Manas is Kyrgyzstan’s legendary 10th century cult hero. He is the Kyrgyz answer to Mongolia’s Chinggis Khaan and both countries have named their international airports after them. Otherwise, they have little in common and not having threatened Europe or breached China, Manas is hardly known beyond Kyrgyz borders.
The Epic of Manas, twenty times longer than the Illiad and the Odyssey combined, at over 556,000 words, is legend rather than documented history and is usually recited by manaschi. Manaschi are visited in their dreams by Manas’ spirit who imbues them with the tales that they must recount when required. It is up to them to keep the mythology and story of Kyrgyzstan alive and until the mid 19th century, when part of it was transcribed in Russian, there was no written word. Manaschi recite with spiritual inspiration and theatre and are much revered. Manas is believed to have been born in the Talas region, and his mausoleum was not far off our route. Roadweary, looking forward to arriving at our homestay, and having read in the guidebook “…for foreign visitors (……) somehow an experience that fails to satisfy.” we declined the detour. In retrospect this was pretty tactless as the site has national shrine-like importance, but we were to get our comeuppance.
Our homestay was on the outskirts of Talas, a sleepy agricultural town in the north west of Kyrgyzstan that although the administrative centre of Talas oblast has the air of having been passed by, which it sort of has. It was founded by Slavs in 1877 and was economically linked to Taraz, on the Turkestan-Siberian railway in Kazakhstan. Since the demise of the Soviet Union punitive border controls have been imposed, so internal Kyrgyz trade has been compromised by the winter closure of the route from Bishkek and points East that we had just driven. The Talas mountains cut it off from Osh and the South.
Besides being Manas’ home territory, Talas is known for the battle fought in 751 between the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, that had teamed up with Tibetans to fight the Chinese Tangs, who themselves had Karluk mercenaries. Unfortunately for the Tang, the Karluks swapped sides. As it is estimated that they constituted 2/3rds of the Chinese army, their defection gave the Arabs edge and victory. Transoxiana became Muslim – a state of affairs that remained for 400 years. After the battle some Chinese prisoners were taken to Samarkand and ‘encouraged’ to establish a paper mill. Knowledge of the paper making spread through the Muslim world and thence to Europe. The first European paper mill was established in Toledo in 1085 and in England in 1490 – 739 years after the Battle of Talas.
Sue and I shared a room in the homestay. It had four generous single beds, a high ceiling and two large windows, despite which it was stuffy. I climbed onto the sill, gingerly placing my toes between the seried ranks of cactus plants, to let in some air but the windows were nailed shut. Marat had expressed concern about the combined weight of our luggage and the kit. As we were riding without vehicle backup everything was to be carried by the horses. Jonny had already confided that he had asked for an additional packhorse at the expense of one ‘horse-boy’. We emptied our bags onto the beds and discarded everything but essential clothes, lotions, potions and cameras. IPhones, iPads, iPods, books and spare clothes went into bags to be taken to meet us at the end of the ride. Reluctant to cut down on the vodka we decanted it into plastic water bottles under the raised eyebrows of the homestay owner. On our first ride a few bottles had gone missing ‘in transit’ round Tash Rabat so we reckoned that decanting it into water bottles might not only benefit the pack horses. Nicola had an impressively steady hand. What didn’t fit we accommodated.
This was another error as by the time we had eaten the delicious, home-cooked supper we all felt pretty mellow. Then, as wicker chairs were drawn up facing the covered platform in the garden that we had used as a cocktail lounge, it became obvious that it was a stage. The local manaschi had been invited to enlighten a soi-disant professional French storyteller staying in the homestay, who was doing a thesis on Manas for her PhD. It was to be a treat for us too. As dusk fell we were invited to take up our seats, the manaschi mounted the stage, sat facing us cross legged, shut his eyes and off he went.
I am sure that for anyone to remember over half a million words of legend there must be some good stories but I imagine that he spoke his selection of tales in Kyrgyz kypchak. Not understanding a word, all of which were delivered in a monotone drone, was pretty soporific and I am told that I went to sleep. I bet that I was not alone. The French PhD student was so enraptured we didn’t dare ask, after what seemed well over an hour, whether she had understood any of it.
In the morning we were fed as though we would never again have the option of breakfast and while the guys loaded the mini-bus our hostess, who spoke a little English, proudly showed us photographs of her daughter and American son-in-law. The photographs had been hung like flying ducks across the hallway. In all of them the son-in-law was in starched U.S. Army uniform and sported an unforgiving crew cut. Although apparently only married for a couple of years the daughter already looked all American in a Jackie O way. He was stationed at the vast Ul Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The dusty suburbs of Talas with a yurt in the back garden and a stage for the manaschi, must have seemed light years away.
Before leaving we had to photograph the family, and they us. We were to be the first Europeans to ride these Talas mountains and they made us feel a bit like Scott heading for the Antarctic.