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Adventure / October 15, 2017

Nomad Life: Horsepacking the mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Written by: Stacey McKenna

Kuban is singing, celebrating the sun as it floods soggy grasslands with the day’s first hint of warmth. The Kyrgyz words ring across the alpine valley, bouncing between rocky slopes as though made for these mercurial Tian-Shan, or Celestial, Mountains.

Two days and roughly 30 miles into our eight-day horse trek, I already welcome the break in the rain. My mount, too, seems pleased with the improvement and pricks his grey, speckled ears toward a nearby ridge. Following his gaze, I watch as a shepherd, his dog, and their flock of sheep disappear into the clouds.

Central Asia’s nomads have followed the seasons for millenia, chasing grass for their herds of sheep, goats, and cattle. Across the open steppes of Mongolia and Kazakhstan, shepherds can traverse more than 300 miles in a round-trip. Here in mountainous Kyrgyzstan, they travel shorter distances through far steeper terrain. They winter in the relative low country of alpine valleys, but balmy summers drive them deep into the high country.

My horse Jettagüs checking out the view of Lake Issyk Kul between bites of grass.

On the second day of our trip, our group rides through clouds at 7,500 feet.

My own eight-day journey though these mountains, guided by family-owned Shepherd’s Way Trekking, begins in the village of Barskoon, near Lake Issyk Kul. Here, at 5,751 feet, the weather is clear. The sky outside is crisp and cloudless, the sun unfettered. I sink cross-legged into the plush, carpet-adorned floor of a yurt, sipping tea and chatting with spouses Ishen and Gulmira Obolbekov, two of the outfitter’s three founders.

“The mountain weather is like a toddler,” Gulmira warns. “It is unpredictable, always changing.” She reviews what we must bring—sleeping bag, down coat, rain gear—and reminds us to pack as minimally as possible. We will have no vehicle support. The horses will carry everything, including our food, tents, and cookware.

The next morning, Ishen drives our group of five guests plus translator to the stable to meet our guides: Mischa and Kuban. Within minutes, we are mounted and riding up a ridge that towers above Issyk Kul’s glacial turquoise waters. Despite carrying about 200 pounds between rider and gear, my mount makes easy work of the steep path.

For the next several days, we trace ancient trails along the undulations of peaks, passes, and pastures, ascending and descending from 14,000-feet several times. We never reach the full heights of these mountains, which in Kyrgyzstan max out at 24,406 feet. But as my horse effortlessly picks his way across rocky riverbeds and skids worry-free down mud-slick tracks, I get it: We needed horses to crack open this part of the world.

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.

All photos by Stacey McKenna.

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to [email protected]

about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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