The way of the shepherd: Horse trekking through Kyrgyzstan

The most authentic way to see Central Asia’s dramatic landscapes is on horseback, following the traditional trails of nomadic herders deep into the remote mountainous regions.

In Kyrgyzstan, it is said that its people are born on a horse – so it makes sense to find men and women galloping up and down the village streets on their daily errands in this little-known Central Asian country. It also makes sense that horseback is the most authentic way to see Kyrgyzstan’s dramatic landscapes, following the traditional trails of nomadic herders deep into remote mountainous regions.

This is why I have come here: to ride through the remote Tian-Shan (Celestial Mountains) mountain range along ancient routes and through wide high-altitude pastures, known as jailoos, where shepherds have been grazing livestock for centuries.

I started my trip in the ancient Silk Road village of Barskoon, a rural huddle of whitewashed cottages and fruit trees on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, 350km southeast of the capital Bishkek. Here I met Ishen Obolbekov, his wife Gulmira and his brother Rash – all descendants of traditional nomadic herders – who have been running the community-based Shepherds Way Trekking, organising mountain horse treks as far as the Chinese border, since the mid 1990s.

From their cottage homestay I took in the imposing mountains I was about to cross. The horses being prepared – both traditional native Kyrgyz and Kyrgyz-Russian breeds – were strong, surefooted and experienced in these mountains, outfitted with decorative traditional saddles, layers of sheepskin and canvas saddlebags full of camping gear and food.

Our little team of five, including two guides and two German riders, left Barskoon early in the morning, with me wondering whether I would be able to handle two weeks in the saddle. From the village we picked our way up the Sasyk-Bulak Valley through green forests until Lake Issyk-Kul finally disappeared and snowy peaks surrounded us.

Every few kilometres the landscape became more rugged, more dramatic and soon I was caught up in the beauty, my horse carrying us almost effortlessly along the narrow tracks and through clear mountain rivers. By night we camped in green meadows and slept early, huddled in our sleeping bags against the cold and listening to the gentle sound of our horses eating outside the tents.

On day three, after about 60km of riding, we crossed the 3,900m-high Tosor Pass, where a sheer cliff of ice and snow gave way to a narrow corridor with the shimmering Kerege-Tash Valley below. A silver river snaked through the verdant green jailoos, which were set against the snow-capped mountains. Horses freely roamed the grasslands and the valley was dotted with yurts, the summer homes of the nomadic shepherds.

As soon as we entered the valley, a local herder grazing his sheep invited us to his yurt for lunch – the table laden with a typical Kyrgyz meal of fresh cream, cheese, jams and bread, which we embellished with some meat and fruit from our saddlebags. We drank endless bowls of strong black chai tea while huddling around the stove, and soon the chai was replaced with kymyz, a slightly alcoholic fermented horse milk. Although an acquired taste, it was warming against the mountain air and we quickly learned that kymyz would become part of any shepherd meal. There was no shortage of welcoming invitations.

For shepherds, life is hard, simple, beautiful – and all about the horse. The Kyrgyz have been breeding horses for more than 4,000 years and life without them is inconceivable; the animal represents freedom and the essence of nomadic life. Most shepherds graze sheep, some yaks, but many also have a herd of horses left to wander the valleys throughout summer. These horses are bred for mountain riding, and selling one at the local market will fetch $1,500 or more.

“Horses play an important role in the history and culture of our people,” Obolbekov said. “They dominate our social, spiritual and economic life… horses were used to ride, to shepherd, to travel to long distances, to hunt for wild animals, used in war, in horse games and races, and were even used as nourishment. It is now in our genes.”

When the Soviets took control of Kyrgyzstan in 1918 they impacted the traditional life of nomadic herders by establishing collective farms and interbreeding the horses. Herders who had lived off the mountains for centuries were given little choice but to settle in villages and work on the Russian-style farms. This restricted the herders from their natural movements and endangered the existence of the pure Kyrgyz horse.

“The Russians started to mix the real Kyrgyz horse with their Russian-European horse to strengthen their own breed,” Obolbekov said. Since independence in 1991, part of Shepherds Way’s mission has been to support the revival of pure Kyrgyz horse breeding and some of the traditional culture that was lost during the Soviet era.

I could have stayed in the Kerege-Tash Valley for a season, but a few days ride and one or two yurt visits later it was time to head south to the long-promised Jyluu-Suu hot springs on an old caravan route that once linked with the Silk Road. The springs are oddly set inside a rustic blue and white hut in the middle of nowhere, looking out onto spectacular valley views. After almost a week in the saddle, the bath came not a moment too soon.

From Jyluu-Suu we travelled east up the Burhan Valley, feeling ever closer to the sky. We stopped to buy milk at an old cottage and were invited in for freshly made yoghurt by a beautiful woman who has lived here for 35 years, birthing and raising 11 children. I asked her what had changed in that time. “Nothing”, she said. “Nothing has changed.” The house, the weather, the population – everything was the same as it always had been, a life untouched by the outside world.

Out here, time felt suspended in the emptiness. I was entranced by the mountains and stillness, and spent early mornings outside my tent meditating on the grasses and wildflowers that glistened in the sun. The land was perfect for a gallop – in the evenings we unloaded the saddlebags and raced through the open valleys, dodging marmot holes and jumping creek beds.

Two days later, we arrived at a cluster of yurts to shelter from rain. Invited inside, we tumbled into the carpeted dome’s warmth where the family were all making delicious salty doughnuts over the fire. Tea and kymyz flowed, and the pastries warmed us. When the rain stopped the family showed us how to milk a mare – they gently sang to the animals to keep them calm.

We continued our climb towards our final pass at Jashyl-Kol, where the mountains were black and glaciers loomed. Each step felt more remote and the scenery more spectacular. Just when you thought no one could be out in these wild high pastures among the rocks, ice and raging rivers, a shepherd appeared with his herd of sheep – going about his daily work at almost 4,000m.

“It's a completely different life… their life is within nature, they merge with it, become part of it and still feel free,” explained Obolbekov.

This sense of freedom is something I was only just beginning to grasp. Reaching the end of the journey, leaving my horse and descending the steep mountain road back to Barskoon in an old Russian jeep, I felt as though I was falling dizzily back into the modern reality of motorised vehicles, houses, electronics, noise – leaving the pristine land of the Tian-Shan and its wonderful people far behind.

Kyrgyzstan’s horse trekking season lasts from June to September, with four- to 14-day treks offered by Shepherds Way Trekking. Tents are provided but bring your own rain gear, sleeping mat and bag, warm clothes and riding boots. The high country is cold, even in summer.

Bring as much cash as you need, in crisp, clean US dollars or euros. Sporadically working ATMs can be found in Bishkek, and most only accept Visa. Travellers cheques are not advisable.

Manas International Airport is located 30km north of Bishkek, and can be accessed via Turkish Airlines, British Airways, Chinese Airlines, Aeroflot and Uzbek Airlines. Kyrgyzstan offers a 60-day visa free programme for most nationalities, but check before you book your flights.