Kyrgyzstan: Fantasies from the Steppes
Four years after falling in love with Tajikistan, we head back to Central Asia
“We are going to Kyrgyzstan this summer.”

When we were telling our friends and relatives about our plan, the most common reactions usually were “Why?” or “Is it dangerous?”. The area is still fairly mysterious to a lot of westerners, and those questions -filled with good intentions-, were mostly fueled by the lack of knowledge we have of the region. But four years before that, Eva and I had been on a month-long trip to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan’s southern neighbor. We had found a peaceful, welcoming country with the most generous people and incredible landscapes.

We had fallen in love with Central Asia, and we always had the intention to go back and discover more of this part of the world. Kyrgyzstan came as a logical follow-up to our first trip, with promises from adventure books and travel tales we had read since our childhood: orange steppes surrounded by white mountains, where people ride horses all day long, racing each other, fighting while playing Buzkachi, immense silver lakes, yurtas, infamous Kumis, rolling green hills and dusty roads...
Our expectations, charged with years of fantasies, seemed impossible to fullfill. Maybe for that reason or maybe because we are simply disorganized, we left with no plan in mind. We didn’t buy any map, we didn’t study a path that would take us to the most interesting places over a month. Instead, we left with a sturdy tent, good shoes and sleeping bags, a few days of food, an English-Russian mini-dictionary, and the intention to follow the recommendations from the local people.

Sometimes, plans are the best way to be disappointed, and to contrive our path to something that is not going to work, like blind-folded, missing out what can be fantastic just a few hundred meters to the right. Of course, in reality, "leaving with no plan" also meant that we could go completely the wrong way, spend a few weeks being lost and come back with nothing but memories of ghost towns and coal factories.

Still, we thought it was worth the shot.
August 5th. It's finally time to start the trip!

First, we are flying to Istanbul, then to Bishkek with Pegasus Airlines. I heard bad things about that company, but hey, it was cheaper so we took it. That was our first mistake.
*** a few hours later***



Tears are rolling down her cheeks. Eva is not really crying as her face is totally still, showing little emotion, but she is absorbing the reality of the situation. In the flickering, tired halogen lights of the Bishkek airport, the last pieces of luggage from our flight have been circling around the conveyor belt a couple of times already. Eva’s hiking bag is not there, and it is becoming obvious that it won’t join us today. It must have gotten lost somewhere on the way, probably in Istanbul where we had a stop-over. Inside the bag, half of our trekking equipment -especially the tent-, her clothes and even trekking shoes… which basically represent our hopes for adventure. Good thing we didn’t make too many plans.

It’s 5 o-clock in the morning, our brains are not functioning properly, and yet, we have to start queuing at the enquiry desk to fill a form -in russian- to describe the lost bag and its content. The half-reassuring detail is that 15 other bags have been lost in this flight. Pretty impressive. At least, we are not alone. While Eva is trying to deal with the lady at the desk, I venture out of the arrival hall to find a driver who could take us to a place to sleep. We have arranged to stay at a lodge called “Nomad’s home”, and I find -amongst the people gathered at the gates of the airport- a sleepy man holding a sign with the name of the hostel. He is not happy, he says he has been waiting for hours for people to show up and he wants to leave right away. I try to explain that our flight was delayed, and I am still waiting for my wife who didn't get her bag. I guess he understands by the way he frowns. I feel bad for him, and our phones are not working on the Kyrgyz network so I am left with no way to contact Eva on the other side of the customs area.

I try to chat with him to pass the time but his english is as minimal as my russian and we are both exhausted. I can’t wait to go to bed as well. All we have left to do anyways is to recover from the flight, we will deal with the bag tomorrow. Either it will be found, or we will have to look for new equipment in Bishkek, which would cost us our entire budget for the trip.
Eva, sad bag-less tourist in flip-flops and tee-shirt, finally comes out of the arrival hall. She tells me that she just filled a form to describe her luggage, but they have no idea where it could have gotten lost. There is no report of a matching bag anywhere yet. In silence, we drive through the dusty streets of Bishkek. There is no mountain yet, only the efficient-looking, square buildings shaped by years of soviet influence. I hope the driver knows where we are going, or even that he is -in fact- the right driver and not someone taking advantage of us. The exhaustion fuels my delusional paranoïa of the lost tourist.

He stops in a remote one-way street and gets out of the car. We knock on a faded blue metal door as birds celebrate the sunrise. The air is still fresh. The two lovely ladies from “Nomad’s home” welcome us into a peaceful courtyard where I notice a little cooking area, a dining table and a fridge full of beers. They offer us to pitch the tent in the garden. Unfortunately, we have no tent anymore. With a gentle smile, they take us to a room where a clean, comfortable bed awaits us. We crash into it.

***

It was never our intention to stay in Bishkek for more than a few hours. It is the countryside that attracted us to Kyrgyzstan, not the concrete buildings. We wake up feeling a bit trapped: we have to find Eva’s bag before we can escape the capital. And we need help. Our first idea is to contact Samuel. I virtually met him on a travel forum a few weeks before our departure, as I was doing some research for permits to some remote areas. He is a Swiss expatriate living here, and he runs an organization called Nomad’s Land. They help travelers discover the country and he might be a good person to ask for some tips. We have the address of his office, so after a quick breakfast, we go out of the lodge with the mission to find him.




We venture for the first time in Bishkek. The city has woken up since we landed. The streets are filled with battered japanese cars and the dust they lift as they drive by. We jump from shade to shade, sneaking away from the sun already trying to knock us out. This part of town is busy but remains surprisingly peaceful, and we are able to navigate easily. We have the address of Samuel’s office: Maldybaeva 12/1. It is quite far, on the other side of town compared to our lodge, but after a good two-hour walk, we finally find the street. And we find the building number 10, and 14. But number 12 (let alone 12/1) is not there.

It is a residential area, with much less going on than in the city center. People have more time to notice us, and with our shorts and our bewildered look, we are hardly blending in. They look at us with a bit of curiosity, but quickly respond with smiles. We decide to ask for directions. Our russian is very limited so we just repeat : “Maldybaeva 12?”. After a moment of confusion, and reflection, people point at a direction, which we follow to no avail. Another person, the same question, a completely new direction. Hours pass as we wander around without being able to find the office.
Eventually thirsty, I walk into a shop to buy a drink, and I try to ask for directions to the shop owner. The lady doesn’t seem to know, but another customer hears my distress, and comes to talk to me... in English! She’s a teacher and comes to our rescue for a few minutes. She helps us call the office for more precise directions. We end up finding the building, a couple of kilometers further, in a total different street.
Samuel and Naguima welcome us in a quiet, refreshing office and listen to our undramatic drama. They show us how to go to he the airline’s office where we are welcomed by an unimpressed man in a suit, who makes us fill the same form as the one at the airport, while his colleague peacefully sleeps on the desk next to him. “Come back tomorrow” he concludes.
We had to go every day, for four days in a row to meet that same man. Every day, the same protocol: no information about Eva’s bag, and we have to fill the same forms over and over. Eventually tired of seeing us, they give us access to their computer where we can see the descriptions of every bag lost in Istanbul’s airport. And after hours of research, Eva found on a specific page : “Orange bag. No tag. Tent. Hiking shoes. Books “Sur la route, Jack Kerouac”, “Michel Houellebecq“... it has to be it!

It will reach Bishkek tomorrow. It’s time to leave.
Waiting for Eva's bag gives us an unexpected chance to discover Bishkek. And it turns out to be a much better city than we expected. Good food, friendly and helpful people, easy transportation.
We have spent the last few days talking to Samuel about possible places to go to in the following weeks. He tells us about a lake called Song-kul, quite a popular place for people who want a first adventure in Kyrgyzstan, especially if you like horses. And Eva loves horses. He gives us a contact in a small town (Kochkor), where someone would be able to rent us some horses for a few days.
We have Eva's bag. After a few days in Bishkek, we are eager to start the adventure and first head to the massive Issyk-kul lake for a bit of fresher air. We are not quite sure how to get there, but as soon as we ask some people, everybody is trying to help us.

We are guided to a marshrutka (a shared mini-bus) that is about to drive to Balykchy, the closest town on the lake. As soon as we arrive, people are just trying to help and come to ask us where we are from. We quickly find a place to stay for the night and enjoy the end of the day by the lake.
The morning after, we want to make it to Kochkor, where we plan to rent two horses and go see the lake of Song-kul.

Again, we don't know how to get there, and again, it turns out to be extremely easy. After a short walk, we hear a man in the street shouting "Kochkor! Kochkor!!". I curiously approach him, and he's pointing at his old Audi 100 parked in a small street next to us. He's trying to get 4 to 5 people interested to go to Kochkor, share the ride and the price of fuel. We pile up, with our bags, at the back of his car, a bit surprised at how well things are going now. Quickly, two Kyrgyz men join us, and the old german car starts moving.
We find our way to Kochkor in no time. More importantly, we find beer :D Kyrgyzstan is starting to be very enjoyable.
Curious locals, exited to see us wandering the small streets with our bags.
A short night in a guest house; and tomorrow we will start our horse trek to Song-kul.
I am worried about my ass. Literally. We’ve been riding for 6 hours already and I am not used to it. I feel sour, my legs are burning from the friction against the saddle as it gets snapped by the straps of the stir-ups. The longest I have ever been on a horse before this trip is 3 hours: a nicely organized trip on the beach in France for my sister’s birthday.

Now, Eva and I decided to ride around Song-kul, a lake in the middle of a vast 3000-meter high plateau. And it is going to take us an entire week!! I have serious doubts about my ability to survive on a horse for this long!
But how could I come to Central Asia and not take the chance to ride along my heroes? I want to chase the ghosts of Ouroz and his horse Jehol, take the goat from him and score the final goal of the Buzkashi game. I want to trade spices on the Silk Road and fight the armies of Genghis Kahn.

So even if I am a terrible rider, it is time to stop asking myself too many questions and get on the saddle. So far, we’ve been going pretty slow as we first have to get up the mountain to reach the plateau.
The first day went absolutely fine and we are starting to discover the wild parts of Kyrgyzstan. Yurtas, steppes, horses...
Once at the camp for the night, we decide to see it from higher, to get a proper view on the area. We leave the horses at the yurtas and start hiking up the mountain for the evening.... this gives me a chance to realize how out of shape I am as I crashed, out of breath, at the top. It's time to start exercising a bit more.
But the landscape is magnificent.
The three white dots -at the bottom of the valley- are the yurtas where we are staying at for the night. We climbed quite a bit!
Rolling hills, crazy colors... I have been dreaming for so long to see those landscapes.
Salut Thomas!
Meet Thomas :) He is joining us for the full tour of the lake. Thomas knows a lot more than us about the country: he is a friend of Samuel from Nomad’s Land and he has already spent 15 months in Kyrgyzstan. I appreciate his insights on the country, the culture and the people. His russian is also better than ours, so the communication is much easier when he is around.
Yurtas at night, in the moonlight, with amazing shooting stars... We don't feel like going to bed.
The terrain is accidented, the slope abrupt and my horse is not happy about it. I try to get to know him, so that he is not too upset to have to carry me. I was told by his owner that he had no particular name, but for his ability to drop my stuff as I was riding, I decided to call him Pegasus, like the airline that had taken us to Kyrgyzstan.
I have tried encouragement and dialogue, I have tried to pet his neck and even to get off him if the slope is too hard, but he is still pretty angry at me, so eventually, I have to be strict and push him forward. Horses can be tough creatures. I am riding with Eva, who is a much better horse-rider, Stalbik who is showing us the way and Thomas.

As we take advantage of the slow pace to chat, I suddenly feel Pegasus’ behavior change. His steps are lighter, and his breathing louder. He is restless, and I understand why -a few meters further- as we reach the mountain pass that reveals us the plateau. This time, I am transported straight into Joseph Kessel’s books: an immense, orange, flat, soft ground lays between me and the next chain of mountains, 40 kilometers away.

Pegasus’ ears are pointing straight ahead and I can feel his hips shake with excitement. The adrenaline fills my veins in front of this majestic landscape. These are the steppes I have been reading so much about. This is the playground of the horses and their masters. A sensation of vertigo takes hold of me as if I am about to fall, and I can feel that Pegasus is waiting for my permission to unleash his true strength.

I am genuinely scared.
Eva looks at me, smiling like a child and probably sees my hesitation as she just whispers “Allez!”.
Before I can even start thinking of an excuse, I feel the earth shake as she launches her horse to a full gallop and is already dashing away from me. Pegasus’ breath is now incredibly loud, and by a slight signal of my heels, I finally free him to the open space. I just have time to stand on the stir-ups, grab his mane and lean forward, and we are already going at an incredible speed. All I can hear is the wind roaring in my ears, all I can feel is the strength of his feet hitting the ground or maybe it is my heart banging against my chest.

I am flying over the orange steppes. I can taste the salt from Pegasus’ bestial sweat join my tears as I am now riding side by side with Eva, Thomas and the heroes of the past. I think I am screaming too. In the distance, I see three white points that quickly take the shape of the yurtas of a group of nomads. We are already reaching them now.

We stop at their doorstep, exhausted but I can barely breathe in as I am laughing too hard. I jump off the saddle. I feel like we have now just arrived in Kyrgyzstan.
It was time for a quick stop for lunch by the yurtas. We cook our own food to save a bit of time. Our MSR fuel stove is doing wonders, and impressing the people at the same time.
Reaching Song-kul, just in time to take a shower after the first days of horse riding. Well, at least Eva manages to get in the water, but it is a bit cold for me, I decide to stay dirty :D This lake, on this "flat-looking" area is actually at 3000 meters already. The weather can change insanely fast.
Well, after the shower/bath, you have to warm up. Here Thomas seems to hesitate. Beer in the left hand, Vokda in the right.
We end up spending the night with a group of french people that are staying here for a few days. It is the birthday of one of the Kirghiz woman managing the place, so they start serving vokda...
The night takes an unexpected turn when in the total darkness of the high plateau, the Kirghiz people decide to throw a party. They just park 2 cars there; doors open, music on full volume.... and most importantly, blinkers on, so that you have some kind of slow, orange stroboscope. We stay out late in this absurd disco!
"I'm on a horse."
Dangerous locals...
The ever-so-photogenic inside of a yurt.
Kirghizstan never ceases to be ridiculous... we are surrounded by herds of horses. sometimes with rainbows....
Some canyon nearby.
More lunch cooking, we are getting really good at using the stove. We brought dried cereals; lentils, beans, and some home-made Nepali spices from the mum of one of Eva's friends. We expected to suffer a lot from the food, as it is always tricky to find the balance between weight and quantity on a long trek. But thanks to Eva's cooking skills, it is always delicious.
We are never getting tired of these landscapes.
Tonight, we are staying at a sheperd's yurt. They really don't have much, so we go get some food so that they could use it to cook dinner. We are told that there is a "shop" nearby. Even in remote areas, some yurts are converted to shops indeed. The owners usually have a jeep and bring back stuff from the nearby town. Thomas and I ride to the closest done and buy tomatoes, onions, cucumbers... and vodka :p
More dangerous locals.
So... a lot of things are happening in this yurt :D it is really dark so this picture is taken with a long exposure. as you can tell, Eva's hand is moving, she's hitting "something" under the blankets. That something is a baby!

The baby is crying and as the women are busy, they ask Eva to take care of him: they just ask her to hit the blanket softly(-ish) but with a constant speed so that it would calm him down. Eva is a bit worried about that technique at first but gives it a try and it works really well :D
One of the most important aspects of the local life: processing the milk. A huge part of the food is based on what they'll do to either the horse's or cow's milk, whether it's cream, butter, "kurut" (dried curd cheese) ... or the famous "kumis" which is fermented mare's milk.

We heard a lot of stories about Kumis, how disgusting it is. It is supposed to be fizzy and hard to digest, but we knew we would have to try it to be polite. I don't agree at all with those stories; I actually really really liked it. It's a bit sparkly, really refreshing, doesn't taste nearly as bad as what we had heard, and it makes the people happy we are trying local products. When coming to a yurt and if we see the people preparing it, we are always asking if we can have some.
I am spending a lot of my time just looking at the kind of light you get in a yurt.
The northern shore of the Song-Kul lake was looking different, it was reminding more of some parts Britain.
I am soaked. It has been raining for about 3 hours and we cannot stop until we have reached the next camp. We rely on the nomads to find shelters for the night. We have left our tent at the village where we got the horses, in order to travel lighter. The water is running down my jacket, into my trousers and eventually my shoes. It is not pleasant, but there is nothing we can do about it. As we pass on the other side of yet another hill, we see four yurtas in the valley, and we are rushing towards them with excitement. We are welcomed by three girls, who show us where to tie up our horses. We quickly take their saddles off, brush them and run inside where the girls prepared some tea.
We are invited to sit at the table with them and to eat some snacks. We try to chat a bit in our limited russian, they live in two of the yurtas of the camp, and they have two other ones used as a guest-houses for the eventual tourists who come to visit the lake. Song-kul is a fairly common destination for both Kyrgyz people and foreigners, so it represents a significant bonus to their income during the summer.
Otherwise, their main activity is to take care of horses from various owners. They get an incredibly small amount of money each month for watching, feeding and cleaning them. As a bonus, they get to sell the milk from the mares. They have to take care of about 200 of them in order to be able to afford the necessary food and supplies for the year.

It sounds like a very tough life and yet, their faces seem constantly illuminated by a beautiful smile. They suggest we should play cards: they would teach us some Kyrgyz games and we would show European ones. As it turns out, they are pretty much the same. And the rainy hours go by very fast in this friendly atmosphere.
They are bringing more tea, as well as food for us to enjoy. We are all laughing together around the table, when a tall, strong-looking man enters the yurta.

He discreetly greets us by a sign of the head and sits next to us. He takes a large knife out of his pocket and starts cutting some meat out of a bone, in silence. He kept his hat inside, his angular features only appear in silhouette as his face remains in the shadows, out of which I can only distinguish two bright blue eyes, staring at his meal without blinking. His presence is electrifying, I am mesmerized by his calm gestures and I am only worried that he will notice me observing him. When he eventually does, his lips sketch a shy smile before going back to his meal.

The rain has stopped and we use the chance to join the girls outside as they are going to milk the mares. Eva even tries her skills at it, and almost gets hit in the face by a reluctant one. The only collateral damage was the milk Eva spilled, while trying to avoid the hoof. Everyone laughs it off. I keep thinking of the father of the family, and how much I would have loved to take a portrait inside the yurta. But I would never have dared to ask.
It’s only the morning after, using Thomas’ skills in Russian, that I finally go to him to ask if I may take a portrait. He acts quite shy at first, and it takes a bit of persuasion before he agrees to pose in front of the lens. Thomas uses that time to ask a few questions about his life, and his origins as his features intrigue us: his blue eyes evoke russian princes, as his dark skin points towards the southern parts of Asia, his high cheeks seem to come from the east…

We ask him where he is from, as he seems to be a bit from everywhere. To which he only replies, : “I am the original Kyrgyz.
The camp of our hosts.
Eva petting the horses.
One of our hosts.
Dinara, another daughter of our hosts.
Refueling Pegasus.
Damn it; that picture was meant to be sharp. Well, let's say it's an artistic blur.

He is such a funny character, we are chatting with him in broken russian. He is explaining us he loves perfumes from Paris. Thomas gives him a sample and he is very happy about this.
As we are resting in the yurt, we feel the ground suddenly shaking, at the pace of a horse running. We come out and see this beauty, this monster-creature and its master.

It is the first time we are actually seeing a "Kok-boru" horse. Kok-boru is the Kyrgyz name for Buzkashi; the traditional game from Central Asia where horse-riders fight (litterally fight) for the body of a goat that they have to put in a hole in the middle of a field (like a goal in soccer : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buzkashi ).

Buzkashi players, for centuries, have been considered as absolute stars in these regions, it is an ultimate honor to win a game. If you have the chance, you have to read "Les Cavaliers" by Kessel that is one of my favorite books of all times, and is about this game.

We engage in a short conversation with the master of the horse, and he offers Eva to try to ride it for a few minutes. Of course, she says yes and it is an incredible experience. The horse reacts to every little movement you make, it is as fast as it is strong.
I don't even want to try it as I am lacking the basic knowledge of the craft to pay the horse any respect. What a beauty...
We are spending our last moments by the Song-kul lake playing ricochets. We have completed the full way around. So we are using the rest of the day to enjoy the view before heading back to the town of Kochkor.
We left our horses and Thomas, a bit sad, and we are now starting a new part of the trip. This time, it is only Eva and I, by ourselves. We are slowly making our way to the very south of the country. The easiest would have been to go back to Bishkek and take a different road, but we don't like the feeling of going backwards.

So instead we decide to try and use a smaller road through the mountains. In some parts, we are hitchhiking, then hiking through some other areas. People tell us of a beautiful canyon before the little town of Kyzyl-Oy and we head this way. We quickly find a car to Aral, and start walking from there.
And the road is promising. It is already looking good before we even reach the canyon.
We walk through very different geological formations, the area looks very different than the Song-kul lake (which is only 50-80km away)
We only have 25km to walk to reach Kyzyl-Oy, from where we plan to hitchhike again.
Robots from outer space. Or at least from a different country.
Kyrgyzstan has a lot of potential in terms of power. Lots of rivers, that can be -with huge dams- a source of interesting business. But the Kyrgyz government lacks the ressources and the money to start those constructions. Instead, it is now almost entirely managed by chinese companies.

It's a very complex subject, since on one side it's an important development for Kyrgyz people (who now have better roads, and strong power lines) but it will be interesting to see what happens since all these new axes belong to foreign companies.
"Everything is awesooome" ... well, or not. All the workers are Chinese, or more specifically, Uyghur. Unfortunately, they are sent there to hell, they work in very difficult conditions (climb electric pylons with no safety ropes etc...), they live in metal containers that get insanely hot and many die on the sites. Plus, as most of them don't speak russian, they suffer of a lot of racism in Kyrgyzstan, where plenty of people don't really know why they are here.

But it seems that chinese companies are happy to send them there with a one-way ticket; and since they are trying to kick them out of the Uyghur country in the first place, it's a very convenient method.
Last week on a horse, this week on foot... we still seem to be running away from storms.
Eva takes that picture of this lovely place, very green with a beautiful view on the canyon. A great place to pitch the tent and escape the coming rain.
This time, the storm catches us. But we have time to set up our tent in a lovely place before it starts raining...

Ahh, the joy of lying down in the tent, with the sound of rain drops hitting the fabric. I find it incredibly relaxing. Then you just have to take a book, and chill... Here I'm reading "L'usage du monde" from Nicolas Bouvier, a fantastic travel book of two guys who went by car from Europe to India in 1954-55.
The sun is back in the morning. Thomas told us about these funny signs "Do not overtake" on a road where you rarely see cars :D That is a questionable investment.
Well, one thing we didn't know : apparently there are scorpions in Kyrgyzstan. We had no idea.
After the beautiful canyon, we reached Kyzyl-Oy without any problem... then a car took us to the main road between Bishkek and Osh, where we are trying to hitchhike to Toktogul...
It turns out to be really easy and a car stops after just a few minutes to take us all the way there.
As we reach Toktogul, we use the chance to stay in a guest house and wash our clothes for the first time in over a week. The feeling of a shower and a clean teeshirt is amazing!
Our goal is now to head as South as possible and reach the Alai Valley, that goes all the way to the border with China and Tajikistan. For that, we first need to reach Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city.
The idea of hitchhicking in such a populated area doesn't really appeal to us, so we decide to take a new marshrutka to reach Osh. As we are waiting for the minivan to depart, I notice those two guys with their synthesiser.

Radio Toktogul? No, there is some kind of auctioning going on, they are selling some kitchen stuff, a bike, a few auto-radios. So in order to get some attentions they are DJing casually in the chaos of the mini-van/bus station. They are awesome.
We reach Osh 3 days before what we have planned! That gives us some comfortable time to start planning what we want to do next... and we have some interesting plan...
In order to access the Alai Valley, we either have to take a car around a large mountain area. Or we have to go through that area trekking. After asking a few people, we are told there are two ways to do that, both start in a small town called Khodzhokelen. One is the "Jiptik way" it is the most straight forward but still pretty tough. It goes over one high pass (at 4100 meters) and it can easily get stuck as soon as the snow falls.
The other way is even harder, and climbs higher (4300 meters), but it goes through an area called Besh Kol, that people describe as a beautiful cirque with five altitude lakes.

Now, we are not alpinists; but lakes! I want to see lakes! So, even though we still had time before reaching Khodzokelen to decide, I am strongly leaning towards the Besh Kol way.
A bit of burnt nose, a bit of dust, the trip is starting to mark our faces.
I originally planned to shave before the trip but it didn't happen. It will be time to have a serious cut as soon as I am back home.
Osh market. We refill in some dried food for the trip to come.
... damn it ... there is a fun fair... going next to it with Eva is worst than if you are with a bus of 5-year-olds! She HAS to try all the stuff, especially if there's a big wheel. She is happy.
Above 40°C in Osh, we are looking for ways to cool ourselves down. But anyways; we know we should appreciate the heat. In a couple of days, it will be a different story.
Poor, poor Kerouac... he originally wrote "On the road" on one single piece of long paper, so that it would remind people of the "road". He must have been heartbroken when it got turned into a book, with pages cutting his story.

So I can only imagine how he would feel if he knew we cut his book in 2... but we have to save as much weight as possible for what is to come, even a few hundred grams count, so we are leaving behind the (parts of the) books we have already read. Sorry Jack Kerouac...
The first step is to reach Khodzhokelen that is about 100 kilometers away from Osh. We manage to negotiate a car leaving from the CBT office in Osh. CBT (Community Based Tourism) is an organization that tries to develop the eco-tourism of the region and provide travelers with some services across the country.
We speak to one person who is trying to sell us some additional services, such as a guide to take us across the mountains, but we are pretty confident that we can do it on our own. He doesn't seem too happy about it, but we conclude the deal on the car, that takes us in the morning to our starting point.
Once we arrive in Khodzho-kelen though, a man is casually (and conveniently) approaching us there to offer us -again- a guide to go through the mountains. He doesn't insist as we refuse once more and points us to the path that goes into the mountains. We have decided to go through the Besh-Kol area, and we find a bit strange that the way he is pointing us differs slightly from what we have estimated on our map, but we follow his indications.


The valley is beautiful, with bright red rock formations. But our progress is a bit slow with a steep terrain and some treacherous holes in the ground. The beginning wasn't supposed to be that hard.
We slowly realize that the man had pointed us to the wrong valley to go towards the Sary-bel pass and we are struggling for nothing... the path we are on is leading to the foot of a glacier. So I guess he is expecting us to come back, confused and a bit scared and finally hire a guide. Well, he doesn't know Eva well enough :D She found out where we truly were on the map, and started cutting through the fields to find the right path again.
Eventually, even though we are quite late, we make it to the Sary-bel pass and have a great view from the top. Take that, suspicious man!
The misdirection cost us a lot of time, we were planning to go much further today. But the sun is already getting low, and we are exhausted. On top of that, we have just arrived in a beautiful valley, the ground is green, soft, and it looks like a perfect spot for the night.

We notice in the distance, down the stream a few hundred meters away, a yurta and a large semi-permanent tent, with some smoke coming out of one of the little chimneys. I also see a bright pink dot, most likely a woman wearing a colorful dress. We are quite far, but in a country so sparsely populated, camping here without going to say hello would be like camping in someone’s garden in Europe. That would just not be polite. So we head towards the little camp.
The lady in the pink dress notices us approaching, and seems a bit surprised to see foreigners here, she waits for us at the gate of the goats’ enclosure. We speak first: “As-salāmu alaykum, mozhem palatka tam?”.
She smiles right away, at our horrible language skills. It would translate to something like “Hello. Can we tent there?” We know the formulation is wrong, but we can’t remember the proper one, and it makes people laugh, so we decided it was our new tagline. We don’t really understand the answer, so she has to mimic it a bit, and we think we understand : “Sure. But you have to come to take the tea with us afterwards.” She calls two young boys to escort us to the softest areas to pitch our tent, so that we can sleep comfortably.
We soon join them in their home. The inside of their tent, where they welcome occasional guests, is minimalistic. Everything serves a purpose. But what they don’t have in material possessions, they certainly have in spirit. There is something about their smile that makes us feel at home right away, a kind of welcoming attitude that cannot be faked, and we engage in a long fascinating conversation. They are so curious and forthcoming that if we don’t know the words, a few gestures and drawings are enough to understand each other.

They ask us where we are from and what we have in our country? “Do you have tea? Yes! And apricots? Sure! What about bananas?”. There I start explaining what the Carribean Islands politically represent for France, and how we import a lot of fruits from there. I’m not sure they understand my non-sense, but everyone is smiling.
As the sun is setting, they ask us to come outside, and offer us to borrow their two horses to go see the landscape from the top of the valley.
We do agree but I ask if I can borrow the donkey, as I always wanted to ride one, and theirs is pretty strong! Everyone laughs at my posture on the little steed.
The kids are once more our guides and show us the best points to watch the sun going down.
As we come back to their tent, they have prepared delicious food for us, some goat meat, as well as potatoes. It tastes incredible. They even offer that we share their tent to sleep, but we politely take our leave to crash in ours.

The morning after, as we wake up, they have already prepared breakfast for us, to give us strength for the day to come. I don’t want to leave their company. As we finally decide to go, I ask if I can at least pay for our meals from the night before, but they indisputably refuse. I don’t think it was ever in their mind someone would pay for hospitality. Instead, we offer them some little presents: a tee-shirt, a little plastic car for the youngest kid and a pack of cigarettes for the father. Everyone is delighted, especially us.
Did we wake up in the swiss alps?? The landscape is totally different again. Not many people here, but still, cows, horses, marmots etc... we even manage to see some eagles.
The way is much faster when you know where you are on the map with nobody pointing in the wrong direction. We reached the Kosh-Moynok pass quite fast.
On the way down to Kichi-Alay, the rain strikes again. As we are walking by a house, the people inside wave at us, so that we can take shelter at theirs... and take some more tea :)
We give the kids some chewing-gums, and a toy car in return.
In less than an hour, the sun is back. We get back on our way. We pass Kichi-Alay and are entering the valley of the Sary-Mogul river... at the end of this valley, there is only one way possible : the Sary-Mogul pass. We have to find it to access the lakes.
But the beginning of the way is fairly easy. Some kids ride along with us and show us the path. They are actually living in yurts a bit further up; and offer us to put the tent next to theirs.
Then they start preparing the evening, counting on our presence! Wood to heat the yurt... and the dinner they are preparing for us
The little sister looks shy like this; but she isn't. She is quite happy to have guests, and I play football with her brother and her.
Our hosts of the day. We are getting used to be invited every day, we are spoiled. I am thinking, since this is the way to Sary-Mogul, maybe they see more tourists; and we'll have to pay for dinner and accommodation... not even; they offer us everything and refuse any money. So we trade the hospitality with more presents! I give the kids a little ball, Eva gives the daughter some shiny hair clips we bought at the Osh market.
Our hosts.
This is the morning after. August 24th, 2014. My 31st birthday! And what a day we have in front of us: 12km of hiking before the pass, and 2000 meters to go up in elevation. But behind... behind... all I have in mind was to see the lakes!
And the day starts quite easy. A loooong way to go, but it isn't too steep; and we are progressing well.
The valley is beautiful. But from there on, we can't count on anybody's help. The shepherds don't settle that far up. It is Eva; me; and the marmots.
As we are going up and up, we reach the clouds. The weather changes, it is getting colder, wetter... and we still haven't found the pass...
Where is the pass?? Every time we think we have found it, it still isn't the other side of the mountain.
We have been going up 2000 meters today, from 2200 to 4200, and we still haven’t found the pass. Nobody lives here. We are now surrounded by an impassable wall. I think I see a way up, but it’s on the tongue of a glacier, and we are not equipped for that.
As I walk in the wrong direction, just because it is the one looking the less perilous for now, Eva stops me : “Cédric. Look, I think this is the pass!
I right away answered with a sound of disbelief. It can’t be. By “pass”, I thought we’d find some gap between two mountains, a clear way, easier than any other. But not here. Here, it is a 250-meter vertical wall. Eva is right, there is a little way covered in snow. This is the Sary-Mogul pass. My bag is suddenly weighing three times more, as my legs tremble in front of this giant. The silence is only disturbed by the echos of massive rocks hurtling down the slopes around us.

Once again, the sun is setting and I feel no strength to go any further, especially not this way. I don’t have the skills nor the courage. But we cannot camp here, it is too accidented to even find a spot for the tent, so Eva orders me to follow as she walks towards the wall.
Suddenly, we are not in Kyrgyzstan anymore. We are in Mordor.
The slope is so steep that my face is buried in the rocks. And if I try to stand up straight to orientate myself, I am instantly slapped in the face by a sharp wind, throwing dust and snow in my eyes. My stomach tenses up with the echo of a new rock falling somewhere around, I cannot see where it is.
But if it was coming my way, I would have been hit already so I guess there is nothing to worry about. One step, one more and I am out of breath again, my lungs are burning.
I am seriously wondering what the hell I am doing here. I could be at home, with my friends, having a drink and watch a movie on my sofa. Instead, I have deliberately put myself in this situation. Why did I do that? If I slip on a rock and break a leg, what are we going to do? We are far from everything, my feet feel like they are bleeding.

One more step in the black rocks. I have completely lost sense of our progression on the slope. I can’t see anything upwards, and when I look down, I feel like we have not moved at all. I don’t even know how long we have been walking up.

Eva is ahead of me, I keep an eye on her orange backpack to see if she is ok, if she hasn’t fallen or twisted her ankle. I see her on a little ledge, taking her backpack out. Is she ok? Is she too exhausted to continue? I try to ask her, but the wind steals my words. She looks at me and scream “...”. I wave at her that I don’t understand, I can’t hear. She tries again “..., the lakes...”.

Has she lost her mind? Or is she seeing the lakes? I feel the adrenaline run in my blood again, and I push myself upwards. One more step, and one more... and suddenly, the pass.
To tell you the truth, it takes me a while before I can grab my camera for that picture. As I reach the top, after the way up this path, and the snow, and the fear, I burst in tears. In front of this landscape, suddenly and uncontrollably I start sobbing like a little boy. I cannot hold it back, and I don’t want to. My lungs expel some burried tiredness, not just from the climb, but deeper worries as well. I feel my body emptying. Eva is crying too as we stay speechless in front of the majestic view.

The lakes .... Blue, green, and the sun that just comes out to give us a few seconds of a totally unreal light. This is worth every bit of pain we went through to reach it, and much much more.
Clouds passing over the lakes, from the top of the Sary-Mogul pass. This is Besh-kol. 4300 meters, 5 main lakes and probably some magical creatures considering the fantasy-looking place...
The pass is really only a few meters wide before it drops in both directions.
We slide down the other side, and into the cirque. We find a flat (-ish) spot by the lakes and as the light is going down fast; and we start preparing dinner.
And Eva has a last surprise for the day.
She secretely carried in her bag some Foie Gras for my birthday!
Foie Gras on toast roasted in duck fat. And Eva cooks on our stove an onion confit with black cumin and dried figs...
Foie Gras and hand-made onion confit at 4200 meters with nobody around for kilometers. After one of the most breathtaking view I have ever seen. Probably the best birthday party I ever had.
We even leave a Totem for my birthday :D I hope some people find it some day and get jealous.
We are so happy to be in Besh-Kol, completely by ourselves. There's no trail, no trace of any human. We decide to leave the tent here for today and go for a tour of the five lakes.
The first one is like a silver mirror.
And just a few hundred meters away, the second lake looks totally different with an icy-blue tint from the glaciers.
Picture by Eva. Chillin' by the lakes :)
We push to the next lake, that is straight at the foot of a glacier. The weather suddenly turns on us. At 4200 meters, changes can happen in just a few minutes. Suddenly, our visibility is reduced to 20 meters.

We don't know how long it's going to last, but we decide to head to the tent to be safe. Unfortunately, we can't see it anymore and we quicly loose all our landmarks for navigation. So we try to find it with our compass, knowing we have to walk towards the North-North East to hope to find it.

And even though we are heading in right direction, we are now going in a straight line and falling in all the traps and obstacles we avoided on the way here, with clear weather. We end up on a very slippery scree slope and we are starting some small rock/land-slides which each of our steps.
And when you're in the middle of a whole slope of rocks that start sliding down, and when the rocks themselves can crush you in an instant, it stops being fun.
The blinding white-out sometimes opens up to give us a quick chance to reorientate.
Eventually there is a few seconds of clearer weather; and we rush to our tent. A few minutes later, it starts snowing again.
We take shelter in our tent, we even have dinner inside since the weather is so bad. Eva has injured her foot, a blister got a bit infected above her right heel: a lot of flesh is exposed and in direct contact with her socks.

Well, it is 5:30pm, and our only option is to hide in our sleeping bags, read a book and go to sleep hoping that it will be better in the morning
So is the weather better in the morning? Well, not really. We wake up under a layer of snow, the path is now invisible and the clouds are limiting our navigation. We rely again on the compass and the map and start following a river to escape the cirque.
For a while, we progress with no visibility and are really afraid we can get lost in the mountains. But eventually; we are going through the clouds and find a herd of yaks (the little black dots in the background of this picture).

We find and start following a river. Rivers usually go down, so, technically, it has to lead us out of the mountains.
Unfortunately and even though we are checking the map constantly, we figure that we are following the wrong branch of the river. Both rivers still go in the same direction, but this one takes us to some difficult canyons with slippery rocks.
We are progressing very slowly.
But after a few hours, the canyon is starting to open up, revealing a more practicable valley. And the view is beautiful.
Coming out of the canyon as the sun shines right on it.
The valley is getting broader; the river wider, and the ground flatter. We have made it out of the Besh-kol cirque.
Eva finds a miniature world.
As the weather isn't too great, we are looking forward to find some nomad sheperds to take shelter. But when we find their camp, they are already gone. It is the end of August; and already the end of the season for some of them. They go back to lower altitudes with the herds.
But soon enough, we find some cows. So there must be some people nearby.
And we find the people. Even though they live technically nearby from the last Kyrgyz people we have seen, they are very isolated since the mountains splits them apart.
We are meeting the first shepherds from the Alai valley, and the life here is very different. Less jobs, harsh winters so quite a lot less resources. They still offer us tea. And food. And shelter. This woman sees us coming from the distance, and offer us to pitch the tent outside of her place.
The rest of the local gang.
In the morning, the sun is fully back and we use the chance to clean our stuff (and ourselves a bit) in the river.
The young woman has two kids with some eye infections and Eva is helping with whatever medicine we have with us.
As we reach the village of Sary-Mogul, we have no idea where to stay for the night. Sometimes, in cities/town, it's harder to meet the people and get some help, and we thought Sary-Mogul might be a challenge.
But as soon as we walk into town, a girl starts running after us and calls for us in English! She is a student in Osh, here for the summer to help her parents.

Her name is Aziza. She invites us for tea, and some food. Then, she says she is leaving for the mountains for the night, cause she has to take care of some cows, and she asks if we want to go with her and stay in her yurt. Which we -of course- gladly accept! Even more since the trip to the yurt is 45 minutes on a cart.
On the back of the horse-cart, looking at the Alai valley. The little mountain in front of us goes by the lovely name of Lenin Peak, 7134 meters high.
The end of the trip is near. We only have a few days left in Sary-Mogul before we have to start heading back to Osh where we have a flight to Bishkek on September 1st... then from Bishkek a flight to France on the 3rd.

But we decide to go for a last ride on a horse. We head to see the basecamp of Lenin Peak.
We meet some people on the way cooking "Kurut', the dried curd cheese. And they invit us to try some.
At the end of the day; we reach the Tulpar lake.
And it's a nice looking lake, with many shades of blue surrounded by red mountains.
We get closer to the Lenin Peak basecamp.
The morning after, we have a fantastic view on the Lenin Peak.
Enjoying our last days...
I am laying down in the orange grass, enjoying the warmth of the sun that barely manages to rise above Lenin. The 7134-meter giant in front of us marks the border with Tajikistan and therefore the end of the validity of our visa. We made it all the way south.

I am lost in my thoughts when I notice a man approaching us on a horse. He stops right next to us, jumps on the ground where he lays in front us, chewing on a wheat stalk, silent. We say hello and he replies, but the conversation doesn’t go much further. We notice how beautiful his horse is, and we compliment him but again the conversation seems a bit stuck. He observes us, then the mountain behind.

I am feeling a bit uncomfortable as I have no idea how to interact with him. I notice his piercing gaze, bruises on his neck and cheeks, scars on his arms and it suddenly clicks in my head: he must be a Buzkashi player, or -using the local term-, Kok-Boru.
The game is so intense that the players are often allowed to hit each other, even train their horses to bite the other players, therefore the scars. Only the best riders, with the best horses have a chance to make it through the game. And if they win, they are considered heroes, the same way we celebrate our football players (with a bit more merit).

When I ask our new friend if he plays, he only answers with a sharp fake modesty : “Sure”. We decide to take our leave as he doesn’t seem too keen on talking, but as we get back on our horses, he insists to invite us for lunch at his place. It seems a bit strange as we didn’t read his attitude as very friendly so far, but we accept nonetheless.
He lives in a yurta nearby, with his wife, their tiny 4-month old baby, amongst a little campement of three or four families. His wife prepared “mantus”, delicious steamed dumplings filled with different sorts of vegetables. Sometimes, they even have meat inside, but we are here in quite a remote area where food must be a concern. We spend the time talking to the wife, and playing with the baby, as the father remains fairly quiet.
We thank them for their hospitality, and as we are getting back on our horses, the man jumps on his, and drops his hat on the floor. We are guessing that he is going to give us a little demonstration of his skills.
He takes a few steps back; then launches his horse at full gallop, only holds the reins with one hand, rolls left on the side of his horse -his head is very close to the ground now- and he grabs the hat on the floor, pushes himself back in the saddle, and stops in front of us with a satisfied look.
I was politely applauding as Eva -being a bit teased by the man’s attitude since our encounter- takes it as a challenge. She takes off her hat, and throws it on the floor.

He cannot believe it: a small, white, blonde-haired girl from Europe is challenging him at his game, he remains petrified. Eva launches her horse, they are galloping now, she lets go of the reins, rolls to the left her horse, almost grabs the hat and… falls on the soft grassy floor.

Everyone is laughing, the kids from the camp are running towards us to come see that crazy European girl who challenged the local kok-boru hero. He is laughing too, he is delighted: Eva showed she wasn’t impressed, played along like a true kok-boru player and yet didn’t quite beat him. He gallops to grab Eva’s hat on the floor and comes to bring it to her as a congratulation.
His face lightens up, we are suddenly speaking the same language. He even wants us to stay at his place for a few days, he has a game coming up in two weeks, maybe we can come and watch him!Unfortunately, we have to explain that, in just a few days, we will be back in France already, and we won’t have the chance to attend it.

Even when the life and the elements have made people tougher to approach, we realize it only takes the honesty to speak up and come to meet them on their ground to have them open up.

I am sad to leave our host as we are just getting to know him...
We are riding towards the village of Sary Mogul again. We can see it at the end of the steppe. From there, we will try to catch a car to Osh. Then a plane to Bishkek and eventually, a plane to France. We spend our last moment riding and I am sitting comfortably on the horse, without the fear and apprehension I had just a few weeks ago. I am looking around, still amazed by the colors of the steppes. The orange, the blue, the white.

It’s the end of the summer and already, the air carries the first signs of the autumn approaching. A cold breeze slides down from Peak Lenin. Soon, all the phantasmagoric places we have discovered will transform into an icy hell, with temperatures falling to -40°C, snow covering the paths we have followed. The food will become rare. And the people we have met will stay here alone to brave the winter. Most of them will have to leave their yurtas and will head for the cities, longing for the spring to come back.

Our vision of Kyrgyzstan is only one of summer tourists. We have to remember, we are highly privileged.
Yet, despite the hard life, the Kyrgyz people keep smiling. And despite our differences, they have not behaved with us in a way they wouldn’t with their fellow countrymen. Even without speaking the language, people would communicate; without knowing the customs, we would be given a fair price; walking in front of a yurta, we would be offered tea and sometimes dinner and a bed. We didn’t have a plan when we arrived, we just let Kyrgyzstan take care of us. All we had to do was to trust it, to have a bit of common sense, and enjoy a culture that holds up to its reputation of being one the most welcoming in the world.

I am happy to go home. I am tired, full of dust, my horse and I share the same smell now, my muscles are sour. More importantly I cannot wait to rest and have a look back at everything we experienced over the last few weeks, digest what we have been through. At the same time, our trip feels like a terribly short introduction to the country. So many areas stay unexplored, whether it’s towards the east and the chinese border, or higher up in the mountains; the hotter region towards Uzbekistan, or the thousands of camps in the steppes.
So I breath in, and drink up this incredible sense of space, here where the wilderness still prevails and nourishes my fantasies. One last gallop until -I hope- one day, we come back, and ride much further.
Kyrgyzstan, good bye for now!