Galloping on the steppes of Kyrgyzstan

Horse riding near Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan

When I think of Kyrgyzstan, I think of horses and horsemen. Nomads, shepherds, men who leave their families behind and make for the mountains every summer with their horses and sheep.

Alone. No books, no TV, only a phone to keep in touch and a flock to take care of. I wanted to get a glimpse of that lifestyle. By the time I arrived in Kochkor, the snow hadn’t had time yet to melt.

Everyone seemed to agree that it was not “the right season”. Most guides were not willing to take me all the way up to Song Kul (“kul” means lake), but I finally found a guy who would help me reach it despite the snowed slopes and icy path.

We just needed a couple of horses, so we made for Kyzart, a very small village on the A367 that runs from Kochkor to Suusamyr. On the way, our car stopped many times because the road was blocked by herds and riders.

Kochkor had held an animal trade fair the day before, and everyone was taking their livestock home from the city the traditional way.

Horsemen and their flocks taking over the roads near Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan Road to Kyzart, Kyrgyzstan

Kyzart pass in Kyrgyzstan
Chaek pass.

In Kyzart, we met a horse owner and paid for two horses, two days. “Ever tried ridding a horse?” “Yes!”

Truth is, I had only tried horse-riding as a kid, and I still remember being terrified every time my horse would trot. It was some sort of summer camp with horses and a swimming pool, and I ended up spending most of my time in the swimming pool. Still, galloping on a horse was on my “list”, next to many things I actually never expected to have the guts to check off.

I postponed my better judgement and accepted my horse. It would take too long to reach Song Kul on foot, after all, given the deep snow.

Horse-riding in Kyrgyzstan
Up we go!

Crossing rivers near Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan Steppes north of Tian Shan mountains

Tian Shan mountains
The Tian Shan mountains

Way to Song Kul

We would go east through the beautiful Jumgal valley from Kyzart, riding between the mountains of Sandyk and Song Kul. Both mountain ranges are part of the Internal Tien-Shan system. Once we were directly north of the lake (with the Song Kul range between the lake and us), we would spend the night; and climb up southwards the next day to get to the lake.

The guide taught me a few ways to make him go, go faster, and stop in a quick half-minute lesson, and that was it! We set off. I was terrified every time the horse moved in an unexpected way. We had a rough start.

He would rear on his hind legs as if to get rid of me when crossing rivers, and refuse to go on as soon as the snow got too deep and the mountain too steep. In this fashion, we trod through the valley north of the lake for most of the day, till we reached the hut of a shepherd.

We were warmly welcomed with food and tea, and I tried to engage in their conversation as much as the language barrier allowed me to. I could gather that he had lived this life since he finished high school, some twelve years before, and that his wife and kids did visit him on the weekends.

Once the horses had been fed, we got a good night sleep, ready to beat the sunset and get to see Song Kul before noon.

The real challenge for my horse was the path from the hut to the top of the southern mountains of the valley. A few hours into our journey, he ultimately gave up at 2,600m and horse-knee-deep snow, so we continued to Song Kul on foot.

All I had seen of Song Kul online before leaving was a bunch of green-paradise wallpaper photos, but of course it wasn’t like that. It was all white, frozen and quiet. One of the good things of traveling during the wrong season is that you don’t come across too many other travelers, somehow rendering the journey more authentic, more remote and exciting.

We enjoyed lunch to a white sea of mountain peaks at 3,000+ meters, and then started climbing down. We also came across these majestic black yaks on our way down!

Posing in front of Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan
Finally at the top!
Views of Song Kul from a northern peak in Kyrgyzstan
The views were incredible.
Frozen Song Kul from a northern peak in Kyrgyzstan
Frozen Song Kul from a northern peak

Yaks near Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan

Back to the steppes

As we reached the bottom of the valley and started riding back west, the shepherd from the hut noticed a bunch of horses that were far away from their owner, so he started galloping around, shouting and maneuvering to get them all running west.

Then my horse started neighing. I got the message. He also wanted to gallop like that, he was a male horse and he wanted to join the pack.

Every time the horse started trotting to catch up was scary already, so galloping was definitely just a wild thought far from any common-sense reality for me. Later on, we reached the steppes north-west of the valley.

The guide quickly got away from me, planning to reach the villages by the river down in the valley, so I was suddenly left alone.

Steppes near Kyzart in Kyrgyzstan
Horseman and his team of horses heading east.

Shepherd and his horse in Kyrgyzstan

It was only the horse and me. And the endless steppes. So I thought life was too short and started shouting CHOOE CHOOE, kicking him in the girth while whipping his right hip with an improvised stick.

He got the message, and started galloping like mad. Faster, faster, faster… I was half scared to death, half in ecstasy, as the horse showed me all his might, racing the wind. That time is something I will never forget.

A while later the shepherd came up to me again. He grinned, and said “I saw you. That’s how it’s done!” Then he added, “now you try standing up.”

I accepted the challenge and started galloping again, and then tried to lift my ass from the saddle, tough as it felt. I believe I did gallop standing up for a second or two, but it got seriously hard to not fall, and I got back to sitting quickly enough.

On the way back, we also came across a group of youngsters practicing for the nomad games and our dog tried to eat a young buckling. Finally, back in the horse owner’s house, we were served with typically Kyrgyz bread, butter and ham.

Meal at the horse shepherd's house in Kyrgyzstan
The best (horse) butter I’ve had in my life.
My buddy!

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