At one with the terrain, the horse is the main mode of transport. (Eric Lafforgue)
It is sunrise in the high mountain pastures surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Song-Köl, and Urmat Bekkaziev emerges from the small felt yurt where he lives with his wife and baby son, and crosses the still-frozen ground to the pen containing his sheep. He waters and milks them, along with his cows and mares, and then sits down to the tedious work of separating the cream.
Meanwhile, his wife, Asel, lights the iron stove inside the yurt, feeding it with bricks of dried cow dung, and prepares dough to bake the day’s bread. The nomadic tradition they follow, of tending livestock in the mountain pastures, known as jailoos, and returning to the plains in winter, has been going on since time immemorial. In the winter they return to the small market town of Kochkor, three hours away by car over unpaved and often impassable roads. But even in summer, at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres, the winds are fierce and frequent, the weather is changeable, and the nights are bitterly cold.
The nomadic way of life has disappeared almost everywhere else in the world but remains alive in Kyrgyzstan partly because of extreme economic hardship. But 32-year-old Urmat is quite content. ‘It’s hard I suppose, but it has always been like this. I find the town in winter so noisy – so many people. It’s peaceful up here. And beautiful.’
The mountain and lake landscape is certainly peaceful, like stepping back hundreds of years in time, and is pristine in its beauty. The charming and bashful claim of Kyrgyzstan is that it is the least known country in the world. A Chinese monk passing through in the 7th century spoke of mountain peaks that reached the sky and warned travellers of harassment by dragons. Most people today know so little about the place that the advice could still stand.
But the country is on the economic ropes. Its only assets are gold, an American military base, and sheep. The country’s economy further suffered in 2010 after violent political protest in the capital, Bishkek, and in the south forced an unpopular and corrupt president out of office and into exile. Things are now back to normal, but the small and fledgling tourist industry has yet to recover.
Almost everyone I meet expresses nostalgia for the settled times of the good old Soviet Union. Unlike most other post-Soviet countries, Kyrgyzstan has not cleared away its statues of Lenin, but merely moved them discreetly to less prominent positions.
The hammer-and-sickle mosaics decorating the bus shelters remain, incongruously flanked by posters advertising Nescafé. The National Museum in the capital Bishkek continues to display a treasure trove of Soviet memorabilia, including a mural on its ceiling depicting a satanic President Reagan in a cowboy hat, establishing it as the Sistine Chapel of Cold War propaganda.
A small light at the end of the financial tunnel may come in the form of community based tourism (CBT). Families offer homestays, while shepherds in remote mountain pastures put up guests in yurts – a sort of wigwam b&b on the Silk Road. The idea has flourished and spread all over the country with guides, translators and transport on tap – the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association’s webpage for the Kochkor region promises ‘Kyrgyz hospitality in all its muttony glory.’
I had been looking forward to going out with Urmat to herd the sheep at sundown, so I am disappointed when he merely stands outside his yurt making clucking, yodelling sounds through cupped hands. Sure enough, after several minutes, hundreds of sheep appear over the brow of the hill and obediently make their way into the pen. I ask Urmat how he did it. He shrugs: ‘That’s what I’ve always done. It’s easy.’