Anthropologists believe the Kyrgyz people arrived in the Tian-Shan mountains some time in the 1500s, and have traced their roots back through Mongolia to Siberia (where they lived in the first century BCE). The tribe surrendered to Genghis Kahn’s son Jöchi, in 1207, and largely adopted the Mongol horse culture. The Kyrgyz people hold their horses and their nomadic culture close to their hearts. Many insist they were born on a horse. Watching Kuban and Mischa, I don’t doubt it for a second.
The nomadic way of life was interrupted some in the 20th century, when industrial technology and Soviet central planning relocated many from the countryside to the cities. But since the fall of the USSR 26 years ago, Kyrgyz have worked to reclaim this part of their culture. Most of the country’s jailoos (the Kyrgyz word for high pasture) remain open, and shepherds, riders, trekkers, and livestock still roam the unfenced land at liberty. The World Nomad Games, launched in 2014, brings athletes from across Central Asia to the mountain town of Cholpon-Alta to compete in traditional sports like wresting, horseback racing, and falconry.
By day two of our ride, the fickle weather is testing our rain gear and our resolve, sending sleet and hail in shifts. Relying on the same hospitality network that binds people in the jailoos, we pause to eat and dry our clothes in the warmth of a shepherd’s felt-walled tent. As Kuban and Mischa share gossip from the village and kids play soccer in the storm, our host offers a loaf of bread and kaimak, a fresh, silky cream spread. I eat my fill and thaw my hands in front of the wood-burning stove one last time.
Soon, we are riding again, climbing toward the evening’s destination. The squall has broken, at least for a little while, and we soon come to an open field. Mischa leads us in a gallop. The horses gleefully stretch their legs. We all laugh and cheer. As we near camp, we slow to a walk, letting Kuban’s song guide us.
The site sits at 9,186 feet at the base of a steely granite peak. My tent-mate and I rush to pitch our shelter before the next storm, sneaking peeks across the lake to the snow-capped horizon in the North. Mischa and Kuban tend to the horses first, settling them throughout the plateau where they’ll spend the night chomping on grass. Our translator sets up the dinner tent, boils water for tea, and begins preparing the evening meal.
As raindrops break the glassy surface of a nearby pond, we all gather inside. Barefoot and slightly damp, we dive into the local walnuts, almonds, dried apricots and dates that accompany every meal. “Chai?” Kuban offers tea. Perhaps, I think, his voice always sounds like a song. We all nod, eagerly watching as he pours the amber liquid and passes steaming cups around the circle.
I draw my knees to my chest and blow on the scalding tea, smiling as my glasses fog and nose warms. A horse whinnies outside the tent and in the silence that follows, just for a moment, the Celestial Mountains seem completely still.