Kyrgyzstan - The Land of Horsemen

Starry skies, Golden Eagles and Heavenly Horses.

We're all wrapped up in our warmest clothes, watching a night sky literally full up with stars, on the edge of Song Köl Lake, 3070m above sea level. It's chilly, but worth it. Our yurts are full of warm blankets and with 8 people to a yurt, we'll be easily warm enough - so for now, it's hats, gloves and a rum and coke to enjoy the evening! I've never seen so many stars - 360 degrees and all the way to the horizon, the sky is totally lit up. This finishes off a few of the best days so far on our journey along the Silk Road.

 

Yesterday morning we left our cosy guesthouse (our first hot shower and proper toilet in a while) in the town of Kochkor, after shopping in the markets we then hit the road for Song Kol - an outstanding drive over a 3200m pass, digging up snow for our beer esky along the way. When we finally arrived, the Kyrgyz horsemen were just about to start a game of polo.  

Traditionally this would've been a game to hone their horsemanship and hunting skills. Two teams race to collect a sheep carcass from a point a few hundred meters away - after a short rumble, the successful rider then gallops flat out with the sheep under his leg, to deposit it in a small circle - where it must land and stay. Due to the speed this takes place though, usually the sheep tumbles a few metres, which is followed by more wrestling between the teams and finally someone manages to grab the sheep from the floor (from his horse) and then lands it in the circle. 

This is no gentle game of polo (and I always thought polo was pretty fierce anyway) - the horses are as brave and determined as their riders, and horse and riders are seemingly without rules, fighting, racing and demonstrating impressive levels of flexibly and co-ordination. These are tough people and tougher horses. The winning team get to keep the sheep to feast with their family. Apparently the meat tastes great after all the tenderising (makes me glad to be vegetarian)!  

Today we spent in the saddle, riding the Kyrgyz horses to a hill giving awesome views of the lake... my pony is only 3 years old and yet he behaves like he's been doing this for years - the horses have great temperaments, are very easy going - even walking slowly with those more nervous among us, whilst the speed demons of the group go for a canter. 

We are followed by the yurt camp's dogs, who are having an awesome time harassing the cattle, birds and marmots - desperately trying to get a chase. After our ride, a few brave people head to the lake for a little paddle (brrrr), other go walking and looking for great sunset photographs.  All are in agreement that this has been the highlight of our trip so far.

At the very start of the trip in Kyrgyzstan, we left China behind by crossing the Torugart pass at 3752m high and immediately you could feel that you were in a different country. The green rolling hills, completely open and unfenced, replacing the dry, rocky mountains.

Our first port of call was a 15th century caravanserai known as Tash Rabat - during its heyday, this would have been a shelter for weary Silk Road travellers seeking food, shelter and safety from the bandits who roamed these lawless lands. Built initially as a monastery in the 10th century, the building, which looks a lot like a dry stone wall (in epic proportions) has a central dome and then three sections containing small rooms coming from it. It is incredibly atmospheric, dark and still with benches used for sleeping. Small windows shed some light on the place, but you definitely feel like Indiana Jones ducking in and out of the little rooms! Tash Rabat is surrounded by high mountains, where eagles soar around and a few yurt camps give modern day travellers a spot to chill out for a day or two.

Our yurt hosts have prepared us a lunch of bread, jams and hot soup, this is such a welcome change of sustenance from China and I think I (at least) consume my body weight in bread and cheese! We can't resist the opportunity to climb up the hills for the views and a ride the following morning just finishes off a perfect start to Kyrgyzstan.

We had a great yurt demonstration the other day- a family would transport a yurt between two horses up to 50km moving from summer to winter pastures, and it's put up within an hour with the help of all the family.

The importance of the yurt to Kyrgyz people is clear just by looking at their flag, which uses the circular top section as its emblem. The legend goes that a shepherd had a dream of a shelter, inspired by the sun - the yurt has a circular piece of wood at the top which then has lots of wooden poles coming from it (which signify the sun's rays) these are then secured to the trellis base and then covered in the materials they had available at the time - leather and wool. Once up, the yurt is cosy and warm and big enough for a whole family.

 

Kyrgyzstan has an abundance of open, wild land- and plenty of horses to enjoy it. Hunters still use golden eagles (tamed and worked for up to 20 years before being released) to hunt for foxes during the winter. We see a demonstration of this traditional method during one of our drives and it's impressive to see the bond between the hunter and the eagle.

Stopping for a swim and lunch by the turquoise waters of Lake Issyk Kol (or hot lake, since it never freezes despite being at high altitude) makes you feel more like you're in the Medditeranean, it's a great contrast to the forested mountains of Altyn Arashan, where we were hiking just a few days ago, with its natural thermal pools, right on the edge of the river - who needs a luxury hotel when you can have a hot bath outdoors?!

As we draw close to the end of our time in Kyrgyzstan, I can't believe how much great stuff we've seen and done: getting up close to a Golden Eagle, camping out in alpine mountains with nothing but a chilly river to paddle in and a camp fire to sit around, riding amazing horses, and hiking around stunning mountain scenery. The only tourists around are similarly minded adventure types - think European hikers and bikers swapping the Alps for something a little further afield.

This isn't the place for fancy hotels, constant wifi and en suite facilities, but if you love the outdoors and the feeling of being out in the wilds, then Kyrgyzstan could not disappoint.