It has been an eventful few days since my last post. I’m relaxing in Bishkek right now, and after two days in the saddle, my whole body aches.
On Saturday, I took a long cab ride to Kochkor, a small farming village in a mountain valley. I had tried to get a shared taxi, which is the most efficient, and economical way to get around this country, but the guys at the taxi stand convinced me that nobody else would be heading to Kochkor anytime soon. I ended up having to take a cab myself, which, by American standards, was still cheap, but I felt ripped off nevertheless. The drive was beautiful, and we stopped at a rest stop to get lunch, where I just got the same thing the driver got. Shortly thereafter, as we were speeding up into the mountains, and while my driver was blasting Russian pop and techno, I had a completely euphoric moment, when I realized how lucky I was to be having this experience. In retrospect, this was probably just the calm before the storm.
When we got to Kochkor, I had my first bad experience on this trip with a thieving local, as my cab driver attempted to extort an exorbitant fee for the ride. He claimed that the price we had worked out before we left Bishkek had been for one seat in a four person car, and I was responsible for the other three seats. This was completely absurd because the fee that I worked out was about double what he would have gotten if all four seats had been filled, and I specifically bought all the seats. We had a long, heated argument that involved me showing him in my guidebook what the ride should have cost, and him claiming that gas prices had increased since the book was written (perhaps this was true, but they did not increase by 12 times). Anyway, it ended with me giving him an extra $20 to get my bags back (much better than the $200 for which he was asking). To top things off, he then insisted that I give him a souvenir because we were now friends. I told him that friends didn’t steal from each other, but he didn’t seem to catch on. Finally, I told him that I didn’t bring any souvenirs (at least not that I would give him). He ended up giving me a half empty bottle of Russian herbal Viagara. Meanwhile, my stomach was beginning to show the first signs of disturbance.
Kyrgyzstan has a great tourism system in small towns, called Community-Based Tourism (CBT). Since the traditional Kyrgyz way of life is under threat from a variety of influences, like every other culture in our increasingly globalized world, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the nomadic lifestyle for which the region is known. Traditionally, shepherd families travel to the high pastures in the mountains, staying in yurts, during the summer, and occupy the lowlands during the long winters. CBT connects travelers with local families so that, for a small charge, visitors can stay with a family, experiencing the way that they live their daily lives, and taking advantage of their famous hospitality. In turn, the family is able to supplement their income so that they can continue their traditional lifestyles. The organization hires local young people to organize the whole thing, and it helps to keep them in the area, and interested in their heritage. They also really enjoy it because they connect with people from all over the world.
In all, for under $100, I was able to get five meals, two nights’ lodging in yurts, a horse, and two guides. I also got a truly unforgettable experience. The families with which I stayed, and my two guides more than made up for my scuffle with my cab driver, as they were incredibly hospitable, and really made the whole weekend enjoyable. I highly recommend Kyrgyzstan to anyone who loves mountains, and is on a budget, especially if they like horses. One thing to note, though, is that you will need to have Kymyz, fermented mare’s milk, in large quantities, so get prepared.
Once I got everything booked, I soon arrived at my first destination, a house in the village. Because I had told the coordinators that I wanted to stay in a yurt, they gave me a place with a yurt in the back yard. It wasn’t quite as picturesque as I had imagined, but it wasn’t so bad, nevertheless, and I was heading to the mountains first thing in the morning, anyway. As soon as I got settled, however, for the first time on this trip, I got violently ill. I’m not sure exactly what it was that made me sick, but I have a feeling it was the roadside meal that I had with my cab driver. It was painful, and I couldn’t stomach anything at all for the rest of the day. Shortly before going to bed, my host brought me some special tea that had been made from flowers gathered in the mountains. I was promised that it would calm my stomach, but I did not hold out hope. I tried my best to get a good night’s sleep, and figure out if I would be able to make the trip into the mountains in the morning.
I awoke to a symphony of farm animal sounds. While, by cliche, the roosters in the neighborhood started everything off, they were soon joined by the cows, the sheep, the horses, and the neighbor’s dog, who had so nicely lulled me to sleep the night before. Miraculously, although a little weak, my stomach felt fine, and I was ready for some trekking in the mountains.
Without further ado, the photos of the trip are below (click to enlarge). Sorry that there are so many of them this time, but it’s been a while.
These hills, snapped through the windshield of my cab, are in Kazakhstan. While I didn't go there, I saw about an hour's worth of what the country had to offer.
The meal that did me in? I blame my thieving cab driver.
The ceiling of my yurt in Kochkor. What really struck me this weekend is how these things can be really beautiful inside, especially at night, when the soft lamplight is flickering on the radiating wooden rods.
My first yurt: a hut set up in someone's back yard in Kochkor. Surprisingly, I slept very well here.
The outhouse was conveniently located just next to the yurt. Unfortunately, my brief episode of violent stomach illness coincided with my stay here, and I spent a lot of time in this facility.
Kochkor is a quaint little community that is a holdover from the Russian colonial days.
The mountains that I would tackle the next day were visible to the south.
A shameless cute animal photo. This little kitten followed me for about half a mile when I was walking around town. I didn't know what to do because it had not clear home. Eventually, we walked by a group of kids, who soon distracted the kitten with petting, and I hope that they found a home for it.
The local neighborhood watch.
My host father for the evening was busy making a shyrdak when I returned. Shyrdaks are felt rugs that serve as the floors in yurts, and they are still hand made in this region. He has laid out the design in dry died wool, and wrapped it tightly in a reed mat before soaking it in boiling water. He was stomping on the mat to set the pattern, and remove any excess water.
This is a finished shyrdak that was in my yurt.
This is the meal that my host mother in Kochkor made for me. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it was mild, i did not have the stomach for it.
Miraculously, I felt much better in the morning, perhaps due to a special awful-tasting tea that my host brought to me for my stomach. It was made from flowers that were gathered on the mountains, and as far as I can tell, it didn't hurt.
One of my guides, Miribaq, was a real comedian. I didn't understand anything he was saying, but I couldn't help laughing along with everyone else.
We came to a bit of an impasse. The previous night's rains had completely washed away the path over this stream. We had to climb up the hill to find a suitable place to ford it.
While the guides tried to figure out how to deal with our little obstruction, I had a chance to shoot this photo back down the mountain.
Eventually, this man came from a hut on the other side of the river, and led his horse across. He volunteered to take my bag to the other side, and I followed him on my horse through the raging river. This was the most frightened I've been so far on this trip.
The shepherd who carried my bag invited us in for kymyz, fermented mare's milk, and tea. There was fresh hand-churned butter on the table for the nan.
The shepherd was excited for me to take this photo of his kids.
This is the hut in which we enjoyed the tea, and everyone but me greatly enjoyed the kymyz (do you like tangy milk that tastes a little like shoe leather?), and where this family will spend the summer.
These two shepherds were heading down the mountain, and begged me to take this photo of them.
A hardworking sheep dog takes a quick nap.
This was the host mother in the yurt on the jailoo (summer pasture) where I spent last night. Here she is milking a horse, which evidently takes a tremendous amount of skill. I didn't even know that people milked horses, let alone drank the stuff.
This is part of the family's herd of horses. They rome all over the surrounding hills.
Lunch: a noodle dish with carrots, mutton, and some kind of dairy product. It was flavored with dill. The family cannot afford to make frequent trips down the mountain, so almost all of their supplies were either brought up when they arrived in mid June, or were gathered up here.
After lunch, Chiqa, my other guide, and I took a hike up a neighboring peak.
The lake that was our destination for today, is on the other side of these mountains.
A view back towards Kochkor. We had come a long way in a day.
The dogs here were very friendly, and were very hard workers. This guy constantly ran up and down the hills protecting his flock.
During a rain shower, I went into the yurt, and got to see the mother and her two daughters preparing dinner. They're making some dumplings here.
Chiqa loves dogs.
The horses seem to enjoy life up here, when the stallions are not fighting.
What gives? I was promised an idyllic setting for my yurt stay.
This is the source of all the water that the family uses. The host mother and I went down here to fill up some buckets.
My abode for the evening is on the left. The dog slept outside.
These were the dumplings that I saw being made. Unfortunately, they were a little salty for my taste.
The horses ate dinner, too, only their meal lasted all day. Unfortunately, horses here only speak Kyrgyz.
They milk cows here, too.
They start 'em out early here. This little boy was no more than five years old, and he had just come back from rounding up the sheep when I took this photo.
The weather changes quickly in the mountains.
It got cold pretty quickly once the sun set.
When i woke up, the sheep were still asleep. Only a dozen or so were baying.
This is Lake Kul-u-Kuk, the destination for my two-day horse trek. The final two hours up here were hazardously challenging. By the way, the dog followed us all the way up from the yurt camp.
I can't imagine a much more picturesque site.
How do you say "giddy-up" in Kyrgyz?