Imagine an immense steppe. A sparkling crystal lake. Rough snow-capped mountains in the distance. Scattered yurts, horses running wild.
If your eyes happen to be seeing this, you’ll know you’re at Lake Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest lake – for me, its most beautiful by far. (The largest is Lake Issy-Kul.)
Lake Song Kul’s beauty isn’t a pleasure handed to you on a platter – you must earn it.
The access roads are winding and steep and threaten to jettison you into the void each time a few drops of rain slick the deep red clay. Once there, you’ll have to forget any thoughts of comfort. Electricity is rare, phone signals non-existent and the only hints of modernity are the occasional vehicles ferrying visitors up the 1300 meters (4300ft) from the valley below.
From Kochkor, a small town used as a jumping-off point for the region, a false sense of security sets in as the road gambols along a river in a gentle, nearly unnoticeable climb. Steeper and steeper, the bends narrow into hairpins until all that is left is a void far, far below.
Once you clear the road’s highest point and start the ever-so-gentle descent, a strip of pale blue water unfurls, long and narrow, along the flat steppe that stretches to the edge of the Tien Shan Mountains.
A line of white dots mars the evenness of the yellow grass plain. As I get closer the dots turn into yurts, painstakingly rebuilt and removed each summer season as their owners head back to town. The only remaining inhabitants are a handful of hardy fishermen who make a living battling the snow-jammed passes to get their catch back down to town.
As we arrive and unload, I’m nearly run over by a young boy galloping by on a horse. He is no older than ten and seems welded onto his mount, boy and horse moving in a unison so natural it is hard to know where the boy stops and the horse begins.
I’m shown to my yurt, which has heating, the first time I’ve seen such luxury.
That luxury is in slight contrast to the upright turquoise metal box that serves as my outhouse (each camp has one), all perfectly clean, but distinctly uncomfortable if you happen to believe you should sit on toilet rather than squat over it.
My hostess, Asel, prepares my bedding. She takes one look at me and decides I need a thick bed. She piles several mattresses one on the other and at night, when I finally slip into this structure, I know I’ll be more comfortable and warmer than in a five-star hotel. Temperatures will dip to freezing and in the morning I’ll be torn between the warmth of the sheep’s wool blankets and the smell of coal from the yurt stoves, hinting at coffee. Of course the coffee will win.
But first, it’s eating time. I’ve come to believe it’s always eating time in Kyrgyzstan.
Before the main meal appears, a feast of nibbles is laid out on the table. This is the custom “in case someone drops by”, I’m told. It makes sense. The vast distances that can separate one yurt from another require this level of hospitality.
At night I listen to the lake lapping the shore and fires crackling. A horse snorts so loudly I whip around, expecting to find him inside my yurt. A few children cry, and adults whisper. I crawl out for a last look at the sky. The earlier rain has washed away the clouds and I’m left with a trillion stars, unblemished by electricity. There is nothing else here. I might well have been in another century.
The next morning I decide I must do what everyone else does here: ride a horse. The last time I rode was was several decades ago and thoughts of falling off crash and bang around my brain. If I break something, I’m many hours from help, even with my trusty personal locator beacon (click here if you’re wondering what on earth that is).
I make it clear I’m a little out of shape for this kind of gallivanting and that I’d like a nice horse, a calm horse. Preferably one that doesn’t move at all. As I climb on (scratch that – as I’m shoved up by two helpers), the lead guide grabs a rope and walks ahead, pulling me along like a three-year-old on her first pony. I quickly lose patience and in irritation (mostly with myself) I grab the rope back. My guide smiles brightly, makes a clicking sound and he’s off in a cloud of dust.
And so am I.
Every memory cell rushes into action as I try to recall which way to pull the reins, whether to squeeze my knees – and how to say stop in Kyrgyz, a word I’ve never had to use.
Slowly I begin to recognize the horse’s gait and despite bumping around the saddle inelegantly, I manage to hang on. The horse slows to a trot, almost dislodging me, and speeds into a gallop, which is easier to manage. When I finally raise my eyes from the horse’s mane (the one I’ve been hanging onto with my white knuckles) the mountains are almost in my face – grey, granite, white-tipped.
I’m sailing with the wind. All I hear is my horse snorting, as he tries to catch up to the guide ahead. The sound of bridle leather slaps against the horse’s neck, and his hooves kick up grit and gravel. At times he stops, doing what it is that horses do.
I can say I’ve ridden a horse at Song Kol Lake. Not quite the week-long treks others have enjoyed, but enough to feel a distinct sense of accomplishment at having pushed beyond my fears.
Around me, people are packing. Women – the men are off working in town – disassemble their yurts and fold them up for next winter, waving their children off for the ride down the mountain and a new school term. A boy chases a puppy before catching it and securing it in a cardboard box.
And now it’s my turn to leave, and I contemplate the trip: we’re headed out towards the south, and it’s bound to be easier to negotiate than the road that brought us here.
Or that’s what I thought.
Soon we leave the yurt camps behind. They now appear in tiny clumps, planted here and there, belonging to local people who live in them rather than rent them.
We leave the lake behind and follow a faint track, which becomes fainter as we advance. Without GPS or an actual road, we have only the sun to guide us. My driver, Bushbek, waves vaguely towards some distant mountains and sets off cross-country towards them. Our low-slung city car (a four-wheel drive is highly recommended) bounces mercilessly across fields, dirt and dry riverbeds.
Occasionally, we stop at a yurt to ask for directions. As always, we are invited in for tea and snacks, and an arm points in one direction or another. After an hour or two, the thin tracks that occasionally criss-cross the plain have disappeared altogether. Horses own this land and their hoofmarks are are our markers.
We shriek joyfully when a ‘real’ road, fully graded and pebbled, makes and appearance. We finally know where we are: at the top, heading down.
If I thought the climb was treacherous, I discover the descent is potentially worse, a narrow strip cut into the mountain. Winding downward, we inch along switchbacks wedged between vertical rocks on one side and a precipitous drop on the other.
The steppes turn to rock turn to high forest, merging into grasses and slowly flattening, allowing me to breathe in relief after two hours of holding my breath (and for some reason the car door) in expectation of a plunge.
From the pristine shores of the lake, we are now coughing in the swirling dust of coal trucks from a local mine.
This is Kyrgyzstan, after all: a surprise around each corner, and no two corners alike.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- Don’t plan on visiting any earlier than late June or later than mid-September, when I did. Even so nighttime temperatures plunged to freezing. Outside this small window of time, you’ll have snow – and no place to stay as the yurt owners will have packed up and gone to town for the winter.
- My yurt camp was managed by CBT, or Community Based Tourism, which works with local people to make sure they get as much money as possible from providing services for tourists (in other words, no large multinationals repatriating profits).
- Ask about the vehicle. Unless there isn’t a cloud in the sky and your driver has a stellar reputation, go for a four-wheel drive. My driver was excellent but it rained at times. Had the rain come down harder, we would have faced the real possibility of being washed away.
- From Kochkor you can actually find a shared taxi. Go down to the main square or ask CBT for help. Just make sure you make arrangements to be picked up when you’re ready to leave. A lot of people ride up, and organize a car down.
- If you don’t want to use CBT, you’ll find other guest houses and places to stay in Kochkor on Booking.com
- Health care isn’t easy to find here so be sure to get insurance (I use and recommend World Nomads).
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