¡Absolutely stunning! – I told myself as I marveled at the endless mountain wilderness I saw from the plane before landing in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Once there, I went to my accommodation, checked in, and then immediately hit the streets and local markets of their bustling capital that September. It is the first thing I like to do when I come to a new destination—almost a ritual—to discover new smells, tastes, and sounds, trying to get a sense of the new place as quickly as possible. But little did I know that by the next few days, I would experience a simple but memorable experience while traveling. The following day, we drove up for approximately 6 hours through the arid Kyrgyz mountains, enjoying this constant change of picturesque scenery on our way to Lake Song-Kul, our destination for that day. I was excited because I knew we would spend the next night in Song-Kul with a local nomadic tribe. Then we arrived. I was in awe of the soft green-yellow grass covering miles of flat land with steep mountains surrounding Song-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest lake. The lake’s water looked dark blue, beautiful, yet intimidating. Bishkek’s 32 degrees Celsius were long gone. There was not much wind. There were no trees and, until that point, no people except the extraordinary small group of travel-minded travelers I had the pleasure of being with. We were really off the beaten path! Eventually, some locals showed up, and we moved closer to the shore of the lake. There we spotted our next accommodation, a Yurt camp—a couple of shelters typically used by nomadic tribes. And very close to the Yurt, I saw many animals, from sheep to horses, especially horses. The Yurt was not the only place you could see them; they could also be seen far away, up in the mountains, freely moving in the wild.
It got late quickly, and dinner was served. We talked about life, cultural differences between the travelers and the locals, our expectations for the trip, and how much we were having fun. We got goat soup, Kyrgyz traditional bread, fruits, and many sweets, from jellies to cookies. Our jelly was always there; it didn’t matter if it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Between talks and drinks, it was time to sleep. So, I headed to my Yurt. It was this circular wooden, rounded-dome little house with one door entrance covered in several layers of thick wool. Inside the Yurt was a small table to put our bags and personal belongings on, as well as several small beds. I shared the Yurt with another 4 people in the group; we all shared the Yurt at the camp. On the left side of the Yurt’s door, when looking from inside to outside, there was a wood-burning iron stove on the floor with a long chimney that helped us stay warm during that cold mountain night. I was sleeping directly opposite the chimney. The beds were made of wood, lightly suspended from the ground, and covered with a thick wool blanket. It was rustic but cozy. I slept short, but well! We woke up early the following day—at least some of us did. Most of us were jet-lagged. The sun was still rising. I was able to see the different shades of sunlight, which also beautifully reflected the colors of the Kyrgyz flag. This flag stood tall and proud in our Yurt camp. It had an intense red color with a yellow sun in the middle. I got to talk to one of the tour guides, who surprised me when I found out he spoke Spanish. It was kind of strange but at the sometime cool talking in Spanish to a very welcoming Kyrgyz guide on a lake above 1000 meters in Kyrgyzstan. After some photos and breakfast, we prepared for our first activity: Horseback riding with the locals.
Today, capital cities often shape a country’s culture, from urban to rural areas, as points of influence. But in Kyrgyzstan, I felt it was the opposite. Nomadic culture, as old as it is, is still present in central Asia. And horses are part of it. Through the ages, the horse has become a way of transport and a loyal friend and companion. The Kyrgyz have bonded with them since childhood. They are skilled horse riders. Even their national sport uses horses. That morning, we were also about to bond with them. By then, I had probably gone more than 10 years without riding a horse. So I’ve been looking forward to it. One of the locals explained how to ride it. We should sit in the center and stay straight; we should place our feet in the stirrups up to the ball of our foot, not more. If the horse moved faster, we could keep our balance. If we said “chu,” the horse would go forward; if he did not go forward, you gently hit it lightly with your leg on the side. If he runs too fast, you pull back on both reins. To turn, you pull out to one side in your desired direction. Where the horse’s head points, he will move. We also felt safe because we had a group of locals checking in to ensure everything was fine. I spotted a horse; it was gray, and he was relatively small, but I was not allowed to ride it because the guide told me he was very aggressive while riding; it was only for expert horse riders. So instead, I got a big brown one with a white stripe in the middle of his face. It was really big, and I must admit I rode it in the beginning a bit nervously. If this guy gets mad at me, I am a dead man, I thought. But the local guy said don’t be worried; he will feel it; trust him, so I did. Then I laughed a little. We rode as a group and separately as well. My horse turned out to be a pleasure; he did everything by the book—literally, everything I asked, but probably too much. Apparently, he heard another person say “chu” to their horse, not mine, but he thought it was also for him, so he started riding fast; by then, I felt already very comfortable with him, so we just rode freely until I pulled the ripe. Riding horses in such a stunning location was one of my favorite moments of my stay in Kyrgyzstan. I did not want to stop when the time came, but we had to; it was time to move on to the next Yurt Camp on that wonderful adventure, at that moment, with the hope of keep meeting more horses in the wild.
until next time,