Dawdling in Kyrgyzstan is an almost entirely pleasant activity, even if its object (to wait out the violence down south) is somewhat less so. The reason for this is primarily because it is so easy to engage in said time-wastage in yurts up in the Kyrgyz mountains, which flicked in a day from spring to summer – morning drizzle gave way one day to bright afternoon sunshine that hasn’t let up since. With this in mind, I coralled a trio of Swedes (travelling with Swedes is great: you learn the best Norwegian jokes) and we hired some horses and a guide to disappear for a few days into the hills in the centre of the country, where yurts sprout like mushrooms and there are ibexes (how do you properly pluralise an ibex? ibices?) on the mountain ridges and marmots (not marmosets. This caused a certain amount of confusion for a while) running shrieking at your approach.
I really can’t get enough of the mountains here. Even when the horses are intransigent (Kyrgyz horses know damned well that foreign tourists have imbibed too much animal-welfare nonsense to follow the single piece of advice that constitutes riding instruction in these parts (“just hit it”) with much conviction, and take full advantage of this, with the result that you frequently find yourself stationary in a patch of wildflowers for extended periods of time with the horse stuffing its face and you prodding it cautiously the whip, vaguely worrying that an RSPCA inspector is going to pop out from behind a rock and do you for animal cruelty, while the guide disappears over the horizon. Or possibly that’s just me.) and the “saddles” appear to have taken their notion of comfort from a medieval torture chamber, everything feels fresh and bright and clean, with the high still covered with spring flowers and dozens and dozens of meltwater streams running off the hills. Wandering around the valley one evening I suddenly remembered what one is supposed to do when faced with a multitude of small streams and a large supply of flat stones and mud, and spent a very happy couple of hours damming and diverting several streams, and anyone who doesn’t fully appreciate how supremely satisfying an activity this can be is probably dead inside.
Unlike the last time I was horse trekking here, this time we weren’t particularly going anywhere, so we would do a bit of riding in the morning to get some nice views, then come back to the yurt, which is always very much a working place as well as somewhere for tourists to crash, so there were always small armies of daughters and nieces (it seems that a lot of families in the towns send their children to relatives in the country for their summer holidays so a lot of the kids up here now actualy spend most of the year in Bishkek) milking the cows and horses and making cream and fetching water and cooking, while the sons and nephews herded the goats and the cattle and we rather got in the way, but everyone was very nice and fed us neverending quantities of tea and kumis anyway (ah, kumis. The one (monumental) downside to yurt living. Have I waxed lyrical on the subject of fermented mares’ milk before? Oh, I have. If someone in a yurt offers you a large bowl of slightly suspect-smelling white liquid with… bits floating in it, proceed with caution (see post immediatley below this one). I don’t want anyone to say they weren’t warned).
One afternoon, our host invited the neighbours (i.e. everyone who had a yurt within two hours ride) over for the Kyrgyz equivalent of a kickabout, which of course meant an enthusiastic game of kok-boru, the Kyrgyz national game which can be described as polo with a higher body count and which is played with the carcass of a goat. Compared to the full village-on-village clash I watched earlier this year, this was a more modest though no less chaotic affair, with half-a-dozen guys on each team as opposed to two hundred but an equal reluctance to confine the action to the pre-agreed playing field and feeling that nothing has been achieved until someone has been carried off unconscious (he woke up again in time for dinner, so that was OK). In the evening we ate goat kebab and fresh bread and cream and wild cherry jam by the light of oil lanterns while the Anglo-Swedish contingent strove to find an acceptable excuse for refusing the fourth bowl of kumis ( a partial list of what hasn’t worked so far: I’m sick, it’s against my religion, I’m lactose intolerant, I’m pregnant) and convincing defense for the inexplicable fact that despite the fact all of us were unmarried, none of us were imminently planning to rectify the situation, and the mountains turned pink in the sunset. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do this.