horsing around in Kyrgyzstan


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this story starts off with me fast asleep on old Malik’s couch.  Malik is one of only a few hundred people who inhabit the town of Tamga on the south shore of Issyk Kul – the largest lake in Kyrgystan.  with only one restaurant and one intersection, not a lot goes on here, but this is a good thing considering the fact that i just finished one pretty intense trek and am about to start another one.  i first arrived in Tamga on a travelers hunch and then quickly made friends with a shopkeeper who fed me spiced wine in exchange for a few sweet tunes on my guitar.  i must have let too much time pass without playing Escapo since his strings felt foreign to my fingers at first pluck.  i get so used to him slung across my back that i sometimes tend to forget why i keep carrying him around.  by the time my fingers became nimble again, a small audience had gathered beyond the front steps of the shop.  i’m good for business i guess.

welcome to Tamga!

welcome to Tamga!

shopkeeper + family

shopkeeper + family

THE intersection

THE intersection

THE restaurant

THE restaurant

it was around this time when the shopkeeper’s neighbor Malik invited me over to his place for tea and then let me sleep in his couch for the night.  Malik likes to fall asleep to Russian talk shows and he snores even louder than i do.  Malik’s wife cooks a mean potato soup.  the kind that heals your soul a little.  “fkoosna” is Russian for “delicious” and it’s the most important word i have learned yet.

meet Malik

meet Malik

i left Tamga in a hail of dust and headed roughly 300 kilometers west to a wide open field outside of the small village of Kyzyl-Oi in central Kyrgyzstan to see a Kok-Boru game.  the rules of this game are quite simple.  place a 30 kilogram decapitated and footless goat carcass in the center of a large field with two holes dug into either end.  mount two opposing teams of five on horseback behind an imaginary line at center field and blow a loud whistle.  both teams then rush to capture the goat and deposit it into the opposing team’s hole using any and every violent means necessary.

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over the next days i had more yurt encounters than ever before on a four-day trek to and from Song Kul – a 3,000 meter-hight lake.  this trek makes the last trek i did seem like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen and naked.  or rather the last trek i did makes this one seem like riding the red carpet on a segway.  i guess what i am really trying to say is that this trek was significantly easier than the last one and to top it off, i had not one but two guides (one in training) and several toasty yurts to sleep and eat in along the way.  i was also not alone this time.  along for the ride and to split the cost of this extravagance was a German woman named Sonja and a Korean guy named Shaun.  together we made quite the awesome motley trekking crew.

courtesy of Sonja

courtesy of Sonja

just because it was easy doesn’t mean it wasn’t extremely awesome.  this was my first ever taste of the yurt-hopping experience and i can say now without a doubt that i am a huge fan.  many locals move out here for the summer months, pitch yurts, raise horses, sheep and cattle and feed and accommodate trekkers.

the first day was the most challenging of all the days and involved a five-hour hike through several valleys to the foot of the pass that the lake was on the other side of.  we came upon our yurt camp before sunset, were greeted by the very hospitable owners who then fed us and put us to bed on thin mattresses with thick warm blankets.

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and here behind the yurts in this non-yurt is where i got to try a fermented horse milk beverage called “kumis” for the first time.

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the next day we crossed the pass and made it to the lake and our next yurt camp in four and a half hours time.  with so much time and energy to spare after we arrived i decided to take a swim in the almost bearable water and then get on a horse!  the experience i had with riding horses as a child suddenly came flooding back to me as soon as my ass hit the saddle.  “is this horse English or Western trained?”  i yelled down to the guide who brought me the horse and all he gave me was a blank stare just as i expected.  “do i hold the reins like this, or do i hold the reins like this?”.. “like this” he said, holding both of his hands apart.  ah-ha, English style.  not my preferred method but i’ll try to manage anyhow.  i walked her to the shore then worked her up to a trot then as i got comfortable, up to a gallop.  for the rest of the afternoon i rode her freely all through the small yurt dotted valleys that neighbor the lake.  she was so responsive to all my movements and queues.  that evening we dined outdoors on fresh fish from the lake.

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the third day was the easiest of them all.  we walked for only three hours along the lake shore.  it was at this point when we started to realize that we were actually doing a two-day trek in four days time.  this fact didn’t stop my enjoyment.  the yurts were the stars of this trek anyhow.

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our final day was a four and a half hour hike over another pass and down into a valley to the town of Kyzart (aka. the finish line)

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several days later after an insane commute across the Kyrgyz badlands, Sonja and i found ourselves 200 kilometers west in the town of Arslenbob and right next to the largest walnut forest on Earth.  it was here i celebrated 500 days of continues travel.  that’s 1 year, 4 months and 13 days of non-stop nomadic bliss.  woot!!!

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Arslenbob is a gem of a place nested in a valley with an absurd network of steep dirt roads that lead to waterfalls, a walnut forest, or getting hopelessly lost.  i set out alone on one of these roads and wondered for hours when i eventually came to a wide open clearing and a swamp.  i found some children with donkeys who were hard at work breaking dragonfly wings.  i sat with them for a good while to witness the Mayhem.

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around 50 kilometers south of Arslenbob in the city of Jalal-Abad atop a hill is an old ex-Soviet spa/sanatorium.  these giant decaying facilities are speckled throughout Central Asia but this particular one happens to be built around a hot spring.  after several failed attempts at trying to navigate my way through the confusing Kyrgyz bureaucracy, i was finally able to book myself a “mud treatment”.  i was lead swiftly by the arm by a very helpful, very persistent nurse to the lower levels of the sanatorium where i was met by an older gentleman wearing a rubber apron and rubber boots.  he lead me through a door where a long hallway of tiled cubicles stood, poured a bucket full of hot smelly mud into a plastic covered bed and then made a few hand gestures that suggested i should strip naked and lay down in it.  there are times when getting naked is an easy, natural process but this time was most certainly not one of them.  i had come too far to turn back now.  the strange Kyrgyz man in the rubber suit with bucket in hand was waiting patiently for me to keep up my end of the bargain.  all i had to do was get those clothes off and… ya know… lay down in that mud immediately after.  and so i smiled at the nice man, who was still standing there of course… and then… well… did exactly that.  before i could fully come to grips with how vulnerable i felt lying there naked in the smelly hot mud, the man just laughed and then dumped a bucket of scolding hot mud all over me.  then he folded me into the plastic sheet like a burrito, covered me in additional wool blankets and poured in two additional buckets of mud, one in the opening at my feet and another in the opening at my neck.  then he shook me back and forth and then walked away.  as pain turned into pleasure, my face began to itch uncontrollably.  i was cocooned, hot and helpless.  then an overwhelming sensation of deep relaxation washed over me and seemed to penetrate my bones.

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  1. #1 by Diane on August 10, 2014 - 8:28 am

    What an adventure! Your journey has taken you to place most of us will never see. Thank you for sharing … the mud bath sounds great.

  2. #2 by Ana on September 10, 2014 - 6:57 pm

    hahaha. This sounds so amazing. I would never be brave enough to venture 500 days in to foreign lands, but I am happy I can live vicariously through you. All of these people look so nice. :)

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