We have another day of touristy visits. First we stop to meet a man who uses an eagle to hunt foxes, and presumably other small game. I’d envisioned us out on a pasture somewhere being treated to a show of flight. No. We go into his back yard garden where he’s dressed in traditional garb and his eagle gets to pounce on a very long dead fox skin being dragged across the ground by a child. Then there are the corny photo ops – in costumes of course. The young boy has a small hawk – he (the boy) is already learning this ancient hunting art.
Our next stop is more interesting. We visit a village wherein every family is involved in the yurt construction business. We visit one of the families – five people who take a month to create all the pieces – wood and wool – of a yurt. They showed us all the stages of the various aspects of yurt construction. Then we all had fun building a mini yurt in their living room. A yurt sells for between 10 and 12 thousand USD.
Speaking of yurts. The summer season is coming to an end and we saw many yurts being dismantled and loaded into trucks for transportation to lower elevations. Helen took a wonderful picture of a loaded yurt truck that also had a horse riding in the back. That picture will follow. It is interesting to see a nomadic population on the move: yurts packed up in trucks and huge herds of sheep, goats, cows, and horses being driven by mounted shepherds.
We drove over a 3400 m pass and down to a yurt camp on the shore of Son Kul – at about 3000 m.
This was a more humble camp. We were surrounded by horse herds, grasslands and snow on the nearby hills not much higher than our camp. We were supposed to have an acclimatization hike but instead were dropped off from the van about a 30 min walk from the camp that we could see in the distance and told we could walk the last stretch. On the way we passed a woman milking a mare. I’ve already sent that picture. Fermented mare’s milk is a favourite alcoholic drink in this area.The wind was screaming down from the snowy hills and it was cold. Soon a fire was lit in the stove in our yurt. The fuel – dried sheep dung. It burns reasonably well once it’s hot enough but creates a fair bit of stinky smoke before it really gets going. It wasn’t long before our yurt felt like a sauna. Unfortunately the fire went out during the night and by morning it was freezing. None of us wanted to climb out of our warm blankets.
There is a custom here of setting the tables with fairly permanent settings of candies, cookies, fried bread strings, several sorts of jams in open dishes and fruit. This stuff stays out all the time and gets added to from time to time. Flies buzz around lighting on the food inside and the animal dung outside. Some of this food looks like it’s been around for a while.
After breakfast – greasy eggs and delicious fresh baked bread plus any of the table condiments we risked eating – we set out for a ride into the hills beyond the camp. Wide open grasslands with firm footing for the horses. We could ride side by side if we wished. We weren’t confined to one behind the other. The broad brown grasslands climbed into steep snow covered slopes above. We watched a shepherd on his horse chase two naughty cows. This was what I’d imagined my birthday ride would have been like. Blue sky. Friends. Warm temperature with no wind. Perfect.
In the afternoon we went for a second ride, this one along the shore of the lake and along a narrow stretch of land that separates a much smaller lake from the larger one. By now the afternoon winds were strengthening so waves pulled at the stony shore line and lake gulls swirled around in the eddies. My horse was curious about everything – pausing, looking, twitching his ears. It turned out he is only three and was still leading the ropes. I was impressed that he was so responsive and easy to handle.
Each ride was a little more than two hours so we all felt we’d had a really good day.
That afternoon Pat’s stomach had been a bit upset. In the evening I felt dinner wasn’t going down that well. Once in bed my stomach was upset. Suddenly Kelsey was up and running from the yurt. We could hear her vomiting onto the frozen ground some distance away. Pretty soon I was doing the same thing…..then Pat was off to the outhouse. It was a long night of frequent outhouse visits for the three of us. It was a long rush to that damn outhouse especially with butt cheeks firmly griped in terror. In the morning we discovered that Eddy too was similarly unwell.
When our plight was brought to Nazgul’s attention she denied at first that it had anything to do with food. It was because of running in the cold or not wearing a hat or whatever. Pat used her MSF – “I know what I’m talking about” voice and assured Nazgul that food poisoning was the most likely scenario.
Poor Nazgul. She is a kind and compassionate woman and four clients were down for the count. Kelsey was definitely the sickest of us, so she was selected for what Pat termed the “sheep dip” treatment. The shepherd’s wife rubbed Kelsey’s abdomen with warm sheep grease, wrapped her in a towel and made her lie on the ground – now warm – in the sun – for a while. The rest of us were just grateful Kelsey had taken one for the team.
That day’s drive was rough figuratively and in reality. Every once in a while we stopped and everyone piled out of the vehicle to take pictures. Helen enjoyed the scenery for the full trip. She assures the rest of us – who did our best to sleep – that it was spectacular.
That evening when we arrived at our third yurt camp, Kelsey and I dove into bed and didn’t emerge again until the next morning. All of us were reasonably recovered.
Our ride that day was spectacular! We rode high into the mountains. The weather was cold and increasingly cloudy but even so the wildness of the place was stirring. We were passed by two large herds of horses being driven down from above. They surged by, startled wide horse eyes and flailing hooves. After about two hours we asked Nazgul for a rest. This was when she informed us that our four hour ride was going to be six because we weren’t going fast enough. Everyone except Helen mutinied. The weather was closing in. Only Helen felt well enough to continue. She carried on with the horseman and the rest of us returned for a two hour ride back down to camp. We’d barely started our return trip when it began snowing hard, then there was nearby thunder. We all know that where there is thunder there has been lightning and the dangers that can pose in high places. Our horses hurried along through a cold whitening world, seemingly unperturbed by the weather. We arrived back in camp, safe and sound, Helen not far behind. It had been an exhilarating ride. My horse was an unkempt looking fellow, but was a skilled route finder and lead horse who responded to the slightest cues. He gave me a wonderful canter as we arrived in camp. Kelsey got a great couple of pictures – will share on with you in a bit.
That evening we went down to see an ancient caravanserai built sometime between the 9th and 15th c. Once a place where Silk Road traders sheltered on nights just like this one – cold and windy – on their way to and from China. It certainly offers no cozy shelter these days but it was fascinating to explore the maze of rooms and conjure the international babble of those long ago traders as they ate their meals and likely drank some form of vodka to stave off the chill.
Pat, Helen and I are now off for a walk around in Bishkek. We catch the night bus to Shymkent this evening. Will continue this saga later. If by chance I disappear off the radar again for a while, it may be because of being back in Kazakhstan where blogging seemed to be problematic.