The climb to the pass was relatively easy and we only had to dismount once to negotiate a jutting rock that took the path challengingly near the crumbling edge. The view from the top took in much of the 59,000 acre Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve. It is dramatic. Rising from just under 4,000ft to nearly 14,000 ft it includes seven lakes. Declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 it is said to contain over 1,000 different fauna; 160 species of birds and 34 mammals including the Tien Shan brown bear, Central Asian lynx and the elusive snow leopard.
We might have become slightly cavalier about the height of passes but we never ceased to marvel at the views from them. As we took in yet another totally different lansdcape a covey of partridge broke cover. So did the female Swiss without her man or their three pricey orange-harnessed horses. They had lost their map along the way and she was on foot climbing back over the pass to look for it. She was understandably disappointed that we had not seen it or better still, picked it up. Her man had drawn the clever straw. To retrace one’s steps and cross an 8,000 foot pass three times in one day would be on no one’s wish list whatever the views, flora or fauna.
While the climb up might have been relatively easy, the descent was ‘different’ and we led the horses from the start. It wasn’t that it was particularly vertiginous, but that the path was baked hard and the surface was covered in tiny stones. It was like trying to walk on ball-bearings and it was a challenge remaining upright. One way and another I think we all measured our lengths more than once but the scrub beside the path caught us before we fell over the edge. Now and again we had to jump down from a rock too high to use as a step. Not once did the horses push into us or clip our heels but facing a succession of rocks requiring goat-hops I chucked the reins over the saddle of mine and sent him ahead. I was not alone. When we caught up with Domas a row of contented horses were backed-up, nibbling what appealed to them and they could reach.
Leaving the ball bearings we joined a cart track running through meadows of wild hollyhock; allium; yarrow, thistle, dock and fern. Some of it had been scythed, collected and piled loose in stooks. Without any field boundaries it was unclear why some of this beautiful but coarse vegetation was thought fit for fodder and that growing inches from it was not. A 4×4, with pitch forks leaned against its bonnet was parked next to a tent roughly tethered to an apple tree. I could hear metal being sharpened on a whetstone.
Domas had pointed out Bent Lake from the pass and we had had it in our sights for most of our descent. Now we heard the unmistakable sound of adult voices reacting to cold water hitting their nether regions. As we rounded a low shoulder and the track took us beside the lake we saw a couple of dozen people swimming. I suppose that we shouldn’t have been surprised as Sary-Chelek is one of the favourite Kyrgyz playgrounds but we had only come across shepherds, bee farmers (and Swiss) during the week. We had forgotten the outside world. Back to reality.
The areas where camping is permitted in The Reserve is strictly proscribed so grudgingly we had to pitch our tents within earshot of the voices, although rather sniffily we found a patch slightly above the lake away from them. The fact that we were nearing the end of our ride hit home even harder when we heard voices that we could understand. Some even spoke to us in Bavarian English. They came from a group of diplomats from Bishkek making the most of a bank holiday weekend. Marat explained that they would leave the following day and that we had arrived a day earlier than planned. An extra day had been allowed in the itinerary in case of accidents and happily we had none. We still had vodka and soon we felt privileged again.
As we sipped our tea the next morning we watched the diplomats pack up and go. We were left with our horses, the haymakers and the mewling of a raptor above some crags on the far side of the lake. It sounded as though it had young and was trying to explain to them the theory of flight. With a day in hand the guys decided that rather than being left to kick our heels we should be taken for a ride round some of The Reserve. Domas and Jumas had other plans so we set off behind Shuhrat and Illyaz and meandered to the other side of Bent Lake, through more of the seemingly randomly harvested hay, past another lake, over a little hill and then there was Sary-Chelek Lake itself.
It is said that every Kyrgyz must visit Sary-Chelek once in a lifetime. It is over 300 miles from Bishkek and is meant to take about 8 hours to reach, although some of the cars we saw parked beside the track leading to the ‘resort’ looked as though they were lucky to have made the journey at all. Many families had come from Osh and Jalal-Abad, each taking at least 4 hours. There was a holiday feeling about the place. It was made clear to us that horses should be kept at a distance so we left them with Illyaz and continued on foot. The guidebooks tell you that it is a ‘must’. To say that Sary Chelek was an alpine version of Skegness depends on your take on Skegness. Under the shade of Juniper trees families had staked claim to permanent wooden tables and wide charpois. Older children kicked footballs, younger children slept and the youngest ones grizzled in the heat until dummies or bottles were rammed between their gums. Women sorted picnics. We could have had our photographs taken riding a toy horse or standing beside a moth-eaten deer or simply in a family pose with the lake as backdrop. Given half an hour any photographs we ordered would have been turned into calendars for us. We declined in as those who had ridden real horses; seen real Kyrgyzstan. We could have gone on a lake cruise or even be-sported ourselves in swimming costumes but having joined the flow and walked down nearly as far as the jetty we beat a retreat to the shop in search of crisps and more mixers for our sundowners.
The shop was a window in an otherwise windowless semi derelict concrete structure. There were a few visible cans of aerated e-numbers soaked in saccharine well protected by a cast iron grill. We delegated Jonny, Marat and Shuhrat to purchase the essentials and standing back soon found ourselves serenaded by an inebriated duo playing an accordion and the spoons. It was evident that the accordion player, who accompanied his digital dexterity with a base voice, regarded himself as something of a matinee idol. The spoon clatterer was more of an actor and at what he perceived the dramatic moments would drop to his knees to highlight the situation. Whether it indicated desolation or imploration was not clear to us and not understanding a word such theatre was largely wasted on us although we tried to look impressed. When our guys, loaded with goodies, came to our rescue the duo hardly disguised their surprise that three women of a certain age had managed to pull such consorts. They accepted our few som with amused pragmatism and moseyed off in search of a fresh audience and more alcohol.
Illyaz took us high above the lake, far from the crowds. Shuhrat at last had a signal and could catch up with his girl. Legend has it that the valley through which the river Sary Chelek flowed was peacefully inhabited for thousands of years by Flamens who worshipped the marine god Kho. One day invaders discovered the secret valley and murdered everyone they came across except for the high priest. He invoked Kho who emerged from the waters and caused the surrounding rocks to fall and water to rush down from the mountains. Everyone was killed. Whether or not thanks to Kho, the Sary-Chelek river was dammed by a massive rock-fall during an earthquake hundreds of years ago. The resultant lake is about 4.6 miles long and 1.4 miles at the widest. The mountains rise near vertically straight from the water and distant peaks are covered in snow. It understandably is famous as a beauty spot.
A couple of saddled donkeys tied to a tree, waited for their next chores. The horses grazed as we watched the cruise boats criss-cross the lake far below us, Marat talked to those making hay and Shuhrat checked up on the much-missed Bishkek nightlife. Presumably the haymakers set up camp with the spectacular backdrop of this panorama every year. We marveled at it.
Once Shuhrat had all the updates he needed we moved off and despite another of his delicious breakfasts stomachs were starting to rumble. We rode to another lake. Although it had sheer rock to one shore the others were bordered by tall reeds and backed by marshy hay fields and a copse. It should have been thick with quacking and warbling but there was none. The only sound was tinny music coming from a transistor radio glanced on a tree stump, near a couple who had lit a barbecue under the trees. We tethered the horses and spread our saddlecloths on the damp ground. Having scoffed our hardboiled eggs, apples and chocolates, we lay back watching the branches wave at the passive sky. The delicious smell of whatever was being grilled over the smouldering wood wafted slightly above our noses like the advertisements for Bisto.
Well snoozed, we ambled back to camp through the valleys of The Reserve. Everywhere hay was being made under the wild fruit trees. Self-seeded apple, pear, plum, pistachio and walnut grew randomly. Tarpaulins had been draped from branches to make family camps to support the haymakers. Thanks to molecular genetic work the apples, that are not much larger than crabs, are proved to be the original apple from which all of our apples originate. Some believe that this part of Kyrgyzstan was the Garden of Eden. I stood in the stirrups, stretched high and picked an apple as I rode under a ladened branch. I bit it gingerly, expecting the acerbic pinch of a crab but it was sweet and juicy. I understood why the Silk Route travellers had taken them and they had evolved into a favourite fruit.
A few hundred yards from our camp there was the silt beach where the diplomats had been swimming and it was possible to enter the lake without plunging into thick weed. With Bent Lake to ourselves we braved the waters. My first total immersion since Bishkek left me feeling as refreshed as I remembered being, ever. Marat and Jonny swam across to the other side with much laughter and splashing. Later I asked Jonny whether any of the jokes could be shared. “Oh we were just laughing at how lucky we had been to have a ride that had been such fun. It hasn’t been like work, it has been a holiday!”
That evening Jumas helped me pick up my tent and carry it, fully erected, to the diplomats’ pitch beside the lake. The previous night I had slept badly thanks to the tough stalks of sow thistles poking my back through my airbed. The hay it made must have been as chewy as biltong. Anyway it seemed pointless to have a lake to sleep near and not enjoy it. It was a good move. The muted voices of haymakers talking with the guys went on until the late hours and I could hear the plop-plop of water creatures maneuvering through the weeds barely feet from my tent.