May 5, 2021: The Horse Trek Begins
A horse trek is considered a highlight of visiting Kyrgyzstan. I deemed it a must-do and selected my tour guide based on the ability to do a horse trek.
After a disturbance-free night on the south shore of Issyk Kul, Sonia, our guide Aman, and I drove off to the town of Kochkor. The road passed by some dry mountainous territory that reminded me of Death Valley in my home of California.
However, Death Valley doesn´t have camels…
Kochkor, like most Kyrgyz towns, offers little to the tourist. However, it has the only shops and amenities in a wide area. It even has a movie theater.
We first stopped at a market to buy supplies for the upcoming horse trek. Next, I purchased a traditional shyrdak woolen carpet from a local collective. I picked a traditional design.
We then got lunch at a strangely ornate restaurant with an Egyptian-themed room.
Finally, it was time to rock and roll. We drove 10 minutes to the outskirts of town. There, we were met by a man who lent us 3 horses. Almost immediately, we were riding up into the mountains!
This ride was straight up a jeep trail, which crossed a few streams.
Unlike the first ride, my horse this time was the slowest.
3 hours in, we pulled off the jeep trail and walked on the grass. The terrain here was very steep. Eventually, we reached a yurt inhabited by a nomadic family.
The family consisted of a middle-aged couple, a son around 15 years of age, and a friend. They have two grown daughters living in Bishkek with children- one of whom was kidnapped.
The family are herders of over 700 sheep and goats and 100 cows. They move around to ensure that their herd has enough grass to eat. They plan to stay in this location until mid-late June. Then they will walk for 150 kilometers to Song Kul Lake where they will stay until late August. Then they will go to one final location for the late summer/early fall. During the winter, they stay outside of Kochkor. Typically, the family will return to the same places each year. None of the land legally belongs to them, or anyone for that matter. However, the father´s family has set up their yurts in these places for countless generations. There is an unwritten agreement of the nomads of where people camp.
The family makes money in two ways. The main way of making money is by selling their livestock. The second way is by raising the sheep and goats of other people in the cities.
An interesting paradox is that, despite the incredibly simple life of the nomads, they are actually rich- especially by Kyrgyz standards. The total value of the 10 horses is approximately $11,000 USD, more than double the average net worth of a Kyrgyz adult. Add in all the sheep and goats and these nomads are probably in the top third or quarter of global net worth.
We then went inside the yurt. Unlike the tourist yurts that we have seen, this yurt is decorated for practicality. A table was set up in the middle. The left side, the men´s side, held many of the tools used for taking care of livestock. The right side, the women´s side, contained the kitchen and some storage space. The front of the yurt contains a Russian-style stove. The carpets and most of the decorations looked cheaper than what we have seen.
We were told that the yurt can be packed/unpacked in just 90 minutes.
The lady served us lunch and we all sat together. We ate bread with butter served in the stomach of a sheep, apricot jam and an insane amount of meat stew and tea. Every time we were close to finishing our bowls, the mom would refill us. The hospitality was incredible!
We were very thankful to have Aman there to translate for us. Through him, we were able to have a real conversation with the nomads to learn about their lives and for them to learn about our lives.
Right after finishing our lunch, we learned that the nomads were observing Ramadan. I cannot imagine the self-control needed to serve a humongous meal while fasting. I did notice a few vodka bottles lying around the camp. My guess is that they were consumed before Ramadan.
The nomads explained how they actually receive many visitors while in the mountains. Their yurt is a popular spot for friends to visit for a couple of days. The friends help them restock on food and supplies. Therefore, despite living a remote life, their life is never lonely!
They commented that, while they are always welcoming to outsiders, the people from cities such as Bishkek promise to return the favor but always seem to be too busy to host them when they come to town in the winter.
The nomads do sometimes receive tourists, although it is not common. Their favorite guests were two girls from the Netherlands who happened to speak Russian. The girls stayed for 25 days. The father nearly teared up and said that he considers them his daughters. When Sonia mentioned that her father was born on a farm, they smiled big and seemed to take great interest in her. Perhaps they saw a bit of the Dutch girls – or even their own children- in her.
For the remainder of the afternoon, we milked cows. Using the milk, we fed the baby sheep. They are soooooooo cute.
The sun set at 20:03 at which point we ate an iftar meal. It is truly amazing how much they love Sonia.
After dinner, the family reconfigured the yurt to set up for sleeping. The table was dismantled and placed next to the kitchen. In its place were thick sleeping pads and mattresses. All seven of us slept in a row sharing the thickest blankets and pillows.
May 6, 2021: Kol´ukok
The weather outside was very cold, but the blankets and fire inside the yurt kept us warm.
Around 2:30, the nomads woke up to eat their morning meal. The entire meal must be consumed before the first light to comply with Ramadan restrictions.
Sonia, Aman and I woke up around 7:30. After breakfast in the yurt, we prepared to ride. Our goal was ride up to Kolúkok, an alpine lake 2 hours even further uphill.
Unfortunately, Sonia´s horse ran away during the night. The nomads, who liked Sonia so much, leant her one of their own horses. Apparently having horses run away is a common problem. Aman believes that the horse probably wanted to return home at the bottom of the canyon. Runaway horses are usually found within a day or two, so nobody seemed concerned.
We saddled up and rode. As we climbed, we started to reach high alpine territory. We saw yaks and marmots. We also crossed more snow.
For the last 30 minutes, we climbed a steep rocky switchback trail that would be difficult for even a hiker.
At the top of this section, we reached a mountain pass. The weather was very windy and cold. Dropping down on the other side of the pass, we could see the lake, completely frozen over.
After taking some pictures and resting, we headed back to the yurt. The downhill was steep and a little scary, but we made it back without any issues.
For lunch, we ate some very thick noodles, which is supposed to be a popular shepherd´s meal. We then said goodbye to the nomads.
Sonia´s horse had been found by a passing nomad, so we rode our original three horses back to Kochkor. The ride down took only 2 hours, but my butt was so much pain from the ride, it felt like a lot longer.
Back in Kochkor, we rested up in a strangely fancy hotel. Aman took us to his house for dinner, but we didn´t stay very long because we were so tired.