Naryn is the tenth largest city in Kyrgyzstan with a population of just over 34,000 – about the size of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. In 2000 its university, financed jointly by the Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Tajiks and HRH the Aga Khan, became the first internationally chartered institution of higher education in the world. One of the guide books describes it as ‘…could be far worse…’ which didn’t raise hopes but we were on a high after our ride and the games so that when Alexander swung the minibus between blocks of rain-stained concrete flats into a gated yard disappointment was not on the menu. We bumped our bags up the stairs and found that our second floor room had a fully glazed balcony that looked out over tired grass and through trees to the dual carriageway. A sagging washing line had been tacked from one side to the other. This was an unexpected bonus as it enabled us to extract the soaking wet and now warm ‘lammergeier’ clothes from the bin- bags where they had been festering for three days. They just might dry overnight.
We dug out what remained of the vodka and crisps and sat on the kerbstones with feet outstretched onto the herringbone brick of the yard outside the home-stay. That evening we ate in the communal dining room on the first floor of the block with a score of serious walkers from Nordic climes. Judging by the looks we received we laughed too loudly and were having too much fun.
On the way back to Bishkek we stopped in Kochkor to post the cards we had bought 10 days earlier. The post office was full of the elderly, who seemed to be queueing for their pensions – slightly less than £30 a month. Most of them were in traditional clothes that had seen decades of wear. Only the men’s kalpaks looked recent buys. The looks on their faces as they watched as not only was a window opened especially for us, but then our spending a small fortune on stamps, said it all. I felt very tactless.
We visited a women’s co-operative that sold shyrdaks and allied goodies. Astutely they took plastic so any sensible idea of simply using up remaining som went out of the window and my Flexible Friend allowed me to be seduced by a bright red and dark green shyrdak. It was so swiftly and expertly packed for cabin baggage that changing my mind – that I didn’t want to – was no option. I am always a sucker for not wanting to return home without an admired artefact. We left a row of happy, smiling women on the doorstep of their shop. We said sad goodbyes to Rose who was going on to Kashgar and Rupert who was to spend another week in the region to take more photographs. A few days later there would be the Kochkor animal market and Son Kul beckoned him back.
With two down we spread out in the minibus and headed for Bishkek and our last shashlyk lunch en route. Group tours are always a gamble but most people who ride horses have learned to take the rough with the smooth and people rub along. Other than a few irritations we had remained a reasonably cohesive bunch. However we had just left Kochkor when Marigold decided that the moment had come to resume her perceived control of the Financial World and asked Jonny about internet access in Bishkek. He replied that internet access in Bishkek was far from reliable but if there was any, anywhere, he would find it for her.
For what reason never became clear but Marigold kicked off. She had to have internet access and it was Jonny’s job to provide her with it. In his usual calm and polite way he repeated that if any was to be had he would find it and together they would trawl the top international hotels which were always the best bet. However this was not good enough for Marigold who started walking down the bus, prodding her i-phone with her index finger to show him an e-mail that she had received from the tour company in London assuring her of internet availability. He repeated that he would do his best – he could do no more. Iris decided to put in her oar and berate Jonny for the way he had tried to cramp her wanderings.
I saw the reliably benign Jonny start to go red from the neck up. Iris then accused me of racism towards the French in not allowing them into Tash Rabat’s sauna. Lucky Rose had escaped as she was on her way to Kashgar but no matter – I have been accused of more accurate characteristics. Importantly the way Jonny had been spoken to was unwarranted and inexcusable and as the UK tour company’s employee he could only bite his lip. The two women knew that. Cowards. Stunned into silence for a few seconds we belatedly jumped to his rescue and told them to shut up.
“STOP – STOP Now!”
Jonny studied traffic through his window. No one said a word. The minibus’ engine was the only sound until Alexander switched onto a Russian pop station. That’s how things stayed until we reached the shashlyk stop. We left Iris and Marigold to get off the minibus by themselves and went to order chilled beers. Jonny walked to the other side of the road and lit a cigarette. When he returned we poured his beer, chinked glasses and tried to jolly him along. Understandably he was as dumb-founded as furious.
At the end of every ride there is a ‘last supper’. A cheerful time of reminiscences and swapped e-mail addresses. This one was muted. Iris and Marigold sat on a limb at the end of the table. We couldn’t imagine that we’d ever want to make contact with them again. It was a very unfortunate end to a magical introduction to a remarkable country and its people.
For some reason flights to and from Bishkek happen at dawn. So it was at dawn the following day that we said goodbye to Marat and Jonny. As I waved before disappearing into passport control I resolved to return if I could persuade them to lead us on a private ride. Two years later (2015) we were back….and the following year…. and the following year and on August 31st we’ll be together again for the 2018 Nomad Games.
Kyrgyzstan gets under your skin !
I suspected that the two women would complain to the UK tour company. As soon as I hit home I winged off an e-mail to say what a wonderful ride it had been and what an excellent guide, who despite some of the most “irritating women in the western world”, had given us the best of times. I said that I would go back to Kyrgyzstan if he would lead us. Sadly they took the view that there had been no smoke without fire and that the customer is always right. They were totally wrong. It took two years to persuade them to organise another ride with his leading us. He has not been asked to lead a ‘public’ ride since.
** Now, in 2018, WiFi is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. In the jailoo it’s probably as reliable as in the rural areas of the U.K. !