Kyrgyzstan part 3 – 16 to 19 Sep

We’ve just spent the last week back in Kazakhstan. More about our adventures there in a bit.

I was unable to blog from there, so here is the final episode of our fun time Kyrgyzstan. More will follow over the next couple of days – I hope.

16 September.. We departed the freezing high country with mixed feelings. The romance of staying in yurts receives a hard dose of reality when we’re making the midnight journey, way lit by headlamp, to outhouses far across frozen open ground, and when a bitter wind nips nether regions from under the seat. There is a sense that these high wild pastures and mountains, inhabited by hardy shepherd families and their livestock, are timeless and immune to modern pressures. The modern world is creeping in. We, the tourists, now stay in yurts and ride horses, thus supplement income. Yurt camps are moved by truck now, not by animal drawn carts. Traditional clothing is giving way to cheep imports from China. 

We stop in a small town down in the flatlands and Nazgul picks up some supplies for a picnic. We’ve been told we are going on a more than 8 hr ride. It is already well past mid morning. Do the math. When’s sunset? Ludicrous idea. We point out this obvious fact and the plan is reluctantly changed. We will ride for two hours up a valley and other two hours back down. Everyone is happy with the logic of this plan.

Soon our van stops in the middle of nowhere on a dusty track and from across a stream come a couple of horse men with some horses. The meet’s been arranged but seems almost magical. We’re soon mounting up. The horse tack is in deplorable condition. A few of the reins are just thin bits of rotting twine. The saddles are worn and the blankets are filled with holes. We sit on moth eaten sheep fleeces thrown over the top. My horse barely opens his eyes, making it clear he’d rather be sleeping. I end up nudging him constantly for the entire ride. Thankfully, he responds to the continued pressure to keep moving, but it’s a bit wearing. After the previous horse, this one is dull. I feel he’s probably been over-ridden and is exhausted.

We ride up a steep sided valley, along a busy stream that leaps and burbles over boulders on it’s way to lower places. At one point we cross a small wooden bridge. The horses aren’t too keen on this, rolling their eyes, carrying on and balking like they’ve never seen it before.

The trail climbs steeply and is soon far above the stream and wending it’s narrow way along a cliff. As my horse strains to climb over a particularly large rock outcrop on the path, I hear a cling. His hoof hitting the rock? No, he’s not shod. The drop below is long and steep. Suddenly I feel myself leaning – with the saddle – towards the abyss. It takes less than a second  to realize my saddle is no longer attached to the bloody horse. I grab his mane and lean the other way, looking down, I see the girth strap hanging free. I call out to the horse man who is just ahead. He turns. I point. His eyes widen. He hops off his horse and hurries back to help me off mine. There is limited space on this narrow trail for all these goings ons. I hold his horse. He sort of fixes the girth on mine. I climb back on, swinging my leg out over the drop as I do so. We continue until the trail widens, then everyone takes a break while my saddle’s girth is replaced. Like I mentioned – crap tack. 

The rest of the ride continues without mishap. The trail passes through yak pastures, occupied by frolicking baby yaks and argumentative older yaks asserting dominance over each other. Our horses pay scan attention to them, but they all watch us with worry. Have we come to herd them? 

In places the trail is steep and slippery with mud. It begins to snow. We exit the tree line. We are making good time so will now ride all the way to the waterfall. A more than eight hour ride is now being touted as four. In the end it is about five.

The waterfall is one of the highest in Centra Asia. It drops in a vertical ribbon from cliffs far above. Now we have achieved our required destination we will have our picnic – freezing weather be damned. 

“Might we picnic in a more sheltered place a bit further back down the trail?”

“No. We are at the waterfall. This is our picnic place.” 

We eat as quickly as possible but Nazgul and the horse men are in no rush so we stand around while they devour meat and bread. “Why you no eat meat?” They want to know. 

It’s a continuous refrain here. Later we are told that local people have two main questions about tourists. Why are they so dirty? (Mostly referring to cyclists, we are assured.) and Why don’t they eat meat?

Our ride back down out of the snowstorm and into the warmth and sun is a little quicker.

Kelly’s horse has a wonderful fast walk that not all horses have – it covers distance quickly and smoothly. Eddy and I have one-speed slow walking horses so we trot along behind Kelly. Eddy hasn’t mastered not bouncing with every step so the poor man jars along in a certain amount of agony all the way back to the van.

That night we stay in a guesthouse. A warm building, en-suite warm bathrooms, hot showers, bliss. We love the adventures but our creature comforts are important too. The next day we drive back to Bishkek. A fabulous tour over.

Bishkek is a crumbling city. Some parks and buildings that were developed and maintained during the Soviet times are now overgrown and neglected. Our guesthouse there offers a pleasant garden and is in a quiet neighbourhood with shops and restaurants. We chill for two days then climb on the night bus bound for Shymkent in Kazakhstan. 

Kyrgyzstan Part one – 10 and 11 September

EPIC.

We are back in Bishkek after a spectacular tour around Kyrgyzstan. Our experience here has generally been memorable for all the right reasons.

I’ll get into the food poisoning that affected four members of our group of six in a bit. I’ll not moan too long about there being no hiking, despite the tour offering four hikes. This seems to be a refrain in this part of the world. I’m not sure the term hiking is understood here the way we understand it a home. There was a couple from Malaysia with us, and their concept of hiking agreed with ours.

The trip delivered on all other counts so I’m not too disappointed.

The scenery here is outstanding. High snowy mountains, large blue lakes, dunn hilly grasslands, forests, meadows, gorges, waterfalls. In some areas the landscape rolls gently into the distance, in others it rises up in rugged spires and jagged cliffs and peaks. On any given day we had the opportunity to experience four seasons. 

Details – 

For me, the highlight was the riding. It made up for my disappointment in Mongolia. We enjoyed four rides. Each one different, and becoming progressively more challenging.

On two of our rides – to elevations above 3100 metres – we experienced cold wind and snow. In both cases, we happily rode down to a warmer zone at the end of the ride. Riding in this country provides the opportunity to explore extraordinary scenery, even in blizzards it was beautiful. We had a variety of horses, mostly good ones although a couple were a bit tired and slow. On one of the rides I rode the best horse I’ve ever ridden. On another I rode a three year old with little experience under his saddle. The selection of horses for any given ride seemed random and as we rode in three different areas there was no chance for continuity.

There were six of us on our tour. The intrepid courageous Kelsey from north of Boston. Happy adventurous Eddie and Kelly from Malaysia. The three of us. Our guide, Nazgul, an English professor at the Bishkek university and our wonderful driver Sheker, a retired police officer.

On our first day we visited an ancient city site of Balasagun – once a place of interest on the Silk Road. Now just a minaret called Burana tower still stands among grass mounds marking where there were once mausoleums and palaces. We climbed up the tower – the staircase was extremely narrow, steep and dark. Pat was the smart one of the group with her headlamp in her purse.

Pat’s purse is worth mentioning – she has just about everything you can imagine in there and then some.

Of particular note were the curious stone face carvings called Balbals which are ancient grave markers. Each one is unique but they all depict the person holding a chalice.

Pictures will follow.

That night and the next we stayed at a yurt camp by the vast Issyk Kul – Hot Lake. So called due to the many hot springs that feed into it keeping the temperature pleasantly warm.

The camp and the others we stayed in were much more homey than the camps where we stayed while in Mongolia. This one had a Mexican beach adobe vibe and the food was delicious. Another difference between Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. The food here is much more varied. A national meat dish here is horse. We all vehemently declined.

The next day was supposed to include a 3.5 hr hike. We managed two short walks however both were in stunning locations. It was hard to complain.

First we climbed into a summer grazing pasture called the jailoo of Boz Salkyn. From a small peak we looked down across Issyk Kul to the snow capped mountains beyond. Between the green pasture where we were the lower hills reaching towards the lake were reds and browns. The colour palette was astonishing.

Our next walk was in an area called Fairy Tale Canyon. Red and yellow striated rock formations sculpted by wind and water. We spent some time scrambling around and enjoying the unlikeliest rock formations. I’ve already sent a couple of pictures of both the walks.

Later we visited a very developed hot springs – pools and a shower room. As this would be our last hot water and shower for several days, we all took advantage.

More Kyrgyzstan stories to follow. I know you’re all curious about riding in the snow storms and mad freezing dashes to the outhouse in the middle of a sub zero night.

Rainy Mud then Sun in Mongolia 19 – 21 Aug

Rain, Mud then Sun in Mongolia – 19 – 21 Aug 

It rained most of the night and continued to do so throughout the morning.

We made suggestions about erecting a kitchen tarp that fell on deaf ears.

We asked about the the trail conditions further along our proposed route. More mud, and even more difficult, we were told.

We asked what the purpose was in moving on through more mud in the pouring rain. It seemed ludicrous to us. Our guide – Ester – dropped the ball on the decision making process. So we conferred with our horseman/cook. He conferred with the others and it was decided we would stay put.

Helen, Pat and I stood in the rain to eat bread and meat and drink a hasty coffee for breakfast then went back into the tent to puzzle over why we were in this particular soggy location. In the end we discovered that the tour organizer had decided to change the itinerary at the last moment without bothering to consult us. As of this writing, we have yet to understand but feel he too dropped the ball.

The rain stopped around lunch time so we emerged the tent. The guys thought we were like Marmots only coming out of their dens on sunny days. They’d also thought we looked like penguins in an igloo while we’d been sitting in the tent looking out at the world. We told them we found watching their antics about camp better than most TV. It was all good for a laugh. They were incredibly happy to not to have had to pack up a sodden camp and move on so we celebrated the reasonably warm dry afternoon with some excellent vodka.

Every meal in Mongolia seems to involve meat. Sheep is the meat of choice. Mongolian cooking also seems to incorporate a lot of fat. There appears to be no such thing as a lean cut of meat. Fat is king and most chunks of meat seem to be half fat and gristle.

We ate our meals by the fire and flipped as many un-chewable gristle and fat bits into the flames as possible without appearing rude. Portions were generous and there was lots of noodles and rice to fill our bellies.

The next day was dry, though cool and cloudy with a significant promise of rain. It was my 65th birthday. Looking around the forested site, I wondered how my vision of what this ride was going to be could have been so wrong. Not a vista to be seen.

It was decided we would go for a ride in the afternoon but return to the same camp. It seemed like a sensible plan. The main question for the three of us continued to be – why were we on this boggy trail when there is so much glorious dry high grassland nearby.

Our afternoon ride was mostly dry from the sky – with only one fierce wind blown deluge to make it exciting. Much of the trail was through more muskeg. We crossed a stream. The horses don’t mind the deep water when they can see where they’re putting their feet but they seem to detest the deep mud.

Pat had put her foot down and refused to ride the beast she had the first day. She was now on a pleasant horse we named Blackie. Mongolians don’t give their horses names. They seemed to think it weird that we thought horses might have them. Helen had called her’s Felt. Mine went through a few names before I decided on Muffin. Muffin was a bit timid and very sweet. He hated getting his feet muddy and frankly I didn’t  blame him. Despite his desire to not wade through mud, he was biddable and stepped gingerly through the muck.

The next day dawned sunny and warm. Our tent was soon steaming and we packed up a nearly dry camp. The pack horses were much less burdened as we’d consumed a lot of food and most of the water.

Our return ride was still muddy but in the sun it was more pleasant. Muffin and I managed a short canter which we both enjoyed. We all negotiated the enormous mud pit with no calamity and were a bit disappointed to arrive back at the van in just over three hours.

Despite not being as advertised or expected, the ride was a memorable adventure. It transpired that our option might have been some boring rides in and out of a camp out on a flat plain. We remain mystified about why rides don’t seem to happen in the beautiful rolling grasslands. We saw no one riding in thse areas.

Next blog will be …. stops on the tourist trail of must see sights. 

Our Mongolian Ride – Part 2

It would appear that for reasons that are beyond my limited understanding that WordPress has decided it no long likes to work with the Safari browser but that it likes Google Chrome. Why the sudden change of venue as it were is a mystery, however here’s hoping that after numerous attempts, you will finally find out what happened at the mud pit and what we’ve been up to since. 

So I left you at the edge of a muddy abyss. Kim, Pat and Helen on horses that have decided they’d rather not get themselves immersed in the mire.

Our horseman, Baga, circled back and encouraged my horse across by riding alongside. The tactic worked. He went back to help Pat and Helen. Helen’s horse bolted for the bush and higher ground. Pat’s was being ornery and stubborn. Baga tried pulling him and he lost his footing in the mud, which was up to his haunches. Luckily Pat’s foot had come out of a stirrup and as her horse fell, she came off, landing up past her hips in the muddy water.

Although filthy, wet and cold she was uninjured. Her sense of humour was a little subdued for a while but she recovered  that much sooner than she dried off. Two weeks later and after several washes, her pants remain of questionable cleanliness.

The ride continued and Pat continued arguing with her horrid horse who she named – a name I am not allowed to reveal. Let me assure you, it was a suitable name.

After climbing up a mountain, across the top, along a scree slope, down the other side and through more mud, we eventually arrived a beautiful campsite in a larch forest by a stream. It was dusk by this time. We set up our tents. One for the three of us. One for our guide, Ester. One for the three men. No eating shelter. A campfire was lit from damp wood. A good hot meal was prepared. We ate, then fell into our sleeping bags and exhausted sleep.

During the night it rained. Deluged really. Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Rain and Mud in Mongolia.