Whenever I think of Kyrgyzstan, I picture a boy that I met on a walk along the lakeshore — a miniature horseman under an infinite sky. He had the hard-bitten stare of a lifelong outdoorsman, and broad cheeks chapped scarlet by the cold.
A leather whip flickered in his right hand; in his left was a rope, which was tethered to the puppy that scampered alongside him. He was just two feet tall and as many years old, but the horse he sat astride was completely under his command.
For a land of nomads, which once resounded with the hooves of traders’ caravans plying the old Silk Road, Kyrgyzstan has been remarkably overlooked by the modern traveler.
There are reasons, of course: landlocked between Kazakhstan and China, squashed between the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, and for seven decades an insignificant wedge in the Soviet mosaic, it’s a place most people might struggle to spell let alone find on a map.
But there is cause to take notice of this enigmatic Central Asian state. Ever since a tumultuous, president-toppling revolution in 2010, tourism here has been growing year on year. In a 2016 report, the World Travel and Tourism Council ranked Kyrgyzstan as the country most likely to undergo a surge in tourism over the next few years.
What’s the allure? Probably not Bishkek, I’d surmised upon arriving in the country’s capital. Unlike neighbouring Uzbekistan with its splendid khanate citadels, Kyrgyzstan’s towns are a throwback to seven decades of Soviet rule — blocky, Russified, and decaying.
But I knew that an older, more romantic Kyrgyzstan existed on the jailoos — the high summer pastures that carpet the Central Asian steppe — where the nomadic life endures amidst some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
And so I’d followed the call of the mountains hovering above Bishkek’s decrepit skyline, squeezed into a shared taxi heading south, 140 miles to the flyblown town of Kochkor, then hitched a ride into the voluptuous Ala-too Mountains, geographical and cultural heartland of the Kyrgyz people.
My goal was Song Kol, an alpine lake 10,000 feet above sea-level, where a scattering of sheep-felt domes promised a singularly Kyrgyz experience.
It’s now late afternoon and a cold, unrelenting drizzle has sent me scuttling into my hosts’ bozoy — Kyrgyzstan’s version of the yurt. I’m sitting on a pile of sheepskins as Juma, a stout matriarch with a mouthful of gold teeth, plies me with dumplings and mugs of kumys, a mildly alcoholic drink of fermented mare’s milk. Plaintive Kyrgyz ballads tinkle out from a tinny radio set.
The yurt’s interior is compact but orderly. To the left of the threshold is Juma’s domain — a stove, some pots and pans — while the left side is for the menfolk, with hunting gear hanging in front of embroidered carpets. The place of honour facing the entrance is reserved for guests, and it’s here that I’m sitting out the rain, watching a pastoral slideshow through the doorway: a boy disconcertingly toting a hatchet; a puppy keening for scraps; a teenage rider opening the valves on a horse.
This is the timeless tableau that I have come to Kyrgyzstan to witness. This bozoy is one of a cluster huddled together on Song Kol’s northern rim that are affiliated to the Kyrgyzstan Community-Based Tourism Association (commonly shortened to CBT), which runs a network of traditional homestays throughout the country. Inexpensive and easy to arrange, it is also reassuringly ethical: most of the money you spend ends up in the pockets of the host communities.
Sleeping on a simple mattress, eating what the land has provided, I will be spending the next few days enjoying the unique hospitality of the plains. But, more importantly, the CBT is providing the opportunity for families like Juma’s — many of whom abandoned the jailoos during the Soviet era — to supplement the hardscrabble nomadic life of their forebears.
The result is the best kind of ethical tourism: one that immerses you in a fragile foreign culture without defiling it. Meanwhile, I am learning, my dollars are helping people like Juma to defy the spectre of mankoort, a concept deeply rooted in Kyrgyz superstition that warns of the ghastly shame awaiting anyone who forgets their traditional culture.
“A fate worse than death!” exclaims Miku Anarbekovich, a cherubic 23-year-old guide who has accompanied me from Kochkor. Even he is a returnee, having forfeited a job with a Bishkek telecoms company to work for the CBT. Judging by the reverie he’s been enjoying ever since we arrived, it’s not a decision he regrets.
“Mountains,” I’d heard him sigh earlier, as if penning a slogan, “so much better than an office.”
When the second day dawns Song Kol is glorious: a rippling shard 12 miles wide, ringed by golden prairies. In every direction, the horizon crumples with snow-dusted peaks made vaporous by low cloud.
I spend the day nosing about the other yurts, and revelling in the sublime surroundings. In the afternoon, Juma’s impudent grandson Arjen — he of yesterday’s axe-wielding scurry — introduces me to his unfettered childhood. We tackle turkeys for the lunchtime meal and roll a glutinous curd in our hands to make kurut, a salty snack made from (what else?) mare’s milk.
Yesterday’s inclement weather has prompted several families to pack up and leave for lower ground. Dismantled yurts now dot the grassland, their mottled domes reduced to orderly stacks of ragged felts and poplar timbers. Some of the piles are topped off with a tunduk, the yurt’s circular top-piece, so much a motif of national life that an image of one adorns Kyrgyzstan’s national flag.
“Four horses or two camels,” says a smiling, moon-faced woman in a bright headscarf, keen to impress how simply this mobile home can be transported.
With winter approaching the lake will soon be frozen — so thick, Miku tells me, that it will be possible to drive a fully-laden truck from one shore to the other. And on the deserted shoreline, only the jorts — the shadows of dead grass where each yurt was pitched — will remain to show that this community was ever here.
Having come to observe a lifestyle characterized by such transience, it seems only right that we will soon be moving too.
The next morning, I exchange warm goodbyes with Juma and her family and set off with Miku on an undemanding trek along the lakeshore, where our only company is grazing livestock and falcons which hang above us, scanning the grasslands for mice.
For two days , overnighting at another CBT yurt in between, we head north-west along trails tamped down by countless hooves. We skirt the lake for eight miles before leaving the shore at the point where the icebound peaks give way to a rippling landscape of swale-backed hills.
Away from the CBT village, the jailoo is vast and empty, like an earthly Valhalla.
When, near one solitary outpost, I encounter the infant horseman, his presence is so serene — so befitting the Central Asia cliché — it feels like a dream.
“Two-years-old!” exclaims Miku, after a conversation with the mother. The child eyes me with a look somewhere between curiosity and disdain, then digs his little heels into his bay and continues on, the puppy cantering at his side.
The sun is low on the horizon by the time we reach the hanging-valley of Kalimche. The name means carpet, for in high summer, when thousands of people descend on Song Kol for the annual Horse Games Festival, these prairies abound with wild flowers.
In a dip next to an outcrop of boulders, we arrive at our final yurt.
Asamat, our host, couldn’t be described as a modern man. When his wife pops out briefly to collect some kindling, he inadvertently lets their boisterous one-year-old daughter defecate on the yurt floor. When mother returns, he is trying to flick the consequences outside with a coal scuttle. But the hospitality is warm, the food hearty, and I almost forget that tomorrow I will be doing something I have never done before.
Early the following day, as the obstinate nag I’ve hired from Asamat tots up its second unintended canter, I inscribe a mental note: in future, leave horsemanship to the toddlers.
But as we exit pastel hillsides into dusty Kyzart village, and reacquaint ourselves with the other, ill-fitting Kyrgyzstan of settled life, I feel happy to have endured a day in the saddle, for the true country is the one we’d left behind.
“Mankoort,” says Miku, nodding at the dusty roads, the litter, a tragicomic drunk swaying at the roadside. Yet for some, at least, the old ways persevere.
Henry Wismayer is a travel writer nearing retirement. Applause will be cashed in for coffee or whiskey sours depending on the time of day.