Thursday, 28 April 2011

Central Kyrgyzstan

We crossed into Kyrgyzstan through a dramatic high mountain pass used by Silk Road traders for centuries, but which is now officially closed to non-local traffic. In practice this just meant that we had to hire private transport both sides of the border and arrange various permits, but ensured that other than a handful of trucks we were the only people crossing that day.

The landscape on the Chinese side of the border was harsh and dramatic, with bare sandstone cliffs of bright reds, yellows and purples rising out of the dry valley. The mountains act as a watershed, separating the desert on the east from the high grasslands to the west, and as we crossed the Torugart Pass the scenery changed instantly. Near the Pass the ground was thickly covered in snow, and then as we descended and the snow melted we could see the crumpled hills were covered in grass, giving them a softer, gentler appearance. The road changed too at the border, the newly asphalted Chinese surface giving way to a potholed dirt track.

We spent our first night in Kyrgyzstan close to a thousand year old caravanserai, in the home of the site’s caretaker. The caravanserai, Tash Rabat, is a beautiful dark stone building with rounded towers and a high dome roof that’s half sunk into the hillside in a hidden valley away from the main trail. We were the only people there and in solitude in the late afternoon light we explored its cold damp central chamber, dark passageways and platformed side sleeping chambers that would once have provided shelter for Silk Road traders and their animals.

We were met at Tash Rabat by Dzakshylyck who brought horses with him and for the next two days was to be our guide as we rode across the steppe. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of our whole trip, we rode under cloudless blue skies across some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable, through wide open grassy valleys that rose to crumpled hills and snowy mountains at their edges. For almost the whole of the first day we saw only a handful of herdsmen, also on horseback, all wearing the traditional Kyrgyz white felt hats that resemble miniature yurts. At times the only sounds were the squawks of marmots calling out a warning before they vanished into their burrows.

On the second day we passed increasing signs of human activity and habitation, yet continued to be struck by the emptiness of the landscape, and the enormous sense of space that there is here. There are few villages or even isolated houses in the huge open steppe, and the weather is still too cold for the nomads and shepherds to have set up their yurts in the open pasture. Even the towns look more like villages, with low-rise, detached houses spread thinly along wide streets, with room for animals to graze around each building, for the country’s five million inhabitants are vastly outnumbered by their livestock.

The riding itself was fantastic. Our horses were smaller than most in the UK yet significantly larger than the Mongolian horses we’d ridden and very sprightly, breaking easily into a canter when we urged them on, and easily jumping the ditches that streaked across our path. Neither of us had ever ridden before for seven hours a day though, and certainly not sitting on wooden saddles, so by the end of two days we were feeling slightly stiff and sore and were both sorry and slightly relieved to finish.

We spent our second night in Dzakshylyck’s house, and were again humbled by the Kyrgyz hospitality and generosity which have been a feature of our time in Kyrgyzstan so far. From the moment we arrived his wife and older daughter plied us with tea and food and the entire family went out of their way to welcome us and look after us. Tea is served differently here from anywhere else we’ve been: it’s milky for the first time since Nepal and Tibet, and poured by mixing a small amount of strong luke warm black tea from one pot with hot water from another. Served in small bowls by the woman of the house, bowls are refilled so frequently the hostess rarely seems to get a chance to drink her own tea.

Almost every night so far in Kyrgyzstan we have stayed with a family, often on a bed of sheep skin rugs and blankets made up on the floor, with carpets rather than pictures hung on the walls for decoration. Although lacking in privacy these homestays have been wonderful and a real highlight of our time here – providing a comfortable place to sleep, a warm welcome (far warmer than is offered at the old Soviet-style hotels which are the alternative accommodation), good food and a fascinating insight into what life here can be like.

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