After four days of mountain trekking I can’t tell you what a relief and luxury it is to be sat atop a horse and have them take on the hard work of climbing a mountain.
We get a driver from where we finished the trek in Karakol to our next port of call, Kochkor, where all we have by way of information on where we are going is a name and phone number for Fatima, who we’ve been connected to by Olga at the Interhouse Hostel in Bishkek.
We finally meet Fatima in front of the local bazaar, and it turns out she is a minor local celebrity. Not only does she run the local women’s cooperative, but she is an accomplished producer of felt rugs. Her picture features in the Central Asia Lonely Planet guide book under ‘Community Based Tourism’ being one of the Top 15 things to experience in the region.
Fatima’s husband Urmat is our driver to Kyzart, the village from which we start the horse trek to legendary Lake Song Kol. Our horse guide is a gold toothed, leather faced, gray haired, wiry framed, kalpak (traditional Kyrgyz hat) wearing old man who speaks no English but is fluent in horse so it suits us.
The horses quickly break into a trot, much to our amusement. Phil’s horse is a little too athletic and accelerates into a gallop which is funny at first but has our Horseman fiercely shouting his only word of English: ‘Stop!’
From here it’s a peaceful ride through flowery fields and past yurt camps that look like player’s pieces on a giant green boardgame. We encounter the odd fellow horseman, some who look younger than 12 and are even riding bareback.
We have a sharp slope down much to the dislike of Daniel’s and my horses who refuse to play ball, so we end up tied to our Horseman so we can remain closer to his watchful eye. I’m not sure if this makes things worse as it turns out my horse does not play well with others and will bite at anyone he gets near. With Daniel’s horse in his line of fire it makes for some unpleasant bickering between the horses!
The mountains do put on quite the show though. At one point the velvety green range rolls out endlessly in front so ubiquitously that we can’t see its end, like it is its own universe. It catches your breath as you try to take it in and you feel overwhelmed by the stature and power of the mountains compared to you on your horse.
Promptly at 6pm we arrive at our yurt camp furnished with three yurts, one for visitors, and two for the family for sleeping and cooking, all perched on a small hill with the larger mountains surrounding us like a protective family. A bushy path leads past where the horses and sheep sleep down to the squat long drop toilet and I make a mental note to be sure to go before it gets dark to avoid any unwanted animal encounters.
The women of the family serve us homemade bread, jam, cream and tea and despite us sitting on the floor, it gives the Ritz afternoon tea a run for its money. The bread has been baked fresh in a pan on the stove top and is pillowy soft. And the jam. My word. These yurt people know a thing or two about making jam. There is apricot, raspberry and cherry, with all the bits, perfectly tart and sweet at the same time. The cream is as good as clotted cream from Cornwall and everything combined makes it the perfect way to end the day. The kymus (fermented mare’s milk) not so much but it was worth a try once and no more!
We are tired but the children, 10 year old Ryskul and her 8 year old cousin, are excited to have guests and are quick to pounce on us for some playtime. She teaches me the latest playground rhymes and I rack my brain for my own memories of these from 20 years ago.
Early to bed as our Horseman indicates he wants us up promptly for the next day’s riding. He climbs in with us and strips down to his underwear, revealing just how small he is without his clothes and hat – it’s a wonder he can control the horses so fiercely. But in his sleep he even makes horse noises so we conclude that he is in fact part horse.
The next day the horses sturdily take us to the top of the mountain, carefully navigating a steep, rocky incline. Phil’s horse intuitively leads the way with little direction from the Horseman. This high up, its chilly and windy, but thankfully it’s not snowing as was the case for an English couple we met previously.
We descend into lush green pasture, with yellow, red and blue wild flowers decorating the fields like embroidery, swaying in the breeze. Hard work done, it’s time for my favourite part, getting our trot on. My horse is sometimes reluctant but he is quick to join in after a few stern words from the Horseman.
After a yurt lunch stop, Lake Song Kol and its surrounding community begins to reveal itself. Unlike the single yurt settlements we’ve been stopping in up until now, Song Kol is like a yurt city, with row upon row of white yurts set up like Kyrgyz Monopoly.
The lake shimmers crystal blue alongside them, like a big mirror, surrounded by the snow capped mountains. Cows and horses graze glamorously along its banks as if they are posing for an animal calendar.
This is Song Kol!