Exploring the wilds of Kyrgyzstan on horseback
Exploring the wilds of Kyrgyzstan on horseback
Archaeological evidence of horses in the Middle East stretches back about 4,500 years, but it was probably on the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan that the animals were first domesticated — and then introduced to the ancient Middle East in 2300BC.
So, an equine adventure led by renowned endurance rider Alexandra Tolstoy across the unspoilt wilds of Kyrgyzstan seems only fitting for adventurous horse lovers.
From the offset, the scenery is exceptionally appealing and, as a journey, there’s a twist of storybook romance and escape. The area is beloved by Tolstoy for its extraordinary geographic diversity, cultural richness and gentle people; along with its cerulean lakes and virgin landscapes speckled with wild iris and multitudes of giant purple alliums, hollyhocks and foxtail lilies.
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in central Asia bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, China to the east, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the south and west. Alluring views of the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains and surrounding glaciers can be seen from street level as soon as you arrive in the capital, Bishkek.
While the uplands beg to be explored, Bishkek, founded in the 19th century, is definitely worth a day or two — not least the vast Alatau Square and Osh Bazaar, popular for its colourful Kyrgyz felt carpets. Close by, The Kyrgyz National Museum of Fine Arts, a drab grey block of brutal architecture, is crammed with exquisite Kyrgyz crafts and paintings. Of particular note are the heavy felt rugs covered in geometric patterns, an embroidered wrap skirt lined with rabbit fur and copious ravishing masterpieces that have stood the tests of time and fashion.
When Stalin rounded up the remnants of the tsarist empire in the 1920s, he created five Central Asian territories to add to those of the recently formed USSR. The Soviet tide finally ebbed again in 1991 and each territory — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan — emerged as a newly independent nation. Of these five “stans”, the last, Kyrgyzstan, is often referred to as the friendliest and most beautiful.
Most of its borders run along scenic mountain crests, such as the Kotorma Pass in Sary Chelek, where my small trusty stallion uses every ounce of energy and concentration to scale the vertiginous path. The route is steep and narrow, but easily negotiated by the Kyrgyz horses — a small, sure-footed mountain breed with the stamina, agility and endurance needed for this mountain environment.
The view from halfway up extends 180 degrees, overlooking the valley where we’ve camped for two nights on the shores of Lake Iri-Kel. All around the camp lie swathes of ripe fennel, an undulating sea of yellow from this height, rippling in the breeze. On horseback, fragrant wafts of mountain thyme crushed under hoof frequently fill the air, mixed with bursts of sage and rosemary, released as stirrups brush past.
Another morning, before we reach the Tas-Bel Pass, we ride through hectares of verdant woodlands filled with wild mulberry trees, into the largest walnut forest in the world. We pass a family on their way to their summer yurt. Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic people — the word Kyrgyz actually means 40 tribes — and when warm weather arrives, they disperse from the villages in which they shelter during winter and head to the summer jailoo — isolated pastures in these widespread peaks.
Travelling through the lengthy Susamir Valley, which is occupied by nomads in small clusters of white yurts and flocks of farm animals, we see teams of young boys practicing their horsey skills. This part of rural Kyrgyz life is particularly important and an onlooker soon realises that local equine sports require a warrior-like spirit.
Later, on a plateau beside the dramatic turquoise waters of Kara-Suu Lake, we witness just how much skill is involved. Ulak is an ancient game — half polo, half rugby, with a dash and wrestle for a headless goat carcass (stuffed with salt packs to increase the weight), which players attempt to hurl, drop or smuggle over the opposition’s goal line. It’s a game requiring speed, agility, strength and stealth; a demonstration of acrobatics and courage.
Melis, one of our guides and the champion Ulak player of his region in southern Kyrgyzstan, celebrates another victory. The shirt he wears is beautiful and intricately embroidered by his wife. His horse is wearing improvised hoof boots fabricated from old car tyres for protection. His adoration for this horse is apparent to all and the extraordinary display of dexterity from the two is utterly enthralling.
For the rest of us, the experience proves to be an ideal marriage of leisurely horse-paced travel and adventure in the splendiferous mountain scenery. Occasionally, the terrain opens up into broad wild flower meadows where it is possible to canter, but most of the time it’s a gentle stroll beside bubbling brooks of glacial meltwater and lakeside grassland. This little corner of central Asia has retained its inheritance — a wealth of cultural and scenic mystery.
For now, its ancestral allure remains unspoilt and as I cross the land, I notice the shared sense of gratitude within our small group. It’s a feeling we’ll carry in our hearts long after parting.
Scheduled riding trips are run in May and September, when mean temperatures reach 25ºC during the day and a comfortable 16ºC at night. Bespoke trips can also be commissioned. A basic level of fitness is necessary as five to six hours are spent in the saddle each day, covering about 25km with occasional canters through open ground easily negotiated by local Kyrgyz horses. Prices from $5,700 per person; www.alexandratolstoy.co.uk