Son Kol – The Last Lake

A cockerel announced dawn.

Ducking under the most recent load of laundry and avoiding abandoned children’s toys with deft sidesteps and an apparent seventh sense, our hostess kept breakfast coming. She brought freshly fried eggs, fruit, yoghurt, jams and warm kalama from the kitchen across the yard. While we over-indulged the cockerel molested the hens that dodged for cover under the minibus.  The dogs hunted their fleas.

We headed south on the Kashgar road and seemed to be stuck behind heavy lorries and trailers grinding upwards, belching pollution as they laboured to China. Until without warning or direction of a signpost, Alexander swung west onto a hard track and into a barren mountain-scape littered with rocks and more rocks. There was no sign of life or colour. The minibus’ wheels spun grit and churned dust. When we reached a small pass and paused for nicotine and leg-stretching the wind cut.

We dropped down and started to follow the Tolok River upstream. It generated thin ribbons of green that supported small herds. The valley climbed gently, then flattened. Meadows widened, grazing animals increased and we passed through the isolated Keng Suu village of single-storey, blockhouses. If ever there was, this was a one-horse town and other than the odd wisp of smoke there was no sign of life. Not even a solitary dog trotted between open garden gates.

The road started climbing steadily, then steeply with switchback bends. As we gained height the river thinned to a stream and then to trickling snowmelt. Families of horses picked at the brown grass that had started to push through the lingering snow. Clumps of pale blue gentians promised spring. It was early August. Alexander stopped at the top. This was the 11,304 ft. Kalmak Ashuu Pass, one of four routes into the Son Kol basin none of which is passable in winter.  We marvelled at the view. Nearly 1,500 feet below us was Son Kul: ‘The Last Lake’. A tear drop from heaven, at its longest 18 miles and at its widest 11 miles. What we could see of it mirrored the huge sky and the belt of celestial mountains. It wasn’t the wind that took away our breath.

The descent was gentle. It felt as though Alexander had put the gears into neutral and we coasted down. Set back from the road small groups of yurts had been pitched. The occasional horse was tethered, saddled, cat-napping but ready to go. Sheepdogs feigned sleep.  Mares with foals roamed the banks; flocks spread out further afield. As we neared the lake, and the land flattened, Alexander swung off piste. He paused to ask a shepherd whether the way ahead was boggy, made a small detour and then set off, confidently bumping along a barely discernible track. Rounding a slight hump the lake was before us. Set back a good hundred yards from its shore, was a sprawling collection of dozens of yurts – the northern shore ‘yurt camp’. We were to spend the night on the southern shore but this was our lunch stop. It was to be our introduction to real yurt living, a long step from the museum in Bishkek.

Kyrgyz yurts have more head room than Mongolian ghers as the lower ends of the roof frame (kanat) are slightly curved where they meet the trellis walls (kerege).  Of course the decoration inside yurts depends on individual circumstances but the first time one enters what one imagines to be a dark, windowless grotto one is hit by the explosion of the Kyrgyz colours of the shyrdaks and tush kiyiz; the kerege, painted scarlet; the patterned tension bands (ormok[1]) and the tassels (chayan and chachi).  It is a welcoming surprise.

We were expected and the knee-high table was laid. Covered in floral PVC it was arranged in perfect symmetry. The tradition is that tables for guests must be fully laden, so small bowls of everything that is available are put on the four quarters and the intervening spaces are filled with kalama.  Paper napkins folded into Perspex glasses were lined down the centre. On either side bowls of jams, thick cream (kajmak), dried fruit, sweets and sugar were arranged so that anyone, sitting anywhere was in reach of everything. This careful display proved standard and even when we were in the mountains far from vehicle contact, the plastic table clothes (dostorkon) laid on the grass in the tent, were arranged in the same considered way.

Alexander had made good time so while the final touches to lunch were stirred-in we could wander. The kitchen was in a nearby frame tent and beside it, at another low table, a teenage girl rolled out kalama. A Christopher Robin hat protected her from the hot sun. Two boys with rucksacks arrived towing a donkey that was weighed down by two full milk churns hanging either side of him. An empty galvanised bucket clanked against  them. The boys struggled to lift the churns from the donkey. He lurched to steady himself as they did so. Respite from his load was brief. No sooner were the churns placed beside the cooking tent than one of the boys vaulted on and kicked him away at a brisk, if reluctant, trot.

 

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The shore of the lake was marshy so that discouraged from walking to its edge after lunch, we were soon bumping back across the grass to get to the stony track. It took us round the southern side. Marsh birds flew up as we approached – this was part of the Karatal-Jhapiryk National Wildlife Refuge. We crossed the infant Son Kol River that seeps out of the lake through the reeds and wends it way down through the mountains to the River Naryn. We reached camp in time for tea. Not that tea was high on any of our lists. At lunch we had agreed that if our horses were there we’d love a late afternoon ride.

 

Fourteen stallions tied on alternate sides of a long piece of rope fixed to the ground at each end by metal spikes, were ready and saddled. In Kyrgyzstan mares are kept for breeding and milking and only ridden by those who cannot afford to do otherwise. These stallions looked bored. In the case of the stallion that I was allocated it proved to be a restorative catnap.

All aboard with stirrup ‘leathers’ adjusted and girths tightened and knotted we set off on our test run. Behind the camp was a hill and although we started at a walk, the ‘horse boys’ – Azad and Hamza – who wanted to see how we coped, or perhaps ‘if’ we coped, soon enjoyed leading us at a decent canter. I was left in no doubt that my horse liked being in the front. At the top they got off to check our girths while we admired the stunning view. The ‘girths’ used to keep our saddles in place were a varied collection of ropes and webbing.  One was a recycled car seat-belt with the chrome clip still attached and dangling. Tightened with grunts they were hitched and fixed in mysterious Kyrgyz knots that we could not have done ourselves.  They seemed as complicated as those used by yachtsmen.

We could see the whole lake backed by the Song-Kol Too mountain range to the north. It was another of our unforgettable Kyrgyz panoramas. The camp where we had lunched was a blur of grey specks across the water. Below us our camp was dotted by small figures crossing the circle between the eight yurts and the few ridgepole tents. Fused flocks of sheep grazed in every direction. Satisfied that our saddles weren’t about to slip the boys led us on and we dropped down the other side of the hill. For a while we walked beside the lake taking in the water birds’ warblings and the ewes responding absentmindedly to their grown lambs. We revelled in our distance from the world beyond. Then we turned for home. The guys, with undisguised mischief, decided to gallop back to camp. It was a long time since I had been carted – about sixty years. It is easier to stop a horse with short stirrup leathers and I regretted being quite so relaxed, arrogant actually, when they had asked me before we set off whether mine were the right length. I had said that I would ride at whatever length they gave me. Mistake. As the camp grew nearer and its detail became increasingly clear I realised that my stallion was not going to run out of steam before we arrived. Galloping through the camp would be extremely dangerous. People would be flattened and scattered hens put off lay.  It was time to abandon an old woman’s pride in her self perceived horsemanship and I reverted to child tactics, not worrying about whether my horse would tie his front legs in knots and at best somersault, pile driving us both into the earth. I pulled as hard as I could with both hands on one rein. The stallion circled. Not High Equitation but it worked. My stallion was far too clever to hurt himself and he came to a halt. The next day I galloped in the lead with Hamza and Azad. Their grins left me in no doubt that they had been highly amused the evening before. I got them to shorten my stirrups, determined not to let it happen again. He proved a great little horse. We came to an understanding and he gave me a wonderful ride for the next ten days.

Tourist yurt camps are a collection of yurts, pitched for the season to be rented by individuals and trekking companies. Novi-Nomad, our tour company, had taken two yurts: one for the women and the other for the guys. The other yurts were occupied by some energetic back-packers. Sue, Linnet, Marigold, Iris, Rose and I were together in the ‘girls’ dormitory. It was very cosy and comfortable with a big, bright tush kiyiz at the back and the grass covered in overlapped shyrdaks. We had proper wooden beds, blankets and even sheets. Luxury. The only source of light penetrated from the narrow gap round the stove’s chimney as it passed through the roof and through the door, when open. When it was closed we were in darkness. Before dusk fell I unpacked what was necessary, putting things where I would be able to find them by feel. The tops of the kerege, round the edge of the yurt, made hooks for jerseys, quilted jackets, towels and most importantly –  head-torches.

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It was a perfectly still, sunny evening and a treat to be able to mosey round the camp and watch the resident Kyrgyz go about their evening chores. We were learning that the Kyrgyz were delighted to share their lives with us. They were thrilled, although often bemused, that we were visiting their country.

The camp was the summer enterprise of an extended family. Beyond the yurts’ circle a mother and daughter were dismembering a recently slaughtered sheep. Already the skin was pegged out to dry the inside up, wool against the earth. Logs had been lit under a freestanding stove. A large kazan[2] full of water brought in buckets from the lake, was placed above it. As the flesh was cut from the bones it was chucked into the kazan. With a baboushka watching,  mother and daughter sorted through the offal and tubes, separating them into large enamel bowls. There was blood all over the grass – the chopping board. A dog made off with a femur. A brother poked the stove and added more logs and the water began to bubble. The air smelled putrid. I hoped this wasn’t to be our supper and it was a relief to discover later that Kurushi, our trek cook, had other plans. A few yards off two small children played with soil, pebbles and little flowers making mottes and baileys like children do on every sandy stretch of British coast.

 

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After supper some of us remained with our vodka recalling the day’s delights while absent-mindedly listening to the water birds as they settled for the night. Their eventual silence signalled time for us to turn in too.

Our first night in a yurt was cosy and exceptionally comfortable and I slept well until woken in a dream about mustard gas. In the dark I could hear the pshhhh… pshh….. pshhhh…pshh of an aerosol being used at Marigold’s side of the yurt. I recognised the smell and realised that she was spraying for mosquitos. An unpublicised benefit of the boarding school experience is the ability to slip back into dormitory living and cope with its niggles. I slid further into my sleeping bag and pulled it over my head. I’m not sure that there had been any mosquitos. Nobody complained of bites in the morning – perhaps Marigold got them first.

[1] The ormok of varying widths and lengths are woven on a loom using coloured woolen yarn.

[2] Kazan – a shallow metal pan like a Chinese wok but without handles. It is the universal Kyrgyz cooking vessel usually about 18” diameter but often much larger and measured in litre capacity. It also is the name of the goal in Kok Boru.

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