I was woken at dawn by some animal rootling along the shore by my tent. The raptor was the first bird to call and then I heard the sounds of stirring haymakers, a couple of whom had slept in their car just along the bank. Shuhrat fired up the kettle. Sunrise spotlit the snow on distant peaks. It was the perfect way to start the final day. Walking back from the beach, toothbrush and towel in hand, Shuhrat beckoned me to his tent and extended the sizzling frying pan. It was full of fish about seven inches long. Even had my Kyrgyz stretched to it I would not have asked whether they mistakenly had jumped straight from lake to pan – Kyrgyz cousins of Asian Carp. Eating them in our fingers, we polished off seconds, then thirds. They were scrummy lake trout, with not a hint of Bent Lake’s mud. The ‘poacher-turned-keeper’ grinned and licked his lips.
Striking camp for the last time would have been more sad had we not another day’s ride ahead of us. It had become a well-oiled routine. We sorted the trash and empty bottles into one sack. Rolled tents were put into their sleeves and piled next to our bags. Everything was collected by Shuhrat’s tent, with gas canisters, pots and pans. The packhorses, knowing they were near home and relieved of seven days worth of liquids and solids, stood happily to be loaded. Men, horses and women-of-a-certain-age had confidence in each other and we set off in a relaxed string, along the track through the hay fields. The sun was warm.
Although we had ridden under random walnut trees around Sary-Chelek it wasn’t until we were climbing into the damp of the forests that the sweet smell of walnuts hit us. Just as the apples were spread along the Silk Route, so were walnuts. The largest walnut forest in the world, all 600,000 acres of it, was not that far from where we were. Some people credit Alexander the Great with taking walnuts from Kyrgyzstan to Greece, whence they spread across Europe. Others think they originated in Persia. The Kyrgyz walnuts are still exported as far afield as South Korea, Turkey and the Netherlands, but like everything in Kyrgyzstan, the infrastructure of agriculture has declined without the Soviet organisation and its market. Since the Union collapsed land ownership has replaced collective farming and subsistence farming has increased exponentially. Logging for fuel, grazing and haymaking to support domestic herds, has seriously compromised the forests of Kyrgyzstan that have been reduced by 50%. It stacked up that as we began to climb where it was too steep to harvest hay – the walnut forest became denser and the smell so pungent. Riding under the vaulting of the 140 year-old walnuts was like passing along the nave of some vast cathedral. Despite the pleasure at being there it was muted by the knowledge that a late frost had resulted in the worst walnut crop for years. Many farmers would have too few walnuts to sell to pay off their debts or to buy seed, fodder and any new kit for the following year.
We came across what seemed like ramparts and given that we had seen evidence of early settlers I wondered whether this was an old fort. Soon afterwards we broke through above the tree line and had a wonderful view of the mountains on the other side of a wide valley. Any inhabitants of this site would have been able to monitor all comings and goings. We negotiated a higgledy barbed-wire fence through a ‘Wiltshire’ gate and passing a motley herd of suckling cattle started down. The path became a cart track through rough pasture; hay meadows and wild fruit trees that had grown up with less competition from walnuts. Without warning Domas slipped from his horse and leaving the reins dangling, he crouched like a Red Indian and ran away from the track. We halted and watched, fascinated. Without altering pace or profile he picked up a stone and hurled it at a bush from which, with crashing twigs, a bird flustered away. A few feathers floated down through the branches. He returned smiling from ear to ear. He wasn’t cross that he had failed to kill the bird but satisfied that he had nearly got it. It provoked the observation that while we had spent the last 48 hours in a nature reserve hyped for its purported 160 birds and 34 mammals, we had not seen one wild mammal, heard only one raptor, seen a single covey of partridge and no more than a few feathers floating from Domas’ target.
“Well would you raise your head above the parapet if you knew Domas was around?” someone quipped.
Illyaz’s father had borrowed our horses from his neighbours and it was as much their slightly quickened pace and their determined choice of direction as the increased evidence of barbed wire and the overgrown burial ground that indicated we were approaching home – Karasuu. Shiny corrugated iron roofs and gardens planted with sweet corn, potatoes and beans appeared below us. We passed a building being renovated that looked like a Welsh chapel – the village mosque. Ladders leaned against lofts and hay snagged on the rungs and bulged from eaves; tracksuits and bedding were draped over washing lines stretched between trees. A hairy dog barked protectively while wagging its tail welcomingly. Hens gleaned gardens and those that had escaped through holes in the occasional chain link fencing wandered across the track. We reached flat ground and meandered along the main drag, a garden’s width from a river, that we could hear but, not see through the foliage and laundry. Swinging left into a path that led only to orchards, Domas stopped. Alerted by the sound of hoofs, tall solid metal gates were opened from inside, revealing our mini-bus in the yard. The ride was over.
Girths loosened, saddlebags emptied and packs and luggage removed we were welcomed by Illyaz. Although it was his family home his parents were away. A toddling nephew, naked other than trainers and a baseball cap, worn askew so that the peak nearly touched one shoulder, was sweeping water around the concrete with a besom brush. He looked at us with unveiled astonishment, declining to return our smiles. Instead he turned to his mother for assurance that we weren’t a threat.
The gates enclosed a small rectangular collecting yard at the head of which was the house. The only indication that it was a house was a wide window extravagantly draped with swooping net curtains, randomly caught on dusty cactus. The frame had recently been painted the usual pale blue, as had the door that was up three steps from the recently hosed concrete. It was wedged open. On either side of the yard there were whitewashed animal sheds under corrugated asbestos roofs. Hay spilled from the open ended lofts. In one corner was the kitchen. In the other an opening led through to the vegetable patch and the loo, housed in a recently constructed hardboard hut. A washbasin was fixed to the garden wall; the tap fed by a cold-water urn just above it, the urn to be topped up with a bucket and water from the river.
We padded through the house to our rooms and dumped the contents of our saddlebags on our beds. Beds! We fell back on them: comfortable beds with pillows and linen. Camping is the price you pay for getting far up and away from the world. After a spell of camping the luxury of a bed, any bed, is luxury.
Our room had a high ceiling and a picture rail a couple of feet from it. A blackened hole in the wall showed where a ceramic stove once had stood. The disconnected system of heavy-duty pipes leading from it to the other rooms remained. Along one wall was a wardrobe that had we been in Britain would have passed as Victorian. Heavily carved dark wood encased its foxed mirror with tiered shelves on either side leading to bigger shelves and hanging cupboards. On every surface were old school books, soft toys and additional bedding. Although there was an inside hall, most rooms led one to another. One bedroom was only separated from the kitchen by a glass wall, although the kitchen’s only door was in the yard.
I went in search for hot water. Directed into what must have been a dairy and on through into an old milking parlour, I found a huge cauldron of water that was starting to bubble over a flame. A row of plastic buckets filled with already warmed water stood steaming. There were a few hooks for towels and clothes and a homemade wooden bench. A windowsill, already adorned with mugs and toothbrushes, made a great shelf for shampoo and soap. The water, carried up from the river, was the perfect temperature and so soft that soap lathered generously. As the suds swooshed down me, across the floor and along a gulley under the wall and outside into the yard, I felt pampered and refreshingly clean. Bent Lake had been Premier Inn: this was boutique hotel. Walking back across the yard to the house I noticed that the guys were gathered at the back of the minibus. I sensed a celebration. In our bedrooms a different celebration caused by the arrival of the luggage we had sent on to lighten the load – was in full swing. Clean clothes, ‘phone chargers, guide books and shoes that we had forgotten we had brought from England, all landed on our beds.
The opened back of the minibus was being used as a drinks tray with shot glasses, vodka and homemade fruit hooch. While we had enjoyed the luxury of hot water and soap the guys had been toasting a great ride. During the trek ‘Jonnibek’ had handled both sides of the coin of ‘horse-boys’ and guests with a firm but light hand and was being shown unreserved appreciation and affection in the best Kyrgyz fashion “Den soolugubuz üchün!” (“Cheers!”) preceded another ‘down the hatch’. We were welcomed into their semi-circle. It had been such a happy ride with a wonderful team. The traditional speeches followed. Domas thanked us for being a good lot (I think) and “rakhmat!” and down the hatch. Jonny thanked Domas for being a wonderful guide “Den soolugubuz üchün!” and down the hatch. Marat thanked Jonny for being Jonny “Rakhmat!” and down the hatch. We thanked Shuhrat for so much delicious food and so many energizing breakfasts. “Chong rakhmat!” and down the hatch. Illyaz wanted to hide behind his nephew when we toasted his input. Shuhrat Instagrammed photographs to his girlfriend. Domas and Jumas had smiles from ear to ear. We drained another glass; another bottle; another flavour of hooch until the entire fruit cage and orchard had been sampled. Then Domas and Jumas said they had to return the stallions to their owners.
It is a mistake to ask the name of one’s horse as they all end up on a plate – if not a human’s then a wolf’s. One must not get fond of them but it is difficult not to. As we helped to unhitch them from the fence and handed the reins to the guys to lead away, we gave them very appreciative pats. They had carried us over staggeringly difficult terrain with the best of grace for nine days and had never put a foot wrong. They had looked after us wonderfully and it was thanks to them that there had been no accidents and that we had gained a rest day in Sary-Chelek.
We stood at the gate and watched silently as they jogged off down the dusty lane, lost in our own memories of the places they had negotiated for us. As they reached the corner Domas turned and with a grin that one could see even at that distance, he waved goodbye. What a guy. How lucky we had been.
We had just regained the yard when we heard hoofs pattering down the lane from further up the village. Not wanting our equine journey to end, we went to see what was coming. Three boys were following three moving 6 feet high haystacks. We knew that underneath the hay were donkeys because we could just see their little feet tittuping along. Neither bodies, heads – not even ears – were visible and they could not possibly have seen where they were going. They knew the route blind.