Saturday, 25 June 2011

Song-Kul Horse Trek

By the end of this trek the total number of things James had lost would consist of 2 hats, 2 books, numerous pairs of pants (exact number unknown), toilet paper at critical moments, the investigation was still ongoing to his involvement in the loss of my headtorch and one………………………. horse.
Kyrgyz rural life is based around horses, so to fully experience it we would have to hire mounts and ride into the mountains. We headed to the fantastically organised Community Based Tourism (ะกBT) Association for advice on a suitable trek. Our requirements were a 5 day trek, no camping or self-catering if at all possible, quiet ponies, spectacular scenery, a knowledgeable guide and the chance to see local rural life. They recommended a jailoo (settlements that spring up during the summer at the best pastures) hopping trip around Song-Kul lake in the Tien Shan Mountains staying with families in their yurts.
Two days later everything was organised and we caught the bus to our starting point of Kochkor to stay with Mrs Guljat the night before starting. Our homestay was the cleanest place we had stayed in to date with the cleanest toilet this side of Tulufan VIP lounge. James spent the evening revising Russian verbs of motion.
The following morning we met our guide and set out in a taxi to where our horses were located. The car showed promise to begin with but 10 miles in it spluttered to a halt. Some handy work under the bonnet later and we made it another 200 m before rolling to a halt again. Six breakdowns later (and a total of 10 so far in Kyrgyzstan) and the problem was finally located to the fuel pipe. After much swearing, which James wouldn’t translate instead saying, “and that’s an expletive and so is that….”, we eventually got going again and made it to Kyzart Pass.

Breakdown #6

Breakdown #7

Breakdown #10

At the pass we were introduced to our trusty steeds for our trip. The two ponies had totally unpronounceable Kyrgyz names to we called them Jeffery and Steve. Jeff was a 4 year old bright bay whilst Steve was an iron grey 10 year old stallion. We managed to clamber aboard and with our guide in the lead headed into the green hills. We rode past caravans surrounded by flocks of sheep and herds of horses and cows and continued up and over a 3500 m pass and then down the other side.
The hills were flush with spring grass which softened their curves like the skin of a peach. We were in sight of our first night's homestay when there was a rumble of thunder and it began to rain. Within minutes it was hailing and then the heavens let rip with hazelnut sized hail stones and thunder and lightning crashing overhead. Steve and Jeffery swung their backs into the wind and refused to move. Fortunately we were near a cluster of farm buildings with a little lean-to barn. Our guide evicted the cows and we took shelter until the worst of the storm had passed.
That evening we snacked on a traditional spread of cream, jam and bread washed down will gallons of tea, before dinner of the rice dish plov. This meal routine would be repeated throughout our trek but varied with fried fish fresh from the lake and sometimes with the fermented mares’ milk. Breakfast usually consisted of semolina or a rice pudding. The diet was so heavily based around dairy products that anyone who disliked milk or had a dairy allergy would struggle. This posed a bit of a problem for James who has an extreme aversion to milk therefore meaning double portions for me and near starvation for him. After dinner James revised verbs of motion and then we bedded down all together on the floor of the yurt, as is tradition.

The following day we rode over a second 3000 m pass and got our first glimpse of Song-Kul framed by snowy peaks. The spring flowers were in full bloom, yellow buttercups, blue forget-me-nots, purple violets and white edelweiss covered the ground making it look as idyllic as it sounds. These were the summer pastures for the Kyrgyz and their herds and yurts were still being built as families relocated for the summer. 

Over the next couple of days we circumnavigated the lake stopping for lunch or staying in yurts. The air was so clear that we could often make out our destination which would then take 5 or 6 hours to ride to, never seemingly getting closer to the dismay of our aching cheeks. We watched the storms roll in across the lake. Sometimes they would hit us sometimes not. One morning our guide gave a 7 year old boy a lift to his herd of horses. The boy made polite conversation with James and asked the name of his horse. ‘Jeffery’, James replied, ‘Jeffery’ the boy repeated. A few minutes went by and then the boy said, ‘I’m sorry what is your horse called again?’ Our guide, who had a great sense of humour, was chuckling to himself.

We stopped for lunch on the penultimate day at a yurt at the side of the lake. A drunk staggered over to us and tried to introduce himself. He grabbed James’s hand and decided that they should get to know each other better through the medium of wrestling. James eventually managed to extract himself, rather dishevelled.

On the final night we stayed with a wonderful family in their homely yurt. Granny, Mum and their 6 children (4 girls and 2 boys) were fantastic hosts. A riot nearly broke out when they worked out how to use James’s itouch. Before long, dozens of sticky fingers were pressing every icon simultaneously. Of particular amusement was the imitation police siren with flashing blue lights which disturbed James’s revision of verbs of motion.

We were sorry to be leaving the following day but packed up our stuff ready to go. However there was no sign of Milan and our horses. Milan eventually returned with Steve and his own horse but there was no sign of Jeffery. When the 5 year old boy in the yurt heard about the missing horse he saddled his donkey immediately and with his 3 year old sister set out to join the search. James was rather concerned that two under 6s and a donkey had been recruited into the search but their big sister soon called them back for breakfast. Jeffery hadn’t shown any signs of being a trouble maker in fact he had shown very few signs of anything, plodding and munching his way through each day. However, despite 4 hours of searching Jeffery could not be found. This meant that James had to walk over the final pass back to the village of Kyzart. The consequence of arriving so late was that we had another night at Mrs Guljat in Kochkor, which was actually a bonus.

Green pastures

James riding Jeffery with Milan our guide

Rolling hills

Me and Steve


Steve's ears

Lunch stop

The team

Yurt stay - only another 4 hours!

Jeffery looking like butter wouldn't melt

Big skies

Our hosts

Song-Kul under 6s search and rescue service

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