A wolf! The spine-tingling call was unmistakable. At first it was distant, somewhere deep down the valley. Then, 20 minutes later, came another, much closer howl. The dogs in our camp broke into a frenzy of barking. It was 4.20am. I snuggled deeper under my blanket, but was far too pumped with adrenalin to sleep.
Two hours later I ventured out of my yurt to a cold but sunny morning. Even in mid-July a crisp frost coated the ground. I’d arranged the hire of a horse for a pre-breakfast ride and Kashka, a patient-looking black gelding with a white blaze, was already tacked up and tethered nearby. I was told that to start him I just had to say what sounded like “chew chew”. I failed to master the roll of the tongue that was the command for“whoah!”, but decided that he looked quiet enough for me not to worry about that.
We set off down the valley to Lake Song-Köl, which was shimmering turquoise blue in the early morning sun, and had a little trot along the shore before following the river back up the valley. Sure enough, Kashka was a steady soul, letting out a deep sigh every time I stopped to take a photo.
There were another six camps scattered along the long valley, each the summer home of a family who had brought its livestock here for the seasonal grazing, and each with fierce dogs that hurled themselves towards us as we passed. Unperturbed, Kashka would just grind his teeth, let out a little snort and swish his tail.
The horse is king in Kyrgyzstan. In this mountainous Central Asian nation, about the size of Great Britain, the nomadic lifestyle has survived centuries of invasions and even Soviet collectivisation. Today, while there are few people living a completely nomadic life, the yurt is still highly symbolic of traditional Kyrgyz culture and identity and, each summer, families still go up to jailoos (high pastures) with their livestock.
On the long drive up to Song-Köl from Bishkek – the Kyrgyz capital – on the previous day, I’d been captivated by the cemeteries we regularly passed. My guide, Pavel, had explained that they were deliberately built by the roadside: “Being a nomadic people, they want to be able to see down the road – even after death.”
Once we’d driven up through the mountains – spotting several soaring golden eagles on the way – and entered the grasslands surrounding the lake, we’d caught our first glimpse of yurts scattered over the plateau. It was late afternoon and each had a thin wisp of smoke escaping from it; some had Mercedes or 4WDs parked outside.“Probably family visiting from the city for the weekend,” explained Pavel.
Cars looked slightly incongruous in this landscape. Horses have always been the key to everyday life here and, with Kyrgyzstan’s economy troubled, they are as important as ever. Pavel talked me through some of the traditional horse-related games and rituals, including a variation on kiss-chase in which a suitor chases his prospective girlfriend on horseback in an attempt to kiss her. If he doesn’t succeed in catching the girl then she chases him, hitting him with a whip in scorn.
I was reluctant to leave the natural beauty of Song-Köl after just 24 hours but I was assured that there was a lot more stunning scenery to come. Kyrgyzstan is crammed with lakes and mountains; indeed, the ‘Mountains of Heaven’ – the Tian Shan – extend the length of the country, and more than 90% of Kyrgyzstan is higher than 1,500m.
There are few historical sites, partly because of the country’s nomadic culture, partly thanks to invasion (notably by Genghis Khan), and party due to earthquakes. However, a restored 11th-century minaret, the Burana Tower, still survives – all that is left standing of what was once an important Silk Road settlement called Balasagun. Nearby lie dozens of burial stones, gathered from around the country and dating from the fifth to the tenth centuries. Carved to depict faces, they looked like a field of warriors buried up to their waists or necks.
It was back to natural wonders in Jeti-Öghüz Canyon in the east of the country. We’d arrived on a Sunday, and the beautiful but rain-swept valley was scattered with bedraggled picnicking families, huddled under pieces of plastic or the tractor-driven wagons they had arrived on.
At the yurt camp that would be my base for the next couple of nights we gratefully accepted bowls of hot tea. The low table was laid in typical style with dried fruit and nuts, jam and bowls of sweets. Tea led on to an excellent three-course dinner, shared with a party of lively Norwegians and their plentiful supply of vodka.
The next morning brought yet more rain, the surrounding peaks hidden by swirling mists. Pavel and I set off after breakfast to walk through the valley, hoping the weather would clear enough for me to glimpse Öghüz-Bashi, reportedly a spectacular peak. Initially the track was wide enough for a vehicle, but after we crossed a bridge it was tricky even finding a path. Much of the walk was easy, but every now and then we’d hit a boggy patch and have to pick our way around.
The scenery was typically alpine, the meadow scattered with small, colourful wild flowers, while endemic Tian Shan spruce and juniper coated the canyon walls. To our right gushed a fast- owing river, swollen with the rain. We passed through a small patch of woodland and, once out in the open again, headed up to a yurt set part way up the hillside.
The family invited us inside and we all sat on the floor; Toktobai, the head of the family, took prime spot, his brother next to him. There were three generations here: Toktobai and Koen, their daughter Nazira and her three children. We were offered kymys – fermented mares’ milk. It tasted like slightly sour yoghurt, nowhere near as fearsome as I’d imagined.
“This is very young,”explained Pavel, sipping it thoughtfully, like a wine connoisseur presented with a glass of beaujolais. “Just a day old, I would say.” He turned to the family to have his assumption confirmed.
After two more bowls of kymys we braved the elements to carry on walking. However, what was at first a steady drizzle suddenly became a downpour, as if a tap had been turned on. The mountains were still shrouded in clouds that showed little sign of lifting. After 45 minutes or so we gave up and retraced our steps.
Back at the yurt it was almost time to milk the mares. The herd was rounded up from the hillside by 18-year-old Eldiar and brought down to where their foals were kept tied to a line to prevent the mares from wandering too far. A black mare was pulled out first; Toktobai held her head while Eldiar squatted under her, blue bucket in hand.
We huddled back into the yurt to avoid the rain, drank more kymys and arranged to hire a couple of horses to take us back to our camp. I clambered onto Eldiar’s roan horse, Burul, while Pavel and Eldiar doubled up on a bay mare. It was a chance to quiz Eldiar.
Translated by Pavel, he explained that he had just finished school and in the autumn would be heading to Bishkek to train to be a lawyer.
“The problem will be finding work,” said Pavel.“We have lots of bright, ambitious young people, but we don’t have the jobs for them, so the best often have to leave the country.”
The horses were wonderfully surefooted as we weaved our way around boulders, negotiated thick mud and bogs, and even cut across a bend in the boulder-strewn river, the horses plunging chest-deep into icy water at one point.
The rain got heavier, lashing our faces, only to be replaced by driving hailstones, while the rumble of thunder and occasional flash of lightning accompanied us most of the way. It was exhilarating – I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
It was still relentlessly raining, hailing and thundering the next afternoon when we drove through the beautiful broad sweep of the Karkara Valley. We’d been following a river, and when we eventually crossed a bridge, Pavel announced – just before I spotted the sign – that we were now in Kazakhstan. There was no border post, no formalities; herders and livestock were crossing at will.
On a windswept plateau just above the bridge sat Karkara Basecamp, a tented village with a transient population of mountaineers and hikers. I was here because the weather forecast for the next day was good, so I was hoping to take a helicopter trip up into the icy heights of the Central Tian Shan.
A long building housed a dining room and cosy bar, with warming Kazakh brandy at US$1 a shot. It wasn’t quite The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, but at dinner it was obvious that it was hosting a diverse range of nationalities; I heard at least eight different languages being spoken.
There was no sign of the promised helicopter and, lying in my tent as it was buffeted by winds so strong that I seriously wondered whether it would take off, I felt pessimistic about the prospect of actually getting up in the air the next day. I’d met other travellers who’d been on standby here for days, hoping for a flight only to be disappointed. However, when I stuck my head out of the tent flap early the next morning I was met by a dazzlingly clear sky. We had the weather – now we just needed a helicopter.
It was just after 11am that we heard the distinctive sounds of a helicopter rotor. A young boy had ridden up from a yurt camp on the other side of the river and politely asked if any of us would like to hire his horse for a quick ride across the meadow while we waited. It didn’t seem ideal timing, though the horse was completely unperturbed by the noise, having clearly heard and seen it all before many times. Declining the opportunity, I promised that I’d be back.
To my surprise it was a military helicopter that landed – a Russian-built Mi-8, I was informed, seemingly a sideline for the army. The ultra-cool Colonel Shaimbek Karazakov, dressed in military fatigues and Ray-Bans, was our pilot – and everyone, tough mountaineers included, clicked to attention around him.
A pile of supplies was waiting to be loaded, some of it for the two basecamps the helicopter would be landing at, some belonging to expedition teams going up to walk the glacier or to climb 7,010m Khan Tengri. Everything was weighed to ensure the chopper was not overloaded, but I was still stunned at how much was packed into it. Us humans were then allowed on, squeezed like sardines onto the benches along its sides.
It was around midday when we finally took off and headed into the Tian Shan mountains. Soon we were above the snow line; all below us was white, small pools of snowmelt looking like dinosaur footprints on the sunnier slopes. Those of us next to the porthole-style windows opened them, taking it in turns to push out our cameras or our faces.
The mix of passengers included several Brits, all familiar with Wanderlust.“I don’t suppose you can use the‘F’word in the magazine can you?” Tracey from Suffolk shouted to me as we descended to a camp on the Kazakh side of the mountains.“But that really was f-ing awesome, wasn’t it? Perhaps the most awesome thing I have ever done!”
There was plentiful snow here and, as we landed, it sprayed up through the open windows, covering us in fine white powder.
After unloading some of the supplies and mountaineers, we took off again and headed round to the sunnier, Kyrgyz side, landing at Khan Tengri Basecamp. Here, the snow had mostly melted; it may not have been so pretty but it was nice to get out and bask in the warm glow of the sun.
As I made friends with an orphaned baby marmot, a young woman, Zarina, pointed out the mountains to me. It was hard not to recognise the iconic, pyramidal peak of Khan Tengri itself, as I’d already seen so many posters of it. In a different direction was the bulky shape of the even bigger Pobedy, Kyrgyzstan’s highest mountain at 7,439m.
“She’s beautiful, but dangerous,”said Zarina with passion.“People talk of conquering mountains but they never do. The mountain is always the winner.”
My fellow passengers were all staying here and I felt a touch of envy as I climbed back into the chopper after 20 minutes or so, accompanied only by several bin bags of rubbish. But, as we left the snowy peaks behind, my spirits rose at the first sight of the distinctively shaped foothills; here and there were solitary yurts, miles from any road. Soon the glorious meadows of the Karkara Valley came into sight, dotted with grazing horses and sheep.
As we descended, I saw the young boy nonchalantly leapfrogging onto a black horse and trotting up to meet me.