Over the Naryn and through Ak-Tal

The sun slid behind the ridge and the air was becoming noticeably cooler by the time we spotted the white roof of the minibus above bog weeds.  Alexander and Kurushi had driven up from the other end of the track and pitched camp for us in a bend in the stream that we had followed. Fed by numerous cascades of snowmelt from the ridges that we had passed,  it had become the Kurtka River. It now rushed very swiftly over the rocks, round tree roots and on under willows. It waited for nothing in its urge to reach the mighty River Naryn.

This was the first opportunity we had had to watch Azad and Hamza with the horses. We offered to help them but they indicated, smiling,  that we were guests, not there to work. It was interesting to see the different methods of horse care. Where we would have loosened the girths at the end of a long day, they left them just as we had dismounted and tied them up for some hours. Eventually when they removed their tack they led them, two at a time, to the river’s bank and threw buckets of the icy snowmelt over them. They flinched.

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The two stallions thought to be the ring leaders of the previous night’s escapade were tied to trees. They sulked, with some reason as once they had eaten the greenery at their feet they had nothing but mud within reach. The others, tightly hobbled, were left to bunny-hop along the bank and with unlimited lush plants they seemed happy. We enjoyed bowls of delicious plov, and those of us, so inclined – quite a lot of vodka. Our first night in tents was extremely comfortable. The spongy earth of the river bank made for a soft landing and I fell asleep to the sound of munching horses picking their way carefully round the tents’ guy ropes while the river gurgled and splashed a few feet from my ear.

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To wake up to the sound of rapidly flowing water, river birds and the mooted voices of other people organising breakfast is a treat. I tripped off along the riverbank clutching towel and sponge bag looking for a place of relative privacy. The high bog weeds were perfect cover and having balance everything on a low branch to keep them off the soggy bank, I found myself squatting under a tree with only a pair of little Dippers for company. When I moved to the waters edge to wash they whirred off upstream. I was sorry to intrude on their patch particularly as the river turned out to be too deep with a current too strong to enter. For today it would have to be a lick and a promise. When I returned to camp the horses were already saddled. Breakfast had been laid out under the trees and fried eggs and bacon appeared as soon as anyone sat down. Within no time, camp was struck and we were back on the track and following the river again.

The valley widened and the soil improved. Wherever it had been possible to work even an acre of land, good stands of corn were not far off being fit to harvest. Gradually we entered a flat plain with mountains far in the distance. We struck across farmland and went round headlands and where there weren’t bridges between fields we jumped the irrigation channels. My little stallion flew them like an Irish hunter, which we both enjoyed and I anyway was rather sad when we saw distant civilisation and hit another  dusty track.

On our way to the Burana Tower I had asked Marat whether we could stop to visit the crumbling cemetery we had passed and he had promised better opportunities. I have  learned over the years that Marat never lets you down. On the edge of every settlement there is at last one graveyard that signals life around the next corner. The track led us beside the looping wire fence that marked the boundary of a cemetery and from our horses we could see over some of the rank grass and thistles, whose seeds were being liberally scattered by the gentle wind that blew along the plain.

The Kyrgyz do not tend graves, which in a way is surprising as to spare expense on a mausoleum or gravestone would reflect badly on relatives, but the Kyrgyz do not visit the dead. First we saw domes with towers on the corners, topped with the metal crescent moons and stars, often slightly askew. As we got closer arches and doors, sometimes windows, were revealed. One in white brick and cement had a large black and white photograph embedded in an elaborate brick frame above the doorway. The door had gone and one could see right through. The incumbent had died aged 63 in 1989. Next to him a smaller mausoleum, with a bigger photograph, was built of red rocks decorated with cement balls and white corner stones. It was mostly façade with a long lower portion at the back with two Gothic shaped windows on either side. The roof and door had gone.  Some of them 150 years old, made of mud-brick or sandstone, had lost or were losing the battle against the elements and weeds. They leaned this way and that, were just heaps of rubble, or were reduced to mounds clothed in the long, swaying grass. Here and there metal frames, forged as yurts, covered a more recent burial, a stone, another photograph. The cemetery covered about ten acres

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We crossed the River Naryn by a modern bridge built to support very heavy lorries. The Naryn rises in the Taragai Basin East of Lake Issyk-Kol and flows, augmented by hundreds of tributaries, through Kyrgyzstan for nearly 300 miles via reservoirs and dams generating electricity[1] and irrigating crops as it goes[2]. It flows through the Ferghana Valley making it famously fertile, then on into Uzbekistan where it joins the Kara Darya river to form Syr Darya, thence it flows towards what remains of the Aral Sea and disappears sooner or later.

Over the bridge the road split at a ‘T’ junction. In front of us was an unbreechable looking wall of mountains: The Baybiche Too. We took the left into the village of Ak-Tal. The compacted stone road was ruler straight and slightly raised with ditches running alongside. Between the ditches and picket fences with the traditional Russian white diamonds, were narrow paths. Regimented rows of tall poplars ran the length of the village. Ak-Tal appeared to be a single street.

Since independence there has been a concerted effort by successive governments to privatise the arable land. 75% of agricultural land was awarded to an estimated 2.7 million peasant farmers on the basis of employment, experience and living near what was available. The village illustrated this. Every house, behind its picket-fenced poplars, had a garden and small orchard. Beside or behind was the farmyard and beyond, disappearing to the distance, were narrow strips of crops. Stacks of loose hay overflowed lean-to walls. Corrugated iron was the favoured roofing. Mud bricks for extensions were stacked in the sun to dry. Each household had a big satellite dish and most had a car, with more age than lustre, parked either in the yard or on the road’s verge. Cycles were leaned against trees.

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As we spread out and rode down the street taking it all in, it felt like riding into a Western. Was Eli Wallach watching? Undoubtedly we were being watched. We had just ridden past the primary school with its overflow classroom in a yurt, when Jonny said that ‘this’ was the best place for an ice cream. ‘This’ was an adapted shipping container: Ak-Tal’s village shop.

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We tied our horses to the fence and as we waited our turns to squeeze inside and choose our favourite flavours, people emerged to inspect us more closely. A stooped old man, dressed entirely in black except for his bright white kalpack, ambled up with his hands clasped behind his back. Two boys on bicycles with another running beside them stopped with the skidding of wheels and dust. One of them left and returned with two friends on horses. They lined up, the boy without a cycle by now sitting on his hunkers, and watched our every gesture. Occasionally one of them would point out something about us to the others. They didn’t mock. To them we were curiosities like animals in a wildlife park – but they didn’t volunteer to feed us.

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We left the road beyond Ak-Tal and wound upwards between gashes in the sandstone through what looked like disused quarries. Above us on a bluff the holes in mausoleums of another crumbling cemetery were picked out against the blue sky like crochet.

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We reached an arid, airless valley. The only green hugged the trickling River Ak Tal and the few snowmelt rivulets that wound down from the neighbouring ridges to feed it. Alexander and Kurushi had chosen a flat shelf about 50 feet above the sheer sides of the gorge that the river had cut into the sandstone. The tents were pitched between thistles and tussocks of spiky, scratchy gorse. The land had been eroded for centuries and a barren hill, too steep and crumbling to climb, made the backdrop. There was no grazing for the horses. Having dumped us and our saddlebags the guys led them down a cleft cut by storm water, into the riverbed. They rode along below us then crossed the trickle and climbed up another gully on the far side. It led them to a farmstead half a mile away. With a few trees, a long range of farm buildings and a splash of green in-by paddocks, they had obviously been there before and knew they’d find shelter and forage.

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We were enjoying sundowners of watermelon and vodka when the trundle of hooves behind us indicated the arrival of a sleek multi-coloured gang of bullocks. They were followed by a small flock of sheep, coughing in the dust kicked up by the cattle. With no vegetation to pick at they did not need driving on by the two horsemen at their rear. We exchanged waves. The idea of finding enough water to wash at the bottom of the creek was obviously such fantasy that we didn’t bother to go there. The guys kindly put a jerry can and a bowl on a rock a discreet distance away. Another lick and promise.

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During the night there was an electrical storm. The first time one experiences such violence in a small tent with only a few strands of nylon flysheet for ‘protection’ protection it is alarming. However with no alternative and after six hours in the saddle, enough vodka and with sleeping bags pulled round our ears it was not surprising that not even the most aggressive cracks of lightening and the thrashing rain kept us awake for long. By  morning, the rain had stopped and the earth had soaked up the water. It was again tinder dry.

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A slash of green by the farmstead provided shelter and forage for the horses.

[1] The Naryn River generates 30% of Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower via 7 hydroelectric power stations.

[2] Over 70% of Kyrgyzstan’s arable land is irrigated.

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