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.’
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.
A wide and fast-flowing river at the bottom of the pass snakes along a lush valley. Men methodically scythe the long grass, backbreaking and slow work. Sheltered and hidden away at a bend in the river, shaded by trees, stands a yurt in one of the most beautiful locations in a country of beautiful locations.
I step off the path to have a look and am greeted by an old man in a kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz hat. He has been busy making rounds of hard sheep’s cheese and insists on inviting us into his yurt. Although the man and his wife are fasting because of Ramadan, we are offered cheese and bread and cream. The man tells me that his name is Raidan – Paradise Soul – and introduces me to his five-year-old granddaughter Nurgul – Light Flower. The little girl is the daughter of the youngest of eight sons, and is being brought up by her grandparents, who she will look after in their old age.
Raidan tells us that, as well as sheep, he has five cows, mares to milk and a horse to ride – but life is difficult. All of his sons are unemployed and have gone to Bishkek to look for work, sometimes returning for a little illegal fishing in Lake Song-Köl. ‘In the old days it was hard but we earned money. Now there is no money.’ When we leave, he presses a bag of cheese upon us and indignantly refuses payment.
Journeying on, we reach the collapsed wooden bridge on the other side of which a driver waits patiently for us. Even by car, the remainder of the journey to the games is a rough ride over potholed roads that run out into a bewildering array of unmarked tracks and ruts.
Our destination turns out to be a single yurt in wild country beside an old Russian railway car with ‘welcome’ printed on it in English. The family organising the games are busy putting up a second yurt for visitors, which fills up as the evening wears on. By nightfall there is a full house, and I sleep cheek by jowl beside a variety of strangers.
First light reveals a bleak picture of cloud and sudden gusts of rain. A sheep is removed from the flock for lunch and, after its executioners have turned towards Mecca, has its throat cut. It is a long, bloody and botched business and I turn away. The camp dogs greedily lap up the blood from a bowl, while the men skin and gut the butchered sheep. A man who has witnessed my squeamishness says disdainfully, ‘Ah, you eat prepared food… less trouble but less fresh.’
The weather does not improve throughout the morning. Low cloud sweeps across the mountains followed by squally rain. Even so, we are treated to a display of the full gamut of traditional horse games: horsemen galloping at speed stoop to pick up coins from the ground; men chasing girls on horseback – if the girl is caught, she gives the man a kiss; if not, she whips him in scorn. Men stripped to the waist wrestle, attempting to pull one another from the saddle. ‘Would you like to wrestle the winner?’ the organiser of the games asks. I politely decline.
The king of the traditional horse games is Ulak-Tartysh, in which two teams of up to ten players attempt to score goals using the carcass of a decapitated goat. The players clamp their teeth down on strands of wool so that they do not cry out – Kyrgyz men do not show pain – and more practically don’t bite off their tongues. Amateur games are inordinately dangerous to participant and spectator alike, as the teams rarely keep to the designated pitch and have a tendency to overrun onlookers. And in this particular game a number of riders seem to be drunk. I point this out to a local watching beside me. ‘Oh, yes – it is less painful if drunk.’
Days later, I witness the Ulak- Tartysh final between the country’s top professional teams – Bishkek and Talas – at the stadium in the capital. It is a truly remarkable spectacle: fast, skilfull and vicious, near unbelievable levels of horsemanship are displayed, demanding enormous strength and stamina. The headless goat weighs 45 kilograms and the act of heaving it with one arm from the ground onto the saddle is a feat of Herculean strength. Hard on horsemen and beast, it is the ultimate test of equestrian ability and brutally exciting to watch.
The ancient sport, like the nomadic way of life, remains virtually unchanged through the centuries. Both have survived years of Soviet domination and even modernity itself, and have come to symbolise Kyrgyzstan – in all its muttony glory.
The article 'Nomadic Kyrgyzstan' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.