Since Tashkent was persistently failing to honour the “get colder” part of autumn, I fled, as soon as I was decently able to Kyrgyzstan, about which I knew little but that it was high, and therefore cold, and that it had to be better than dusty Tashkent with its sputtering fountains and artificially green flowerbeds that serve only to emphasise the dryness of the air. I believe it was at the point at which I was stuck in the middle of a blizzard on the ascent to a 4000m pass, clinging frantically to my horse as it floundered through snow up to its chest that the thought occurred that perhaps there were less uncomfortable ways to escape. Surrounded on all sides by the massive peaks of the Tien Shan range, I felt that such a setting deserved slightly better than my flailing. One hundred and fifty years ago, British and Russian spies disguised unconvincingly as Turkmen horse traders were sneaking through these mountains, vigorously intriguing against each other all the while, and now here I was, trying not to fall off my horse and feeling utterly incapable of even the smallest intrigue. I couldn’t help feeling that I was lowering the tone of the landscape somewhat.
Kyrgyzstan is all about the majestic landscape: over 90% of the country is at an altitude above 1500m and nearly 50% is over 2500m. Lacking the picturesque crumbling masonry possessed in such abundant quantities by Uzbekistan, the country sells itself on a combination of its spectacular scenery and the traditional hospitality of its people. For centuries the Kyrgyz lived an entirely nomadic lifestyle, tribes pitching their yurts together and moving on every few months or so. The Soviets more or less put an end to this, but since independence many rural families have resumed a semi-nomadic existence. Come May or so, the yurt is loaded onto the top of the Lada, and everyone heads with their livestock to the jailoos, the beautiful and fertile alpine pastures that sustain the sheep and cows which are the livelihoods of these people. By the end of September, everyone heads back down again, but for those few months yurts cluster like mushrooms across the hills and mountains, by lakes, up tiny valleys, anywhere there is water and good grazing. Many families have decided that tourists seeking an Authentic Nomadic Experience are a better bet than sheep, so once you leave the unlovely cement streets of Bishkek, the capital, you are swept up into the hills and into a yurt with almost indecent haste. Fortunately, we are all here for the yurts, and from my viewpoint in a yurt by a mountain lake that would have been no doubt absolutely lovely but for the rather Welsh weather, I too was able to observe “Kyrgyz hospitality unleashed in all its muttony glory!” as one of the more enthusiastic local brochures put it.
Said hospitality is genuine, effusive, and generally involves much discussion of everyone’s marriage and children (potential children will do if you are lacking in this department, but this is considered letting the side down) conducted over copious quantities of food and drink, among which the prime culprit is the dread beverage kumis. Kumis is fermented mares milk and tastes exactly as awful as it sounds. It is mildly alcoholic, with a smoky, beery, rancid taste and an effect on the unwary digestive system that can only be described as unfortunate. It is the drink of welcome in a yurt, and one cannot stop anywhere without being presented with a large bowl of the stuff, which you have to at least attempt out of politeness, although finishing it is a risky business as it will immediately be refilled. I developed a kind of love-hate relationship with the stuff, and became unable to stop myself from sampling it at every opportunity, because I could never believe it was quite as horrible as I remembered (it always was). Much better is the Kyrgyz cream tea – fresh bread (cooked in a large saucepan on top of a stove, a technique which I never managed to get my head around), fresh cream and home-made jam. Oh, and tea. Pots and pots and pots of tea (I counted an average of about eight bowls per meal, which translated to about five or six mugs). When your water source is the stream you share with your herds of cows and horses, it is undeniably a better idea to rehydrate with tea as opposed to unboiled water, but yurt tea is usually served with sugar, condensed milk or jam (occasionally all three) which can be a little overwhelming. The Kyrgyz phrase the visitor is most likely to leave with is the stern “choy ich!” – drink tea! – that greets any protestation that one has had enough to drink. This is before even one gets to the muttony part (the primary ingredient of all Central Asian cuisine is mutton fat, and it remains a mystery to me how everyone here doesn’t die of heart disease before they’re thirty), and the upshot is that if you are me you end up huddling under a pile of blankets clutching your stomach, wishing you didn’t feel quite so full and vowing never to have any children.
After a few days of muttony hospitality, I was left feeling in dire need of a more active way to appreciate the scenery. Parked as I was in a lakeside yurt camp, I was thinking vaguely along the lines of a one day amble on horseback along the shore; however, by a combination of circumstances, the exact details of which escape me but I’m pretty sure involved a bottle of vodka, I found myself together with a charming British couple accompanying the guides and packhorses of an organised hiking tour (now disorganised and soaking their feet in the lake) 150 miles back home over the mountains. The vodka had naturally put paid to any qualms about our collective lack of horse riding experience and Russian language skills the previous night, but in the cold light of day the mountains looked steep, the horses were clearly unimpressed, and the guide had clearly taken my cautious venture that I speak “chut-chut pa-Russki” as admission of complete fluency. We struggled up that first ridge gasping fish-like in the thin air, with the guides more or less having to drag our horses who had not signed up for riders on the return leg of their journey, and were making their feelings clear. By the time we reached the top, I was more or less ready to call it a day and would’ve happily abandoned the horses to find their way back on their own, except that from the top you could see nothing but the lake stretching away towards one snow-capped mountain range after another, and nowhere could you see any habitation or sign of life apart from a herd of sheep clinging to a precipitous hillside, and it felt like we were the only people in the world. Which was actually a pretty good feeling, so we rode on.
For the next few days we rode along valleys, scrambling over ridges and up barren, stony morraine and across glaciers melting quickly in the late summer heat and unpleasantly prone to collapsing ice bridges, and over the steep, icy passes and back down again, galloping in slapdash formation across hillsides bright with wildflowers and air thick with bees and butterflies, and down, down, back to the treeline and then through pine-covered canyons until the valley broadened out into wide pastureland cut by a lazily meandering river, and a cluster of yurts sending trails of smoke into the chilly evening air. We stayed with farmers and eagle hunters (erm, they hunt with eagles, rather than hunting the eagles themselves. The golden eagles circling overhead in a picturesque manner gain a slightly more threatening air when you have spent a cheerful evening being shown a photo album full of pictures of the WOLVES which the eagles have killed ON THEIR OWN) in their yurts, nursing our blisters over tea, kumis and bowls of laghman (noodles in mutton soup). One night, I struggled out of the yurt at midnight (the combination of too much kumis, a cavalier approach towards the use of water purification tablets and the local remedy of five shots of vodka laced with pepper (NB I cannot emphasise enough how much this does not work, although it undeniably takes one’s mind off things) was proving a little much for me) and literally gasped aloud, because I didn’t know it was possible to see so many stars. There was no hint of an electric light for miles, but the stars were bright enough to cast shadows, highlighting the silhouettes of the mountain peaks surrounding me. In the morning there was frost on the ground in the shadows of the yurts and the cows loomed out of the mist like ghosts as the sunrise turned the mountaintops pink, and I thought that I had never been anywhere so beautiful in my life.
Just writing that is making me feel less than happy that I am in grimy Tashkent again, and the view out of my window is of grubby apartment blocks rather than rolling mountains. The school where I had been working has been closed, so I am somewhat at a loose end at the moment, and Tashkent is more or less entirely the wrong place to be at a loose end in. Since the only other option seems to be joining the cotton harvest (the cotton picking season is beginning, where the universities shut for a month or two and the students are sent out into the cotton fields to bring the harvest in) and this sounds rather like hard work, I am dashing off to see the rest of the country to put off making a decision about what to do next. Procrastination forever!