With my stomach now bloated with tea and potatoes, I’m saddled up on a grey mare. Promising the family I’ll be back in a couple of hours, I canter into the valley, past a river surrounded by pine-clad slopes, towards the flat snow-capped peak Palatka, high in the central Tien Shan mountain range.
While the rest of Central Asia is enjoying new-found fame among tourists, tiny landlocked Kyrgyzstan is beyond the reach of most people’s choice in destinations. Behind the old Iron Curtain, the traditional image of Kyrgyzstan is one of a dangerous, lawless place, where luckless visitors are forced to eat sheep’s eyeballs for breakfast.
I went to Kyrgyzstan with preconceptions of it having drab Communist towns with miserable, hungry citizens.
I’d pictured the Tien Shan, the “celestial mountains” that form the backbone of Kyrgyzstan, as devastatingly beautiful but impenetrable to all but the most hardy of trekkers.
What I didn’t expect to find was a country of warm-hearted, people with a proud culture relatively intact after 70 years of Communist rule. Kyrgyzstan is surprisingly an accessible place, unspoilt by hordes of modern-day explorers.
But be warned, it will not remain anonymous for long.
Bishkek, the country’s capital, isn’t bursting with neglected ancient monuments. Its charm lies elsewhere.
A visit to one of Bishkek’s bazaars, selling everything from goat heads and chicken beaks to designer jeans and plasma screens, gives me a glimpse into the heart of the city.
What really grabs my attention is the kaleidoscope of faces in the market crowds. When the Soviet Union broke up and Kyrgyzstan was established in 1991, Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and even Germans found themselves living side by side in the new nation.
When I leave Bishkek, modern Kyrgyzstan begins to fade. Horses pulling carts compete with cars for road space. Cows meander across the road, guided by a crazed-looking horseman with a whip. I stop to find out what’s for sale at the many yurts dotting the roadside. A toothless babushka hands me a bowl of koumys (fermented mare’s milk), grinning at my expression when I sip it. It’s slightly fizzy, mildly alcoholic and tastes completely foul. The locals drink it to boost their health.
Travelling east from Bishkek, I pass Lake Issyk-Kul, a startlingly blue slice of water that’s so vast it looks like the sea.
The atmosphere of Cholpon Ata, Issyk-Kul’s main holiday resort, is surreal. Men sunbathe on the golden sand wearing nothing but ball-crushing Speedos and kapaks — the traditional tall white felt hats ubiquitous among older Kyrgyz men.
At the other end of Issyk-Kul lies Karakol, Kyrgyzstan’s self-styled adventure centre and tourist hotspot. From Karakol, the central Tien Shan are within striking distance. The other tourists I meet here arrived via an eight-day trek over a mountain pass starting in China.
Thanks to my new friends, though, I get to explore the Altyn-Arashan on horseback. When I finally return to the yurt I take photos of the family, the children giggling with delight to see themselves on the screen of my digital camera.
Communism has certainly left its mark on Kyrgyzstan, but it hasn’t left it soulless. I can only hope that tourism doesn’t ruin the hospitality shown to me — a stranger from a different world, turning up on a tent step to ride a horse.
Kyrgyzstan isn’t known as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” for nothing. More than 70 per cent of the country is 2000m above sea level, and it follows that hiking options are plentiful. Take your pick from easy, low-altitude strolls through Kyrgyzstan’s flower-decked jailoos or hardcore hikes over high-altitude passes. Trekking season is June to early October.
Ala Archa National Park
Just half an hour from Bishkek, Ala Archa is both accessible and beautiful. There are several kilometres of trails, from gentle three-hour hikes to serious climbing routes. There’s a basic ski base here too.
Altyn-Arashan, Jety Ögüz and Karakol are three stunning valleys easily reached on a day trip from Karakol, and can be used as starting points for longer, circular treks. Local agencies will arrange tours but the routes are possible without support as long as you’re fit enough to carry your own gear.
Central Tien Shan
This is where you’ll find Kyrgyzstan’s highest peaks, a few of them topping the 7000m mark. The area is for serious trekkers only; forward planning and assistance are essential. Border zone permits are required as the area separates Kyrgyzstan from China. You’ll also need mountaineering passes.
Karakol is the best place to head to if you want a heavy dose of Kyrgyz culture.
The Sunday livestock market held in the city is huge. It’s a great place to linger and watch rural Kyrgyz life in action. People travel from miles around to trade horses and sheep. See old men exchanging gossip while weighing the fat on a sheep’s tail.
The Kyrgyz are famous for their horsemanship. If you don’t fancy getting in the saddle yourself, go and watch the experts.
So popular are horses in Kyrgyz culture, there are at least seven different games on horseback, ranging from straightforward racing to kok-boru, which, roughly described, is a frantic game of rugby on horseback using a goat’s carcass instead of a ball.
Yurts are of vital importance to Kyrgyz people, be they city dwellers or those living a more traditional, semi-nomadic life.
Jety Ögüz valley, near Karakol, is one of the many places you can sleep in a yurt. Snuggle up under a thick shyrdak (handmade felt blanket), which is found in the home of every Kyrgyz.
The art of hunting with golden eagles is a dying tradition in Kyrgyzstan. You can arrange to see local eagle man Tenti Djamanakov in action by contacting the Tourist Information Centre in Karakol.