The climb from camp was unchallenging and warm in the morning sun. We could almost have been in the Highlands, climbing up through Glencoe. After about an hour we left soft turf for unforgiving stones and, rounding a corner, the pass was above us. The flat shoulder of black rock between the sharp incisors was about a quarter of a mile across. Below it was a pelmet of snow. The question was how to get over the nearly vertical wall of snow to the black top. Syrgak rode up to the right, Shuhrat to the left, to see where there was a way round or over. We were on the north side of the ridge. Snow had been blown from the south side and frozen solid on our side. They were too far above us to see exactly what was happening but the more frequently they disappeared from sight only to reappear again and head somewhere else, the more pessimistic we became. Jeenbek and Marat talked in undertones – unnecessarily as we didn’t understand a word of Kyrgyz – but it was obvious that they too were concerned. Then we saw Shuhrat – an almost indiscernible speck against the sky. He had got there.
Jyldysbek set off and was to be seen going straight up on hands and knees. So did his horse. Astonishingly they both got there too.
If they could make it so could we…. somehow….. so we started walking up on foot. When we reached the steepest bit just below the snow, Marat told us to leave the horses, grab our saddle bags and follow him. He climbed up onto the rocks and having wedged his feet, bent down, extended his arm holding his kamcha for us to grab, and one by one, with Shuhrat’s help, he hauled us up.
The guys went back for the horses. It was decided that the only way to get them up was by digging a cut through the snow with shards of rock, which they did. Two of the packhorses somersaulted back and lay there until relieved of their loads. One by one the horses were cajoled, dragged and pushed up. Once through they just stood at the top, panting. Their looks said it all – ‘Thank goodness that’s over.’ The guys went back for the packs and made a chain. They carried what they could manage and together they pulled up the heaviest packs with ropes. It would have been very hard work with oxygen but at nearly 13,500 ft that was a sparse commodity. They did it. An amazing job done: they collapsed in a heap.
Rested and remounted we celebrated. A team photograph was duly taken, but it was the guys who had done it. Yet again I made a mental note – ‘If you’re in a fix – find a Kyrgyz. They don’t give up.’
After that everything seemed rather tame. We dropped down out of the wind, had lunch, rode on. At one stage we come to a spot where two wide valleys and their rivers met. The previous year, Jeenbek travelling in the opposite direction, had spent two days here, lost, wondering which was the correct valley leading to the pass. It was believable. Big wide valleys, sharp teeth to the sky, similar rivers, no sign of any life. Now all that we had to do was follow the flow down which we did until Shuhrat’s clock and the lowering temperature signalled time for camp. The chosen spot, well drained and comfortable for us and with good grazing for the horses, was well above the river. Marat and Jyldysbek took down a horse and some drums that they filled with enough water for cooking and washing up. Heavily ladened, the horse brought the water back up. They never give up. They all rested in the sun; we reduced vodka stocks; the sun went down; Shuhrat conjured up another delicious supper. It was as if nothing had challenged us a few hours before – just all in a day’s ride.
The valleys widened and we started to see flocks and herds. A couple of teenage shepherds with a German shepherd dog cantered up and the guys exchanged news. We crossed the river – wide, shallow and benign; climbed the bank and found ourselves beside a couple of yurts and the ancillary clutter.
The shepherd and his wife, in their mid thirties, must have seen us coming from the other side of the valley and were there to greet us. They insisted that we stopped. They dragged Shyrdaks from a yurt into the sun and plopped a bemused baby, just about able to sit unsupported, on top. Then kalama was broken, borsok, kajmak, and yogurt were spread out. Kumis and tea were passed round. Keeping our boots off the shyrdaks we arranged ourselves round the edges and alternately sitting cross legged, kneeling, legs to one side or lying and leaning on our elbows, we enjoyed the feast, the place, the sun. The assortment of pretty blue bowls was refuelled as soon as we emptied them. More kalama was ripped and extended.
With Marat and the guys deep in conversation we wandered round to stretch our legs and enjoy the glorious site where the family were spending the summer. We watched horses, herded by a teenager, as they were driven fast across the side of the hill behind the yurts. He was showing off. His horse stumbled from the narrow sheep track that wound round the side of the hill just above us, and he fell off. We laughed. In a few movements he had thrown himself straight back on board as if to demonstrate that it had all been part of the display. He continued over the brow in the cloud of dust and wake of galloping hooves. I went to talk to a donkey that had been tethered under a rack with kurut, pans and something, possibly meat, hanging in the dried skin of a sheep. It was almost out of reach of dogs. He was saddled and ready to go, somewhere.
As we rode on down across what was becoming a plain, Marat explained that the shepherd had offered to give us a lift the following morning for the final leg, to meet our minibus on the Osh – Irkeshtam road. Every shepherd has an old Russian lorry and a typically hand-painted blue one had been parked between the yurts. There would be room in the back for us, our luggage, tents and Shuhrat’s cooking kit. If we accepted his offer we would be able to stop in an hour and enjoy a leisurely afternoon and evening by the river. If we declined we would have to kick-on until dusk and would have a long ride over the 11,500ft Ikizyak Pass the next day. Having a relaxing afternoon by the river sounded a great option. An unmentioned bonus was saving the horses and horse-boys two day’s work, including negotiating The Pass twice. I had the feeling that Marat already had agreed a deal.
We pitched camp above a bend in the river in which a herd of mares and foals was cooling off. As we went in search of rocks on which to balance towels and clothes they moseyed away. Sad – they were a very pretty group, it was their patch and we hadn’t intended to disturb them.
With the flaps at both ends of our tents open a breeze wafted through and we snoozed; read; reviewed our photographs and in my case, idiotically deleted a third of them, by mistake. From time to time the sound of hooves indicated a shepherd’s arrival followed by soto voce voices and in due course departing hooves.
Shuhrat indicated that the kettle had boiled and while we stood around his tent enjoying tea, Marat told us that we had been invited to some shepherds a few miles down stream. It was a relaxed ride in the late afternoon sun. When we came to 15 strands of razor-wire that sprang up for no apparent reason, we swung to the Chinese side of it and it was on the Chinese side, in no man’s land, that we tied our horses when we reached the yurt. The wire had been cut behind the yurt to facilitate access without any need to go the long way round. Although everyone needed passes and permits to be there, it was clear that the Kyrgyz were not nearly as troubled as the Soviets had been about any Chinese incursion.
As always we were expected to eat a serious meal – kalama; yoghurt; jam; tea; kumis and on this occasion – unidentifiable bits of meat in thin gravy. Despite recently having downed tea and biscuits and suspecting that Shuhrat had already started prepping our ‘last supper’ we knew that we had to give it our best shot. We did. Very, very occasionally I am grateful for the training given by having to eat disgusting prep-school stews in the ’50s before the days of Esther Rantzen and Childline. The knife was passed round to cut meat from bones. This floating grey flesh and gristle might not have looked promising but it tasted a great deal better than school meat ever did. I managed three bits, I hope convincingly appreciatively.
After the guys had exchanged a lot of news and photographs taken, we waved goodbye and started back. Gillian had been longing to see whether her horse could gallop and asked the guys whether she could…… it became a race. Not only could her horse gallop but all of ours had impressive turns of speed. European horses would have been totally useless on the terrain we had covered over the past ten days but these horses had been brilliant everywhere. Now they proved they would hold their own on a racetrack – and probably did.