After two stressful days in Bishkek juggling multiple jobs and an angry Chinese accountant in London from my hotel room, I switched on the out of office on my email and got on a local bus to the countryside in the south.
After two hours or so I woke up as we had stopped at one of the local fast food stops along the main highway east of the capital. I sleepily joined the queue with a tray to get some manti and a bowl of spicy udong soup. A young pretty girl with almond eyes in a white dress in front of me turned around and said ‘fast food!’ in English, which seemed a strong enough basis for us to sit down together at a table over lunch.
Her name was Burulcha, she was going to turn eighteen in two days and was about to start studying Economics at Bishkek University. Her English was extremely limited but we stuck to some very basic phrases as both my Russian and Kyrgyz are simply non-existent. It was then that she came out with it: “What’s your motto?” I admitted that I didn’t have one and, knowing that obviously she did, I asked her what hers was. “If not me, who?” she replied. She was just the nicest girl I ever met.
Spending time with Kyrgyz people on public transport
I like taking local buses. It never fails to amaze me how much communication can be transferred without any knowledge of a corresponding language. In this way I passed the time chatting to three local women on the back seat; taking the usual internationally applicable shit for being thirty three and unmarried without children.
From one nowhere town to another I finally got to the last nowhere town closest to my destination. The skinniest of the three ladies (whom I liked the least) had kept on telling me how far it was to where I was going and that I should stay with her that night but I knew she was only doing it because she wanted money and she finally understood that I wasn’t going to go for it and stopped trying.
When I got off the bus I stood in the street surrounded by men and waited for something to happen. One young man, more enterprising than his elders, stopped his car and in the street next to me, got out and showed me a price on his phone after hearing that I wished to go to Tash Rabat. We agreed a price and I got in. His girlfriend was in the back seat and came along for the ride.
Hitchhiking along the Silk Road into the mountains
The ride was beautiful. After a long, flat plain filled with grass, the Tian Shan mountain range rose up in a steep, spiky-topped wall to my left as we headed south. After bombing down the road for about an hour we turned left and drove into the mountains along a dirt track. The road threaded through weird and wonderful rock formations with long, green pastures leading up to the high places at a 45 degree angle.
We arrived at Tash Rabat, a stone-built Caravanserai on one of the ancient routes of the Silk Road, a two-day’s walk from the Chinese border. I paid my driver, said goodbye to his girlfriend, and after taking a tour of the damp interior of the complex I took my rucksack and walked up a steep foothill to get a view of the area. White yurt camps dotted the valley like fresh mushrooms. The valley was very green and the river has fresh water you can drink. It felt good to be out of the city and I enjoyed the wind and the sunshine.
I was lucky to get a yurt to myself and slept soundly as the Milky Way sprawled overhead. They had run out of horses in the valley the next day as some large tour groups had come through and taken them up to the high pass with guides. I lightened my pack, leaving some things in the yurt, and set off in the direction of China. It had been a while since I had properly stretched my legs and I was glad to be walking in the sunshine.
Hiking near the Chinese border and a little history of Kyrgyzstan
After a few hours the going got steep and the grass disappeared; replaced by grey slag and stone. I headed up to the high pass, breathing very heavily towards the top as the air thinned. On the other side the pass fell away down to the impressive Chatyr-Kul alpine lake at 3500m above sea level [‘Celestial Lake’ in Kyrgyz], 23 by 10km with glacial inflows, with the mountains of the Chinese border in the distance.
I chatted to a local guide at the pass for a while, the latter busy with horses, locals and tourists coming and going. After eating a lunch of flatbread, dried fruit and nuts surreptitiously lifted from the breakfast table, I walked back to the yurt camp. In the morning the son of the camp’s owners dropped me in the nearest town. His name was Rasul [‘Prophet’ in Arabic] and he was a teacher in a local school although currently off for the summer.
He spoke good English and said he liked history and, when asked, said that his favorite part of Kyrgyz history was the Kyrgyz Empire. This period of self-rule and expansion preceded the Uyghur Empire (the Uyghur peoples of Western China share a much closer heritage with the Kyrgyz both genetically and in their practice of Islam than their Han Chinese rulers) and the domination by the Mongol hordes in the 13th Century.
He also explained that Tash Rabat had also previously been a mercury mine (he actually said ‘liquid iron’ but I figured it out) until the Soviets had filled in the tunnels in the 1980’s when they rebuilt the structure. I caught a bus to the nowhere town of Naryn. Opportunistic cab drivers hanging around bus stations tend to be arseholes all over the world, and mine was no exception.
Taking a taxi to Song Kol Lake in central Kyrgyzstan
After driving around aimlessly in town until a friend could come along for the ride, during which he constantly tried to re-negotiate the price until I ended up screaming at him and waving my fists in his face, we finally set off for Song Kol Lake. After he had picked up five liters of water from his house and played with his son. And bought some bread. The drive was long and beautiful – going right into the heart of the mountains of central Kyrgyzstan – and I started to appreciate it as the filthy mood he had put me into subsided.
By the time we reached the lake I was spellbound with the beauty of the place. I didn’t like the first yurt camp we stopped at. It just didn’t feel right. When the old man saw that I was going to leave he told me that the next camp didn’t have any water and that told me all I needed to know about him. “Yes, I’m sure we will all die of thirst tomorrow next to the largest fresh water lake in Kyrgyzstan” I actually spoke out loud to myself as we drove to the next camp. This one had good vibes and a young family with innumerable children everywhere.
I was given my own yurt and noticed that the small circle at the top of the roof had a modern touch of transparent plastic instead of the usual felt covering. This was swarming with about fifteen or so horseflies, which have a very painful bite. I wisely decided to worry about this later and went back out to ask for a horse. My horse arrived from another camp and after adjusting the length of the stirrups I rode out by myself onto the wide plain.
Horse-riding with Kyrgyz nomads around the yurt camp
The lake is enormous (270km squared) and the plains surrounding it are also very large. It is big sky country and I spent a lot of time just watching the clouds drifting across it. Three young boys spread across two horses were shepherding a flock of about a hundred goats. I cantered up to them calling out the familiar ‘As-salamu alaykum’ which always puts people at ease. The young boy who had a horse to himself came up alongside me and we spurred our horses into a gallop.
He was riding without a saddle and of course completely licked me. Even without a saddle he sat effortlessly glued to his mount. His raggedy shirt was open and his brown tummy was as tight as a drum. I was having a beer once in Bishkek with a local history teacher called Jalil. He had grown up in the city and didn’t get on a horse until he was twenty years old. He described the experience to me in these exact words: “It was like a machine I already knew how to operate: I instinctively knew how to control the horse and it felt like I should always have been there.” The horse is the true home of the nomad.
I explored the area around the camp for a couple of hours and returned home before sunset. There were two Kyrgyz families from two of the towns a few hours’ drive away at the camp, and they invited me into the larger dining yurt for schnapps and kemeys, a slightly fermented milk drink. We did the usual round of international sign language and they gave me shit for not being married and being without children.
Hiking up a mountain with a view of Song Kol Lake
I was right not to worry about the horseflies as when the temperature dropped with the sunset they stopped buzzing and moving and didn’t bother me at all in the night. Going to sleep looking at the wooden latticework of the yurt I was very happy. The next day I took a slightly larger horse out for four hours and explored to the west of the camp along the lakeshore. Galloping free along the open plain was the stuff that dreams are made of. It was very hot so I tied a t-shirt around my head and wore sunglasses like a kind of rubbish Lawrence of Arabia.
It was quite boggy in places and I had to double-back a few times to find higher ground as I was very conscious of my horse damaging his legs in the uneven, watery ground. I rode up to the neighboring yurt camp and they were also shepherding livestock and they waved to me. When I dropped off the horse the day was still young so I walked four hours up and down the nearest peak, which still had patches of ice stuck to it.
It drizzled just as I was reaching the top but then the cloud broke (as it nearly always does) and the sunlight dashed through creating a perfect rainbow down to my right. The lake stretched out before me and from this height I could see the wind play upon its surface. On the way down I heard some strange animal calls that I couldn’t place. When I got down to one of the larger ice patches I saw a solo sandy camel standing next to it, which had been the cause of all the bellowing.
I had been lost in my own thoughts but this snapped me out of my reverie back into my surroundings. Seeing a camel next to an ice field was a jarring impression (like imagining Hannibal brining elephants over the Alps to attack Rome for example); and I thought that it was very likely that this camel’s ancestors had navigated the perils of the Silk Roads, bringing profit to the generations of traders who for centuries have journeyed through the steppes of Central Asia.
Exploring the northern shore of Song Kol
I was tired when I got back to camp but the family made me a shower with solar-powered hot water, which was an unforeseen luxury. In the morning I hitchhiked around the lake to the northern shore but it was full of tourists watching some awful crap while a Kyrgyz girl dressed like Maid Marion shouted at them through a loudspeaker so I negotiated with a driver to take me to the nearest town and after driving around for tewnty minutes looking for other passengers we drove off down the winding mountain roads.
Then followed an exhausting day of travel via numerous busses, cars and taxis towards a yurt camp I wanted to see on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul. The largest lake in the country at 6200km square, it is also the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in Peru. When I finally got to the lakeshore I enjoyed its Mediterranean-like waters but didn’t like the camp. It just didn’t feel right, and despite my tiredness I decided not to stay. I walked up to the dirt track and stuck my thumb out.
The first car stopped and it had two large Kyrgyz women in the front seats, who turned out to be sisters. The one not driving was very animated and explained to me in Russian (I understood through her sign language) that she had been working at a health conference in Karakol selling products although she lived in Bishkek. The makeshift conversation turned to drinking for some reason and I explained how much I liked kemeys, to which they completely lost their minds with enthusiasm and immediately invited me to join their family party, towards which they were now driving.
A Kyrgyz party on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul
Tired or not tired you just don’t say no to that. We arrived at their house, which was full of people. The two sisters were from a family of thirteen siblings – eight brothers and five sisters (how many times did they tell me this) – and they were all there. With their children. In the main living room (this was a house not a yurt) tables had been placed together in a large ‘L’ shape, covered with white tablecloths. I was promptly seated at ‘the head’ and fed more slightly alcoholic milk than you would think it possible for one person to consume.
One of the muscular sons of the siblings, who somehow explained he was an acrobat in a circus, refused to believe I couldn’t speak Russian and constantly spoke to me loudly in Russian to the point where everyone just ignored him. Still, communication was possible: Among other things I explained that my grandmother was soon going to have her ninetieth birthday (I used the Kyrgyz numbers in the back of my phrasebook) and that she was German. This information was met with serious deliberation and respect by all.
One of the young girls was quite an actress and performed a poetic display in Kyrgyz, of which of course I didn’t understand a word but which was very entertaining. After about two hours I was so exhausted I explained I had to leave and after they dropped me in the center of town I somehow found a taxi to take me to a guesthouse a few kilometers out as all the ones in town were full.
Travelling from Lake Issyk Kul to Karakol
This was a large building with spacious rooms and wide wooden stairs painted red. There were Kyrgyz families everywhere but I had no capacity for interest in anyone else by this point. I was given a large room on the ground floor with a thin mattress on a large rug. A bone bow made from the horns of a mountain Walia Ibex hung on the wall with a decorative arrow. There was an oil painting of an elderly Kyrgyz couple on another wall, the wrinkled man wearing the traditional hat of white felt called a Kalpak.
The next morning I would travel along the southern shore of the lake to see my business partner and professional mountain guide Maks, as we were taking a group of German tourists on a six-day hike through the high Tian Shan Mountains. But that is a different story. As I lay there the wind blew in the thin white lace curtain out from the window and the breeze covered my legs. I thought that a lot can happen in five days, and I thought about Burulcha’s motto.