding family with a traditional wooden yurt who wouldn’t mind some funny foreign guests photographing their daily life. Mirbek and Nourmira live a few kilometers from the lake and were happy to welcome us and let us set up the tent just next door. Their three children were even happier to have us!

For two days, we hung around the camp, observing and participating in the daily chores that go into yurt life. From early morning, Mirbek and his father were busy with the sheep. First they counted them (yes, really!) and then Mirbek’s father rode out on horseback to accompany them for the day. Nourmira milked the cows, and we set about separating the milk from the cream, to make “kaymak.” You have to keep turning the machine the whole time, and as soon as the cream starts to dribble out, the kids will be there and ready to dip warm bread into the fountain of fresh kaymak.

Though the summer was winding down and the grass turning yellow, Nourmira’s mares were still being milked twice daily to prepare kumis, the Kyrgyz national drink of fermented mare’s milk. The milk is fermented in a wooden barrel inside the yurt, and must be agitated regularly. If you’ve never drank kumis, it tastes a bit like you’d expect: kind of livestock-y, and sour due to the fermentation.

Once the milking was finished, Nourmira and the kids prepared the dough for dinner: pelmeni. Originally a Russian dish, these little dumplings are everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Filled with diced meat, onions, salt and pepper, they are simple but filling.



End of Summer // Goodbye Kyrgyzstan

In the afternoon, a neighbor came to visit, and we sat in a circle outside drinking cups of kumis and talking about horses. During our 4 months of travel on horseback, Quentin and I never stayed too long in a yurt camp, because we traveled with three stallions and needed ample grass for them at night.

Mirbek told us about a stallion he once had who he could trust with his life. Once they were climbing up the pass towards Song Kul lake, but the snow hadn’t melted yet. The stallion misjudged the footing and fell into the snowdrift higher than his shoulders and past Mirbek’s knees! Scrambling off his horse to safety Mirbek did everything he could think of to free his steed from the snow. Finally he had given up and began crying. Just then, the horse looked him in the eye and gave one last effort, pulling himself free from the icy prison. The pair arrived safely at the camp, but it’s a story Mirbek will never forget. And neither will we.

During our travels, local horsemanship often frustrated us. Of the famous Central Asian horsemen, French historian Jean-Louis Gourand has said: “Contrary to what we might believe, nomad riders across Central Asia are poor horsemen: they ride hard and with brutality, without respect or care for the animal, often standing in their stirrups and relying too much on their hands; without lightness in the reins or the bit, without the help of their aides and without mastering the knee.”

Though we do not agree completely with Gourand’s scathing words, he is not far off the reality. What Gourand misses in his reflection is why Central Asian riders are so rough on their horses; to us it is a cultural consequence of lack of education and new ideas. Riders in Kyrgyzstan may not follow the equestrian dogmas drilled into us in the west, but they do follow their own dogmas and religiously. Visiting this country showed us there is a long way to go for horse welfare in the country, but we when we hear stories like Mirbek’s desperation and relief to save his horse, we know that behind the heart of every rider is his horse.

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