TRAVEL: Journey out of this world
Where, to and from all directions, the maps are blank and the people, as ever in elemental places, have little else except simplicities and a welcome for all comers
We are encircled by faraway places with strange-sounding names, where even points of the compass are mere generalisations. West- ward lies Europe, eastward China, northward Siberia, and southward—notorious as ever—Afghanistan. We wait for the future to unfold. It does, at a relaxed pace.
‘S bogom,’ says Volodya with comforting piety—‘With God,’—as he starts the engine. Volodya and his Japanese four-wheel-drive are part of the Novi Nomad package; a fledgling tourist company based in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, and enjoying their second season of tourism. Second son, living and working in Bishkek, has appealed to them to put together a parental tour (in a kindly brief asking for an introduction to the beauties of Central Asia, fresh air and exercise, and as much comfort as possible) and is offering his services free as interpreter.
Riding into the hills had been the original idea: ‘A Taste of Wilderness and Freedom’? ‘On Horseback to the Heavenly Mountains’? But it is late-October, when weather in the mountains becomes uncertain. Hence this unusually comfortable mode of travel. Volodya is a bear-like Ukrainian with a drooping walrus moustache. His grandfather had been a kulak dispossessed under Stalin and sent to Kyrgyzstan, while brothers dispersed to Kazakhstan and Siberia.
For several hours we hum along a broad road of recent Korean construction, until we start a climb to the Too-Ashuu Pass. After queueing in a blizzard, we negotiate this via an unfinished tunnel—a claustrophobe’s nightmare, with low cement-washed roof, dim lights and wires hanging from the sides, and single-lane lorries, crawling nose to tail along a puddled and pitted surface. But like the wardrobe and Narnia, our interpreter promises a different world on the other side.
As we emerge, the road swoops suddenly downhill and drivers, bored with our slow progress, accelerate wildly past us. Volodya changes his Russian insults which have so far been jocular, of the monkeys variety, to unprintable feminine anatomy, the better to describe our fellow road users. Soon we pull into a lay-by, so he can inspect tyre damage, while we admire the Kyrgizsky range of mountains we are crossing, and have lunch.
We continue on our journey to the village of Chajek. Once off the main road we are indeed in a different land, driving along a broad dirt track between plains, herds of horses and the constant mountain backdrop. Volodya answers all questions succinctly, used to the tourist routine. Horses are not branded, every man knows his own. They are brought in at night, or the wolves would eat them. The Kyrgyzi, traditionally nomadic, are good pastoralists, poor at agriculture. He stops obligingly for photographs when we meet our first mounted herdsmen; small, immensely tough hillmen who look welded to their felt and wooden saddles. Their mounts are polo-pony fashioned; narrow, well-boned, swift, manoeuvrable.
We continue past the derelict remains of collective farms, a reminder of the Soviet past, until the road narrows, we swing over a river bridge, and drive the length of a valley. The river on our left is glacial, the colour of minty-green mouth-wash. Behind rise the mountains, alternately red rock and pistachio ice-cream coloured. Volodya tells fishermen’s tales; the trout have come from the Caucasus and may weigh 10 kilos. It is bitterly cold but we have seen no snow since the first pass. Foolishly I ask when these roads will be snow-covered. ‘When it snows,’ replies Volodya, with logic on his side. ‘Tomorrow?’
We are all tired when we reach Chajek in the failing light. Our host and hostess, now in the dinner, bed and breakfast business for Novi Nomad, greet us with traditional courtesy, and after showing us our rooms, seat us to a vast meal at a long dining-room table. A type of bortsch (this ubiquitous dish has unending variants, mostly condemned by Volodya as inferior to his mother’s) is followed by a stew of lamb and potatoes. The table is strewn with bowls of almonds and raisins, and dishes of blackcurrant and raspberry jam, which we dip into and eat neat from the spoon. There is a constant supply of tea. The only way to prevent a cup from being refilled by our hostess is to leave it undrunk.
Supper over, we inspect the facilities. Washing will be minimal, there is a single tap in an earthenware basin in the kitchen, separated from the passage by a curtain. An outdoor, albeit spotlessly clean privy, of the hole-in-the-ground variety, is reached by the garden path between the raspberry bushes. The dog, which is friendly, sleeps just outside the back door. We are shown to comfortable rooms with hot pipes running around them. The heat has been turned up to maximum, presumably for our benefit. Bedclothes are out of the question, I opt for the silk sleeping-bag liner and make occasional forays down the garden path which help to me to cool off. The dog is understanding about this constant disturbance.
Next day we head for the inland lake of Song Kul. ‘A long day’ is promised, but the lake, 29 km long and at a height of 3,016 metres, is deemed to be worth the diversion. Volodya’s prophecy seems accurate. As we drive along a dirt track between hills like sand dunes there is the first light dusting of snow. Volodya spies a yurt, the multi-layered felt tent stretched over a wooden frame, which nomads use, and stops so we can inspect it.
It is snowing as we return to the vehicle, and I find it hard to stand upright as we slither down the hill. ‘Who owns the coal mine?’ we ask as, rounding the corner, we see trucks, diggers, and I suppose the equivalent of mobile homes, dingy-looking tin hovels, stretched along the roadside. Volodya gives a mock stage whisper behind his hand, ‘the President’. The President is currently enjoying a third, unconstitutional term of office, the two leaders of the most popular opposition parties having found themselves in prison just before the election.
The road climbs steeply and we need the occasional concrete posts as markers. I wonder about meeting another vehicle. We are now crossing what Volodya describes as summer pasture. High plains, pale yellow grass showing in tufts through the snow, lines and contours of the land still just visible. Yurts, nomads and flocks packed up and left here on September 1, when the children had to return to school. Ninety minutes on from the mine we pass another jeep; two fishermen tell Volodya we can reach Song Kul but the road we want is blocked.
The approach to the lake is like a seashore, closely bitten yellow plain, with pockets of snow. There is no lining of trees or reeds but the plain dissolves into a sudden vast expanse of water, frozen at the edges. We park the Isuzu beside two yurts and a tent. A man with the Kyrgyz Mongol features (Genghis is still the favourite name for boys) but with a curiously dished face, emerges. He is wearing socks and open-toed sandals. Volodya starts to prepare another miracle picnic and invites us to the lakeside. After a few yards I feel my four or so layers of fleece and wool no longer exist between me and the cold and return to the vehicle.
Volodya meanwhile, with an arm around our new friend’s neck, is giving him a crushing python embrace, and trying to persuade him to sell us fish. There seems a curious reluctance to oblige, and other fishermen join us, one at least dressed for the weather, in felt trousers. ‘They say they’re out of bread, gas and wood,’ says Volodya in disgust.
We leave for our night’s destination, Koch Kor, by another route, delighted to be back on the road in our self-contained capsule of warmth. It starts to snow again heavily, so the concrete road posts are hard to discern, and with a lurch at a left-hand bend, we go off the road. Much revving and no movement. We get out to push. ‘Technically a white-out,’ says second son happily. We have had a laconic e-mail advising, ‘Could be hot, cold, wet, dry; pack light.’ Nothing about frostbite or possible snow blindness.
My efforts at pushing avail little and I fall over. At that moment we realise there is another vehicle, a kind of khaki van, crammed with inmates, mostly smiling women and children, on the hairpin bend ahead. Two men approach and help to get us back on the road. They are obviously pleased to see us and so we continue in convoy, over the pass, Volodya leading. He drives slowly, with intense concentration, quoting proverbs.
An hour later we are on the sunny side of the mountain. Soon, miraculously the countryside changes, until from scenery resembling ‘Realms of the Russian Bear’ we are in ‘Out of Africa’ country. The mountains, dark purple now, recede and the plain increases; yellow stubble, and scattered woolly black cattle. Volodya is equally impressed with the transformation: ‘Thanks to God and leave the North Pole to the fishermen.’
By now the free-ranging herds of ponies, sheep or cattle have become a familiar sight as have the long-strung-out villages, with their Russian-built, bungalow-style houses, much like our post-war pre-fabs. The house in Koch Kor is large, but we guess only the richer villagers have been targeted by Novi Nomad for tourists. Our hostess has high cheekbones and elegantly swept-up hair reminiscent of an Edwardian beauty. A smile full of gold teeth indicates wealth.
Washing facilities are more sophisticated. In a small room with a shelf in one corner there is what looks like a piece of dolls’ house furniture; a cabinet, with a basin and cupboard. Opening the cupboard door, I find the basin drains into a bucket. Above the basin is a small tank which our hostess fills with a kettle. When the two nails protruding from the bottom of the tank are jiggled about, water dribbles out in a small jet, at just the right height for a hair-wash. Ideal. My husband is delighted, saying it is just like school.
The following day, after a breakfast of rice pudding and pancakes, pony trekking has been planned. I have been looking forward to this, and imagine myself on a free-moving, zippy little polo pony. We find our mounts tethered to the compound wall. They are small, elderly and, perhaps most surprising, since every animal we have so far met has been in excellent condition, extremely poor. As the only woman in the party I have been given the slowest mount, although to compensate I am handed a dubious looking instrument of curved rubber which proves to be a whip made from a black bicycle tyre.
Second son, whose single experience of rising to the trot was a brief, unhappy visit to a cavalry regiment, is given not only the wolfskin numnah but the only pony that can walk out. Moreover, faced with questions like, ‘If horses are a national treasure, why are we riding these?’, he has wisely gone on strike as interpreter. We are escorted by the owner of this circus, who is dressed in black fur hat, long black overcoat and black boots. He is clearly enjoying his role as ringmaster, and as we progress the length of the village street, rides behind us, whipping our reluctant mounts forward. We toil slowly up the first hill (dismounting half way to help the ponies) and reach a magnificent viewpoint.
We are looking into the Tian Shan mountains, which stretch deep into China. Progress from then on is necessarily slow but the broad, sandy track disappearing into unending hills gives us an idea of the possible pleasures. ‘What’s the age of this pony?’ I ask, looking at the ewe neck and gaunt frame. ‘Six,’ is the reply. So pony-trekking and horse-dealers, I learn, are the same the world over.
Our return to Bishkek, along the northern shores of Issyk-Kul, near the Kazakh-stan border, is a lengthy drive. Volodya, who I am beginning to think would be the perfect husband (apart from the references to his mother’s bortsch), insists on stopping at various wayside stalls to do the shopping.
On the outskirts of Cholpon-Ata he stops to show us Kyrgyzstan’s final pièce de resistance: petroglyphs, dating we are told from 500BC. In a huge field strewn with stones and boulders allegedly washed down by a glacial flood, are pictures scratched into some of the south-facing surfaces. We can make out a hunter with eagle or falcon on outstretched arm, the ibex, recognisable with its long curving horns, and animals defined by Volodya as snow leopards and wolves.
Back in Bishkek, we congratulate the Novi Nomad staff on their organisation. Gulsara, who speaks excellent English, smiles and says they have had a good season; their first. But, she adds cautiously, they fear for the future.