We passed a little mud-brick water mill, that pre-dated the village, although the wheel was still in place and might have moved should the water have flowed that way. The village track climbed under the overhanging red rocks. Soon it became a two-laner as tracks from other end-of-the-line villages joined it and as we gained height we could see the extent of the river and withy beds that we had crossed, back and forth, in the driving rain the afternoon before. It looked benign in the early morning sun but, judging by the stony beaches, with snowmelt in full spate the volume of water must be merciless.
The track led us to a larger village and the next check-point. It looked more man-for-the-job although a determined Chinese invasion wouldn’t have been halted long. An 8ft high breeze-block wall encircled a sizeable brick accommodation block whose windows were intact. The hill rose at the back of the compound and a watch tower was placed on top. Double metal gates controlled the entrance. Much white paint had been used recently – possibly to occupy the soldiers of which we eventually saw two. It had been splashed across everything, except for the regiment of scarlet stars fixed on the walls. Boulders that marked the approach to the entrance gates and the mosque, on the far side of the kok-boru pitch, were freshly painted too. While Marat showed the forms and talked us through again, we tied the horses to willow trees, where they had shade and the water that flowed along the ditch.
Although it didn’t feel like a military town it supported an unusually useful store for a store in a far from affluent agricultural community. We fell into it. Shuhrat said we needed more potatoes and we were as interested in what might be available in preprandial snacks. There were trainers in odd sizes and footballs in need of air; plastic toys and furry teddy bears in garish pinks and greens; shampoo and plastic razors; onions and tomatoes; chewing gum, pistachio nuts and saccharine-rich fizzy drinks. Then cola, beer and vodka and – potatoes. A young girl weighed purchases on old scales and counted items into plastic bags, placing them on the counter under the inscrutable gaze of baboushka who prodded a large-type adding machine with a stubby finger, as if hammering a full-stop to every purchase. The most impressive range of goods, although not on sale, was of empty bottles. It begged the rhetorical question whether Kapka Tash was waiting for a recycling collection. With Kyrgyzstan’s eco credentials this was not as far-fetched as it might seem.
The track…. highway……was dusty and had become a dull ride. The mid-day sun was hot and high cliffs on either side of the river kept any breeze from us. We might have landed on our feet the night before but facilities for ablutions there had not been and it was some days since we had managed to wash. We all felt skanky. The water of the river below looked enticingly refreshing.
“Can’t we stop for lunch down there?”
The guys weren’t enthusiastic but at the next fisherman’s path they led us off the track and we slithered down the bank, negotiated low willow branches and came to a halt on the boulders by the river. Marat told us to wait while they found a way across to an island in the middle. The current was strong and swirling. Satisfied that it could be crossed, Marat stood in the middle and told us to keep below him. Deep pools were everywhere.
A hot bath is wonderful after a day’s hunting; a soak in frothy suds in a luxury hotel may answer many people’s dreams but there is absolutely nothing to match a river when you’ve been riding for over 100 miles without soap or water. It has its challenges. This particular river’s were that the island had a narrow, shallow strip of shore on either side and very deep channels and eddies with a purposeful flow not to be challenged. We found our own discreet pitches. There were twigs on which to hang clothes and towels and some flat enough rocks on which to balance shampoo. It was then a case of sitting or kneeling and much splashing in the chilled shallows. Toes froze and nether regions had rude awakenings but we all felt marvellous and lunch never tasted better. Afterwards while the guys took their turns to dunk, and the horses picked at scrub, we snoozed beneath socks drying on the willow branches, sometimes opening an eye to watch the clouds scud across the sky.
By mid afternoon we had to cross the river again. Jyldysbek, always gung-ho, pushed his horse and dragged the packhorses into the water. We watched. As they neared the far side the quarters of one pack horse were swept sideways, Jyldysbek’s horse plunged and for a few moments it looked as if they’d all be swept downstream, round the bend in the river below the high cliffs, and out of sight. They managed to return to our side. We asked to cross somewhere less challenging. Although we had passed a new bridge a few hundred yards away it only to led to steep rocks where trees clung to any flat surface. There seemed to be no paths leading away from it. We walked along the river spotting fingers of boulder islands that we might head for and then a man on a horse appeared from above on our side of the river and led us across. It is always difficult to judge the ages of people who have grown up in the mountains, with weather beaten faces and hands, but although he looked old he must have been middle aged because his kalpack was embroidered in grey. Traditionally those in their 70s have black embroidery on their kalpacks; children have coloured.
After a night sharing a lush water meadow with a small herd of mares and foals, beside a trickling tributary of the big river, we started the climb towards the Kojosh Pass. By lunchtime we were surrounded by high peaks and pine forests. There was no sign of any herds or flocks and with nothing to graze them we rode through flower meadows; head-high docks and tall orchids that flourished where snowmelt still seeped in rivulets.
We serpentined up a gulley between shrubs and thorns and when we stopped above the tree line to give the horses a breather we realised that we were one man down – and two horses. So intent on looking where we were going, we had not looked back. Syrgak, who had been bringing up the rear, was not there. None of us had heard a call for help or any sound of falling. Jyldysbek went back down and while we let the horses graze and wallowed in the warm sun we admitted to feeling rather guilty that we hadn’t noticed Syrgak’s absence. We were starting to be seriously concerned when we heard their voices below sounding cheerful. The two of them reappeared with the pack horse; none looked the worse for wear. It was not made totally clear what had happened and Syrgak looked a bit defensive. Somehow the pack horse had got free and taken his own route and it had been some time before Syrgak had realised he was not leading him. He had had to go back, find and catch him.
The fault being the stallion’s (obviously), he was barely given a chance to catch up and blow before on we pushed through alpine scenery. We passed waterfalls that cascaded from unseen crags and scrambled across mountain brooks and by the time Shuhrat had started looking at his watch we had left all trees and shrubs behind and were in a wide valley with bare rocks all round, rising in teeth to the sky, and a stream rushing down from some invisible snowfield. The guys chose a site to pitch camp above the stream.
The horses loved it as no matter how tightly they were tied they could reach the long grass. We were less enthusiastic as the grass camouflaged rocks and boggy patches and the skeleton of an Ibex, lying by the stream, was evidence of poaching and gave the place a sad feel. There was something particularly poignant about imagining the Ibex drinking peacefully at the stream and a bloke with a rifle, probably lying on the exact spot where we would, focussing his sights just so that he could put the beautiful creature’s head on his hall wall.
We helped pitch Shurat’s tent, made sure he had all the cooking equipment he needed and the gas lit and then we sat for a while looking back whence we’d come. Those in need of nicotine sent plumes into the chilling, evening air that in turn signalled the need for cocktails. Having pitched our tents we got stuck in and moods improved. The next morning we would cross the 13,500 foot pass. Although out of sight it was up there somewhere. We were nearing the top of the world again.
Photographs Marat Daniel; Ben Portus and Sue Bathurst