While Bishkek is a modern, dynamic and constantly evolving city, it still provides an opportunity to tap into the ancient nomadic traditions of the Kyrgyz people. One of those traditions, horseback traveling, is becoming increasingly popular with SRAS students – and surely for a good reason. Practicing Russian and Kyrgyz while learning about local culture and enjoying authentic Central Asian food already sounds quite tempting, but let’s not forget to add the beauty of the Kyrgyz nature to the mix, to make it truly irresistible.
Below, we’ve compiled some of our students’ observations regarding horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
Camryn Vaughn, 2019
Camryn is pursuing a Russian and Political Science double major and German minor at the University of Montana. She chose to spend the fall semester of her junior year exploring Kyrgyzstan to immerse herself in the local culture and beautiful landscape. Camryn enjoys spending time outside and looks forward to sharing her experiences in Bishkek.
After the half-day horse trek organized by the London School and SRAS, a few of us students were left wanting more and decided to plan a second, longer excursion on our own. Four of the eight SRAS students currently in Bishkek agreed to go. There are many companies offering treks and excursions in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, but typical of broke college kids abroad, we were looking for the best price. Enter: Indy Guide, the Airbnb of tours in Central Asia and Eurasia. All you’ve got to do is search your criteria on their website. For Ross, Sam, Zak, and I, we wanted a weekend trip that left from Bishkek (or nearby) with accommodations, meals, guiding, and transport included for under $200 per person.
Once your criteria are entered, Indy Guide displays excursion organizers that offer treks that match. From that point, you can message the organizer through the website for a full itinerary and to arrange details. We got connected with a guy offering a three-day trek (Friday morning to Sunday afternoon) to the alpine lake Song Kol in the Naryn Region with everything included for $600 total. Split between four people it was $150 each, which was ideal for us.
The full price included:
- transportation from the village Kochkor to where our trek would begin (about 45 minutes outside of the village)
- Lunch and dinner Friday
- Breakfast, lunch, dinner Saturday
- Breakfast and lunch on Sunday
- Accommodation in yurt camps (bedding provided) Friday and Saturday night
- Horses and tack
- An English-speaking guide to accompany us
- Transportation back to Kochkor from where our trek would end (about an hour and a half back to the village)
That left us on our own for finding transportation between Bishkek and Kochkor (a three-hour drive), and a place to stay Thursday night in Kochkor so we could be ready to meet our guide there at 8:00 Friday morning. Ross took the initiative to message our guide and confirm payment and the schedule. He also emailed our London School SRAS program coordinator to adjust our lesson and test on Friday to allow us to depart Thursday night. Our test was moved to next Friday and we missed out on one communication lesson that we couldn’t make up. (Rest assured, our Russian skills were tested on this journey!)
Coincidentally, my host mom invited me to go with her to her hometown the day before when I didn’t have classes. We bought seats in a minivan at the avtovokzal (essentially a bus station for cars) and I found myself in Kochkor! Her brother and his family (who I had previously met in Bishkek) live there and hosted a party. It was suggested that the four of us could stay with the family on Thursday night.
Ross, Sam, Zak, and I came to school that day wearing our hiking shoes and carrying our backpacks. We left class at 4:00 pm and made a pit stop at the nearby shopping center. We needed to stock up on toilet paper and snacks, as well as withdraw dollars to pay our guide. We also got a box of chocolates as a gift for our generous hosts. In hindsight, I should have bought sunscreen as well. Live and learn. We then ordered a taxi to Bishkek’s western avtovokzal because we were not about to try to squish into a marshrutka with our big backpacks.
The avtovokzal is like a bazaar, but for men soliciting rides in their personal vehicles. The ride with my host mom in a regular car the day before cost 250som there and 200som back, so I knew what a good price was so we could avoid being overcharged, as we looked quite foreign. We easily found several minivans departing to our destination and Zak haggled the price down to 350som. The fun thing about these rides is that they don’t leave until all the seats are full. We thought we had it lucky because we pulled out of the station with just the four of us. After about ten minutes of elation, we pulled over to pick up a babushka and two other guys, finding ourselves shoulder to shoulder for the three-hour drive.
We arrived in Kochkor at 8:00 Thursday night and I called my host-uncle and when our driver heard me struggle to relay our location in Russian, he snatched my phone and told my host-uncle himself. A few minutes later we were picked up and treated to a delicious dinner (soup, salad, bread, tea) and good conversation. We slept comfortably in the guest room and had a great breakfast (oatmeal, bread, tea) as well. We felt very grateful for Kyrgyz hospitality – at the time.
Shortly before our guide picked us up at the house, my host-aunt pulled me aside and in Russian that I had trouble understanding, let me know that it was time to pay up – 1000 som each. This is a steep price for Kyrgyzstan! It was unexpected and I was frustrated that she was not being direct and speaking in such a complicated way to dance around the awkwardness of it, so I just gave in and coughed up 4000 som ($57 USD) which we later joked likely inflated the entire village economy. I’m not sure if payment was mentioned at any point by either my host mom or the family before we left and I didn’t catch it, but we felt slightly scammed. Comparatively, we could have easily stayed at a guest house with dinner and breakfast included for around 1000 som ($15 USD) total on booking.com.
The four of us were picked up by the guy who arranged our excursion and he took us to meet our guide on the side of the road. Our guide, Bakyt, studied English at university and guided trips frequently throughout the summer. He told us basic horse-riding instructions: commands for go and stop. That was all it took for us to head into the mountains.
The itinerary promised about five to six hours of horse-riding every day. We stopped for lunch for about an hour and a half after about three or four hours of riding before arriving at our yurt camp for the night. The food was delicious – classic Kyrgyz cuisine such as plov and lagman. At the yurt camps, we met a lot of other travelers, all from different European countries. We had good conversations and made some new friendships throughout our weekend.
We were told to prepare for cold weather in the mountains and we had each brought a backpack stuffed with long pants, sweats, wool socks, sweaters, warm jackets, hats, and mittens. It was really warm during the day and we neglected to bring sunscreen, which was a mistake. I did regret not bringing a pair of shorts to put on once we made it to our overnight yurt camps. It was very cold at night, however, so bringing our warm clothes was absolutely worth it. Both nights, we hiked to the top of a hill to watch the stars. The light pollution was zero, and the Milky Way was incredibly and beautifully clear.
Over the three days, we journeyed across several beautiful mountain passes and jailoos (Kyrgyz for “summer pasture”). Horses, cattle, and sheep were being herded from these summer pastures in the mountains to the village below for winter and we experienced a few traffic jams along the way.
We reached Lake Song Kol Saturday afternoon and camped nearby. In the evening chill, the lake was too cold to swim in, but that didn’t stop me and Sam from trying. The camps we visited on Saturday had flush toilets, a sauna, and stoves in the yurts, which were luxuries we were not expecting. It was a nice relief from the cold night before and trying to do your business in a hole in the dark.
Our way back Sunday, we passed over the Tuz Ashuu pass for a panoramic view of the Song Kol valley. The highest point we were at was 11,154 feet (3400 meters). I woke up that morning with a swollen eye, which my guide informed me can be a symptom of 1) me sleeping on that side of my face or 2) altitude sickness! It was back to normal by the time we reached the bottom of the valley and a van and truck were there to take us and the horses to the village for a final lunch with a host family. After that meal, we were transferred back to Kochkor.
Our guide, who we had then made friends with, also needed to find a ride back to Bishkek so he haggled with mini-van drivers to secure us each a 300 som ride.
We should’ve gotten a discount because at complete fault of our driver, who was trying to pass a line of cars while there were others traveling towards us in the right lane and swerved directly onto a rock, the minivan got a flat tire and we had to pull over and wait on the side of the road for an hour and forty-five minutes.
There is no AAA in Kyrgyzstan. There are, however, other friendly minivan drivers who may be willing to pull over and share their spare tires. The first spare tire we were gifted did not fit, which was discovered after driving down the road for three minutes where we had to pull over again and wave goodbye to our driver who rolled the flat tire to the other side of the road and got into a car without a word. We assumed he went back into the village to repair it, and our theory was confirmed in another hour when he returned with a repaired tire.
At that point, we could continue on at 50mph and we reached Bishkek at 10:30 that night. Although we were all stinky, tired, and in desperate need of showers, we made friends with our fellow mini-bus passengers and got a lot of Russian language practice in. We made sure to give our guide gratuity, the four of us each contributing 1000 som.
Altogether, our trip came to a total cost of 13,119 som each ($188 USD) – still within our initial budget. I would absolutely recommend booking an excursion through Indy Guide. Taking care of transportation between the villages was super helpful, and not having to try to find gear like sleeping bags or tents was ideal. We learned so much from our guide about the region and his experience living in the Kyrgyz countryside. The four of us had a great time bonding over our occasional misfortune, but everyone had a very easy-going attitude and we shared a lot of laughs throughout the weekend. I chose to study Russian in Kyrgyzstan for the country’s nature, and for such a good price, I was very glad I had the opportunity to experience the rugged beauty with such great people.
Horse Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Glaciers and Vodka Baths
A Review of Kyrgyz Summer Adventure,
an SRAS educational program
One of my absolute favorite things about travelling is the sensations one experiences when waking up and falling asleep in a foreign country. While not thoroughly confusing, it is disorienting enough to give one a pleasant reminder of the foreignness of one’s new environment. It is a reminder that no matter what happens, one is sure to make a plethora of discoveries before the next day is through. How to describe, then, how much better-than-usual this sensation was in the contrasts of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan? After attending my Russian as a Second Language classes during the day, I would fall asleep to the sound of a local discotheque, and wake up to the crow of a rooster and the call of a neighbourhood boy that sold fresh kefir and milk each morning.
As Bishkek was an endlessly fascinating mix of the old and the new, so my host family was a mix of different generations. My “Edje” (which is Kyrgyz for elder or “big sister” and is used as a title of respect), was a public schoolteacher who made delicious jam. Nurmuhammed, who went by “Nurick” for short, was my 14-year-old host brother from whom I would learn how to say things like “Duuuude, what’s up? Let’s watch CY55!” CY55, incidentally, is a popular Kazakh game show where they compete to see who can dub American films with the most outlandish substitutions. Rounding out the family was Almaz, grandson of my Edje, a ridiculously adorable and curiously proficient 3-year-old, who spoke Kyrgyz, and some Russian, monkey, and cat and addressed me in all four languages indiscriminately.
At school, my two Russian teachers wasted no time getting me familiar with the alpinisti termini (mountain-climbing terms) I would need for my week-long trek in the Tien Shan mountains which was part of the Kyrgyz Adventure package I had purchased from SRAS. They properly guessed that it was what had chiefly drawn me to study in Kyrgyzstan in the first place. I began to wonder, however, as I carefully recited words like kamenopad (rockslide) and panos (diahrreah), if the horse trek would be more challenging than I had bargained for.
Before I even left for the trek I soon discovered that these instincts were correct. I had asked my boyfriend Dan, who was arrived after I did to join the trek, to bring the camping equipment — but when he arrived we learned that his luggage had been lost. Luckily, I was able to borrow almost everything I needed from the London School of Bishkek, SRAS’s partner in delivering the program. So, I was able to still get a tent, proper shoes, a windjacket, etc. My only remaining privation was to endure wearing two sets of unceasingly wet cotton clothes the whole week while trekking, thus discovering why many mountain climbers nickname this material “death cloth.” Still, it was difficult to complain, given the breathtaking scenery we were experiencing. Staying in the base camp yurt the first night was an experience in itself, complete with the thrill of authentic samovars, oil lamps and children singing Kyrgyz songs at night — this was the charmingly domestic part of mountain life in the Kyrgyz country side, a pleasant overture to the rousing symphony that awaited us.
I should not overstate the surface level of difficulty — we were, after all, horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan. Antony, the third member of our party, had a wonderful time using the horses to orchestrate his mischievous pranks — right from the get-go he amused himself and the rest of us by whipping Dan’s horse in the rear thus sending them hurtling down the mountain at breakneck speed. This, of course, earned him reprimands from the other students and our native Kyrgyz guide, Uzat. Fortunately my horse was stubborn and more interested in eating everything in sight, and so didn’t go crazy with the galloping when prompted. While I loved my horse, it did, at times, stumble and or retreat in fear while crossing some of the stronger rapids and steeper passes. I consoled myself by repeating one of the first equestrian rules: You’ve got to trust your horse!
We also spent a fair amount of time setting up camp and taking shelter, during which most of our energy was spent in futile efforts to dry our things and ourselves. The five of us got to know each other in a most interestingly multilingual way. Besides us three westerners and our guide Uzat, we also had a resident medical intern who traveled with us. His Kyrgyz name we all, for some reason had trouble remembering and so we consistently referred to him simply as “the doctor.” Antony, the doctor, and I could speak Russian; the two locals and Antony spoke Kyrgyz (Antony was learning it for a documentary on bride stealing he was working on); Daniel, Antony and I spoke English between ourselves; and Daniel and Antony chattered in what I like to call “Nerd,” a language which includes dialects such as Wookie and Hut from Star Wars. As we never had a single conversation that everyone could understand, we all had fun translating for each other for both utilitarian and comedic purposes.
Another challenge to overcome was Dan’s previously unknown but increasingly acute allergic reaction to the horses, which resulted in rashes over his arms and legs, constant sneezing and a swollen throat. This condition would be aggravated, we found out, if he even entered the tent containing the horse equipment. None of us had known about this allergy beforehand, so in the absence of commercially produced pharmaceuticals, we followed the doctor’s advice and wiped everything down with vodka at the end of the day, drank vodka (purely for medicinal purposes, of course), and rubbed vodka onto Dan’s skin. The doctor also advised Dan not to drink cold water, something that apparently both the Russians and Kyrgyz believe causes digestive problems. None of us westerners could quite understand this, but at least Antony seemed to have bought into local health culture. Concerned for Dan’s health, he offered him some of his locally purchased dietary supplements: activated coal tablets and Mumio, an herbal supplement made from distilled mouse feces. If these strange offerings weren’t helpful, at least it seems they didn’t do more damage. The challenges were already made easier by our last two nights horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan. Our guides had arranged for us to spend one of these nights at a mountain cottage, and the other spent at the home of a local hunter. The hunter himself was on expedition, but we met his wife and also his hunting partner, an enormous golden eagle with a piercing stare and impressively formidable talons. The hostess’s daughter-in-law, who had been stolen as a bride by the son one year prior, made us some delicious tea and a dish made from cooked horse innards (which Dan, despite the potential allergy problem, very much enjoyed). The highlight of the stay, however, was the hot springs that were located behind this house – a misty cave-like pool that soothed our stiff, damp bones to the core.
The day after this, we made it to our final stop, the famous Lake Issyk Kul — but not before one last, glorious, nerve-wracking trial. The regular path was impassible because of melting snow, and we would have to descend down a glacier instead. The horses stumbled, slid, and stubbornly resisted movement – it was then, on this last day, that I was most truly scared. However, my fear subsided into the wonder of it all before we left the higher regions of the Tien Shan mountains.
As the waters of Issyk Kul, calm and slightly salty, enveloped my sore limbs it was nice to know that the time of danger was over. We would be retrieved by car soon and taken back to the civilization of the capital. The question is, how long until I crave it again? If I can help it, the bulk of the trials horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan still await me — in plentiful quantity, exquisite quality, and accompanied by no end of unforgettable Kyrgyz sunsets.