14th October 2019
“If you're given only one day’s life, spend half of it in the saddle”
Riding up and over the valley for Chym Beiyt we meet a shepherd high up in the hills. He is riding a beautiful strawberry roan that looks strong and fast, perfect for navigating this landscape. We stop for a chat and one of the questions put to him was “if he preferred shepherding in the Soviet time or now”? His response was enlightening. He tells us that they were very well looked after by the Russians. He informs us that during the Soviet era, as shepherds were part of a collective, they received subsidies from the government. Their food ration was paid for, their houses were paid for and they were paid well. You could even purchase various items in small villages that you could not buy in the capital city, such was the importance of the humble shepherd. Back then, there were approximately twenty million merino sheep and they had a set price. Nowadays shepherds travel from lowland pastures in the winter to highlands in the summer taking with them their flock of hundreds of sheep and goats.
Throughout our horse trek, we regularly meet local shepherd families and gain an insight into their lives. One shepherd in the middle pasture had a beautiful Taigan with him. This dog was originally bred to fight against wolves and a form of this hunting feature in the nomadic games held every two years, known as Taigan Zharysh. He shares some of his kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) with our horse guides and tells us that he will stay up here on his own for five days in a row until he is relieved and another shepherd will take over his rotation.
On another occasion, after coming over the mountain pass of Joldu-Kolot we spot a farmer milking his mares. He has a herd of fifty horses. The farmers milk the mares roughly every two hours. During this time the foals are tied up but kept near the milking mare and released after milking is finished. The mares are never ridden but only used for their milk and meat. If using a mare for meat she could be slaughtered from three years of age.
He invites us into his home and we have our first taste of kymyz. Some of us enjoy this salty taste more than others! We watch the lady of the house making yoghurt whilst dipping fresh bread, still warm from the oven into the melting butter. It is the nicest bread we have had so far.
Some fast galloping and we cross the highway to China, a mere sixty miles away to continue up and over the mountain pass into Tash Rabat at a height of 3900m. Like thousands of Silk Road travellers before us, the weather has turned and it is wet and cold and we are eager for our yurt and a wash. We catch a glimpse of a cluster of yurts below us and the well intact caravanserai of Tash Rabat, whose exact date of build is uncertain, some believing it to be before the fifteenth century. The rooms are dome-shaped, thirty-one in total with two trading rooms, a jail and a large central room upon entrance. It is made of crushed stone on clay mortar. It is tucked away from the site, half-buried in a hillside at 3100m above sea level.
We spend the following day exploring Tash Rabat and go on a short trek by foot up to some jagged peaks and the altitude of hiking at 3000m kicks in quicker than anticipated. On our climb we hear the call of the marmots alerting each other to our presence. Their call is a high pitched sound, like a bird chirping or a whistle. Marmots are hunted by shepherds with their dogs for meat, skin and fat. The fat of a marmot has been used in this region for centuries as a traditional liniment for joints and muscles. After a good few stops and scrambling the last few metres, watching out for loose rock we reach a narrow gorge. Squeezing through we make our way across and down the other side of the mountain having our picnic lunch high up amongst the jagged peaks. We spend our time watching and photographing vultures swooping and soaring at the peak facing us.
Sitting snugly back in our yurt in Tash Rabat, thunder roars and lightning splits the sky and a lone horse can be heard neighing as he canters past calling to the rest of his herd. Rain drums against the yurt walls and a voice calls from outside. It is Marat my local guide. He introduces me to Rostum the owner of our horses as I step out and under the yurt flap. He has arrived here on his beautiful palomino horse. We share some vodka as dusk becomes nightfall and a coat is brought for me as the talking continues.
He tells me of tales of the hardy Kyrgyz horse who was interbred to breed taller horses for the Russians. Of races that spanned 90km with all nine out of twelve prize-winning spots being won by Kyrgyz horses. Of a slaughter that occurred afterwards because of this and of the near eradication of the pure Kyrgyz horse in the Russians attempt to prohibit the nomadic way of life of the Kyrgyz people. Another toast of vodka and another story of the Kyrgyz horse ensues. They only need grass I'm told, no barley or oats, such is their strength of constitution. Their gait named an amble is apt. This horse not dissimilar to an American Saddlebred has a trot that is nearly as fast as a canter and quite smooth once you get the hang of sitting to it. This amble horse has been known to cover 300km in one day. A phenomenal feat when you look around at the terrain they are traversing through and the fact that it takes us nine days to cover 220km.
Another toast of vodka is given to the discovery that the Appaloosa horse originated from central Asia, not Europe as previously thought. Rostum tells me about a film he was involved in, in the valley of Tash Rabat that is on YouTube called the ‘True Appaloosa’. DNA testing confirms that the Kyrgyz Appaloosa is very similar to the North American Appaloosa and that the horse originated from Central Asia and was therefore not imported from Spain to North America as previously surmised.
At this stage of our conversation, the horse guide gives me some slices of apple to go with the Russian size shots we have been having. It works its magic and we continue discussing the beauty and merits of the Kyrgyz horse under the rumbling sky and looming gaze of the mountains. The sightings of herds of horses freely roaming the pastures, breeding naturally seems more precious to me now that I know of their past.