Our next destination would be Song-Kol a 100km ride from Kochkor. The lake itself sits at 3100m so we had some climbing to do and we were aware that the paved road would end with a turning off at Sary-Bulak. From there, we’d be back to dirt track for a good 5 days.
The plan was to reach the south side of the lake by early evening of the second day.
Having contacted a number of community tourism agents and been quoted an astronomical fee for horse trekking we had decided we would sort something out ourselves once we arrived at the lake.
We had heard it would be easy to find a number of yurts offering treks and we weren’t too worried about having an English speaking guide.
The rain held off for the first day and we enjoyed the gradual climb up towards the turn off. Paddy recently downloaded the audio book of Thomas Pickerty’s Capital so we brush up on our economic and social science history during the ride.
At lunch Paddy notices that our front tire wasn’t looking too healthy… Same problem as our recent back tire which we replaced in Bishkek. We decide to change it before it bursts on the dirt road and punctures the inner tube. Lucky we brought that second spare!!
We turn off onto the dirt track – the road for this section isn’t too bad at all and we make fairly good progress.
The countryside is very beautiful and it felt good to be back in the wild mountains again.
We camp in a field near the road that evening and we finally manage to capture the ground hogs on camera.
The second day saw some pretty horrible weather roll in including some bitter hail storms at the top of the pass leading to the lake.
We sheltered in a yurt for a good 90 minutes eating our way through bread, jam and cream. The weather then cleared long enough for us to cycle around to the south side of the lake.
We meet a couple of other cycle tourers on our way round who are also sheltering from the bad weather.
We pass a number of yurt clusters and as we round the corner, the vast lake stretches out in front of us.
By 5pm we’re both starving so we make a quick stop to rustle up some cheese and cucumber sandwiches.
We cycle for another hour at which point we spot a large yurt complex just off the road so we cycle up to enquire about trekking opportunities.
We’ve stopped at a good spot but no one in the family speaks English and both our Russian and Kyrgyz barely stretch pass a few simple pleasantries. After a lot of gestures, drawing of pictures and looking up words in their dictionary we manage to fix a price for a three day trek. It was tricky as the prices for each thing seemed to fluctuate a lot but we got there in the end!
It’s A LOT cheaper than anything quoted by an agent and he confirmed we could take our tent with us meaning we wouldn’t need to pay for accommodation.
We camped next to their yurt that night and cooked up an omelette, excited about the next morning.
Up to this point, Paddy’s experience of riding stretched as far as a day trip on a Pygmy horse in Iceland – he was able to touch the ground with his feet on this trip, so mounting his fully grown horse Thor on the first morning was a bit new.
He was soon up and ready to go though…
So we set off and the weather remained dry if a little cold. We rode for about 40 minutes before stopping at a neighbours yurt. There was lots of locals and the cutomary spread was laid out in the middle of the floor.
Chai and Kumis were shared. This first spread is then taken away, a basin of warm water is passed around the circle to wash our hands, and a mutton meat course of Beshbarmak is served up – noodles topped with boiled meat accompanied by a bowl of broth. It’s all eaten with the fingers.
After eating a lot we’re invited to another yurt up the hill where a very similar spread is laid out again! By the time we leave to get back on our horses we’re both feeling very full.
As we mount up the rain starts to fall. We keep going towards the hills, eager to get back to the riding and convinced it will just be a passing shower.
An hour later it’s beating down still and after 90 minutes the storm turns into hail and snow. Our Goretex jackets are keeping us dry but our bottom half is sodden and we both have to admit defeat and decide to turn back to take refuge in another yurt.
We shelter in the yurt for a while waiting out the rain – finally blue skies brake out. Our guide Aitbek encourages us to both drink half a mug of vodka schnapps before getting back up on the horses.
We were all still very wet and we could see more bad weather rolling in across the lake. We decide its best to forgo the wild camping in the hills and instead return to the camp where we could dry off, sleep, and set off for another days ride the next morning. Our guide Aitbek seems relieved at this decision and so we all head back to the yurt.
Aitbek plods along on his docile horse but Paddy and I – no doubt fuelled by the vodka – are keen to get our horses cantering. Aitbek doesn’t seem to mind so we both dig in our heels and we’re off. Its great fun cantering off over the fields together and I’m very impressed with Paddy’s riding skills!
We race each other for a while and then turn to complete a big loop back to Aitbek.
As we near the yurts, the horses obviously recognise their home pastures and get very excited. Paddy is now addicted to cantering so he spurs his horse – who needs little encouragement – onwards.
We all watch as he races towards a large ditch… He manages to stop the horse but at the last moment loses his balance and we see him slide off the saddle. Unfortunately Paddy’s foot gets caught in the stirrup and while he’s trying to free his leg Thor gives him a hefty kick in the knee.
I watch him hobble back to the yurt and I fetch him some ibuprofen and a very cold bottle of water to act as an ice pack.
A bad bruise and a little swelling but I think the Irish horseman will survive to ride another day…