In The Saddle: Kyrgyzstan on horseback

An equestrian trek in the wilds of Central Asia requires nerve and spirit. And it helps to have a champion jockey like Richard Dunwoody lead the way, writes Minty Clinch

The initial omens for our Nomad Trail Adventure, a 300km circuit of the Tien Shan "Celestia"' Mountains in northern Kyrgyzstan, had not been promising. Our direct flight had been cancelled and we'd been rerouted through Dusseldorf and Istanbul, turning 12 hours of travel into 36. The lone male rider threw his toys out of the pram and caught the next plane home. The sisterhood was made of sterner stuff, as we needed to be, because we wouldn't see our luggage for the rest of the week.

Dom Mocchi, born in Bergamo, but living in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, with his wife and family, displayed Italian élan in motivating us weary travellers when we landed. No riding helmets, no hiking boots? No matter. After a day in the markets, we'd bought enough bargain-basement kit for 10 days in the saddle. "I love the English," said Dom. "They never complain."

That evening, we celebrated his 40th birthday with Sogan Bai and his family in their house near Issyk Kul, the second largest alpine lake in the world (after Titicaca). "Every time you drink, you must make a toast," Sogan Bai insisted, the only English phrase he knew. With vodka costing less than mineral water, there were many toasts, resulting in general unsteadiness the next morning.

Pre-Kyrgyzstan, I'd imagined you'd need to be a fairly experienced rider to spend up to 10 hours a day in the saddle in the back of beyond. Wrong. Four of my eight companions were extremely competent, but the others, London city slickers, were barely out of equestrian kindergarten. Paula, the epitome of Mayfair chic, summed up her holiday philosophy. "I always went to five-star golf resorts with my husband, but I got so bored I thought I'd try something else." So she learned to ride, hacking up and down Rotten Row for six months. Lucy, an artist and grandmother from Highgate, had spent even less time in the saddle, while Sophie, an accountant from Kingston-on-Thames, smiled benignly as her horse galloped randomly over the plains. Brakes? Who needs them? Certainly not Sophie.

With the pass safely behind us, we enjoyed the full spectrum of mountain scenery, deep gorges and canyons, rushing rivers and treacherous bogs. At times the horses picked their way cautiously down rocky ravines; at others they cantered over open pastures. We heard the distinctive whistle as marmots disappeared into their rocky burrows and watched griffon and lammergeier swooping down whenever they spotted a cheap meal.

We were the only interlopers in a way of life that was already established when the Silk Route traders first passed this way some 2,000 years ago. Kyrgyzstan is one of the smaller Central Asian republics, dwarfed to the north by huge, oil-rich Kazakhstan, threatened to the West by refugees from turbulent Uzbekistan, and bordered to the south and east by Tajikistan and China. Most of its income comes from animal husbandry; its 5 million citizens are outnumbered many times by their flocks. Along the way, we were greeted warmly and offered kymys (fermented mare's milk) by local herdsmen who camp out in their decorative white felt yurts for the short summer months.

While Richard patiently cajoled and nannied, tightening girths and heaving bodies into saddles, Dom and his Kyrgyz team worked on the logistics of camping and catering. Monbiot, his tireless lieutenant, can have a makeshift sauna up and running in 20 minutes flat. More routinely, he transferred the kit in 4WDs, erecting the tents on a river-bank before we rode in each evening, while his wife, Lilia, cooked for 20 on a couple of tiny gas rings. As Kyrgyzstan is too poor to afford pesticides, the raw ingredients are natural: fresh river fish, abundant meat newly off the hoof, salads and fruit.

Fresh air, exercise, sunshine and organic food: was this a health trip? No way, not once you factored vodka into the equation. Most of us had learned Sogan Bai's lessons well, adopting the toast as a way of life for the duration. One night we had a party, dancing round the camp fire to Abba played on the Land Cruiser's sound system, but usually we talked, sharing sisterhood secrets with ever diminishing reservation. Richard listened in, providing a lone male perspective. I now know that women in the wild talk about sex until the vodka bottle is empty. Then they open another one...

Wild Frontiers (020-7736 3968; wildfrontiers.co.uk) riding holidays in Kyrgyzstan in 2006 include: 16-29 June, Nomad's Trail, £1,990; 22 July-4 August, Ride the Mountains of Heaven, £1,900; 5-18 August, Dunwoody Rides Again, £2,250. Prices are based on two sharing and include return flights and full board

A Route Through Kyrgyzstan

The Osh Bazaar

If your airline loses your luggage, you can always restock your wardrobe at rock-bottom prices in one of Central Asia's largest covered shopping malls, the Osh Bazaar. Even if you arrive with all your possessions, this is an essential sight - if only for its people-watching potential. Fashion victims beware: Kyrgyz bras are best for burning. Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Historical Museum

So you know absolutely nothing about Central Asia. No worries, it's easy to fill yourself in on the fascinating history of this intriguing part of the globe. Pay a visit to the Historical Museum where you can chart the region's evolution through the ages, from the Saka Stone Age tribes to the colourful Silk Road travellers, the Soviet era and the present day. Ala-Too Square, Bishkek

Fat Boys

Every capital city has its expat hangout and Bishkek is no exception. Fat Boys serves comfort food to global backpackers: full English breakfast, hamburger and chips, spaghetti bolognaise, you name it, you got it, either inside or on tables on the pavement. The sports bar downstairs shows international football, rugby and cricket. Fat Boys, 104 Chui Prospect, Bishkek

The Central Asian Bookshop

Bishkek may be a bit of an outpost but it is still possible to get some culture here. So after you've had your drink in Fat Boys, pop down to its basement to find this bookshop. It's owned by an Irish traveller called David Korowicz and run by his brother Jonathan. The shop specialises in Central Asian books in English, French, Spanish and German.

Fat Boys, 104 Chui Prospect, Bishkek

Eagle hunting with Sogan Bai

One of the last of the traditional eagle hunters, 66-year-old Sogan Bai has performed for Boris Yeltsin, among other famous names. After you've watched a demonstration of his skills, stay for the night in his traditional Kyrgyz home near Lake Issyk Kul. One of the great attractions here is feasting on his wife's cooking over a vodka toast or three. For more details, call 00 996 3947 91320

Issyk Kul Stud Farm

Known as State Stud Farm No 54 in the Soviet era, but now a privately owned all-purpose breeding and training stable. The horses are primarily trotters, partly thoroughbred and trained for races up to 25 miles long. The best ones are held in neighbouring Kazakhstan, where the glittering prizes can include normally unattainable 4x4s. Issyk Kul Stud Farm, Cholpon-Ata

Jyluu Suu Jacuzzi

Kyrgyzstan is rich in natural hot springs, and the ones beside the Jyluu Suu campsite are particularly welcome after a long day in the saddle. The water has been piped into an indoor concrete bath for four - at a squeeze - but first you will have to cool it down with cold water from the river. Ask the caretaker for buckets and expect to pay 30p a head. But both effort and money are worth it.

Noorgul's Yurt Camp

Stay with a shepherdess on the shores of Lake Sol Kul. Noorgul has five traditional yurts, each capable of sleeping six to eight on carpets on the floor. Meals can also be provided. For a small sum, Noorgul will invite neighbouring horsemen for an evening game of 'kokboru', a national sport involving two mounted teams fighting for possession of a goat's carcass.

Pinara Hotel

After 10 days of sleeping in tents and washing in streams, you may feel you have earned a taste of luxury when you arrive back in the capital. The Pinara hotel provides all the necessary four-star ingredients. You can soak in the bath, sweat in the sauna, lie by the pool - and drink in the bar.

Pinara Hotel, 93 Prospect Mira, Bishkek (00 996 312 542 349)

Adriatico Restaurant

Celebrate your return to urban life by tucking into a European feast. Pull up a chair at the Adriatico Restaurant which offers a range of traditional Italian dishes - quite a contrast to the indigenous Kyrgyz pictures on the walls. If you drink enough vino rosso, a treat after the wilderness, you might even end up buying one. Adriatico Restaurant, 219 Chui Prospect, Bishkek

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea