In the morning Jonny and Marat brought steaming tea to our tents. We had a choice of black or green, with or without powdered milk and as much sugar as a spoon could stir. It was perfect room service and with unique views. We had slept well after the previous day’s exercise and the mental work-out that had involved becoming used to the terrain and our stallions. On the first ride two years previously one of the irritating bankers had slept well even on the worst of stone strewn sites, thanks she claimed, to her self-inflating airbed. I had invested in one and this first night’s trial had proved a great success. Added to which the noise of the rushing water had drowned out snoring. During the night the horses had worked their way to lusher pasture. Domas and Illyaz, who was starting to look more human, kept an eye on them while sitting on two big boulders, hugging their own mugs of tea.
While we were enjoying Shuhrat’s delicious porridge the two fishermen we had passed the day before, climbed from below. Domas seemed to discuss the best trout pools with them and on they climbed, carefully carrying their rods as they dodged branches and scrambled over boulders. We struck camp, loaded the horses and set off towards the sky. The stallions picked their way round fallen rocks and soon we were away from the steep banks of the Urmaral River onto more open land. We followed animal tracks, sometimes fording the river that now was in a less garrulous hurry and that no longer drowned out corvids’ caws as they circled far above. Although the going was not steep, when I looked back I saw that we were gaining height remarkably quickly. We headed for the snow decorated 11,800ft Chimin Tash Pass. It was not only the sky that looked cold. A tall waterfall came into sight and seemed an ideal spot for lunch but Domas had another idea and led us away from it. We rounded a shoulder and saw a large flock of sheep flowing across the mountain’s side. Of every shade of black through bitter chocolate and fashionable taupes to white, their progress was a relentless quest for herbage to snatch at and chew. As we rode nearer we could see that they were working away from the corral where they spent each night protected from the wolves by a huge bluff of rock and some shaggy sheepdogs. On the edge of this area of black sheep dung, a tent of patched canvas and plastic sheets weighted by rocks, shuddered in the wind.
We tied the horses in pairs, nose to tail to stop them wandering. The cross packhorse managed to lie down. Two shepherds greeted Domas warmly and invited us to join them. They were cooking kalama on a skillet above their wood fire. As each piece was turned and cooked they tore and shared it with us, in the traditional act of friendship. It was delicious.
Flat stones had been laid at the tent’s threshold on which slippers waited to be exchanged for boots. Shoes always are removed before entering a house or yurt. Inside I could see an old shyrdak on which previously cooked kalama were spread to cool. The shepherds were batch baking. A pole was fixed from the tent to a tall thumb stick, wedged upright into rocks. From it dangled the still dripping joints of a couple of sheep. The skins were pegged out to dry. A puppy grumbled as it wrestled with a yard of intestine and a sheep’s head that lay nearby, its eyes yet to glaze over, watched us apprehensively.
A young teenager, who must have spotted our arrival from the far side of a gulley, joined us. Body language indicated that he was the shepherds’ brother. We stood in a semicircle by the fire with our backs to the north wind that was funneling up the gorge. Catching my eye as I shuffled my feet to keep warm he beckoned me to follow him. He was like every boy keen to show off his treasures or creations. From beneath his Nike beanie his brown eyes, broad grin and magnetic enthusiasm were irresistible. He led the way across the fold to the base of the rocks and started to climb. Scrambling from ledge to crevasse to ledge he never slipped despite wearing Russian boots that looked sizes too big – to be grown into. He knew every toehold. I made sad work of it. The tread of my boots was filled with sheep droppings and I slithered. Gripped fingers stopped my falling too often for me to ignore the doubtful wisdom of this venture. I had come to ride across the Talas Mountains not to bounce down rock into an ovine quagmire 40 feet below. Returning looked dodgier than persevering and his insistent smile encouraged me on.
Then he stood above me pointing proudly at something at his feet. He had arrived. I determined so would I and I did. Etched into the flat surface was the portrait of a large horned goat or, more likely, a Marco Polo sheep. He jumped to another rock – a herd of horned quadrupeds jostled with hieroglyphs and the patterns that still feature on shyrdaks. On another the animals were running away. Marat appeared from a different route and together we marveled at more drawings on the rocks. These weren’t the graffiti of a bored teenager but petroglyphs from between 800 and 600BC. The Bradt Guide said that one would need a local guide to locate any and we certainly wouldn’t have found them alone. I beckoned to Sue and Nicola to join us and they sensibly took Marat’s route.
While we continued our exploration Marat walked across the valley to say hello to a couple that were trying to tether a young steer near to their tent. We could see the remains of another sheep hung out to drip. On the way up we had seen few flocks and these shepherds were living in seriously impoverished conditions compared with those whom we had seen while in the Naryn oblast two years earlier. Marat explained that there were few indigenous shepherds in this part Kyrgyzstan, that the ones he had spoken to came from his home town and that most of the shepherds we would encounter were on shepherding contracts for the summer. In the winter they would return to Naryn. It was good to think of their spending the winters in sturdy, warm yurts or village houses rather than in these flimsy, tents of rent canvas and flapping plastic.
The cloud had lowered and the wind was beginning to bite so as soon as Marat returned we set off. We avoided a herd of mares and foals that were protectively rounded up by a stallion that snorted and stamped his feet with head held high. The last thing we wanted was his challenging our stallions. We pushed on up towards snow and peaks, eager to pitch camp by ‘Two Lakes’ before worse weather came in.
We spent that night on the southern shore of the bigger of the two lakes. The water was a most glorious turquoise. Sheltered by a slight rise in the ground at our backs, little hand-dug, tent-sized gullies left by earlier travellers were a salutary sign that heavy rain would drain through our tents. On the northern side of Big Lake loose scree hung precariously to the near vertical rock-face. Snowmelt cascaded in a sheer fall at the eastern end. A stream trickling out at the western end was the source of the crashing Urmaral besides which we had dreamed the previous night.
It was a still evening except for the intermittent rumble of falling scree as indiscernible animals crossed the upper reaches under cover of dusk. Soon after we were zipped into our sleeping bags a ferocious electric storm developed, fighting its way through the mountains. Lightening lit up the tents and thunder shook the ground. I expected heavy rain to hit at any moment and for our tents to be washed into the turquoise waters, but the storm circled a few times and retreated without sending a drop.