29th July – 6th August
Bishkek is a delightful city for the weary traveller, not least because it offers virtually nothing by way of cultural or architectural interest. This means one can rest and recoup here without any sense of guilt about having missed some vital cathedral, museum or other notable relic.
But the city has benefited from a recent and much needed facelift, and is a pleasant pace to pass the time. We spend two days here, staying in a cheerful guesthouse with a lovely, relaxing flower filled courtyard, doing very little. We meet some amusing if rather travel weary German bikers en-route to the Pamirs, we eat well and cheaply and on our second night we visit Bishkek’s number one attraction, the remarkable fountains in the main square, accompanied by a very impressive sound and light display. By day, the square is an expanse of concrete surrounded by imposing civic buildings: yet more uninspiring relics of the Soviet era. But by night, Harrods-style coloured lights illuminate the buildings and huge fountains dance in symphony with rousing choruses of Kyrgyz-influenced Verdi, Mozart and others which belts out of huge speakers. The effect is amazing – so simple, yet effective. It would definitely liven up Trafalgar Square.
Into the Tien Shan
We have decided that the only real way to experience this country properly is by horse, so after our recuperation in Bishkek we head to Koshkor, 2000 metres up in the mountains, where we understand we should be able to arrange a three day trek through the local Community Based Tourism (CBT) centre.
As we are booking, a lone Austrian girl walks in to the centre, enquiring about a similar trip. After a quick conversation with Andrea we decide to join forces and happily split the cost of our guide three ways rather than two.
That night, the three of us stay in a local homestay prior to our departure for Lake Sogn-Kul the following morning. Homestays are a relatively new initiative, part of the CBT idea. They enable locals to benefit directly from tourists in the area whilst simultaneously providing some kind of accommodation infrastructure; until recently virtually non-existent. The homestays we experience are amazing – a third of the cost of a hotel in a city here (i.e. roughly £7 each for dinner, bed and breakfast) – they are basic but clean, very friendly (more than can be said for rural Russia) and you really do see a snapshot of local life.
We eat a delicious supper of peppers stuffed with mutton and onions, fried aubergines wrapped around local cheese and tomatoes, and a delicious selection of local jams with bread. Over supper, Andrea tells us about the recent elections – she has been working here for the international Election Observation Committee and is now taking some leave before heading home. It seems the elections were a total sham: although Kyrgyzstan professes to be the only democracy amongst the C.I.S. countries, Andrea tells us the result was a foregone conclusion and the incumbent president won with a supposed 86% share of the vote. Intimidation and arrests of opposition party members and officials, plus actual rigging on the day were all seemingly carried out with barefaced openness and contempt for the international observers. Bishkek was peaceful when we saw it: a week earlier and it may have been a little more exciting.
It seems that, despite its best intention, corruption, autocracy and official malpractice will be with this little country for some time yet. But it is not hard to understand why when one considers some of its neighbours: China, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan – hardly shining beacons of incorruptible governance, let alone democracy.
Yurts and Horses
But you come to this country for the incredible mountains, and the people who live in them. This is where real Kyrgyz culture lives, and despite the best intentions of Russian collective programmes, it is still here, albeit much reduced. From Kizart, an hour and a half’s drive from Koshkor, we saddle up on a selection of slightly scrawny looking Kyrgyz ponies and with Marybek our guide, head into the Tien Shan and towards Lake Sogn-Kul.
After we leave the dusty village, the scenery improves as we climb, through peaceful alpine meadows full of wild flowers, following pretty streams bringing meltwater down from the peaks. Alas, the only thing predictable about the Tien Shan is the unpredictability of the weather. As we climb over 2600 metres, the wind suddenly turns icy cold and whips up a ferocious hailstorm, which typically reaches its climax as we try to steer up a narrow, unprotected ridge to the 3000 metre pass we need to cross. It is a profoundly miserable experience for pony and rider alike, and as we eventually cross the pass, our legs, hands and faces numb and stinging, there is little humour amongst the four of us. But as quickly as it comes here, it goes: suddenly we can see the glint of Lake Song-Kul glistening in bright sunshine before us, and as we descend through gentle, grassy valleys to the lakeside, we soon warm up, dry out and cheer up.
As we approach our yurt village we pass numerous shepherds on rugged ponies, tending herds of goats, sheep and horses. Livestock in Kyrgyzstan outnumber people by three to one; up here it is easy to see why.
The village comprises about half a dozen yurts, dotted over around a square kilometre of landscape. They are a pleasant sight and wonderfully unobtrusive, like giant field mushrooms protruding from the grassland.
This is our home for the next two days, and it is a delightfully pleasant place to pass the time. The food is plentiful and generally good: hearty mutton stews with bulgar wheat and noodles washed down with endless chi and the rather less appetising kymyz, all accompanied by delicious fresh flatbreads and homemade jams, together with the unappetisingly pungent local fermented butter.
Headless Goats and Whips
On the second day, some local games have been organised for the benefit of some Swiss trekkers, so we stay put and decide to take advantage of this bit of good fortune: these games are played infrequently and we had both really wanted to see these in the flesh. The principle game, called boz kashi or similar throughout Central Asia, involves the entire male, mounted contingent of the village (excluding only the young, the elderly and the drunk) attempting to wrestle a recently slaughtered and decapitated goat from one another and to place it directly upon a felt rug laid out in the middle of the ‘pitch’.
In this instance, the pitch comprises any reasonably flat area in the vicinity of the village, and play takes place in front of, behind, out of sight of and sometimes right through the middle of the assembled spectators. It is a hugely exciting game to watch, played at full gallop and requiring enourmous strength, skill and courage from the players to pick the goat up in the first place then try to hang on to it whilst everyone else charges at them and tries to remove it. It is a free-for-all, every man for himself. Originally, the winner used to keep the goat for supper; here it is shared amongst the village and the players play for ‘honour’ or a little money. Our thrill at watching the game is often matched by moments of utter hilarity as the increasingly drunken older members of the community hurl ever more furious abuse at the players whilst simultaneously trying to commentate on proceedings to the local, rather resigned looking women.
This is one of our real highlights so far, to watch these amazing games with such a stunning backdrop. We are increasingly glad we decided to leave the car for a few days and brave the ever unpredictable and brutal climate of these mountains, to get a much better feel of proper Kyrgyz life.
After the boz kashi, Charlie is invited / coerced by the now staggering elderly locals to participate in the other local tradition, a kiss-and chase game on horses. A young man chases a girl on horseback; she is given a three length head start and a superior horse. Should the man catch her and manage to kiss her, she may be required to consent to various levels of conjugal obligations, however if the man fails to catch her, then the chase is replayed in reverse and she has the right to catch the man and whip him for all she is worth.
Alas I had overlooked the second part of this game; evidently I did not catch said girl and in the return chase had to use every ounce of skill, courage and energy which I possessed to twist and steer my pony away from her flailing whip. Once I caught her eye: the gentle Kyrgyz countenance had disappeared, replaced by a determined, primeval expression that meant business. I escape with just four lashings, but the assembled crowd of tourists and locals were delighted and, amongst the foreigners at least, I am briefly a hero.
And so to China…
Leaving the mountains the day after, we face three days of stern driving through mostly unpaved roads to reach the Chinese border in time for our rendezvous. But although the days are long they are not arduous, for the scenery in the Tien Shan is so incredibly varied that every valley, pass and gorge we pass through has a totally different feel to the last. We reach Sari-Tash, a remote village some 80km from the border, in high spirits and enjoy a highly amusing and drunken night in the only guesthouse; by chance reunited with our German biker friends from Bishkek and a wonderfully relaxed and hilarious Italian couple, Emmanuel and Eva, who will follow us to potentially our most challenging border yet tomorrow…