The climb to the 10,000 ft Kara Kulja pass was easy and quick. As we passed the corrugated shack we dropped off the lid of the box that had been trashed when the packhorse fell. Shuhrat must have established that it would be useful to the boy.
On the top of the pass piles of stones marked the graves of seven Silk Road merchants who, with their camels, had frozen to death in a blizzard. The Kara Suu valley lay before us. Yet again it was totally different topography with a landscape redolent of the Alps. On the lower slopes stands of tall conifers followed the valley bottom and rose majestically, climbing until the sheer rock afforded no hold for roots. Here and there tangles of dead trunks bore witness to avalanches and landslip. As we zig-zagged down sheep tracks behind Domas I could imagine skiing and even plotted imaginary turns and schusses. Marmots on the opposite bank chirruped warning of our progress. By the time we reached the ‘nursery slopes’ enough rivulets had combined to make a small stream, near which another rudimentary tent was pitched among marsh flowers and reeds. More fresh meat had been hung from a pole and a tethered goat grazed nearby. While we watered the horses Domas walked over to greet the incumbent and after exchanging news returned with a hessian sack heavy with meat. We hoped Shuhrat didn’t plan to cook it for our supper. The guy came to the edge of the stream with Domas and appeared to be most amused that three women of a certain age had travelled from Europe to ride and camp in these mountains.
We continued on down the valley and met another of Domas’ acquaintances riding an impressively large and sleek mule. Ridden mules in Kyrgyzstan are almost as rare as European women happily trekking. Domas stopped to discuss the mule; its pros and cons. Later having crossed what by then had become a river and climbed a steep bank above it, we stopped to let the horses catch their breath and graze while we too grazed – on sweet, wild raspberries. The illusion that we were the only foreigners in these mountains was abruptly disabused when round the shoulder appeared an obviously European couple in their mid-thirties. They had three nice horses kitted out in European leather tack; so new that the leather was still bright orange. They studiously ignored us Europeans but having extracted a map they managed to communicate with Domas to find out where they were and how to head in their chosen direction. It involved retracing their route. We wondered how far they would have gone in the wrong direction if they hadn’t met Domas.
Having given them time to turn round and clear the path, and with our fill of raspberries, we continued following contours through what looked suspiciously like Giant Hogweed. We dropped down where two watercourses met at the base of the next switch south and started to climb up the canyon. The land rose steeply. Large boulders, smoothed over centuries of being bowled down by snowmelt, littered the banks. Domas indicated it was time for lunch. The horses soon gave up trying to find something to eat and stood swishing their tails. We sat on the boulders beside the river and with jeans rolled to our knees, we alternately dangled our feet in the chilly water and warmed them in the hot sun.
Domas seemed pleased that we were making such good progress and was in no hurry to move on. Even so we reached our next campsite for early tea and although Jonny wanted to push higher we were told this was the last grazing and water for the horses. We had just offloaded them when the European couple appeared from above and ignoring us again spoke to Domas. They had climbed to the top but had found nowhere to camp. This caused Domas, Illyaz and Shuhrat immense satisfaction. It turned out that they were Swiss taking some months to trek in Kyrgyzstan. What particularly amused the guys was that they had boasted of the price they had paid for their horses. The Swiss plan was to sell the horses in Bishkek at the end of their trek. The guys, laughing, agreed that they had been done and would have the greatest trouble selling the horses for half of what they had paid for them.
I could identify with anyone taking months to trek in Kyrgyzstan and would have loved to have been able to afford the time, but to buy horses let alone ride in these mountains without a guide seemed pretty silly. Marat didn’t even do. it. It was obvious that they hadn’t endeared themselves because Domas didn’t invite them to share our pitch where there was more than enough space for them. As they still hadn’t acknowledged us we felt no obligation to befriend them or persuade him to do so. Disconsolately they moseyed off out of sight. Soon a small wisp of smoke rose towards the sky from beyond a crag.
Domas’ way of managing the horses was quite different to the way they were looked after in Naryn. As soon as we arrived the packs and saddles were removed, then the horses would be let loosed to drink and graze. With the exception of one that was rather aggressive with the others, none of them were hobbled. By this, our fourth night, we had managed to convince the guys that we really were happy to pitch our own tents; that the priority should be the horses and Shuhrat’s tent and kettle.
An hour or so later we realized that word had somehow got out that everybody was having a good time and that we weren’t troublesome because Jumas, the ‘horse-boy’ who had been jocked-off in favour of the third packhorse, appeared from the valley on another horse. He had decided to join us for the rest of the ride, unpaid.
It was a stunningly beautiful place to spend the night. There was a lush carpet of Alchemilla alpina over a flattish area big enough for us to spread out. Although it only thinly disguised the stones, we had learned to remove the biggest of them before pitching the tents. I placed my tent facing north. From it I could see down the valley we’d climbed, across the Kara Suu valley to the range we’d left in the morning that now was lit by the setting sun. Besides the Alchemilla there was cotton grass, buttercups, daisies and thyme that smelled wonderful when one walked across it, all in bloom. On both sides the land supported good grazing until it rose vertically to another row of teeth. The horses crossed the stream and kept their heads down, munching as if in time to a metronome.
As we conscientiously reduced the vodka burden, a flock of sheep followed by a shepherd and some dogs, swarmed into view over the ridge, spilling through a gap in the teeth. Nimbly jumping down the rocks and over the rivulets, they disappeared down to night safety the way we’d climbed.