The ‘new road’ round the northern edge of the lake quickly took us up a few hundred feet. A wandering family of cattle came the other way. We determinedly stuck to the inside. They picked their way on the loose boulders left by the earthmover, positioned to tumble straight into the lake at the slightest provocation. Despite pausing every now and again to pick at the stray wilting branch of recently butchered shrubs and trees, none of them slipped. They knew their route.
The track led to parkland dotted with ancient sycamore and poplar trees. For fifteen minutes we might have been riding through any of Capability Brown’s creations parched after a dry English summer. We swung south. Boys swam in the river that drained the lake while their donkeys refreshed themselves and flicked their tails at flying teeth. Once over the river we picked up the JCB-carved road again and snaked down into a deep gorge. The sky was clear and there was no movement of air to temper the sun’s heat. Occasionally a boy with a donkey would pass us going back up. The JCB had carved indiscriminate gashes in the rocks and tangles of dead trees and their roots that had been pushed over the edge had withered where they landed, their fall only halted by living trees or rock outcrop. It was stark.
The sound of water became noisier as we descended and then we saw it below: a torrent of furious, foaming white water crashing over the rocks falling for a hundred feet through black pines. The waters of the lake had developed a ferocious energy once they had escaped the parkland. We crossed the river just above a pool where the water took a deep breath before crashing on. The bridge was comfortingly solid. A number of trees had been slung across the river on top of which cut-timber, as sturdy as railway sleepers, had been tied together with strong wire cable. A strand of wire that swayed between rickety metal rods a few feet above the planks was a pretend safety barrier. Had man or beast slipped they wouldn’t have stood a chance but none did. We rested the horses and sat in the shade of the rocks. Conversation, such as it was, involved shouting. The water was mesmeric as it surged past us and we soon stopped trying to compete with its hullabaloo and just watched it.
A couple of boys with a string of pack-donkeys, a foal and a furry puppy came down the track and across the bridge and stopped to talk with the guys. Domas fondled the puppy, the donkeys wandered from one side of the track to the other looking for foliage to nibble and the foal topped up on milk whenever his mother stood long enough.
It was not clear whether it was the guys or Domas who decided it was time to move on but Domas stood up and pointed to a vertical crag high to our right. I assumed he had seen an eagle’s eerie or that someone had once seen a snow leopard up there, but Marat explained that it was our next pass. It looked impossible, even with ropes and crampons. Marat also said that we would be going across some of Domas’ mountain pasture and would stop for lunch at his summer camp. Domas grinned at us. It was encouraging to think that somewhere out of sight there was enough space for grass to grow and ruminants to graze it.
We left the ‘road’ and took a narrow path, ducking under aggressive thorns and skirting stumpy trees. We climbed. Every now and again we came out of the bushes to a meadow with cattle and donkeys grazing contentedly. In one a couple of ramshackle yurts had been encircled by thorn branches, piled and snagged, to make an enclosure. Inside a healthy crop of potatoes flowered and hens scratched. A donkey called. Two women, pegging out washing, waved to Domas.
Along the route stones had been piled to dam the water before it trickled over paths as it seeped out of the banks. Taking our turns at these makeshift troughs we let the horses drink and became spread out. Although the air was thin the horses didn’t find the going hard. We followed tracks, made by cattle wending their leisurely way in search of the next blades to get their tongues round. Here and there we had to duck below the branches of wild apple trees bowed under the weight of fruit.
We caught up with Domas who had stopped on an exposed bluff. He beckoned us to join him nearer the edge. Pointing to the other side of the ravine he explained that he had been on the same spot when a slice of the mountain opposite had fallen in a massive landslide. The entire area had been engulfed in a cloud of thick white dust for hours and his children had been terrified. We were not surprised. The fallen rock had swept everything in its path for a thousand feet. Nothing grew there. It was a pure white row of inverted ‘V’s where the surviving mountain had funneled the fallen rock and allowed it to bank up once it had hit the valley floor. The noise would have reverberated round the mountains and alarmed more than children.
We climbed on and up and on and up and soon after we had entered a stony gorge with more boulders than vegetation we saw a Heath Robinson yurt above us, pitched on a shelf let into the mountain and surrounded, almost fortress like, by massive boulders that must have been there since the mountains were thrown up aeons ago. As we reached it children’s squeaks alerted a tiny boy who scuttled to Domas and was scooped in one hand, up onto the withers of his horse. This was his eldest grandchild. We had reached Domas’s summer camp, or more accurately his wife’s summer camp. By now we understood that Domas, in time honoured poacher fashion, led a fairly independent life only returning to base when circumstances or inclination dictated.
His wife had the most beautiful open sunny face and there was no hint of recrimination that he had arrived unexpectedly with seven people, all looking forward to lunch. Dressed in traditional tunic and trousers, with a kerchief tied behind her head, the fabrics ran the gamut of acidic pinks. Deep pink socks, flip flop sandals and a ‘leopard-skin’ gilet in pink, white and black completed her mountain wear. No North Face for this north face.
She apologized that as she had no advance warning of our arrival her table would be less generous than she would have liked. Her deep dark eyes exuded genuine affection for Domas and an unreserved welcome to us. One of Domas’ daughters, in her early teens, washed cooking pots in a bucket by an open fire on which simmered a kettle blackened by flame. From time to time she topped up the water in the bucket with water from the kettle. She shyly avoided making eye contact with us, unlike two younger siblings who were delighted to be distracted from their game of chasing hens away from the open-sided yurt.
Partially protected from the elements by flapping plastic sheeting laid over poles sticking out from the mountain that made a sort of roof, the kitchen had no walls. The yurts we had seen in this part of Kyrgyzstan had all been very basic compared to those we had seen in Naryn oblast. They all had involved a lot of plastic, more in sheets than patches, and were a far cry from the neatly domed and patterned felt or canvas stretched over the scarlet kanat. This one was no exception. It was obvious that other than being circular and in Kyrgyzstan, this had little in common with a yurt. It was more closely related to a tarpaulin umbrella. Around the sides, poles spaced about two feet apart, supported the umbrella’s spokes. The eastern side was tethered to the roots of a large, upended tree within the arms of whose dead branches it had been sited. It was difficult to make out whether tent or tree had settled first. Other than some tarpaulin augmented by reams of plastic making a wall on the eastern third it was open to the elements and I wondered how effective it would have been in weathering the storm that had trashed the beehives.
We sat on the shyrdaks in the tyor. Domas had told us not to remove our boots but we tried to keep our feet off the shyrdaks, laid on the packed earth floor. Domas’ wife spread out the dostorkon. Domas sat with his back against the centre pole with his grandson in his lap sucking his earlobe. It is customary for grandparents to take-on their oldest grandchild once the next one arrives. Domas laughed telling us that his grandson had sucked his ear ever since being taken from his mother. They seemed amused by each other and very happy. Domas’s wife brought a big circle of kalama that Domas broke for us to share. Butter, yoghurt and kajmak arrived. Raspberry jam followed and then, bright red, in a large enamel soup tureen, a heaped pyramid of wild raspberries was placed before us. Our lunch was the most moreish of cream teas and we were pretty shameless about helping ourselves repeatedly, as encouraged.
The younger children who had been watching us open-eyed while their elder sister studiously focused on washing up, were delighted to be given our pic-nics. They scampered out of the yurt to sit on the rocks in the shade of the kitchen tarpaulin. Our branded yoghurt was as much of a treat for them as their mother’s homemade yoghurt was for us. They scraped the pots with their index fingers and licked off any imagined remnants long after anything could have remained.
Slowly even our greed stuttered and shifting our feet we leaned back on elbows. It enabled close inspection of the inside of the yurt. As always the bedding (juk) was neatly piled at the back. From string looping between the side support poles big bunches of drying herbs had been hung, next were bags with all variety of cooking utensils poking through. On the floor ranged round the outside edge there were milk churns, buckets, commercial sized bags of onions and potatoes, pots, every shape of plastic container; big jars of the delicious looking jams and a few pairs of boots and shoes. Traditionally the draftier area of a yurt near the door is the women’s zone for cooking and making yoghurt and kumis. It is the eptchi zhak. The men have the erz zhak on the opposite side to keep their weapons and harness, but as there were no walls let alone a door under this umbrella, there was no apparent distinction. It was also obvious that Domas was only passing through. This whole area was his wife’s domain.
The yurt had the most dramatic view of the other side of the gorge where the mountain had fallen down in its cloud of dust. Below the yurt on the level tops of the protective boulders, neat rows of kurut were laid out to dry in the sun.
Rather than a ‘summer camp’ for Domas’s family this was more of a processing plant where his wife collected and preserved food for the winter. Given that this was a temporary home, the logistics of getting it all, including the hens, up the mountain and back down again, must have been military in its organisation. We never saw Domas’s mountain pasture, or his cattle, or the wild raspberry bushes but they must have been there somewhere. It was typical that a poacher should have known where to find rich pickings in this craggy landscape, let alone such a wife to do the picking. A few days later I showed Domas some of the photographs I had taken and said how beautiful his wife was. He beamed as she had done and he told me that her sister had been Miss Bishkek. It was touching how proud and undoubtedly fond of each other they were.
Putting his grandson down gently, Domas indicated that we should mount up. We still had the Kotormo Pass to negotiate and although it was only just over 8,000ft we had to get down the other side before dark. Domas’s wife leaned against a timber support with metaphorical hands-on-hip at a job well done and smiled at our departure as she had at our arrival. The younger children stood still holding the yoghurt pots and waved us goodbye. The teenage daughter kept in the background.