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