On Independence Day the year before I had been introduced to Anvar, the general director of the Kyrgyz tour company –
“This has been Sue’s third visit to Kyrgyzstan.”
Charmingly he had voiced hope for my return. I said that I would love to do so but explained that I would only return if we could deal directly with his company. The English tour company tried to be helpful but we now knew far more about Kyrgyzstan than those behind desks in London. We had ignored the itinerary that they had taken so long to draft. I had learned that I had been suspected of being a mole for the English tour company so added
“Oh, and by the way, I am not a spy!”
Slightly taken back, whether by my greyed age and that anyone should think I was a spy or that I had found out that they might have, he impressively quickly told me to deal with his office direct. So there we were, back in Kyrgyzstan, being welcomed with broad smiles and enveloping hugs from Marat and Shuhrat, ten and a half months after we reluctantly had said “Goodbye”,
We were to ride off-piste along the Kyrgyz – Chinese frontier in the off-limits buffer zone. In May we had had to send copies of our passports so that the necessary permits could be sought from the Kyrgyz Ministry of the Interior. Jonny had organised everything with Madina and had persuaded his partner Georgia and two friends, Ben and Gillian, to come with us. It felt almost like returning home as we sped through the empty streets to the Asia Mountains Hotel for breakfast and showers. Shuhrat and Marat had already packed the minibus with food, catering and camping kit. We made the habitual foray to a supermarket for cocktail essentials and dropped by the office to pick up our permits. It was when Anvar, looking rather concerned, wished us “Good Luck” that it occurred to me that this was to be an adventure – not just a “ride”.
We hit the road East and headed for Tash Rabat, 7 hours’ drive away. We stopped for lunch where we had tried to find coffee the year before but had only found locked gates and chuikov, wild cannabis, growing shoulder high on the verges. In the interim the boarded motel had metamorphosed into a buzzing ‘holiday experience’ known locally as Hawaii. We followed a winding brick footpath straight out of the Wizard of Oz. The marsh had become a series of lakes with jets d’eau; cruising swans; shoals of carp; and sandy beaches with artfully placed Grecian urns – some toppled and half buried by ‘time’ with sand pouring from their necks. I am pretty sure that the ancient Greeks never got as far as Hawaii and wondered whether the Chinese developer had taken the 14,000 miles round trip either.
Little floating pagodas, only reachable by boat, made for private dining. Bright green (and scarlet) palm trees looked incongruous against the few remaining indigenous grey poplars. Sculptures of crocodiles created from industrial reclaim vied with nymphs in polished copper. A bored camel in a small, lakeside compound looked as though he was eyeing up a target for his spit and a groom arranged his bride’s yards of tulle over a sandy beach until their photographer was satisfied. Children made cheerful noises associated with coin operated bucking broncos and we fell on delicious shashlyks and chilled beer in the pagoda-roofed peninsular that stretched into one of the lakes.
We stopped in Kochkor as Shuhrat knew that he could buy better vegetables than had been available in Bishkek. Ben, apparently inspired by Hawaii, decided that he needed swimming trunks of which there was a wide choice for those weighing 5 stone more than he. We eventually found a pair we thought he could be seen in although we wondered what opportunity he would have to wear them over the next ten days.
Four years earlier we had spent a night in Naryn and I hadn’t marked it as somewhere for a return visit, so when Marat announced that we would stop for a break I didn’t expect much more than dusty trees and exhaust-belching traffic grinding its way to and from Kashgar. Wrong. We parked in front of an unprepossessing café and climbed the few steps to its outside terrace where we opted to sit, to make the most of the late afternoon sun. Then we were treated to the most delicious hot drinks and cakes. We could not have had better in a Viennese Kaffeehaus. Naryn, like the rest of Kyrgyzstan, had moved on.
After a day and a half of traveling, heads were starting to loll when the minibus bounced off the road and came to an abrupt halt behind a parked car. The driver of the car came towards us smiling broadly. It was Rust Am, the guy who had not only supplied horses on some of the rides, but who had invited us to lunch when we attended the Shepherd’s Games five years previously. It was good to see him again. He had sourced horses for this trip too and while he settled details with Marat, and those who needed had a nicotine fix, I enjoyed the first sight of the At Bashi Kirka Toosh mountains with their snow-capped peaks, one of which rises to nearly 16,000 feet. Below them, a few miles to our East was At Bashi village. Literally translated it means Horse’s Head, named after the legend of a man who galloped his horse until it dropped and ate it until only its head remained. Hopefully we would be able to return our horses to Rust Am, intact.
For a short mile the road became of almost Western standard surface and width. Constructed years ago, as a military landing strip in case of a Chinese invasion, it was a reminder of where we were going – the border was under 100 miles away.
We left the road and followed the winding track beside the Tash Rabat river. It brought back happy memories of our first ride. We passed the yurt camp where we had stood steaming beside the fire, hugging mugs of alcohol after escaping the storm when climbing high and failing to see the Lammergeier nests; we laughed at our fording the freezing river while carrying our cameras, shoes and socks. Then we rounded the corner and there it was – Tash Rabat – looking every bit as romantic as it had when we first saw it, and as welcoming as it has been to travellers for hundreds of years.
Recommending a holiday to people with whom you have not travelled is dicey; persuading them to part with savings to go to the far corner of a barely known country is more than a gamble. I had met Ben, Gillian and Georgia under 24 hours previously and while Jonny and I had enthused continuously at every turn they must have wondered what they had let themselves in for. Sitting in the ‘restaurant’ yurt of our camp, behind pyramids of fruit, sweets, jams, and pastries they admitted that they had been overwhelmed not only by the food and the amazing scenery but mostly by the welcome. Everyone had broad smiles.
It was only the beginning.