Horses at a summer pasture at Son-Köl Lake in Kyrgyzstan on July 8, 2017. Photo by Bermet Talant
NARYN, Kyrgyzstan – Some people spend their summer vacations on southern resorts and at beach parties. My dream holiday is an escape to the mountains to ride horses on pastures and sleep in a yurt surrounded by herds of sheep. You can call me weird.
You can also call me biased as I’m going to tell you that the most beautiful mountains I’ve seen are in Kyrgyzstan where they take up 80 percent of territory. It is a small landlocked country sandwiched between China and Kazakhstan. And it’s my homeland.
With its rocky canyons, wild nature, high-altitude lakes, and rapid rivers, this Central Asian state is growing in popularity as a travel destination for extreme sports. Every year foreigners flock there to ski or climb some of the highest peaks of the Tien-Shan range over 7,000 meters high.
I also have turned into a once-a-year visitor to that neck of the woods. On my short visits, I usually have time only to see my family and friends in the capital city Bishkek, where I grew up.
This July, however, I had to stay for two weeks waiting for paperwork to be done. The timeout allowed me to take that “dream holiday” and reconnect with some old memories.
Where nomads go
Up until the 1920s, when the Soviet government forced individual households to consolidate into collective farms, the Kyrgyz people lived as nomads in tribes. They were scattered around the territory, which at different times of history was ruled by the Uyghurs, Mongols, Chinese, and, most recently, the Russians.
These days, the majority of the six-million Kyrgyz nation lives in villages and towns. But for one season each year Kyrgyz farmers leave their homes and relocate with their families and livestock to summer pastures – jailoo (pronounced with elongated O) to live as their ancestors lived for centuries.
Jailoo at Son-Köl Lake is believed to be the most spectacular in the country. Getting there from Bishkek takes five to six hours of bumpy ride past picturesque sceneries.
This alpine lake is situated in a valley 3,000 meters above sea level in Naryn, the most mountainous province in Kyrgyzstan. And it can be accessed through the Kalmak-Ashuu pass at nearly 3,500 meters altitude only four months a year. In other times, the pass is covered by thick snow.
It’s a short season from June to September, and the area around Son-Köl turns into the most blissful place.
Despite being a popular tourist destination advertised in any travel guide on Central Asia, this jailoo is surprisingly quiet and empty. In fact, it is so vast that some yurts stand hundreds of meters from each other separated by herds of sheep and horses.
There’s no infrastructure whatsoever. No roads, no buildings, no running water, no electricity, no mobile network.
The only vestige of civilization are small power generators, which most shepherd households have these days to light up yurts inside in the evenings.
Nights at jailoo are the starriest; the air is the clearest.
Our group of Kyrgyz, Koreans, Japanese, and Russians arrived to jailoo at noon. And then until dinner we entertained ourselves as much as urban youth could without internet.
We had a nap, went for a walk to the lake shore, chased lambs and calves, rode horses for a few hours, and played with sun-kissed children of our hosts. Time passed slowly, but we didn’t feel bored.
After the sunset, the temperature outside dropped from over 20 to 8 degrees Celsius. I took a deep breath at the thought of suffocating night heat of Bishkek at 40 degrees. Jailoo was refreshingly cold in the middle of the summer.
We were sitting inside of a “kitchen” yurt and chit-chatting over hot black tea with homemade jam. Then we washed our faces with ice cold water from the water tank outside and went to sleep in our yurts under a double layer of blankets.
Like many shepherds at Son-Köl, our hosts Ishen and Roza collaborate with tourism agencies and organizations like The Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (TUK) and Kyrgyz CBT (community-based tourism) Association.
A weekend on jailoo with TUK will cost $50 that cover transport, one night lodge in a yurt, dinner, and breakfast. Additional expenses might include horseback riding ($5 per hour), lunch ($4), and kymyz, fermented mare’s milk (70 cents per liter).
Although tourism brings money, shepherds still consider it as a side income. Their main business is livestock breeding. Their lifestyle is simple and busy: men tend sheep and horses; women cook and clean; children help with the chores too.
In such a way, there’s nothing they can offer to tourists what they don’t use or eat themselves. That’s why you feel more like a guest or a distant relative rather than a paying client.
Had I had more time, I would have gone on jailoo-hopping, moving from one pasture to another and staying with shepherds’ families.
I grew up in a city, but I strongly feel at home at jailoo. Colors, smells, tastes, colloquial Kyrgyz language – everything reminds me of my childhood summers spent at my grandmother’s suburban house.
We didn’t live in yurts in the middle of nowhere. But my grandma managed to harmoniously fit the elements of Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle into sedentary suburban life.
We slept on the floor covered with handmade shyrdaks, ornamented felt carpets, and töshöks, colorful quilts, because when all family gathered for a weekend, there weren’t enough beds for everyone.
Mornings smelled with tokoch, round-shaped bread, and kaymak, fresh cream. Evenings smelled like shorpo, lamb soup, and kuurdak, fried liver and potatoes dish.
Just like on jailoo, time went slowly in our summer house. But everyone, including us kids, had something to do. There was a vegetable garden to take care of and a mini-farm with sheep, cows, chicken, and dogs that my grandma used to have in the backyard.
In the afternoons we hid from scorching heat in rooms with dark curtains that kept them cool. We didn’t have smartphones, Facebook, and internet. In the evenings we ate at one big table, read books, played outside, and talked for hours over hot black tea with homemade jam.
Grandma loved to preach: “Remember your tribe (Solto), honor your seven fathers (alas, I can only name three), and never forget your roots.”
“I try not to, grandma,” I would respond if she were alive now. “See, I always come back.”
Mom calls me a modern Kyrgyz nomad for changing countries and cities. I cringe. To me, a word “nomad” has become a cliché overhyped by western travel blogs. Going to another country for several days isn’t nomadism, it’s tourism.
To me, those shepherd families – real modern Kyrgyz nomads – prove that being a nomad is so much more than a simple act of moving from place to place.
It’s about leaving the comfort zone and making a new home wherever life takes you. About knowing your goals and time limits. About taking only essential things with you. About sharing and connecting with every person who passes your way. About living with less and making the most use of everything you get at your disposal. About hard work.
How to get there:
Fly to Bishkek via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, Pegasus
Fly to Almaty directly from Kyiv with Air Astana. Take a cab to Bishkek.
Nationals of 58 countries may enter Kyrgyzstan visa-free.
By Bermet Talant