In the night a lorry, on its way to the gold mine, had woken us all. It had bucketed along the deeply rutted track, passing a few feet from our tents and ears, at even-the-devil-won’t-stop-me speed. Music loud enough to drown-out the ancient Russian engine’s labouring noise, had heralded its arrival and could be heard long after it had passed, shattering the stillness of the plain. We laughed at the incongruity of being woken by a mobile disco in such an isolated spot. A hard frost and very cold morning mixed our breath with the steam from the tea. We stood around hugging our mugs in our hands, stamping our feet and absentmindedly watched a large herd of horses and donkeys that had encircled us while we slept.
It took us about an hour to reach the entrance to the gorge. For a while we rode along a sheep track on the left of the river. The horses carefully stepped over boulders. When the track took off up a cliff where only cloven hoofs could go, we forded to the other side. Very soon the river was running so near the cliff base that the horses had to wade down the riverbed. When that became too deep and the boulders too slippery we dismounted and led our horses up and down vertiginous paths. It was easier for them to balance without our shifting weight. Sometimes we needed both hands to climb above the rushing waters that were fifty feet below.
My little stallion often stopped to look at the way ahead and then having planned his route carefully, he would hop from rock to ledge to path; stop again to look and then take another few strides. He never got it wrong whether I was on his back or not. As endearingly he never trod on me when I led him nor bumped into me when I was less swiftly footed than he. After a while the gorge widened and we alternated our rock climbing with meandering through narrow terraces at river level. Joe-Pye weed, Sow Thistle, docks, nettles and scrub competed for space. On the top bank of one terrace two saddled horses were nibbling the bushes to which they had been tied. A sheepdog protected them noisily. The owners were nowhere to be seen but Zamir told us that they belonged to two women who were gathering blueberries. On the opposite bank conifers clung to the rock wherever roots had found enough soil. In places avalanches had swept all before them leaving dead trees upended in a jumble in the river. Tangled flotsam swept down by snowmelt and snagged on the fallen trees created barrages and whirlpools.
The river, by now at least fifty feet across, swept round a place flat enough for us to spread out for lunch. The horses found stuff to graze. The guys joined us cross-legged round the dostorkon and we shared teaspoons, knives, bread, the tins of unidentified fish, pate, and apples. What we thought dubious and left, they finished with broad smiles. Nothing was wasted. Horses and humans spent a contented hour basking in the sun after a challenging morning negotiated without mishap. Some of us so inclined, jumped onto the big flat rocks in the river and snoozed with our feet dangling in the water. While listening to the water and watching the occasional whisp of cloud I wondered whether this really had to be my last ride in Kyrgyzstan. I began thinking about how I could persuade Jonny that we should come back.
That afternoon, we rode along the river across wider terraces and through increasingly lush pasture. We passed three men dismantling a byre that had been built in an inconvenient place. Marat questioned our surprise at the casual way they were handling the sheets of asbestos roofing. Most of the Soviet-built sheepfolds and overwintering byres in the jailoo and many of the houses are temples to asbestos. Its dangers are unpublicised. Perhaps, in a way, it is just as well as people have no option but to live with it. On a flat meadow in the ‘Y’ where our gorge met another, hay was being hand-raked into rows and pitched into heaps. We struck right upwards through rank grass and thistles.
The climb became steep and was made much more testing for the horses as the sun was scorching and there wasn’t a breath of wind. The horses dripped. Occasionally they stumbled into deep ruts hidden by the long herbage. Eventually we climbed onto a cart track that wound round the edge of the mountain, above the heads of gorges that sliced into its sides. Water crashed down them heading to the river we had left, thence to the Naryn River and on to Uzbekistan. On the top of the next pass the guys found they had a mobile signal. Shuhrat wanted to check on his mother who had been rushed to hospital in Karakol; Jonny wanted to check on farrier activity in Essex, Sue needed to check on her son who had been in a spot of bother. Marat touched base with the driver who would meet us the following evening, and ordered more units for us.
A big stream wound through the valley below. There were three shepherds’ yurt settlements quite close together on its banks. It seemed an ideal place to spend the night. By now we knew that there were two critical factors in the selection of our campsites. One was the proximity of running water for Shuhrat – the horses could always walk for a drink but he needed to fill kettles and to wash up. The other was the hour. At about quarter to five every evening Shuhrat started to fret and we knew that this was the signal that he was hoping we would stop soon. He needed to get the kitchen tent up and sorted and our suppers bubbling on the gas. His concern was for our benefit but also for his pride. No matter how difficult the conditions, or how far into a trek we were, he managed to conjure up the most delicious food and it was always presented to a standard that would have been allowed out of any master-chef’s kitchen. A sprig of dill here or twirl of carrot there were the norm even in the remotest jailoo.
The tone of conversation between the guys indicated that the spot that they had had their eyes on was unavailable. We didn’t understand whether the shepherds had asked us to keep our distance or, as we were to find, that many of what looked prime spots were very boggy. Sensing Shuhrat’s mood we left the guys and rode up the glen away from the shepherds to do a recce by ourselves. By the time they had joined us we had found a compromise place. Although it was far from ideal with water seeping from the ground in many places there was at least room to pitch tents on carefully selected tussocks and there was a small stretch of stream bank, unlike most of it, where Shuhrat would not be up to his knees in mud. We sold it to them and Shuhrat complimented us rather pointedly as being excellent ride leaders.
Fortunately Zamir and Syrgak didn’t overhear or understand the implied criticism of their abilities. Shuhrat who had eyed us suspiciously the previous year had become a friend. The fact that when organizing this ride I had specifically asked that Shuhrat would be our ride cook must have helped but it was more than that. Although he cooked for many treks the fact that we pitched our own tents and helped strike camp apparently had singled us out from others. He was however bemused by our keenness to keep returning to Kyrgyzstan. He was understandably fed up with trying to sell white goods and not receiving enough reward to pay his rent, let alone support his modest lifestyle. He couldn’t wait to escape. It was only Her Majesty’s Government’s miserly attitude to handing out visas that kept him from England. I agreed with Jonny that if ever we had funds we would sponsor him to open a restaurant although we disagreed whether it would be in Essex or Gloucestershire. His food would fill tables anywhere but the thought of a Kyrgyz restaurant in conservative Cirencester appealed to my mischievous spirit.
Although we had to jump about to avoid the boggy bits and there was little point in trying to get into the stream to wash, as we would have been caked in mud from thigh down. It proved a charming spot for the cocktail hour. Sitting on one tussock with feet perched on the next, with our backs to the mountain, we could hear dogs and children down the valley. We watched smoke starting to curl up from yurts, shepherds bringing in the flocks and the general battening down for the night. The sun slid down beyond the next pass.