Shepherds and Snow in Central Asia
I was lucky enough to be awarded a travel grant from school to go travelling around Kyrgyzstan this summer with my old chum Joe. The money we were given is known as the Thesiger Award, and is handed out to those undertaking intrepid adventures in far-flung parts of the world on the condition that they submit an essay about their travels on their return. Wilfred Thesiger was a renowned travel-writer and so the post-trip write up is an important part of the whole process. I submitted my offering this morning and thought I would pop the piece up on here. It doesn’t give the fullest picture of my horseback trek in the Chon Kemin, but it sets the scene…
“I came to mountains to escape. I came to mountains for quiet. The mountains are always there; they never leave you. Even when you cannot see them, they are there.” [The Professional]
He stared at us both, his ex-Soviet military hat pulled tight on his head as ever, despite the warmth of the tent. This was the man our guides called “the professional”. They had chosen him to lead us across the Big Ak Suu pass, a treacherous trail that connected the Chon Kemin and Ak Suu valleys in north-eastern Kyrgyzstan, just south of the Kazakh border. It transpired that this man was not in fact a professional guide, or even a professional anything. He was a shepherd from Grigorievka, a small town on the shores of the massive lake Issyk-Kul, our ultimate destination. Nonetheless he crossed the Big Ak Suu on his horse every week, as he commuted between the pastures on either side, and he knew it well; the crevasses on its glaciers, and the path through the moraine.
The professional began to talk to us, fixing his attention on my friend Joe as he spoke. Our 19-year old guide Bekpulat translated every sentence as it came, filling us in on the older man’s story. It was harrowing. Having lost his wife to cancer, the professional had devoted his life to his only daughter, whom he described as bright and lively. Tragically, his daughter had been killed by a car as she walked into the local town one day, just hours after receiving the Kyrgyz equivalent of her GCSE-results. All of her grades had been A*s.
Devastated, the professional had taken to the hills with his dog, the only remaining member of his family. Several months later, he had awoken in his tent to see his dog trying to fight off a wolf, presumably attracted by the smell of food. Unfortunately the dog was no match for its wild cousin, and the professional watched, helpless, as the wolf ripped out his dog’s tongue and left it to die. To this day he harbours a deep hatred of wolves, and longs to shoot one in vengeance for the death of the animal he viewed as his best friend.
Following the death of his dog the professional sunk into a depression that turned him to drink, and for many years alcoholism consumed him. Eventually, in an attempt to beat his addiction, he moved to the high mountains to raise livestock. He explained that he had found great solace in the mountains; they didn’t change or go away, they were always there – even when you couldn’t see them. Animals too, he said, were loyal companions that he could trust to stick by his side much more than human friends. Slowly, the simple lifestyle helped to rekindle his satisfaction with this world, providing fulfilment in his life once more.
No-one spoke for a while after the professional had finished talking. I looked around the tent; Joe and Bekpulat were gazing at the floor, deep in thought. Even Bek’s uncle, our other guide and the usual source of laughter in the group, looked forlorn; his wide brown eyes staring resolutely at the stove.
My empathy for the man who had led us so expertly across the pass that day was mingled with surprise. His story was completely at odds with the impression I had formed of him over the last ten hours. I had liked him as soon as I met him. His military gear and fast pace of riding inspired confidence, and he had met my eyes with an open, interested gaze when we’d first shaken hands from our horses. He had seemed so self-reliant and upbeat; always cracking jokes and pointing out scenic views, whilst chatting away to us in Kyrgyz fully aware that neither Joe nor I could understand anything he said. It seemed unimaginable he had been lost in an alcohol-fuelled depression for so long. I reasoned, however, that guiding four men and their horses across the Big Ak Suu required a hard exterior. If the professional had not forced us on at pace, we simply would not have covered the ground we needed to. As it was we were camped at over 3,400m above sea-level, higher than the tops of most alpine ski resorts, and the snow was coming down hard despite it being mid-summer. None of our group would have relished the prospect of camping even higher up the mountain, least of all our poor horses.
The Big Ak Suu was in many ways the climax of my trip. Joe and I had been horseback trekking down the Chon Kemin valley for over a week before we came to the pass. Every day our road had grown a little wilder, as we wound up the valley towards the enormous glaciated peaks that sealed the Kyrgyz off from their Kazakh neighbours to the north. While Bekpulat’s English was very good for a university student, he had not been able to explain to us before the trek exactly what we would be doing. I remembered my disbelief when he had announced that both of us, and our horses, would be crossing the mountains to get to Grigorievka. He then added that he had never done it before himself, nor had his uncle. No tourists had ever requested such a trek from them.
Despite this, Bekpulat (literally ‘strong’, ‘golden’ in Kyrgyz) had not seemed at all concerned by the road ahead, or by his inexperience. The only apprehension he had shown was on the morning of our fifth day. It had grown colder overnight, and the freezing, heavy rain had been falling as snow over the mountains that flanked us. Their frosted flanks had glinted in the morning sun, revealing a snow line perhaps only 600 metres above our camp. At this point Bek had looked east, to the white-tipped barrier in the distance before muttering, mostly to himself, “mountains very cold”. Then he had turned back to look at Joe and me and, presumably amused by the anxiety that must have been etched in our expressions, had laughed loudly, saying something brightly to his uncle as he trotted off.
Our guides’ easy-going attitude was undoubtedly a blessing. The pair were clearly great friends, despite the almost 20-year age gap between them. Always joking, laughing, or wrestling on horseback they had seemingly limitless conversation between them, and were always attempting to include us in their talk, or to convince one of us to help play a prank on the other.
But even their demeanour hardened noticeably the day we tackled the Big Ak Suu. In contrast to our usual leisurely starts, we woke at 6am to round up and tack up the horses. Breakfast was also a quick affair – stale bread and tinned goat meat, heated over a stove in its pot. It looked and smelt strange to me, but the meat was warm and greasy and in the morning cold it was wonderful. All of us gratefully wolfed it down and before long Bekpulat, looking round to check that everyone had finished, raised his hands to his face. We all followed suit. As one we ran our hands down in front of our eyes, as if in prayer, and muttered, “Omin”. Only now had the meal been concluded. Only now could we uncross our legs, leave the yurt and make the final preparations for our trip.
Crossing the Ak Suu pass was an epic journey. It required an ascent of almost a vertical kilometre up to the summit col at 4,052 metres above sea-level, and distance wise it was longer than our previous three days combined. At times our guides were urgent in their instruction, they wanted to cross the summit before the weather deteriorated, as it often did in the late afternoon. They also needed to get their horses back down to an altitude where grasses grew before we could make our camp for the night.
On our route we traversed a glacier and led our horses up steep scree slopes. The altitude made any exertion hard work and several times I had to dismount my horse, Ished, because his front legs were trembling with such intensity I feared he would collapse. Later in the day we had some good luck when one of the professional’s three dogs caught and killed a marmot, an incredible feat given that these stocky rodents rarely strayed more than a few metres from the safety of their burrows. I felt a pang of pity when I first looked at the unfortunate animal; even in death it was extremely cute. But it did mean we would have meat for dinner, and after a long day in the cold that was a sufficiently enticing prospect to dampen my empathy.
The professional tossed the bloody marmot into a spare saddlebag – as far as the Kyrgyz are concerned, anything can go into a saddle bag – and we continued down the mountain until the gradient lessened and a suitable campsite appeared. We quickly erected our tents, piled inside our guides’ much larger model and started to stew our marmot prize. As the daylight faded snow began to fall. I sat close to the stove for warmth as we listened to the professional’s tale.
The next morning I woke early and peered outside. It was a beautiful scene: still, cold and with a fresh snowy landscape completely different to the one we had seen the previous day. I have never really shaken off my childlike obsession with snow, and quickly donned some clothes and my boots and headed out the tent to explore. As I climbed up the slope I came across our horses, their front legs shackled with rope to prevent them escaping. I marvelled at these animals, so tough and unassuming. They were all-terrain vehicles of incredible resilience and stamina. Even now, with no rugs on and their ribs showing they placidly rooted around in the snow, hoping to uncover the thin, brown grasses that grew at this altitude. Their sure-footedness was phenomenal. They had quite simply changed my opinion of what it was possible for a horse to do.
I heard panting behind me and turned to see that one of the dogs had decided to join me on my wander. He stood with me as I gazed at the snowy mountains all around, at the black moraines and the tumbling streams that framed our campsite. I noticed a small orange bird, a hoopoe, had landed next to our tent and was busy pecking at the patch of ground around our tent, which our body heat had cleared of snow. Above me, the dog had disturbed a little owl (‘little’ being its species, not its size), which flew off over the horses uttering a shriek of irritation at being moved on.
The more I gazed at the mountains, the more I realized that they defined this place and its people. The weather, the pastoral economy, the nomadic culture, the continued importance of the horse, all of it was shaped by the mountains that dominated ninety-four percent of this country. As the professional had explained, the mountains could provide great solace, and comfort, to those that lived amongst them. They were beautiful, hard, resolute and massive.
They were everything to those that eked out an existence in their shadow.