Horse Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Glaciers and Vodka Baths
A Review of Kyrgyz Summer Adventure,
an SRAS educational program
One of my absolute favorite things about travelling is the sensations one experiences when waking up and falling asleep in a foreign country. While not thoroughly confusing, it is disorienting enough to give one a pleasant reminder of the foreignness of one’s new environment. It is a reminder that no matter what happens, one is sure to make a plethora of discoveries before the next day is through. How to describe, then, how much better-than-usual this sensation was in the contrasts of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan? After attending my Russian as a Second Language classes during the day, I would fall asleep to the sound of a local discotheque, and wake up to the crow of a rooster and the call of a neighbourhood boy that sold fresh kefir and milk each morning.
As Bishkek was an endlessly fascinating mix of the old and the new, so my host family was a mix of different generations. My “Edje” (which is Kyrgyz for elder or “big sister” and is used as a title of respect), was a public schoolteacher who made delicious jam. Nurmuhammed, who went by “Nurick” for short, was my 14-year-old host brother from whom I would learn how to say things like “Duuuude, what’s up? Let’s watch CY55!” CY55, incidentally, is a popular Kazakh game show where they compete to see who can dub American films with the most outlandish substitutions. Rounding out the family was Almaz, grandson of my Edje, a ridiculously adorable and curiously proficient 3-year-old, who spoke Kyrgyz, and some Russian, monkey, and cat and addressed me in all four languages indiscriminately.
At school, my two Russian teachers wasted no time getting me familiar with the alpinisti termini (mountain-climbing terms) I would need for my week-long trek in the Tien Shan mountains which was part of the Kyrgyz Adventure package I had purchased from SRAS. They properly guessed that it was what had chiefly drawn me to study in Kyrgyzstan in the first place. I began to wonder, however, as I carefully recited words like kamenopad (rockslide) and panos (diahrreah), if the horse trek would be more challenging than I had bargained for.
Before I even left for the trek I soon discovered that these instincts were correct. I had asked my boyfriend Dan, who was arrived after I did to join the trek, to bring the camping equipment — but when he arrived we learned that his luggage had been lost. Luckily, I was able to borrow almost everything I needed from the London School of Bishkek, SRAS’s partner in delivering the program. So, I was able to still get a tent, proper shoes, a windjacket, etc. My only remaining privation was to endure wearing two sets of unceasingly wet cotton clothes the whole week while trekking, thus discovering why many mountain climbers nickname this material “death cloth.” Still, it was difficult to complain, given the breathtaking scenery we were experiencing. Staying in the base camp yurt the first night was an experience in itself, complete with the thrill of authentic samovars, oil lamps and children singing Kyrgyz songs at night — this was the charmingly domestic part of mountain life in the Kyrgyz country side, a pleasant overture to the rousing symphony that awaited us.
I should not overstate the surface level of difficulty — we were, after all, horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan. Antony, the third member of our party, had a wonderful time using the horses to orchestrate his mischievous pranks — right from the get-go he amused himself and the rest of us by whipping Dan’s horse in the rear thus sending them hurtling down the mountain at breakneck speed. This, of course, earned him reprimands from the other students and our native Kyrgyz guide, Uzat. Fortunately my horse was stubborn and more interested in eating everything in sight, and so didn’t go crazy with the galloping when prompted. While I loved my horse, it did, at times, stumble and or retreat in fear while crossing some of the stronger rapids and steeper passes. I consoled myself by repeating one of the first equestrian rules: You’ve got to trust your horse!
We also spent a fair amount of time setting up camp and taking shelter, during which most of our energy was spent in futile efforts to dry our things and ourselves. The five of us got to know each other in a most interestingly multilingual way. Besides us three westerners and our guide Uzat, we also had a resident medical intern who traveled with us. His Kyrgyz name we all, for some reason had trouble remembering and so we consistently referred to him simply as “the doctor.” Antony, the doctor, and I could speak Russian; the two locals and Antony spoke Kyrgyz (Antony was learning it for a documentary on bride stealing he was working on); Daniel, Antony and I spoke English between ourselves; and Daniel and Antony chattered in what I like to call “Nerd,” a language which includes dialects such as Wookie and Hut from Star Wars. As we never had a single conversation that everyone could understand, we all had fun translating for each other for both utilitarian and comedic purposes.
Another challenge to overcome was Dan’s previously unknown but increasingly acute allergic reaction to the horses, which resulted in rashes over his arms and legs, constant sneezing and a swollen throat. This condition would be aggravated, we found out, if he even entered the tent containing the horse equipment. None of us had known about this allergy beforehand, so in the absence of commercially produced pharmaceuticals, we followed the doctor’s advice and wiped everything down with vodka at the end of the day, drank vodka (purely for medicinal purposes, of course), and rubbed vodka onto Dan’s skin. The doctor also advised Dan not to drink cold water, something that apparently both the Russians and Kyrgyz believe causes digestive problems. None of us westerners could quite understand this, but at least Antony seemed to have bought into local health culture. Concerned for Dan’s health, he offered him some of his locally purchased dietary supplements: activated coal tablets and Mumio, an herbal supplement made from distilled mouse feces. If these strange offerings weren’t helpful, at least it seems they didn’t do more damage. The challenges were already made easier by our last two nights horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan. Our guides had arranged for us to spend one of these nights at a mountain cottage, and the other spent at the home of a local hunter. The hunter himself was on expedition, but we met his wife and also his hunting partner, an enormous golden eagle with a piercing stare and impressively formidable talons. The hostess’s daughter-in-law, who had been stolen as a bride by the son one year prior, made us some delicious tea and a dish made from cooked horse innards (which Dan, despite the potential allergy problem, very much enjoyed). The highlight of the stay, however, was the hot springs that were located behind this house – a misty cave-like pool that soothed our stiff, damp bones to the core.
The day after this, we made it to our final stop, the famous Lake Issyk Kul — but not before one last, glorious, nerve-wracking trial. The regular path was impassible because of melting snow, and we would have to descend down a glacier instead. The horses stumbled, slid, and stubbornly resisted movement – it was then, on this last day, that I was most truly scared. However, my fear subsided into the wonder of it all before we left the higher regions of the Tien Shan mountains.
As the waters of Issyk Kul, calm and slightly salty, enveloped my sore limbs it was nice to know that the time of danger was over. We would be retrieved by car soon and taken back to the civilization of the capital. The question is, how long until I crave it again? If I can help it, the bulk of the trials horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan still await me — in plentiful quantity, exquisite quality, and accompanied by no end of unforgettable Kyrgyz sunsets.
The above text and all pictures are by Margie Marlin, who holds a BA in history with a Russian minor from Carleton University in Canada. Already a veteran traveler, she became one of the first students to join SRAS’s Kyrgyz Adventure program in 2007. As we also knew that she had extensive journalism and writing experience (including writing for SRAS on a previous occasion), we asked her to describe her experiences.