The Arpa Valley

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The jailoo is not fenced but I had noticed that strangers do not encroach on another’s space until invited and we walked the last few hundred yards to the yurt.  It was beautifully situated where a river valley, its waters snaking down from the mountains, joined the Arpa Valley. A baboushka was turning and stacking bricks of manure to continue their drying process to become fuel.  Occasionally she would throw one, dry enough to use that day, into a large bowl.  A speckled cow watched us, a black cow with a Charolais looking calf, continued to chew the cud, and two tethered kids bleated as we approached. A toddler rushed from a donkey and her foal to the yurt – and his mother. She came out to greet us with the usual broad smile and unreserved welcome. We jumped the stream. Her husband appeared from the far side of the statutory blue lorry, smiling as widely.

The Baboushka joined us and the table was soon spread with kajmak, jam and yoghurt. Kalama was torn and extended. The kettle, already on the boil, filled a teapot. We were invited to lunch. The little boy, sporting a Club 93 sweater, eyed us warily from the safety of his father’s lap. Despite his father’s apparent assurances that we were friends he remained sceptical and eyed us suspiciously. Shuhrat and Evgeniy talked animatedly with the family and yet again I kicked myself for not having tried to master more than a few Kyrgyz salutations. The while a laptop, wired to solar panels, relayed news from ‘civilisation’.

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As we had a few hours to spend before the others pitched up, Shuhrat and Evgeniy retired to the minibus. My request to be allowed to wander round was generously encouraged. So it was that I spent an afternoon in the jailoo watching the family going about their daily chores. We communicated as best we could in sign language and every time I passed nearby I was invited to have more tea or to snooze in the yurt. During the afternoon various horsemen came and went, stopping to share kumis or tea, and the toddler’s brother cantered up with a woolly dog at his horse’s heels. He showed me various tricks he had taught it; most involved the dog’s paws on his shoulders. The women scalded milk, did the laundry, washed up, beat shyrdaks, stacked more muck bricks, milked the cow; fed the few young stock in the wire compound and chatted. The toddler busied himself with the donkeys, the kids and making castles in the earth. It was unforgettably peaceful and happy.

About half of an hour after the father had ridden over the hill, higher into the jailoo, he returned driving a herd of horses. A string of tethered foals, stood up, stretched and whinnied at their approach.  The returning yearlings had single, sharpened wooden rods through their nostrils. Weaning any domestic animal is a stressful process for both dam and offspring. A spike through a youngster’s nostril would poke the mare’s bag and she would discourage sucking. Although many in the UK would leap up and down in protest at such perceived ‘cruelty’ it was an effective way of weaning without the trauma of separation. Once weaning is complete the spikes are removed.

Milking the mares was a team affair. The first-time mares were milked first. The mare’s foal would be allowed to suck for a few minutes and then very carefully the wife would remove the foal’s lips,  substitute her fingers and gently milk the mare. Mare and foal, albeit firmly held by the husband, would stand peacefully. All the time the toddler stood nearby until the milking was finished. The foal had another suck, then, with the mare released, the toddler was picked up by his father who gently placed him on the foal’s back. A week-old foal was not only used to being tied up, was halter broken and already being ‘backed’ using a very light weight. It was used to having human legs hanging either side of it; the toddler was relaxed on board. The foal was held firmly again but there was no struggling or drama. It was a masterclass in horse ‘breaking in’. While this was going on the mother milked the older mares, untethered, with their near forelegs roped up.

Shuhrat’s body-clock woke him when it was time to start pitching the cooking tent. We drove a quarter of a mile upstream from the yurt and had just finished unloading the tents and kit when the others appeared over the horizon. They looked like the opening footage of a spaghetti western.

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They asked after my headache and I asked after their day. I felt guilty when it became clear that theirs had involved quite a lot of dull going, while mine had been one of unique privilege of being able to ‘live’ with the little family for a few hours. I tried to moderate my pleasure.  We soon found the crisps and vodka.  As promising smells wafted from the cooking tent we watched distant herds and flocks being rounded up and taken to their corrals.  A big herd of yak was driven towards the river and smoke rose from the tiny white specs of far-off yurts. A mounted border patrol, that had dropped by the yurt earlier in the day, followed the last of the sun into the mountains.

I had had the most wonderful day, spending time with a lovely family in the jailoo in a way few people ever have the chance to do,  but I had come out here to ride with the others, not ‘cop out’ in a minibus. It was great to be with them again.

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