Horse trek to Sary-Chelek, Kyrgyzstan
In Kyrgyzstan, it’s all about the landscapes. To explore them, you normally need a destination – wandering aimlessly could get you quite lost. But it’s rarely about the journey’s end. It’s about the way you get there… and the chafing and bruising you’re left with.
This is why I’ve ended up on the back of a horse. A horse whose name I will never know.
Kyrgyzstan is a country of horsemen – from the nomads who move their yurts constantly across the country, to the farmers who ride alongside their cows to keep them on track. You see the locals as masters of these beasts of burden, entwined as one, the thoughts of the rider instantly transformed into the actions of the animal.
I am clearly not a local.
This is the first time I have ever been horse riding because I’ve always been too scared before. But just look at these views in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan! To see a good variety of them here in the Sary-Chelek region, the only option is by horse. And so it was time to bite the bit and saddle up.
This horse trek will take three days, with two nights of camping. With me are three locals who will guide us on our way and look after all the logistics. The only thing I need to do is ride the horse. Probably the hardest thing you could have asked me to do, I think as we set off.
I am introduced to my horse in the small village where we begin. He’s a six year-old male with a wonderful golden colour. I’m told he is quite tame and I shouldn’t have any problems.
When I ask what he’s called, one of the horse guides says a word that I don’t understand. But a couple of hours into the riding, I realise I have already forgotten it and it’s a bit awkward by this stage to ask the horse what he’s called. I decide to just name him ‘Stan’… short for Kyrgyzstan.
I thought riding a horse would be difficult but all you really do is sit on it… and if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s sitting! But, then again, all we really do on the first day is walk along a dirt track with a slow incline. It’s not until the second day that things get particularly tricky.
Climbing out of a valley, higher into the mountains to find a pass to get to the other side, we take a narrow and winding path full of loose rocks. Stan had been so good at following the other horses the day before that I assume he’ll continue to do that. But no, he decides to choose his own route. Without realising, he’s led us onto a narrow rocky ledge where the only option is to jump down to a path below. He hesitates, my stomach drops, and he lurches forward.
For a horse, this is probably not a big deal. For a scared human sitting on its back, it’s terrifying. But we make it and continue onwards. Shaken.
I try to think back to the instructions I had been given the morning before, as I first climbed onto the back of Stan. They were brief and in simple English:
“Pull rope back, stop. Left, right – turns head. Kick start.”
It’s hardly the kind of manual you get in the glove box of a car. It’s not even as complicated as instructions to put together furniture – and they generally only have pictures. Why is it that you get so little tutorial on how to control an animal that has your life in its hands… or on its back, as the case may be.
Anyway, we safely reach our camp for the second day, an area by the side of a lake in the shade of large trees.
Horse riding in Kyrgyzstan is much like trekking in Kyrgyzstan – although there is a path that the guides will take you, it feels as though you are the first person to go down that route in days or weeks. It is very uncommon to see other tourists. All around you all day are landscapes – dramatic and wondrous. Views that you could never imagine finding in the middle of Central Asia if you hadn’t been told about them in advance.
And so I sit with the guides at the campsite by the lake and we chat a bit. It turns out that Stan doesn’t really have a name. Horses here aren’t given names in the same way that they are in Western countries. They are normally just referred to by how they look. So they called Stan something similar to ‘yellow’ in the local language, because of his colour.
On the final day, there are some more tricky sections, going downhill through the woods. As well as having to control Stan (or Yellow?) along the narrow rocky paths, I also have to avoid any overhanging branches, ducking and sometimes doing a last minute veer in the wrong direction.
To make matters even more difficult, Stan has developed a habit of suddenly stopping to grab bites of plants that are now within reach of his mouth. I’m kind of jealous that he has snacks right in front of him the whole time.
Not that I’m hungry. At the overnight camps or the places we stop for lunch, the guides have cooked up simple but tasty and filling meals. The two horsemen were both in the Soviet army when they were younger and are used to this kind of living.
They cook us all a final meal at the end of the horse trek – we’ve arrived at the pick up point at about lunch time.
It’s sad to see them go and say goodbye to Stan. He has looked after me so well – much better than I had expected. Not only had he taken me up and down mountains, through forests and past lakes, he had shown me the best of his country and the incredible natural wonders of his land.
He has also helped me get over my fear of horses and shown me that it was all just in my mind.
As I’m about to jump in the car and drive away, the local horsemen ask my guide to translate for them. They have decided to give Stan a real name. They’re going to call him Michael, they tell me.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Discover Kyrgyzstan but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own. This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.