Jammed between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, former USSR state Kyrgyzstan has to be amongst the most obscure countries on the earth. It’s also one of the most ravishing, with royal blue lakes, old growth forests and mountains teeming with nomadic shepherds. Welcome to life without internet.
Sitec has been divorced five times, and he’s only 35. The shepherd lives in a remote river valley beyond Shamsy Gorge in northern Kyrgyzstan, a cold and mountainous region without electricity, telephone lines, running water, indoor toilets, or, in winter, sunshine. There’s little here to lure a pretty young bride from the village, let alone keep one. Sitec’s first four wives didn’t last a month past the wedding day; number five left after the first hour. Yet if they didn’t share his passion for the wilderness, there’s a growing number of adventurous travelers do, thanks to the country’s first tourism initiative since the Soviet sanatorium boom of the 1930s.
Along with a couple of friends and some fine looking steeds, Sitec is taking me from Shamsy Gorge through to Song-Kul lake, an arduous six-day journey. We will be traveling into the heart of the jailoo, or summer pastures, where Kyrgyzstan’s traditional shepherds go to fatten their lambs. And we’ll be checking into the country’s more interesting lodgings- yurts- along the way.
Small, durable tents made from compressed sheep’s wool, yurts are part of an innovative project aimed at bringing Kyrgyzstan’s rural population into the tourist market. The brainchild of Swiss development agency Helvetas and managed by local nonprofit organizations Shepherds Life and the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association (KCBTA), the scheme includes a network of yurt and village homestays where, for less than US$10 per person per day, travelers are provided with a bed, breakfast, and one of the most memorable experiences around. Since the project’s inception in May 2000, more than 600 Kyrgyz families have signed up to participate, with Shepherds Life and the KCBTA coordinating translators, guides, and transport either by horseback or four-wheel drive where necessary. With homestays scattered throughout several mountain regions, it’s a great way to see the country’s less accessible but stunning locations, while also making a vital contribution to the local economy.
Like most Kyrgyz, Sitec is a gifted horseman. Which is just as well, considering the terrain we’re crossing to get to the jailoo is hardly what you would find at your local pony club. It’s day one, we’ve been in our saddles for less than half an hour, riding up a lush ravine, when we come upon a daunting obstacle: a river ford swollen with meltwater. With the torrent raging higher than our horses’ withers, Sitec executes an impromtu exit strategy. “Hang on!” he hollers, heading straight up what seems to be an impossibly sheer cliff. Quivering, we follow.
Soon we’re on an old caravan trail that snakes its way through emerald-hued gorges and over mountain ridges heavy with snow and the promise of storms. Rising up from the vast deserts of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan may not have the storied Silk Road cities of its neighbors (Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, China’s Xinjiang province to the east). But what it lacks in ancient allure it more than makes up for with its spectacular scenery: hauntingly beautiful mountains, alpine lakes, and fir forests alive with bears and snow leopards.
Kyrgyz shepherds are semi-nomadic, spending the freezing winters in the valley villages and in summer, roaming their sheep on the lush highland pastures. Ethnically Mongol, their forebears were chased from Siberia to the slopes of the Tien Shan mountain range by the rampaging armies of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Although hundreds of years of assimilation with their Turkic and Persian neighbors have lessened their prominent Mongol features, they still have thick crops of rich black hair (mostly hidden by cylindrical felt hats called kalpak), slight dark eyes, high cheek bones, and, in the men at least, broad necks that slide down to barreling chests.
They weren’t always free to roam. Colonized by Russia in the late 19th century, the Kyrgyz were subject to a brutal campaign of mass collectivization. Many fled, journeying deep into the Pamir Mountains, slaughtering their animals to avoid handing them over to the authorities. Others were forced onto communal farms, where they stayed until the early 1990s, when independence and a new state government encouraged them to return to the jailoo. “It is only in death, when he is buried, that a Kyrgyz will stop wandering,” goes the local saying.
Land-locked and oil-less, Kyrgyzstan has remained one of the poorest nations to emerge from the Soviet Union- the average monthly income is about US$30. And while post-Soviet tourism is still in its infancy, yurt and village homestays are increasingly being seen as key to enticing visitors in search of the next untrammeled destination. There is a Shepherds Life or KCBTA office in all of Kyrgyzstan’s main towns with maps, contact details, and other information on participating homestays, which are also rated for their cleanliness, comfort, and facilities.
It is with the aid of one of these maps that we find Alik and our first night’s yurt. The map wasn’t really necessary; Alik is an old friend of Sitec’s, and like most shepherds, he returns to the same patch of grass every summer (“On the far side of the eagle-tail mountain, cross two mountain streams, and turn left at the rock that looks like a sheep,” is how Sitec describes its location).
Alik and his tribe of three sons and a daughter had moved to the jailoo a week before our arrival. They are, by Kyrgyz standards, modern shepherds. An ancient rust-orange Fiat has replaced horses for trips to and from the family house, 20 kilometers down the valley, and a satellite dish is used to pick up a fuzzy Russian TV station on the rare occasion there is enough sun to fuel the solar batteries.
Alik’s daughter is busy making kumis, or fermented mare’s milk. Zesty, spritzy, and definitely an acquired taste, kumis is said to be able to cure anything from tuberculosis to skin disease. The drink so captivated the hearts of the Russians that they built sanatoriums specializing in the stuff on the shores of Issyk-Kul, the world’s second highest alpine lake (after Titicaca in the Andes), there treating such luminaries as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.
Like everything- saddles, beds (enormous sacks stuffed with wool), and jugs of clotted cream- the kumis churner has a special place inside the compact yurt. Birch-framed domes wrapped tight in thick sheep’s wool felt and lavishly adorned with shyrdaks– multi-colored felt rugs- yurts are durable, functional, amazingly cozy, and surprisingly warm. Designed for mobility, they can be put up and taken down in less than three hours, all packed neatly onto the back of a horse.
It’s been almost two years since Alik and Sitec last met, and they celebrate their reunion with the slaughter of a fatted lamb. We dine on chunks of spiced and barbecued meat, fresh flat bread, and a few shots of Russian vodka- cheap and nasty stuff, but a welcome tipple after a day in the saddle. We spend the rest of the evening chatting and gazing at the stars. “We have no TV, no radio, and no newspaper, only this view,” Alik says, pointing outside. “What else is there to do?”
The next day we continue in the direction of Song-Kul. Tracing picturesque river gorges teaming with wild flowers and dotted with crumbling tombs, we cross mountain range after mountain range, some passes still knee deep with snow even in late June, traversing more than 80 kilometers of arduous terrain before the lake comes into sight. A gelid, ice-blue expanse filled with trout as long as my arm and surrounded by towering peaks and vast, treeless plains, it’s one of the country’s most spectacular natural sites.
We spend our last night with Keres, a cheerful and amiable matron who is fortunate enough to have inherited a prize sliver of land along the lakeshore. Keres joined the KCBTC project with only two yurts, but recently set up another four to accommodate her growing number of visitors. Tourists are now the main source of her family’s income, and it’s easy to see why they come: a hauntingly beautiful lake surrounded by snow-draped mountains that seem to touch the sky.
That evening, as the sun slips behind the mountains and the temperature drops to just above freezing, we gather at the water’s edge for the trip’s grand finale: our hardened horseman and eternal entertainer Sitec strips down for a quick dip in the lake. Presumably, this is for our benefit: Sitec, as I later learn, had never even dangled his big toe in a lake before, let alone his head. Chalk it up to Kyrgyzstan’s unique brand of hospitality; that, or a few surreptitious nips of Russian vodka.
Kyrgyzstan is not the easiest of places to get to. Asiana Airlines links most Asian cities with Kyrgyzstan via Korea and either Tashkent in Uzbekistan or Almaty in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan Airlines connects Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Bishkek via Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. Kyrgyzstan Airways flies from Delhi direct to Bishkek, and China Southern links Beijing through Urumqi.
Most nationalities (except most former USSR countries, as well as Malaysia and Japan) require a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan. These can be obtained on arrival at the airport, Kyrgyzstan Embassies, or in countries where none exist, Kazakhstan Embassies.
Non-for profit organization Kyrgyzstan Community Based Tourism Association and Shepherds Life maintain updated information on homestays in all of the countries jailoo’s and villages. Along side maps indicating where the yurts and homestay’s are, they provide contact information, costs and comfort levels as well as can organize guides, translators, transfers, 4WD and horse hire. The organizations have offices in all major towns (Shepherds Life only list yurt stays) or find listings of all participating homestays on KCBTA’s website. www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg
For a more discerning experience, Bishkek based, UK owned and run Celestial Mountains is Kyrgyzstan’s most experienced and reliable outfitter. They offer tailored tours to more than a dozen jailoo’s and trekking/ horse riding regions in the country where guests can stay in KCBTA or Shepherds Life yurts, or be met each night by support vehicles, a cook, bedding and tents- a real bonus after a hard day in the saddle. They can also arrange road trips around the country, sleeping in home stays along the way. +996 312212562; www.celestial.com.kg
Catch your breath before and after a trip into the mountains at Bishkek’s Hyatt Regency, some serious comfort for this part of the world. Rooms with stunning views over the mountains start from $140. +996 312661234; www.Hyatt.com