Caught in a Kyrgyzstan Winter

As summer magicks into early snow on Kyrgyz highlands, a visitor unlearns set ideas of travel.  
Kyrgyzstan
Yurts are huts made of animal felt, a common accommodation for locals living in higher altitudes. Photo by: Tuul & Bruno Morandi/DigitalVision/Getty Images

As I whizz through on silky tarmac after three arduous days in the highlands of Kyrgyzstan, collapsed in the back of a sedan clocking 100 kmph, my mind races to George Orwell’s 1984. I have not landed myself in a dystopian world, but I feel my integration into the nomadic way of life in Kyrgyz mountains follow the same three stages of reintegration into society à la Winston in the Orwellian classic.

 

Stage One: Learning

We are deep into September, the fag end of summer in Kyrgyzstan. The shepherds are still taking their cattle up to the jailoo—meadows covered in velveteen grass. Me and my partner-in-crime, Divya, are catching a break in the sleepy town of Kochkor, snuggled in the office of the KCBTA (Kyrgyzstan Community-based Tourism Association)—which has arranged for us hyper-local homestays across an impending mountain trail. We are only 197 kilometres from the capital, Bishkek, but turrets of wind sneak cold into the room, reminding us it was a good idea to layer up. Although temperature here is barely skimming 14°C, our guide, Alik, has mentioned that the horse trek across the ‘heavenly’ Tian Shan mountains to the banks of the Song Kol lake at 10,000 feet would be all about surviving the sub-zero. He waltzes into the room and exclaims, “We have our first snow of the season, you’re lucky”. I look over my shoulder at Divya, unable to comprehend this turn of fate. “We are not riding horses in the snow, are we?” she stares back blankly.

Alik rushes us to the supermarket, places gleaming bottles of local vodka (KGS100/Rs100) into my hands and informs, “You’ll need it, trust me.” For someone who has never ridden a horse, or endured sub-zero conditions, the start doesn’t feel ecstatic. After all, this was supposed to be a trip to the grasslands, cool evenings tinged with the sweetness of late-summer. But winter, it seemed, was half-a-month early, with little patience for our plans.

Bundling our newly bought supplies into backpacks, we drive 70 kilometres southwest to the village of Kyzart at the base of the mountains where our horses are waiting. Along the way, Alik ushers us into a quaint house for lunch. Divya and I wolf down the Kyrgyz staples of Russian bread, sheep milk-butter, home-made jam and cold mutton soup as if it’s our last meal, barely pausing to catch each other’s eyes in appreciation. Bellies full and hearts racing, it’s time to meet our designated horses.

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Clockwise from top left: Before an early winter set in, the writer spotted cattle in grasslands; Horse riding along the Tian Shan mountains left the writer’s heinie weary; Song Kol lake punctuates the vacant landscape with a jolt of blue; Meals here involve the noodle dish of beshbarmak, Russian bread, and plov. Photos by: Neal J. Wilson/Moment/Getty Images (horse), Divya Behl (lake), GTW/imageBROKER/Getty Images (cows), Matteo Colombo/Moment/ Getty Images (meal)

I’m riding Nurbek, who’s majestic with lush, black mane flowing across his eyes; Divya is in the company of Jerde, who might as well have strutted out of a ramp. Riding, I’ve learnt, is a part of everyday life for the Tagai clan from the north, the Ich Kylyk clan of the south, and most others among the 40 Kyrgyz tribes. For us travellers too, it is kept simple, good old saddle-style, without any special equipment. Alik straps our backpacks onto his horse and saddles us into ours before proceeding to give a crash course on horse riding. It turns out that the lesson just involves two sounds and a couple of movements. “Hold on to the bridle tightly, pull it back and say choo if you want him to go ahead; But, if you need him to stop, just tap his sides with both legs and say drrr. Ok? Shall we go?” Alik ignores my faint cries and gallops away, signalling us to follow.

Nurbek probably senses my anxiety as he gallops ahead even though my choo is a hesitant, muffled one, and I hold onto the bridle loosely. The three horses move with purpose towards the jailoo, probably hungry, when I spot the mountains in the distance covered in a fresh carpet of snow. “Are we going to go all the way up there over the next three days?” I mumble. “We get to that point today!” says Alik. My mind runs around in circles. Nurbek, as if imitating my thoughts, begins to do the same. He turns, swivels, and gallops in the wrong direction, ignoring my screams and failed attempts at Kyrgyz commands. It is close to half an hour before Alik manages to rein him in. At this point, I have the first of many epiphanies on the trip. If I am to complete this journey, I have to shed all preconceived notions of travel. And so I begin afresh.

 

Stage Two: Understanding

Even though Nurbek doesn’t have blinders on, he keeps his head down as he canters on following Alik’s lead. Swathes of time, like the endless uninhabited land on our either side, pass by, barely noticed. My phone isn’t buzzing anymore and the last few signs of civilisation—the gingerbread-like houses of Kyzart—now look like playthings carelessly left behind. Hills pop up all around us, dwarfed by larger peaks behind them, decorated in dense snow. Once in a while, we pass by herds of cows, and shepherds coaxing them to seize the very last leg of grass.

Minutes turn into hours. By now, Nurbek and Jerde seem to have adjusted to our voices, just as we’ve come to understand their idiosyncrasies and occasional naughtiness. When we finally arrive at a snow-laden path, I expect Nurbek to neigh in protest and make a U-turn, given it’s the season’s first. But he lopes along with his other mates, the epitome of good-naturedness. Seven hours later, drifting through a plateau of nothingness and infinite
blue skies, it starts to feel like Nurbek and I against the world. I consider spilling secrets to my four-legged friend, content that they would be safe with him. What’s not as safe is my heinie, which has begun to show signs of distress. Luckily, Alik calls out soon, “Oi, we are here, our camp for the night”.

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Come night-time and hours of laborious riding is promptly forgotten as the mountain skies rupture in bursts of silver. Photo by: Anton Petrus/Moment/ Getty Images

Camp, I soon realise, refers to a couple of yurts (huts made of animal felt) that stand like the lone survivors of an apocalypse. There’s a thin white layer of powder over the ground, smoke billowing from the kitchen cabin, and a furry golden retriever running amok—an interstellar feel to the surroundings. The couple hosting us had moved to the mountains in the summer to provide shelter to weary travellers. The man is probably in his mid-twenties, sporting a six-pack surely sculpted outside of a gym. The lady, mostly hiding her face, spends her time in the kitchen, working with mare’s milk, sheep meat and dough; scant ingredients transforming into bone-warming meals of fresh-cream-smeared Russian breads, plov, and noodle soup under her care.

The air is coloured with the laughter of their two-year-old daughter, who, in the absence of cool toys, entertains herself rather expertly by making shapes on the ground with firewood.

You couldn’t tell from the family’s easy alliance with their surroundings, but there’s no mistaking it—life here isn’t easy. There’s no power, and whatever solar energy can be harnessed during the summer months is reserved for lighting up the yurts for a couple of hours every day after sundown. Should their child fall sick, the nearest doctor is a five-hour horse ride away, no exceptions. But nothing alerts me of their hardships like my latrine experience outside of a latrine. Stripping naked in the open in sub-zero temperature as I clutch onto a headlamp, I am resigned to relieving myself into a pit I can barely see. But the moment of vulnerability also brings with it the view of a gazillion stars. For once I am not scrolling disinterestedly through my newsfeed while doing my business; Kyrgyzstan has taught me to trade one comfort for another.

Our hosts are jovial; of course, we don’t understand a word of what they say and vice versa, but somehow, the silence of the hills seems to drown out the inadequacies of language. Strange but certain, an intimacy brews between us, churning and thickening over mouthfuls of beshbarmak—Kyrgyzstan’s national dish of noodles with lamb cooked in its own juice. The head of the animal, we observe, is traditionally served to the man of the house. The vodka, however, we split equally, as we pour over the family’s few photographs, possibly clicked during their trips down to the town. Unlike Winston, I am transcending the second stage peacefully.

 

Stage Three: Acceptance

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Travelling musicians (top) playing the traditional string instrument komuz are likely to sing of heroic epics in long, flourishing pitches; The writer’s partner documented their Kyrgyz moments on camera (bottom), often freezing frames with local hosts. Photos by: MehmetO/shutterstock (musicians), Divya Behl (self portrait)

When morning arrives, we load up our caravan, bid farewell to our friends over chai, and ride off to scale the Jalgyz Karagai pass, which, at 11,000 feet, is the highest point of our journey. Nurbek moves slowly today, thanks to the husks of whites, but he climbs up the pass confidently enough. Not a fleck of grass is visible, and the smallest of slips could send me falling to cold, cold death, but I’m beginning to relax with every stream we cut through, every shortcut we take. I’m beginning to trust Nurbek with my life.

At the top of the pass—a two-day hustle from the base—I feel like I’ve walked into heaven. Pristine, shimmery snow stares at me from all directions. I look around, half expecting angels to be hovering, and it is a while before I notice the majestic alpine lake at a distance. “That’s Song Kol,” hollers Alik, pointing at our final destination. It will take what remains of the day to reach Song Kol, so we canter on.

By the time we arrive at our campsite by Song Kol’s shores, we’ve helped out another host family with medicines, learnt to race our horses, tried our hand at cooking Uzbek plov, and drunk mare’s milk as a midday beverage. Alik bids us farewell, letting us know that we will be picked up by a car the following noon. We don’t ask him any questions, completely at peace with where we find ourselves. During the peak summer this place crawls with people, but our surprise-winter has ensured we are absolutely, gloriously alone. Divya and I spend a long evening walking by the lake, watch the sun put on a show, click a gazillion photographs. No later than six in the evening, we wind up a sparse dinner and slide into our yurt beds. Our body clocks have aligned to the nomadic ways of life. We, city slickers from Bengaluru, now wake up at the stroke of dawn, and fall asleep at sunset.

No car comes to take us back the next day. We wait for hours, strangely undeterred by this dangerous turn of events. Is this too a fallout of the fluidity of spirit picked up over the trail? When one of the host families pack up to leave the site, we hitch a ride with them without the slightest clue of where we’d end up, or how well their old Russian hatchback will fare against these hulking mountain passes. After riding for what must have been some 15 kilometres, we find our path blocked by snow, and I join our benefactors in clearing the snow with a shovel. When we finally make it to a nameless settlement at the foothills, we find ourselves more inclined to crash and linger at a local’s—helping with household chores to return the favour—than to plan our descent back to the base. The limbo is blissful, but eventually we have to heckle ourselves into returning to Kochkor, marking the end of our three-day journey.

This is not before meeting locals who quiz us on Bollywood songs, or the odd animal roadblock and flat tyre adventure along the way. It only hits me on our last day. Through the good, the bad and the life-threatening, we’ve managed to smile on. The journey had taken out of us the compulsion of to complete. To reach. We had reached our destination, but somehow, it was no longer as important.

In Orwell’s novel, Winston remembers a dream in which a man’s voice—O’Brien’s, he thinks—tells him, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.” I’d found my land of light. Kyrgyzstan.

Essentials

Getting there

There are no direct flights from India to Kyrgyzstan. Flights from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai to capital Bishkek (served by Manas airport, 25 km northwest) usually involve a layover at Central Asian gateway cities such as Almaty, or Middle Eastern ones such as Dubai and Istanbul.

Kochkor is 215 km/3 hr from Manas airport, and is connected by shuttle. Alternately, head to the Western Bus Station (30 km/40 min) for a taste of local commute in the long-distance minibuses or mashruktas, which take about 4 hr. Shared cabs also depart from the bus station.

Visa

Although e-visa is available (evisa.e-gov.kg;3-10 days; $41/Rs2,850), it is advisable to directly approach the embassy in Delhi, for which you need to secure a Letter of Invitation from a local tour operator in Kyrgyzstan. The writer obtained his letter through caravanistan.com. A single-entry, 30-day visa costs $60/Rs4,200 and takes around seven working days to process.

When to go

Summer (June-August) is the peak season to experience the lush greens of the jailoo. May and September are shoulder seasons with relatively colder, transitional weather, and fewer tourists. While good quality, cheap woollens can be bought in Bishkek (rentals not available), pack the basics beforehand. Summer can be navigated in just thermals and jackets. For winters, pack thermals, thick woollen layers, windcheaters, long woollen socks, woollen gloves, and monkey caps.

Stay

The writer travelled with Kyrgyzstan Community-based Tourism Association (KCBTA) (cbtkyrgyzstan.kg), based out of Bishkek, which offers stays with local families ($20-25/Rs1,400-1,750, including meals). For local tours in a specific region (for eg, Kochkor), it is advisable to write to a KCBTA chapter in that region. Hostels, hotels and even yurt camps in most major towns can be also booked online—the writer recommends Apple Hostel in Bishkek (doubles from $20/Rs1,400).

Tip

Carry basic food supplies—especially snacks if you’re trekking—before heading out of Bishkek; there are few options for restaurants in remote areas. Obtain a local SIM card upon arrival at Manas airport—Google Translate is your closest friend in Kyrgyzstan.

  • Vikas Plakkot isn't cool enough for a tattoo on his arm but the world map is etched in his cells. Always scouring the web for flight deals, he'll gladly trade a ticket to Antarctica for one to Sudan - such is his love for places with untold stories. He tweets @vikasplakkot and Instagrams on @beyondthewall.travel

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