As if triggered by the thin red line of dawn drawn on the horizon, the cabin lights were switched on and the steward announced our imminent arrival at Manas International Airport. Friends had not been able to understand my reason for my sinking the holiday fund into this relatively unknown country for a third time in four years. I had tried to reason that people return to Brancaster and Blackpool year on year, why not Bishkek? Except that Bishkek wasn’t the draw, it was the mountains that cover almost 90% of Kyrgyzstan’s 77,220 square miles and harbour the most stunning scenery and jailoo, not to mention charming, friendly people. Sue and I were there for our second ‘tailor made’ ride, having decided three years previously that group rides were a compromise best avoided if possible.
Two women of-a-certain-age being welcomed at 6.00 a.m. at the Arrivals gate with enveloping bear hugs from Marat, Shuhrat and Jonny, caused amusement among locals and surprise among the few other tourists. For us it was a cosy ‘welcome back’. We were introduced to our driver Costia, whose expression left no doubt that he had been told something about us. Whatever it had been he grinned widely as we shook hands. Unsurprisingly when people learned that we keep returning to Kyrgyzstan because we love it, we found very warm smiles, everywhere.
We skirted Bishkek and headed East. It seemed as though someone must have visited France since last we were there because a lot of the trunks of the poplar, silver birch and willow trees that lined the roads had been painted with white skirts. It might have been the Languedoc, well almost. After an hour we tried to find somewhere for coffee. Jonny and Marat walked down a recently planted avenue to a newly built motel and returned with thumbs down. It was either yet to open or had already closed. Costia and Shuhrat enjoyed a nicotine break. Head-high chuikov – the wild cannabis thought to have been used in Central Asia for 2,000 years, grew on the road’s verge. We laughed that whereas we could have picked enough pot to finance our ride there was no coffee to be had.
Karakol is Kyrgzystan’s fourth largest city 250 miles east of Bishkek, not far from the Chinese border. It was to be our base for two nights to enable a bit of rubber-necking and stocking up on provisions for an unsupported seven days’ ride in the Tien Shan. In theory we should have been able to catch up on sleep during the drive but it proved too exciting to be back and adrenalin had kicked in. The route to Karakol would take us along Lake Issy Kul’s southern shores. Issy Kul has long been the water playground of land-locked Kyrgyzstan and when we did find somewhere for breakfast we joined chirruping children and their multigenerational families in the queue for Borsok, Samsy and fried eggs. Like us they were off on their annual holidays.
Marat received a call from a cousin telling him of the Hunters’ Games that were being held in the jailoo not far off our route. The games were to celebrate the local nomads having laid the first brick of permanence 80 years previously. In a culture without a wealth of documentation, this seemed like a useful bit of folklore and a good excuse. We jumped at the opportunity to go. The Naryn Oblast Shepherds’ games, to which Marat had taken us four years earlier, had been the treat of the trip.
Near Bokanbaevo Marat stopped to ask the way and was directed to the dust cloud we could see snaking over the horizon. Keeping our eyes skimmed we zig-zagged through earth backstreets and joined the snake’s tail. As we climbed higher, the dust cloud thickened and as it did so scored its victims in the shape of cars that had stuttered to a halt with clogged and overheated engines. Some occupants on smart-phones were summoning help. Others carrying baskets with picnics had started to walk and as each vehicle ground past them they tried to protect their lungs from the dust by covering their faces with scarves.
The Bozsalkyn valley is a natural amphitheatre 8,000ft up surrounded by ridges that push up beyond the tree line. About thirty yurts had been erected in a rough line drawn down from the conifers. Behind each yurt a log-fueled stove, warming up to cook lunch, sent undisturbed smoke into the sky. Drivers of cars that had survived the climb and dust, parked in lines, avoiding the little bogs and dried ditches.
The track up which we’d come disappeared over the shoulder. We joined those who were flocking towards the general hubbub and the loudspeakers that were blaring out a cocktail of Kyrgyz and Russian takes on western music. The music was punctuated by pronouncements shouted as though announcing an impending disaster for which everyone should prepare. There were a few homespun stalls selling shyrdaks, clothes and snacks. On the lower side of the track a stage had been erected. On either side of if it two hospitality-sized yurts were flanked by flags. There also was a large screen on which there was a massive photograph of the jailoo and mountains. The scene it depicted was not nearly as beautiful as the view it obscured. A kettle drum had been put down beside an elaborate tree of antlers fixed together to make coat hooks. From it dangled cow-horns, quivers, a couple of rifles and a woman’s handbag with a headscarf tied to it. Nearby a woman sat on a shyrdak next to a large unconnected satellite dish.
Next to it a large man sat astride his destrier. It turned out that he was the event organizer, a well-known local burkutchu (eagle hunter) who had a track record in marketing and organisational skills especially when it came to local tourism. On this occasion he was organising for the locals, not tourists – we were the only Europeans other than a couple of backpackers. He was dressed, as the other berkutchu, in a beautifully embroidered dark green and beige jacket with matching breeches that were tucked into decorated soft black leather boots. He had a longbow and quiver stuffed with arrows, hanging over his shoulder and of course a bright white kalpack on his head. One never sees a dirty kalpack. It would be like a Scotsman wearing a sporran with moths – a slight against one’s heritage.
There were to be three types of games involving golden eagles, archery and horse racing. The head burkutchu decided that the hour had come to get things moving and directed two youths to carry the cumbersome drum over the track to a saucer of rough grass through which seeped a marshy brook. Other berkutchu started gathering there with their eagles (burkut) that they held on their thickly gauntleted arms. Those on horses supported their arms and the eagles, that can weigh a stone, on baldak – a Y shaped support fixed to the pommel of the saddles. Four of them started to blow cow horns while a fifth held his mobile to his ear, apparently able to be deep in conversation despite the cacophony so near his ears. Men in white tunics, summoned by the horns, crossed the track. They led lean, black taigans on long bits of frayed string. Three female archers, who had stinted on neither wardrobe nor make-up, strode after them to join the group. Each of them carried a long bow, a quiver full of arrows and wore a leather arm guard.
The leader of the trio wore a skin-tight black tunic elaborately embroidered in gold thread. A thick leather belt, covered in silver studs It was designed to leave no doubt that she had an enviably trim waist. Leather silver-studded shoulder-pads that stuck out like pointed Samurai wings exaggerated the haughty angle at which she carried her head. A white felt Atilla hat (shokulu) with long earflaps and a black tassel topped it all. She was a modern Candace of Mereau. She too could have frightened off Alexander the Great. A woman with a ponytail walked in her wake. She had a full, ankle-length, turquoise chiffon skirt on top of which she too wore a heavily embroidered black tunic. It had extravagantly pointed swallowtails that reached down to her calves. The third had a wrap-around canary yellow skirt with bright green embroidery, a patterned pink belt and a tight fitting waistcoat. These amazons meant business. As soon as they joined the men the reason for their sartorial statements became clear. They were to parade in single file in front of the growing crowd that included Everyone Who Mattered. These women were there to be noticed. The four mounted horn blowers led the parade with their eagles perched on the baldacks. Men on foot with eagles on wrists followed them, then men with longbows, some towing their taigans. The women walked beside them making sure that the would be seen. The procession came to a halt in front of the stage where, one by one, they were introduced to the crowd. Police lined up to reinforce the sagging ropes that theoretically were going to keep spectators off the track.
Stationary archery was followed by archery from galloping horses. Nobody missed the target. Winners were announced. Prizes were in kind. During the lull that followed old men, in their bright white kalpacks, with bars of war medals pinned to their lapels, tottered among the crowd leaning on the arms of only marginally younger but steadier men. They must have been heroes of the Great Patriotic War. Not to be outdone portly middle-aged army officers wandered around puffing out their own medal collections. Senior policemen talked to aksakal and occasionally issued instructions so that junior policemen wouldn’t forget who was boss.
Then the music that had been bouncing off the valley sides was interrupted to tell every man, beast and bird within miles that the trotting races would begin. A handful of horses were trotted along the track from the yurts past the stage. They stopped, turned and returned to the collecting ring. The jockeys wore numbered white T shirts, identical sky blue baseball caps and assorted breeches and track suits, tucked into boots. Stewards in red T-shirts, disappeared over the horizon. We could see the trotters line up on the track. Then they were off and accompanied by the frenetic commentary they trotted past us, floating above the ground. Out of sight for a few minutes they reappeared on the opposite bank. By the time they passed us for a second circuit to disappear again, they were well strung out. When the lead horse flew past the winning post cheers went up. They soon subsided into grumbling. A stewards’ enquiry was announced and it was successfully argued that the lead horse had broken into a canter while out of sight. The cheers for the second horse, now declared the winner, were less enthusiastic.
Attention turned to the berkutchu who had returned to the antler hat stand where the head honcho was again in charge from the vantage point of his charger. One berkutchu walked onto the track with his eagle. A man on a horse cantered across the grass towing a long rope to which was tied a wolf’s pelt. The berkutchu removed his eagle’s hood (tomogo) and released her. She swooped across the marshy grass to land on the pelt anchoring it with her clasped tallons. The rider stopped the horse, and the eagle pecked at the limp fur until the berkutchu who had run after her, persuded her to let it go by offering a morsel of flesh, and replaced the tomogo. Different berkutchu and eagles repeated the operation. It was not clear whether this was a display of eagle training or a timed competition. Knowing that the pelt contained no tasty flesh they flew a few feet into the long grass and the humiliated berkutchu had to reward them with flesh anyway, and retrieve them.
Galloping races followed. The races were sorted by horses’ age. The prizes in kind were large white goods or cars. Marat, who had spent an hour in judicious networking, found us and suggested that as it was mid-afternoon we should look for some lunch and then head off for Karakol. Shuhrat and Marat selected one of the row of smoking barbecues ranged behind an assortment of estate cars. Shashlyks were put to sizzle. The shashlyk chef spread out a rug and while we waited for meat he brought barbecued corncobs and chin-dripping watermelon. We sat in the warm sun, watching the racing below us and couldn’t stop smiling at our luck at being back in Kyrgyzstan.
Once in the minibus heads soon lolled against windows. 40 hours without sleep had caught up with us. We woke as Costia turned off the ignition. He had stopped outside our hotel. Karakol was in darkness.