The following morning, as we neared the shepherds, a young girl cantered up to us with her arms flapping and legs flailing. The horse she rode was so large there was no chance of her feet reaching the stirrups.
“They are inviting us for kumis.” Marat explained.
Although breakfast had hardly settled it was a great opportunity to meet the shepherds on their home territory and if we were to drink kumis, which so far we had managed to avoid, Shuhrat’s porridge must have lined our stomachs. Or so we hoped. While the girl and her mother prepared the yurt to entertain us, the shepherd caught up on news with the guys. A little brother scrutinised us without blinking. On the other side of the stream beside another yurt, three men had their sheep tightly corralled and were checking them over. Their horses were saddled, the reins looped over the fence. Big woolly dogs lay in the sun near the horses’ heels, with eyes open, ready for the call that would allow them to jump into the corral and nip ovine heels.
Once the table had been arranged to their satisfaction we were invited inside. Two kettles simmered on the stove; the bedding had been folded and piled in the juk. It was covered by a velour throw that depicted a cartoon bear kicking a football. A large ghetto-blaster sat beside it and next to that two 30 litre plastic jerry cans filled with kumis. The pale blue cupboard was neatly stacked with crockery and cooking implements.
The outside of the yurt was the usual canvas but inside it was a modern take on the traditional theme. The frame was metal instead of wood and over it was stretched Chinese material printed with larger than life orange chrysanthemums on a scarlet background. Chrysanthemums in Chinese mythology indicate a life of ease, which these nomads obviously did not have. However Chrysanthemums are also thought to attract good luck into the home, which hopefully these would. A pair of Raybans; a shiny, well-sharpened meat cleaver and an industrial size, plastic, orange funnel dangled from the frame. We were invited to sit round. Kalama was torn and extended, jam and kajmak passed round, and bowls of piping hot tea were replenished as soon as we emptied them. We each were given filled bowls of kumis. Marat assured us that our hosts understood that westerners had to acquire the taste but we did our best. Too soon it was time to move on, we had miles to cover and had to meet the minibus before we found a place to camp for our final night. As we mounted-up the children continued to watch us intently. Our attention to the tightness of our girths before we put feet in stirrups must have seemed way over the top to those who from such an early age simply jump on the nearest available steed, as if a family bicycle, and canter off. We waved as we headed for the next shoulder. Tentatively at first, so did they. The porridge worked.
Passes, although not much lower, had become easier and the plains were connected by snaking, single cart tracks. The valleys had better grass, the herds were bigger and more numerous, yurts were closer together. As we passed them shouts would ring out inviting us to share kumis. Sometimes Zamir and Syrgak would accept an invitation and peel off with the packhorses, to catch us up later. Sometimes Marat, with us in tow, would ride over, exchange a bit of news and decline regretfully. Had we accepted all the invitations our ride through these plains would have been extended by days even had we not succumbed to excess of kumis. We were starting to climb out of one big valley, wondering where to stop for lunch, when a man shouted at us from a yurt below. Marat and he exchanged shouts.
“He wants us to have lunch with him. I don’t think there’s any way out of it.”
So we turned our horses and went down to him. As we dismounted he took each of our faces – the guys’ as well – in his hands and kissed us on both cheeks. This was considerably more enthusiastic than the traditional welcome of pressing one’s heart with one’s right hand. A warm rosy glow had seeped through his jailoo tan and had gravitated to his cheekbones. There was no doubt that Tirek was drunk but his wife, who was not, stood behind him smiling affectionately. Tirek was benign. We agreed to have our lunch in their yurt as long as they would share it with us. While Shuhrat and Tirek’s wife laid out the dostorkon and combined supplies, I had a chance to wander around and gain a closer look at the set-up. Although we had ridden past many shepherds’ yurt camps I hadn’t wanted to peer too intrusively.
Characteristically the yurt was pitched a few yards from a brook and a few feet from the yurt was a ridgepole tent, about 12feet long. It was used for storing and prepping the food and for some of the cooking. Outside the single chimney stove was used for more cooking, scalding milk and heating water for laundry. A pink child’s tricycle, a lilac plastic baby’s swing, a child’s playing frame, and a deflated football lay in the grass. Kettles and milk churns were stacked in an orderly fashion by the stove. Electric wires looped between the tent and yurt on which rested a single solar panel. Presumably it powered either the dangling light bulb or the 12” black and white television.
We sat on a plank facing the warm sun and played with a kitten that was tethered by its neck. On the other side of the stream a couple of dogs snoozed by the empty sheepfold. A saddled horse, looking too deep in sleep to be ‘ready to go’ stood with its bottom teeth resting on a concrete trough and lower lip hanging loose. A teenage boy, dressed head to toe by Nike, cantered up and when his little sister saw him she ran across and he pulled her up onto the saddle to sit in front of him. Two women, one trailing a toddling boy, arrived from a yurt down the valley. Word of us had travelled. They all watched us intently. Tirek lurched between Marat and Jonny putting his arm around their shoulders in turn as he steadied himself and imparted information. He talked of the upcoming Nomad’s games and, pointing to the horse that the boy was riding, proudly said that he had lent his best horse for one of the visiting Kok Boru teams.
Only Tirek joined us for lunch although we had hoped the family would do so too. It is traditional for the women to be in the kitchen making sure that the food keeps coming. His wife, who gave him and us warm smiles whenever she entered the yurt, repeatedly replenished kalama and the boiling water for our tea. The children and neighbours remained outside, doubtless discussing our oddities. The residents of my Cotswold hamlet would be as quizzical if a handful of Eskimos came over the horizon and settled down for lunch.
It turned out that we were the first strangers to have ridden by in over a year. Those had included a Negro. Tirek felt we should know that black men do exist. He had thought that they were only in films with their faces blackened by make-up, but now he had seen one and “….they are real!” Had we ever seen any?
When time came for us to leave he kissed us all again and professed undying love.
Tirek is special. Twenty years previously he had come across two abandoned, orphaned boys. He adopted them. One is married and working in Bishkek, the other was spending the summer in charge of Tirek’s other herds in another jailoo. The reason for Tirek’s merry state was because his brother had been to visit him the previous day. They had not seen each other for months while Tirek had been in the jailoo, and they had shared much kumis in celebration. Kyrgyzstan is the second poorest nation of the ex-Soviet satellites yet the Kyrgyz are a constant lesson to us in their generosity and friendship.