Son Kol and over the Kurtka Pass

When someone crept out of the yurt to go to the loo their opening of the door (eshik) let a bright shaft of light into the womb-like darkness. It was a lovely morning: too good to remain inside.

A few people were pottering across the yurt circle carrying towels, toothbrushes and loo paper. Catching eyes they nodded and soto voce wished each other “Good Morning”. The thunder box of ply-board and corrugated iron had been pitched half way between the yurts and the lake, in splendid isolation. Convention was that the door was left open when it was unoccupied – to be seen before one made the 100 yard walk. It sat beside the earth spoil that had been dug  to create that season’s long-drop and was well ventilated by the wind that swept off the lake and whistled through the many construction shortfalls. There was even a roll of soft loo paper balanced on one of the wooden struts. What more does one need?

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The ‘thunderbox’ stood alone.

Within the circle near the kitchen, there were two tin washbasins tacked onto wooden frames. Each had a hook for towels and a communal bar of soap. Each basin had a single tap attached to an Alkathene pipe, the other end of which was rammed into a plastic tank balanced on the top of the frame. On the grass were various jerry cans of water to top up the hopper – if one could reach. Everything worked perfectly.

As I walked back towards the yurt I noticed Marat and Jonny in deep conversation. When I waved they beckoned me over. During the night the horses had vanished. Someone had heard whinnying and another had heard voices but nobody had seen anything. As they had been left with their front legs firmly roped together in hobbles it was assumed that they had been cut free and had been stolen. While we ate our porridge, Azad and Hamza borrowed a couple of horses from nearby shepherds and went off in search. 2 hours later they returned and even from a distance one could tell by their body language, quite besides the fact they were unaccompanied, that they had found nothing.  They had ridden in every direction, asked every shepherd they had come across and stopped a couple of lone bikers but no one had seen sight or heard sound.

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“So no horses – what’s plan B?”

Jonny and Marat stood with them in a concerned huddle wondering what on earth they were going to do with us – fresh horses would take some days to source and bring to Son Kol.  Options involving the minibus and various routes and potential meeting points were discussed. Tea was topped up and books dipped into; photographs reviewed and deleted or stored. There was no point packing if we were to spend another night where we were.

Then a shepherd cantered into camp. He had come across the lot of them, still tightly hobbled, in a blind cleft in the hills a few miles away. They had bunny hopped all that way and were happily munching what they found to be sweeter grass. Azad and Hamza rode off with the shepherd to round them up.

The previous evening Iris had wandered away with her camera without telling anyone in which direction she was heading. When she had not returned at dusk Marat and Jonny had ridden off to look for her without success. She returned, oblivious to the concern she had caused, but happily unharmed. Jonny had explained to her that while the jailoo is not intrinsically dangerous it is vast and empty except for yaks and sheep and some scattered herders.

“Just tell us which way you’re heading before you leave, please.”

Losing a herd of horses should have shown Iris the difficulty of locating a single person in case of an accident. It did not. By the time the horses were back in camp it was nearly mid-day and she had gone missing again. Without her we decided to have an early lunch. When she returned I overheard Jonny explaining to her, very politely, that she was part of a team and unless she could stick with it he would have no alternative than to  arrange transport to collect her from Son Kol and return her to Bishkek.  He could not be responsible for her unless she played the game.  She finally appeared to have taken it on board so with a full compliment of stallions and riders, four hours later than planned, we headed for the ‘hills’.

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We didn’t feel much sympathy for the horses and we kicked on making good progress, climbing steadily in a south-westerly direction further up into the jailoo. Son Kol disappeared behind us and the mountains approached. The Kurtka Pass when we reached it looked benign and was covered in soft, bowling green grass but Marat warned that the descent would be tricky.  Before tackling it we rested the horses. We lay on our backs sucking sweets, sipping our bottled water and watching the clouds scud across the sky. It was bliss to be up and away with what we were beginning to realise were typical –  magnificent Kyrgyz panoramas.

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We were brought back from our musings by the thunder of hoofs and the sound of whooping. Two boys, barely in double figures, were cantering down the collar of the mountain towards us, flailing their kamcha in mock beatings of their horses. Azad and Hamza stood up and the boys hauled up their horses feet away, threw the reins down, jumped onto their saddles and then, like Frankie Dettori, flew through the air with their hands outstretched. They landed laughing. It turned out that they had been left in charge of the flocks, up high in the jailoo for weeks and were thrilled to see other humans. A problem facing Kyrgyzstan’s critical sheep industry is that fewer young men want to spend the summer months in the jailoo looking after the flocks. Just as the world over urban life holds more allure – and women. These very young teenagers must had been easier to bribe.

They looked at us quizzically. 5 European women; one Chinese woman; three European men, 3 Kyrgyz and 14 stallions would have been a strange sight anywhere, let alone in such an isolated place. Azad must have said that although eccentric we weren’t threatening and a handful of Werthers’ toffees into each of their palms reassured them. Then Hamza and Azad started challenging them. So they had arrived in such style but were they real horsemen? Could they pick a coin from the ground at a gallop as if playing tiyin enmet. Although there was not enough space to gallop flat out they went some way up the mountain and came cantering down and, using pebbles instead of coins, proved they could. Fine, but could they wrestle? Wrestling in various forms is another Kyrgyz favourite. They tumbled around on the grass to show their prowess. It was a very cheerful encounter for us all and when Azad said we had to mount up and tackle the descent we were as regretful as they seemed to be to wave goodbye.

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To start with it looked quite benign….

The entrance to the gorge was pretty easy going to start with but as the cleft between the sheer rocks narrowed the grass gave way to small stones, then larger stones, then boulders interspersed with smaller, shifting stones. It was horrid going for the horses and became steep. They had to pick their way carefully to avoid stumbling. Had they tripped, at best they would have gone down on knees and noses; as likely they would have gone sideways and fallen onto jagged rocks below. Whichever trajectory riders would have stood little chance of staying aboard. It was particularly unpleasant and as we went into the tightest bit of the gorge where there was no movement of air the sun became searingly hot.

Eventually it widened out, bits of vegetation found something to root in and the worst rocks gave way to thorn and gorse, all of which looked welcome landings in comparison to what we had passed. As soon as there was a bit of room, those of us in the lead found places to dismount. We rifled through our saddlebags for water bottles and sun block and the horses picked selectively at prickly leaves. We watched relieved as one by one the back-markers came into view. Looking up at the way we had come it was easy to imagine avalanches crashing down carting the boulders and bits of rock, that had littered the ‘path’.

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………the easy bit….

Negotiating nothing worse than thorns and brambles we hit a hard track 20 minutes later. It followed a stream along a flat-bottomed canyon. Here and there white pegs marked edges not to be broached by vehicles. We all had made the pass safely. It was a relief. Stallions and riders relaxed.  Azad and Marat led the way at a walk, their horses’ tails caught in the welcome breeze.  The shadows lengthened as the sun dropped towards the ridges.

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