Summer Pastures in the Roof of the World
We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan at Osh, also in the Fergana valley but with a very different flavour to Uzbekistan. The town itself had little to keep us there - we spent most of our time planning the coming several days in the mountains. Nevertheless we kept ourselves entertained by climbing a (very) large rock in the centre of town mysteriously called Solomon's Throne (rumoured to have come all the way from Israel?) and in the more bluntly named 'Rich Men's Cafe'.
Kyrgyzstan is roughly divided into two by the imposing Fergana mountain range and on our journey from Osh to the northern village of Kochkor (via the capital Bishkek) we crossed three passes above 3000m and enjoyed some splendid scenery. The drive took an excrutiating 22 hours or so so we made a stop in the dreary township of Toktogul; a word of advice: never come here of your own will, the 'motel' could well have been in the film of the same name...
During our brief stop in Bishkek we enjoyed both the calm tree-lined avenues as well as some solid Japanese/Korean food (Bi-bim-bap, kim-chi, gyoza...) The connection to Kochkor went smoothly (but still involved fighting through the locust swarm of taxi drivers). The bumpy ride took us through stunning pastures, desert and mountain scenery - not uncommon for Kyrgyzstan.
Arriving late in Kochkor - a tiny, secluded village lacking even running water - we were greeted by Omar whose tour agency organised everything from immediate accomodation to a horse-trek for the next three days, in the space of half an hour! We were lodged in a charming Russian-style house owned by an old Kyrgyz woman who kept a room free for tourists. Unfortunately we weren't served Russian food... Located as it was in a fertile valley and surrounded by gigantic snowy peaks, the thunderstorm's aftermath (and rainbows) made for a pleasant walk around the village.
The following day, after a heavy meal eaten in a grey house and under grey skies, we me our guide (Jyldyz-Bek), mounted our horses and set off towards the legendary lake Song-Kol. As if on cue, the skies opened up and we had the privilege to ride through the verdant pastures in a pleasant golden light (a privilege that would not last...). The sense of freedom is surprising and puzzled me at first, but later I realised that while riding through these rolling hills, prairielands and mountains we had not seen one single wall or fence. Indeed the land seemed to belong to everyone and our only company were wild horses, cows and the occasional sheperd. Several hours later we stopped at the yurts in which we would sleep that night; another storm gave us the excuse needed to nurse the aches and pains of horseriding...
Up at dawn, and greeted by a howling storm on the morning run from the yurt to the toilet (dodging cowpats and the angry bull) set the tone for the first half of a very uncomfortable day. Our guide led our horses over a slippery, rocky mountain pass at 3500m in the full fury of a hail storm which lasted for a good couple of hours. However, as the valley opened up on Song-Kol, divine providence again rewarded us with stunning blue skies and great sunlight (the light seemed different in Kyrgyzstan, probably a complete absence of any pollution...) Having left our horses at the yurt encampment, we walked around this beatiful plateau and I somehow lost sight of Anton in the undulating hills; while searching for him a Kyrgyz herder rode up to me and dragged me into his family's yurt. These were probably the most hospitable people I have met while travelling and I had the honour of sitting at the back of the yurt, sandwiched between a bleeding goat's head and trotters, and the local wisemen. There was no choice but to eat what was offered - rolls of intestine, raw backbone and bleeding liver, and to wash it all down with some strong Kumys (fermented mare's milk) - how I didn't also leave with crippling food poisoning amazes me, maybe I have something to thank Uzbekistan for!