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
Sunday 07 May 2006
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
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
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.
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)
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
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