As the world moves on, Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic culture appears under threat. But in Central Asia’s magnificent mountains the old traditions still find a way to survive…
A flurry of arrows arced across the emerald-green steppe and thudded unerringly into a straw target decorated as an ibex. The Kyrgyz archers led the way, wearing pointed ak-kalpak hats that peaked like the surrounding snowy mountains. Alongside them were Kazakhs and Tajiks, and Mongolians, too, straining their longbows in the spirit of Genghis Khan, long deel coats ruffled by the dusty breeze.
Swelling the ranks of this multinational force of bowmen were Bashkortostanis, Turkmen in shaggy woollen hats, a quiver of Iranians and a lederhosen-wearing German who looked a little out of place. The third World Nomad Games were proving riotously colourful.
This biennial Olympiad of nomadic sports was taking place in Cholpon-Ata, a summery resort town on the northern shore of Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake. During its first two days I watched man-mountain Mongolians and rockhard Russians grappling in alysh (belt wrestling) as well as kok-boru polo teams fighting over the carcass of a headless goat.
However, the games’ real pageantry played out 40km away at Kyrchyn Gorge, where archers and golden eagle hunters competed while riders limbered up for equine events like er-ernish (horseback wrestling). Elsewhere, traders, craftspeople and performers from across Kyrgyzstan had erected hundreds of yurts and created a carnival atmosphere. Amid the revelry I recoiled at the sourness of kumis (fermented mare’s milk) and ate delicious samsa patties of spiced mutton. I browsed patterned carpets, bought honey, photographed decorated yaks and two-humped camels, and watched a curious game called ordo in which competitors hurled sheep vertebrae in a motion akin to skimming pebbles across water. I ended at the US Embassy yurt where they laid on a good ole country ’n’ western shindig.
All this theatricality offered an enjoyable if sugarcoated impression of the nomadic way of life in Kyrgyzstan. Previous travels had shown me that nomads can be marginalised and vulnerable in a world where their lifestyle is being left behind. Yet during my ten-day trip I found that while it’s no longer an economic necessity for Kyrgyz people to roam the mountains and steppe, nomadism remains steadfastly within their psyche.
The Kyrgyz derive from 40 Turkic-speaking tribes who have inhabited the lands between the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains for several thousand years. Over the centuries, rampaging Mongolians, Imperialist Chinese and, eventually, the Soviet Union subjugated these tribes. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, mountainous Kyrgyzstan officially emerged unified for the first time as the second smallest (behind Tajikistan) of the ’Stans.
I arrived in Bishkek and met Tanya Koleshnikova, an ethnic Russian-Kyrgyz with dyed silvery hair who proved an intelligent, engaging guide. The capital placates its Soviet neo-brutalism with parks, fountains and rose flowerbeds; older statues, emblazoned with hammer-and-sickle motifs, are being superseded by newer sculptures of Kyrgyz heroes that capture a flourishing revival of national identity. Particularly prevalent is Manas, a legendary thousand-year-old conquering hero who united the Kyrgyz. His deeds are told in an epic poem of 500,000 lines passed down orally, presumably by storytellers with memories like supercomputers.
Thirty-three year-old Tanya remembers little about the USSR but her parents recall it fondly. “They had no freedom but they say it was safe and education and medicine was free, unlike today.” She also insisted nomadic tendencies were never crushed. “We had collectivised farms but people maintained their livestock and yurts. If anything, it’s harder for them today in a free market economy.”
We passed abandoned collective farms that afternoon during a long drive south to Song-Kul lake following the River Chu, which fertilises pastureland and grain fields along a broad valley through the Tien Shan. The defunct farms are rare blights amid scenery where we were scarcely out of eyeshot of glaciated mountains or rolling, yurt-dotted steppe.
The Chu Valley led us via Burana Tower, an 11th-century banded-brick minaret measuring 25m tall. The city of Balasagun, built by the Karakhanids who brought Islam to the region, once thrived on the Silk Road; this earthquake-truncated minaret is all that remains.
“The ruling khan (ruler) built the tower to protect his daughter after a fortune-teller predicted her death before she reached 16,” said Tanya. “On her 16th birthday her father arranged a feast, but within the fruit was a deadly spider that poisoned her and she died.”
My head spun as we crossed the edelweiss-carpeted Kalmak-Ashuu Pass at 3,446m. The pass is typically snowbound between September and May, so access to Song-Kul Lake is limited. Beyond the pass was one of the broadest, most beautiful vistas I had ever seen: a bowl of mountain-fringed pasture surrounded the glistening lake, grazed by thousands of horses, sheep and cattle like some kind of livestock Serengeti.
“Look, yaks!” shrieked Tanya suddenly. Several hundred of these shaggy bovines swept down a mountainside heading to water. “The nomadic people leave their winter villages to come here every summer for the sweet grazing,” she said.
I had my own yurt that night at a little tourist camp on the lakeshore. As temperatures dipped below zero, I was snugly warmed by a wood-burning stove. Kyrgyz yurts appear more rounded than Mongolian gers, with an intricate internal herringbone frame culminating in twin-barred supports in the ceiling that are represented on the national flag. After a meal of fried mutton and noodles, I spent rather a fitful night listening to a steppe cacophony of neighing, braying, mooing and barking herders’ dogs.
We remained above 2,000m the next day, continuing south past river terraces dissected into Toblerone-shaped fans the colour of calamine. One of the Silk Road’s most outstanding surviving structures is a finely built 15th-century caravanserai (inn) at Tash Rabat that was more Sheraton than Premier Inn for the travellers who once overnighted here. The cube-shaped structure sits in a stark gorge of spiked peaks on a branch of the Silk Road coming from the Uyghur trading outpost of Kashgar. The Chinese border remains just a few kilometres away.
The entrance to this brick structure is through a Gothic-looking arched portal leading to an sparse inner chamber the size of a four-bedroom house, cupped by a domed roof.
I imagined a past-life of carpets spread across the floor, the smell of roasting mutton and a roaring fire accompanying travellers’ tales of their Silk Road journeys. There is also a zindan, a deep dungeon no more than a narrow vertical shaft.
“The caravanserai was a safe refuge from robbers and the weather,” explained Tanya. “If they caught any thieves, they threw them into the zindan. If they survived the fall, they would soon go crazy.”
After another night in a tourist yurt we ventured to the southern shore of Issyk-Kul, a lake so wide that it looks like an inland sea. Wind was whipping up waves along a sandy beach and Kyrgyz families were frolicking in the water, which is slightly salty courtesy of high evaporation.
Along the lakeshore, at Bokonbaevo, we met Arstan, who practices the age-old nomadic tradition of eagle hunting. Beyond the tables of drying apricots in his courtyard, two tethered golden eagles perched in an orchard of cherries and apples. The younger raptor screeched while a 13-year-old bird sat content, its crop bulging with meat. Arstan handed me one of his huge birds; I supported its 5kg weight on my outstretched arm and felt its intense brown eyes size me up as potential quarry.
Arstan explained that seven generations of his ancestors have hunted with eagles: “It’s in my blood to follow this tradition.” He caught his youngest bird, Karabola, a few months back after it fledged. “It will be another three months before it’s familiar enough with my voice so it returns to me when hunting.”
I wondered if many eagles remained in the wild?
“Yes, many. The mountains are full of wildlife,” he replied. Reinforcing this – and the irony wasn’t lost on me – he pointed out the furs of wolves, jackals and even lynx, all killed by his eagle. As I tried to imagine how a bird could kill such large predators, he added: “Every year in the mountains I see snow leopards. But these really are too big for my eagle.”
I didn’t see any wildlife other than fat marmots while I was trekking in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains but I did witness the still-flourishing nomadic lifestyle of the past and emerging tourism. Amid rows of featureless Soviet tenements and a golden statue of Lenin lay parks featuring yet more sculptures of heroic ancestors and Western-style coffee shops. There was also a bubbling food scene; my favourite dish was ashlan-fu, a spicy cold soup of rice and buckwheat noodles. This is a Dungan dish, an ethnic Turkic minority group who migrated from Chinese persecution to Karakol in the late 19th century.
The next morning I met my guide, Akyl, who arrived with a 16-year-old trainee porter called Chinggis to help me tackle one of the least-attempted local treks: a 50km horseshoe circuit known as Archa-Tor Pass.
We started along the Kyzyl-Suu River, a fertile valley of pasture and needle-thin firs, walking towards an amphitheatrical snowy cirque. The river was a cool, glacial aquamarine.
“We take this beauty for granted,” reflected Akyl. “When nomads see me guiding tourists, they ask: why do you bring them here when there is nothing to see?”
Akyl’s value as a guide proved priceless in granting access to the nomads between the Karakabak and Asantukum Gorges. Within an hour we were invited into the yurt of a nomadic lady called Gulumakan. As a guest I was ushered to the centre of the yurt to face the doorway, as hospitality dictates. She brought out a samovar of boiling black tea and ladled in fresh cow’s milk. She also broke a large home-baked discus of unleavened lepeshki bread, made from flour her family milled, and dunked it in the thick kaymak (horse-milk cream), again freshly produced.
“Kyrgyz are hospitable people,” said Akyl between mouthfuls. “If you came to our yurt as a complete stranger, we would slaughter our last sheep for you.”
Our host explained they had been bringing their livestock to this valley for 40 years. “We have everything: clean air, fresh water, meat, milk and quiet. What else do we need? I have a healthy life. I am 70 and work hard every day,” she said, adding her 76-year-old husband was out on a six-hour horse-ride. They drive their stock through the mountains to the summer pastures, returning to their village near Karakol before snowfall in late September.
Akyl began chuckling as the old lady chided young Chinggis. “It’s a tradition for young men to name their seven ancestral fathers so they can avoid marrying into the same clan seven generations removed,” Akyl translated. “But Chinggis [who looked appropriately sheepish] does not know his ancestors, so she’s telling him off.” Poor Chinggis was also unable to butcher a sheep into 24 cuts, another essential rite of passage.
That night we camped early, near the foot of the Aylama Glacier, to wait out a tremendous hailstorm. When I awoke the next morning, my tent was frozen stiff, covered in ice from the previous evening’s rain.
Thereafter, it was a taxing 1,400m ascent across loose fans of scree to reach the knife-edged Archa-Tor Pass (3,900m). The ridge was dusted by fresh snow and we ate lunch while soaking in the sublimity of a huge U-shaped glacial valley. Only echoes of ravens and the ricocheting cracks of landslides disturbed the silence.
The descent was long and jarring through alpine pasture sparkling with gentians and bellflowers. On the way down we met Khanabek and his ten-year-old son tending a sizeable herd of horses. They invited us to camp alongside their yurt that night by the Dzheti-Oguz River, which was braided like an unthreading rope, fed by a magnificent complex of glaciers overlooked by frosted summits.
Upon arriving at Khanabek’s yurt, we scarcely had time to pitch our tents before his wife invited us in for tea and hot baked lepeshki. She explained that their family tends the livestock of other villagers who have no time to practice the old ways.
We left the next morning to walk out to Dzheti-Oguz town as an early sunshine starburst drew a cascade of brilliant light off the glacier. I watched their young son expertly saddle his horse while his five-year-old sister led another to an enclosure. They are Kyrgyzstan’s future generation of nomads – a culture that seems destined to endure.
The author travelled on a tailormade trip with Regent Holidays (0207 666 1258). Regent also offers a 16-day Uncover Kyrgyzstan group tour, which includes visiting Bishkek, Burana Tower, Song-Kul and Issyk-Kul, and staying in a yurt camp.
Hotel Bugu (Bishkek) is a funky and fantastic little hotel with exposed brick walls, murals and a superb breakfast.
Ak-Sai Camp (Tash Rabat) a small comfy yurt camp close to Tash Rabat caravanserai; open only in summer.
Matsunoki Guest House (Karakol) is a large, modern, friendly guesthouse run by a Japanese-Kyrgyz family.
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