Having galloped back along the plain we patted our horses in repeated appreciation and were wondering how to ‘follow that’, when Marat asked us whether we would like to see Jyldysbek do his party trick. Of course we would – especially as it obviously was going to involve his rather lovely grey stallion and not a sleight of hand with cards or handkerchieves.
Jeenbek returned from Shuhrat’s tent with assorted plastic bags. Weighted with a few pebbles to stop them blowing away, he placed them on the ground in a line about 20 yards apart. Tyin enmei is a favourite Kyrgyz game that involves plucking a coin off the ground from a horse and must be a great way to train for Kok boru. For the next ten minutes Jyldysbek showed us how it is done. He encouraged his horse into a smart canter and performed an impressive display of confidence, agility and balance. His horse kept a straight path and at no time swerved or dropped a shoulder. He managed to pick up many of the bags, often throwing them back to Jeenbek to reposition.
If only one could have ridden like that. Even as a fearless child on a tiny pony it would have taken some doing. We left Jyldysbek in no doubt that we were suitably impressed, indeed envious of his skill, and his face beamed with satisfaction that he had shown us that he was not limited to towing packhorses through raging torrents or climbing over sheer snow walls.
Shepherds rode up, exchanged news and rode away. We dragged the saddle cloths onto the grass and played cards, while polishing off the last of the vodka, until the evening breeze picked up, became cold and got the better of us.
Shuhrat’s Last Supper was as delicious as ever. Yet again I reflected on Shuhrat’s ability to conjure up amazing spreads, beautifully presented even after 10 days in the wilds. This was the third ride we had been on together and we had never had a duff or repeated meal or gone hungry. I need to rush to the shops at least twice a week but other than stocking up on potatoes – heavy for the packhorses – Shuhrat had menu-planned and shopped in Bishkek for three meals a day for ten hungry people: 300 covers cooked in a tent over camping gas and always satisfying and delicious.
While we were enjoying the Last Breakfast the shepherd arrived and parked his lorry on a rise above camp and accepted a mug of tea before the kettle was packed. The shepherd whom we had visited in the afternoon came with his dog to supervise. Some tents were already down and rolled. We finished packing; put stuff for the lorry in one heap and stuff to go back with the horses in another. Had the packhorses understood the implication of which heap was which, the prospect of tackling their return to At Bashy would have added additional spring to their homeward strides.
It is always sad at the end of a ride. Sad saying goodbye to the horses that have carried us so kindly and sad saying goodbye to the guys who have led the way and kept an eye out for us. They had become friends with whom we had, quite literally, entrusted our lives. Rust Am had sourced the horses from various neighbours in At Bashy but mine belonged to Jeenbek. I thanked him for the generous loan of such a good little horse that had been a pleasure to ride. He hadn’t put a foot wrong or jibbed at anything. Despite the language barrier Jeenbek understood and beamed a broad smile.
Marat translated “Yes he is a good horse. He is delighted you appreciated him and looked after him.”
“The boot was on the other foot” I replied “His horse looked after me.”
Before we climbed into the back of the lorry a photo was essential. Apparently we had not been too much of a nuisance and had gained a reputation for having crossed the country few, and certainly no Westerners, ever had. The shepherds joined us. He, who was about to drive us looked ever more a film star in his Raybans and appropriately took centre stage. Behind them the snowcapped peaks of the Pamirs showed how near we were to Tajikistan.
With us safely loaded up Jeenbek, Syrgak and Jyldysbek slammed the back of the lorry as though we were stock that might jump back out – it was tempting – we didn’t want to leave at all.
Marat had (of course!) been right that we would enjoy an evening by the river more than the final slog over the Ikizyak Pass. We had had the best of it. While the country continued to be dramatic, we picked up the 15 strands of razor wire where we had on the previous evening. We passed the shepherd’s yurt. The tangled wire went on and on. To have spent hours riding beside it would have been depressing. Even bucketing along more swiftly in the back of the lorry was hardly heart-lifting.
We passed a better maintained border post than we had seen before and followed the river until a well-wired bridge crossed it. We started the climb to the pass. A few yurts and shepherd’s corals punctuated the spaces under switchbacks. Hoopoes briefly perched between the wire knots before flitting away at our approach; red marmots chirruped and scuttled back into their burrows and the raptors that had been circling optimistically above them, wheeled off to less disturbed valleys.
We dropped down, joined another stream that became a river and stopped at the post positioned at the entrance to the pass. While Marat and Shurat managed to convince the soldiers that we weren’t Chinese spies and hadn’t been recce-ing the border, a military wife rinsed her laundry beside the track in water gushing from an Alkathene pipe. It was being pumped up from the river.
The valley widened, the river meandered between reeds, and we hit a flattish stony area between bare cliffs. We had reached the road to China and this was where the juggernauts had to park up while the papers were checked. The check-point was indicated by a recycled waggon in camouflage colours, the perimeter of painted white pebbles and the fluttering Kyrgyz flag. Three soldiers emerged. Marat walked down the road to talk to them. Astonishingly our minibus was also there to meet us so we loaded up. Having clasped hands, said goodbyes and thanks we waved to the shepherd and his son and watched them return to the mountains. We headed for population… civilisation …. Tourist Information.
We were European tourists in a minibus again. Nobody else would know what we had done and few people will ever go where we had been. Anvar had wished us luck and we had had it. Not only had we covered amazing terrain without any accidents but we had been welcomed wherever we had pitched up and been entertained unstintingly by the always generous Kyrgyz nomads in their beautiful, wild, majestic country.
It had been the ride to end all rides – the Ride of a Lifetime.
We headed for Osh.