At dawn, I became aware of much grumbling all round the camp. I had slept well and was reluctant to leave the blissful warmth of my sleeping bag but realising that these were animal not human observations, I bum-shuffled in my sleeping bag to the tent’s entrance and popped my head out to see what was what. We were surrounded by hundreds of Yak. A herd, hundreds strong, had worked its way down the mountain and spread all over the surrounding area.
The bulls, of which there were a lot, were the ones doing the grumbling. I am not sure whether they were warning each other to keep to their own wives or were simply exchanging views on the quality of the grazing. It was constant comment and they sounded like members of The House of Lords endorsing each others’ opinions. They had business-like horns and stood about 6 feet high. They can live for 25 years and apparently weigh up to 100 stone. Looking at them it was not difficult to believe. They really are huge. The cows grow wonderful pelmets from their bellies to the ground under which calves keep out of the wind, dry and warm. The ancient Chinese regarded their tails as symbols of authority. To me everything about them commanded respect and needing a pee I took care not to squat in their path. It would have been an inglorious end. We watched them as we drank our early morning tea and they grazed their way towards a distant shoulder, becoming tiny dots like the proverbial army of ants.
We helped the guys strike camp and once the packhorses were loaded we mounted up, crossed the river and headed for the 13,400 feet Shyrpykty Pass. We were back in Scottish moor country, there was still no sign of any animal life, nor raptors in the sky.
When we reached the scree, although not any steeper than the day before, it was fine grained and unstable and made heavy going for the horses. Every now and again they sank into it over their fetlocks. It was like trying to make progress along the side of sand dunes. Each time the zig of the zag turned southeast we had better and better views of the lake. It is the third biggest of Kyrgyzstan’s lakes covering 70 square miles. Its size was easier to grasp the higher we climbed.
As we traversed a piece of horribly shifting scree there was a bit of a kerfuffle in front. Uncharacteristically Sue – the mildest of people – was berating Marigold whom she followed.
“Keep moving!” Sue shouted. It was the only time I have ever heard Sue shout.
Marigold, who had not developed any sense of the preservation of self, let alone of others, had chosen that spot stop her horse, drop the reins, start swinging around in the saddle and was taking photographs. Quite besides the likelihood of unbalancing her horse, for those of us just wanting to get off the scree, it seemed akin to walking across ice and staying put when it starts to crack.
“Keep moving!” we echoed. “You can take photographs from the top.”
When we reached the pass there was nothing for the horses to nibble and the wind cut through us all, but they too stood still with their backs to it and looked across to China with ears pricked. Occasional patches of blue blinked from behind rolling cloud. About 50 miles away, over the Torugart Pass was Kashgar, sometimes described as the most inaccessible city on earth and made famous in the west as Britain’s forward post in The Great Game. I again thought of Lady Macartney. She wrote:
“Then we saw ahead of us and a little lower down in a gloomy valley, a caravan of horses and men, the horses still standing but frozen to death, overcome probably by a blizzard.”
We might have thought of ourselves as intrepid but she had travelled on horses, camels and yaks to Kashgar from Osh and back. We were wrapped in waterproofs, duck-down and fleeces. She had worn a dress and a large brimmed hat. That was properly intrepid.
The descent, facing north, was covered in quite deep, slushy snow. Azad told us to let the horses make their own way down and we were to walk. He solicitously took my hand to lead me. I tried to tell him that I could manage but evidently he wanted The Oldie to get down safely. Every time we had to negotiate a rock he made me feel as though I was alighting from a high continental train. When we reached easier ground and remounted I thanked him profusely. He gave me the biggest smile.
“He thinks you’re very agile for your age, oh and he thinks you are 50!” laughed Jonny.
“Ah well I didn’t tell you that had I come adrift at the top you would have to kick me down 1000 metres. My insurance only covers me to 3,000!”
The valley turned west, the snow had gone, the grass greened up and by the time we stopped for lunch it was a blue sky with scudding white clouds. The sun was hot and using our saddle-bags as pillows, we lay back and snoozed.
There was a definite feeling of going home as we rode down the last valley. Azad, Hamza and Marat led the way with the packhorses, exchanging gossip. Everyone was very relaxed. There would be no more challenges and we chatted to those alongside and scanned the rocks for our last chance to spot a snow leopard. They continued to hide.
It was at a bend in the river that we came across the only sign of abject rural poverty. It should have been idyllic but the few cattle and sheep were so thin that their hip-bones poked through even thick fleeces. A long-dead calf lay in a ditch; a motorbike with the back wheel missing was upended on its saddle and handlebars; the children were dirty; two thin mangy dogs were tied up on short ropes and the yurt was of more plastic patched holes than canvas or felt. The only detritus missing was a trashed supermarket trolley. Had we been elsewhere I would have assumed that they were Untouchables or Romanies cast out of the community. Its unsettling effect was the more shocking as it was in such a sheltered, lush and beautiful valley.
Alexander met us with the minibus on a dirt track that ran parallel with a derelict irrigation channel. We stood in a circle at the back of the minibus toasting everything individually and collectively for as long as we could to delay goodbyes. We toasted the guys; horses; the jailoo; Kyrgzstan; England and each other until the sun challenged the horizon and someone pointed out that the guys had to drive the horses back to Kyzyl Tuu, a few miles off and we had to find somewhere to camp for the night.
The minibus was silent as we lost ourselves in our thoughts of the previous week and nursed regrets at leaving the horses who had looked after us so well, when someone pointed out an impressive cemetery. We persuaded Alexander to stop. We didn’t have time to walk up close but unlike the cemeteries we had seen along the way this didn’t seem to have been added to recently. All graves were at least 100 years old and it had the appearance of an ancestral grave yard, guarding the approach to the jailoo.
It was dark when Alexander stopped to ask whether there was anywhere we could pitch camp. He was directed down a rutted track, through what seemed like a quarry. He stopped at the end of it on a flat space between trees. We pitched the tents by the head-lights of the mini-bus. Kurushi came good with hot tea and another delicious supper. Before crawling into our sleeping bags we talked through our memories of conquering challenging passes and of what had been a remarkable ride.