Off to Bishkek – again.

“So when are you off to next? Where to this time?”

“At the end of August. Kyrgyzstan.”

“But you’ve been there before!”

“Er… yes… this will be the fifth time. We are going to the Nomad Games.”

This conversation happens about once a week now and a look of total bemusement both of why I should want to go anywhere five times “where exactly IS Kyrgyzstan?” and “what on earth are the Nomad Games?” crosses every face.

The Nomad Games are Central Asia’s answer to the Olympics. They are the games nomads play and they happen every two years. I will know more about them when I’ve been. However perhaps now is the moment to explain a bit about how I ‘found’ Kyrgyzstan and why I keep going back.

In previous blogs I have described rides in the Thar Desert and in the Caucasus. Hooked on that form of travel I have ridden across the Andes from Argentina to Chile and in northern Mongolia to visit the Tsaatan – the reindeer people. I have ridden in the Carpathians, Cuba and in Bhutan. One evening, six years ago, sitting by a campfire hugging a plastic mug of ‘units’ diluted with the syrup from a tin of fruit salad – we had run out of tonic water – I asked Richard[1] who led four of those rides “Where next?”

“Kyrgyzstan” he replied without hesitation “…one of my favourite countries – the scenery pretty much unmatched anywhere else.”

For Richard, who had ridden all over the world, to recommend Kyrgyzstan was good enough for me. However like most people, I had only the sketchiest notion of Kyrgyzstan’s whereabouts and even less idea of its history, politics or topography. To me Kyrgyzstan – or more accurately the Kyrgyz Republic – was just another of the ‘stans’ far over the south-eastern horizon somewhere between Russia and India. Despite not knowing anything about it, as soon as we were back in England I booked. Rather belatedly, having booked I Googled.

The national flag is scarlet to signify strength and courage. In its centre is a stylised pattern taken from the circular wooden frame at the centre of a yurt’s roof (tunduk) from which emanates a golden sun with 40 rays representing the 40 Kyrgyz clans that Manas[2] legendarily united to fight off the Uyghurs.

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There is evidence of human habitation in the Tien Shan Mountains 300,000 years ago. The Kyrgyz are thought to have come from North Western Mongolia and formed some of the raiding parties that caused the construction of the Great Wall of China in about 300BC. To escape the Huns some of them moved north to the Yenisey River and thence spread south over the Tien Shan Mountains in the 10th – 12th centuries. When Chinggis Khaan decided to take over the world they pragmatically opted to become part of his empire – peaceably. In the 17th century the Mongol Oirats[3] moved in. They were over-run by the Manchu Qings in the 18th century and they in turn were over run by the Uzbek Khanate of Kokand in the 19th century. Kirgizia was assimilated into Tsarist Russia in 1876. It was at that stage that many Kyrgyz moved south to the Pamirs and Afghanistan, some of whom remain in the Wakhan Corridor to this day. After the rebellion (against Russian authority) in 1916 there was also an exodus to Chinese Turkestan[4].

Historically and at heart the Kyrgyz are nomads.

Kyrgyzstan, as a self-governing country, evolved from the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic at the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Landlocked, with China to its east and southeast, Uzbekistan to its west, Tajikistan to its southwest and Kazakhstan to its north, it is not on many modern tourist trails. However for about 3,500 years from 2,000 BC until the middle of the 15th century, Kyrgyzstan was the M4 corridor of Asia – part of the Silk Route from China to Europe and back.

In acreage it is about the size of mainland Britain. In shape it is rather like a crab’s claw with some of the most fertile area of Uzebekistan in its pincers. At its eastern end is Lake Issyk-Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca. Astronauts have said that it is more visible from space than the Great Wall of China. Although fed by about 120 streams and snowmelt it is endorheic[5]. Only marginally smaller than Devon it was once a spa tourist haven for Soviets, especially their cosmonauts – as it is relatively near the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Despite lying at over 5,200 feet and surrounded by the peaks of the Tien Shan it never freezes – ‘issy’ means warm and ‘kul’ means lake. For years the Soviets tested submarines and torpedoes at its eastern end and since 2008 the Russians have leased over 2,000 acres for a new naval testing site. Despite that Issyk Kul is now a Ramsar[6] site and forms part of an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

It all augured well: mountains, lakes, biosphere reserves, nomads, Central Asia and the fabled Silk Route. The following July we were negotiating people in burkas, niqabs and hijabs who towed strings of pint-sized children through the transit malls of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. We already felt in another world and were only half way to Kyrgyzstan.

We landed at Manas International Airport just as dawn was breaking. We were to ride in ‘The Mountains of Heaven’ as the Tien Shan are known and it had been advertised. We pushed through the frosted glass doors from Passport and Customs Control to the welcoming faces of Kyrgyzstan. There were a surprising number of them given that it was not yet 6 a.m. I was travelling with Sue whom I had met riding in Georgia and with whom I had ridden many times since.

We had been told that there were to be seven of us riding together and we were unsuccessfully scouring other people’s luggage labels for the tour company’s logo when a hand flew up above a cheery face in the crowd, and beckoned to us. It belonged to an arm and shoulders with more muscles than a pen pusher would have developed and a face that had been weathered far from a desk. This proved to be Jonny, our English guide who had come out a few days previously to check out everything. With Jonny stood a tall, lean Kyrgyz with smiling eyes. Jonny introduced us to Marat who was to be our guide in Kyrgyzstan. Jonny is a farrier from Essex and had led many rides in that part of the world. Marat had been fast-tracked straight from school to university in Damascus with a view to joining the Kyrgyz diplomatic service. Since the departure of the Soviets, Kyrgyz government departments have had to invent themselves. Marat spent three years in Syria and The Gulf, becoming a fluent Arabist but he missed rural life and opted to return home and lead treks rather than sit in a dusty, sultry, air-conditioned embassy. This he now does all over Kyrgyzstan whether on foot, skis or horses. Both of them exhaled enthusiasm and inspired confidence.

[1] Richard Dunwoody MBE – 3 times Champion National Hunt Jockey and tireless fund raiser.

[2] Manas is the legendary folk hero. His millennium was celebrated in 1995.

[3] Oirats were from the Altai region. Their descendants are the Kalmyks.

[4] The revolt was violently repressed. It has been difficult to establish exact figures but it is thought that over 40% of the Kyrgyz population in the north of Kyrgzstan were murdered. About 120,00 headed for China across the Tien Shan but many died en route.

[5] Endorheic basins/lakes have no outflow.

[6] The Convention on Wetlands was signed at Ramsar in Iran in 1971. It is an international agreement on wetlands conservation and sustainability.

 

 

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