For the first few hours the following morning we rode parallel with the river and three shepherds and their dogs rode along beside us, gathering news and gossip from the guys. One, a teenager, asked Marat for a job as a guide. He already had spent over two months with the herds in the jailoo and thought that guiding would be a more entertaining occupation. Marat told him to work at his English and exams and to make contact afterwards. When we had to cross the Dead Goat River they waved us goodbye. We could see them cantering back to their herds as we climbed the opposite bank.
The view that hit us when we reached the next pass was show stopping. To say that the plain in front of us stretched as far as the eye could see understates it. It stretched further than we could see. Wide and flat, sheltered by rows of mountains on both sides, it would take 9 hours over the next two days to ride its length. Below us were empty government animal collecting pens from which a dirt road disappeared over the horizon. Telegraph poles marched along the road with a single looping wire. Every mile or so there would be a yurt, the obligatory trailer on blocks, a blackened sheepfold and either an old lorry, a dusty 4×4 or both. Nearby the respective herds of horses, yak and sheep barely lifted their heads as we rode by. Dogs commuted between encampments. Even by the standards we had seen so far, the plain was sparsely populated.
During the 20th century some Suni Kyrgyz escaped the Soviets and settled in the Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan. About 1500 of their descendants continue to live there in two main areas known as Big Pamir and Little Pamir – areas separated by a tough 3 day ride. Situated at nearly 10,000 feet it is an inhospitable, totally bleak terrain. The people are poverty stricken, mortality rates are high, there is no infrastructure or basic medicine and opium addiction prevails. As Abduvali Abdulrashid, one of their leaders, said in 2012 “The main problem is death….our children are dying and we are running out of women.” Since Independence in 1991 there have been repeated attempts to help them with physical aid as well as political attempts to repatriate them into Kyrgyzstan. Some ideas have been less hypothetical than others. One was to resettle them in the area through which we now rode. The plain must be very tough in winter. Although it was still August the shepherds were already preparing to leave for their villages, but there would be room for the Wakhan Kyrgyz here and it would be no tougher than the Pamirs. However quite besides the problems of integration, they themselves are reluctant to leave the land they know for a land that they don’t. Equally all that they own is their flocks of shoats and herds of Yak and they don’t want to abandon them. To drive them from Badakshan across Tajikistan to this high plain in Kyrgyzstan would have made even Moses blanche.
The going became squelchier and soon we found that we were persuading the horses to jump little ditches and to avoid bubbling pits of black water. We were crossing Black Marsh. A Marsh Harrier preceded us until a squall got up and he ducked out. Thunder started rolling round the mountains to the south. English horses would have turned their backs to the weather but our horses took no notice and kept straight. As the squall passed we reached firmer ground and the guys looked for dry land on which to pitch camp. They agreed on a wide bend in the river that meandered down from the next pass to feed the marsh. The river was the boundary between Issy-Kul and Naryn Oblastar. After supper the guys rode off, forded the river and caught up with some shepherds whose yurt we had seen at the base of the mountains. We heard them return merrily in the small hours, having given their seal of approval to the kumis they had shared.
In the morning the thunder was still rumbling round the distant mountains near China but our skies looked empty of anything immediately threatening. As we sipped our early morning tea, we were able to watch the comings and goings of those at the yurts across the river. The sheep were released from their fold and driven across the ford to pasture out of sight; a woman could be seen hanging bedding on a line; smoke curled from the yurt; the herd of horses crossed to our side of the river followed at a distance by a man on a horse with a few dogs at heel. As they disappeared behind a rock outcrop one of the dogs peeled off and trotted over to us. Common sense conditions one not to be too friendly with strange dogs. It is the thought of rabies injections rather than the odd nip that makes one cautious.
This dog won us over immediately and we reciprocated by sharing our breakfast with her. Although she looked far from underfed she was most appreciative. She also had charming manners and did not beg. The last thing we wanted was to offend Shuhrat but as always our stomachs were not as big as his eyes. She kept beyond our tent out of his sight. At carefully chosen moments we surreptitiously winged bits of our surplus sausages round the corner to her. Breakfast over, she lay quietly as we piled stuff in the requisite heaps, wagging her tail as we passed her. We rode over the ford into Naryn oblast and she trotted behind us until we reached her yurts when she lay down beside one of them, in the lee of the wind, and stretched out.
As we approached the next yurt we could see that there were six or seven foals loosely tethered from head-collars to a long stretch of rope pegged to the ground. This was just as we had found our stallions by Son Kul on our first trek four years earlier. Mares, some heavily pregnant, were standing around nearby. It was all very calm. It reminded me of staying with the Tsaatan on the Mongolian border with Russia. The young reindeer were tethered in the day while the cows were loosed to go off and graze. They returned to their calves at dusk . The young then were loosed. The reindeer cows were tethered and milked by the herders and then the calves had their fill throughout the night. So it was with these mares and foals. Although we hadn’t seen it before in Kyrgyzstan we were to see mares and foals kept like this beside the majority of yurts during the rest of our ride through Naryn. It explained our stallions’ acceptance of the tethering – they had been introduced to it from birth.
The climb to the next pass was gentle and the further we went and higher we rose we saw increasing signs of flocks and herds being brought down from the highest jailoo and collected into bigger groups to be driven on down to their autumn quarters near the villages for the winter. Men on horses cantered to and fro with dogs rushing over becks and crags rounding up any animals that had slipped the net. Yaks declined to move but grumbled at the disturbance nonetheless.
We joined a cart track beside the young river. It soon became a stream and then the stream a trickle. It was interesting to think that most of the water lying soggily in the marsh that we had taken two hours to ride across had originated here. The valley narrowed to a wide dry gorge reminiscent of the Highlands and had a Landseer stag appeared on one of the rocks jutting above us it would not have surprised. A circling lammergeier substituted for a golden eagle. The only thing missing was heather.
The track led us over the gentlest of passes and after ten minutes the guys took us off into the collar of a sheltered side valley where we stopped for lunch. A pair of lammergeier circled high above something dead or dying in a neighbouring gulley. A lone yearling colt that had found a natural supply of salt, licked the rocks. The guys unloaded the horses and having made a windbreak with the packs lit the gas. While we waited for the kettle to boil Shuhrat laid out the dostorkon and arranged everything as meticulously as ever.
We had just settled back on our elbows when we noticed a small person watching us from over the rise. With a pink bobble hat pulled down over eyebrows, bright green velour trousers tucked into pink wellingtons, and a GAP sweatshirt, was it a he or a she? It was impossible to tell. In Europe the clue is usually in the colour of clothes but having seen teenage Kyrgyz boys wearing hand-me-down fluffy pink bedroom slippers I knew better. ‘It’ watched us intently. The guys shouted something encouraging on the lines that we weren’t going to bite. They beckoned it over. After brief hesitation it came running over and merrily accepted biscuits and dried fruit, much of which it stuffed into its pockets. Then having sunk its tiny teeth into an apple, it ran back to a yurt the other side of the ridge. It must have been about three years old. Ten minutes later it reappeared carrying a 2 litre plastic Coca-Cola bottle in both hands. It was filled with kumis. We had given it fruit. It was repaying in kumis. Nomads share everything.
The next plain was wider and more barren than any we had crossed. After the first yurt near a stream coming down from the pass there were no yurts or herds to be seen. From time to time we crossed cart tracks that disappeared into the distant mountains, from the foot of which we could sometimes see thin plumes of smoke indicating habitation. After and hour or so Marat pointed out a large complex of industrial buildings way up to our left. It was a Kyrgyz operated gold mine. Many Kyrgyz believe that Canadian Centerra Gold stitched up Kyrgyzstan in a deal that originally gave the Canadian company 83% of the income from the Kumtor gold mine. Although this was renegotiated in 2009 to give the Kyrgyz government a 33% stake, two months previously the government had launched an investigation into the management of Kumtor. This had followed a demand earlier in June for a $220 bill for pollution. In 1998 a truck carrying nearly 4,000lbs of sodium cyanide destined for Kumtor had crashed into the Barskaun River and although the ‘damage’ was settled to the tune of $3.7M enormous distrust and resentment continues. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country with few natural resources but gold is one of them and in 2015 Kumtor had yielded nearly 521oz. The Kyrgyz operated mine that we rode below obviously generated a mixture of pride and relief.
We became strung out. The packhorses were now carrying lighter loads after four days of consumption and Syrgak and Zamir pushed ahead. We English had our afternoon thoroughly blighted by the sound and then the sight of two tiny kittens that were in the middle of nowhere and must have been chucked out of a vehicle. There was not any sign of herd or habitation and absolutely nothing we could do other than leave them to their fate, mewing pitifully. It was horrible and probably fortunate that we didn’t pitch camp for another couple of hours or we might have gone back to try to rescue them. Then what would we have done with them?
Come the appointed hour we caught up with the Syrgak and Zamir who had pulled over beside the deeply rutted track that led to the mine. While we helped each other pitch our tents we paused to watch the guys try to cross the hundred yards to the river with Shuhrat’s water barrels. They jumped from tussock to tussock on the outward journey with empty containers. On the way back, carrying the filled ones between, them they had their work cut out. It was to be a night separated from a river by another marsh. Many little waders flitted up and down the river calling to each other until the sun had set. Sadly, without adequate knowledge of bird speak and as we could not get near enough to the river to see them we were unable to identify any. As at every evening a chill wind got up and blew dandelion clocks and thistledown across the plain, then as if its daily distribution of next year’s seeds had been completed, the wind dropped and it was utterly still. That night the sky was clear and with no light pollution the Milky Way was at its most visible and beautiful.