Inside the yurt, a low table is laid with a variety of homemade jams, a bowl of thick fresh cream and a basket of homemade bread. I join Urmat and his wife for a good dinner of laghman, a dish of noodles and lamb eaten all over Central Asia. They are playful and flirtatious with one another, clearly a love match. Urmat said he paid two sheep and a horse to his wife’s family on his engagement, which were then sold to provide money for the celebration. He also provided a cash dowry, which his mother-in-law used to make rugs and blankets for the couple. Marriage is a serious and expensive business, he says solemnly, costing more than a thousand pounds.
After dinner, the table is cleared and moved outside and mattresses laid down. By nine it is dark and, as there is no electric lighting, there is little to do but sleep. The clear mountain air exaggerates every exterior sound so that the sheep in their pen a hundred metres away sound as if they have surrounded the yurt. A donkey’s tortured braying seems to be trumpeted directly inside, and every now and again the pounding of horses’ hooves reverberate like a cavalry charge. Then suddenly, like birds closing down for the night, all the animals settle and there is absolute silence.
In the early hours of the morning, I go outside to find two of the camp dogs huddled beside the felt walls of the yurt for warmth. I stand breathless and shivering beneath a clear night sky. Free of light pollution, it is packed with stars shining more brightly than I have ever seen – a magnificent sight. As I watch, a shooting star streaks across the heavens.
As the sun clears the mountains, Urmat heads across a small river to visit his neighbour. He sits by his yurt, milking half a dozen mares. Koumys, the mildly alcoholic drink of fermented mare’s milk – known as Kyrgyz Coca-Cola – is on offer all over the country. Mounted shepherds herding yak in the high mountains tipple it all day long, but the uninitiated should beware. To the unschooled system koumys is a diuretic and a laxative of explosive force, and even the locals ease into it gently if they have not drunk it for a while. The milk is smoky and rich, an acquired taste, and I sip sparingly.
Our conversation turns to the subject of the national pastime of horse games. The area is due to host games in the coming days and Urmat is keen to attend. The details of how far away and how we might get to the jailoo organising the horse games remain vague, and I begin to understand what people mean when they describe the Kyrgyz sense of time and distance as ‘relaxed’.
‘It’s maybe three days’ ride,’ Urmat says. ‘Something like that.’ Three days’ ride… It is impossible to take a four-wheel drive vehicle because the bridge is down. It seems a good time to come clean about not being a horseman. To tell a Kyrgyz that you are unable to ride a horse, and that you have never sat astride one in your life, is like admitting that your mother somehow overlooked your toilet training. My admission is met with a blank expression of total incomprehension. Urmat shrugs, defeated. ‘You could walk.’
Horseman or not, I opt to ride. Mounted on my Kyrgyz steed, and confident in the care of my guide, we set off. We descend a steep bank and ford a river until we come to the edge of Lake Song-Köl. Along the shoreline, we do not come across a single plastic bottle or any piece of rubbish. The Kyrgyz consider water holy and act accordingly.