Posts Tagged ‘Kyrgyzstan’

More thoughts from Jim Gaffney

When was then?

Officially, the Silk Road opened with an exchange of embassies between Parthia and China in 105 BC. Once the sea route from Europe to the East opened from the 16th century onwards, the overland Silk Route declined in importance, at least for long distance trade.

Where did it begin and end?

The Silk Route has no universally agreed start or finish lines, or, indeed, er, route. The silk which gave the name came from ancient China, so the eastern end of the route would have to reach to the borders of the early empires, the present day province of Gansu. At the western end, the huge prices paid for silk in ancient Rome were the stimulus to extend the route’s length. So a reasonable definition could be “from the borders of ancient Rome to those of ancient China”

Who travelled the Silk Route in the old days?

For the first thousand years, from the time silk first made its appearance in the most exclusive merchants’ shops of Ancient Rome, no individual human being is recorded as doing the whole thing. A few famous travelling monks made it from China as far as Persia in the early days, but nowhere near as far as Rome. It was the goods that did the travelling. Traded from hand to hand perhaps hundreds of times, the stuff got a long way.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Two sorts of stuff: light, easily transported items, such as precious stones, spices, dyestuffs and, of course silk; and items that could transport themselves, i.e. livestock and slaves. The only people to travel the whole of the Silk Route in the first thousand years, if anybody did, would have been slaves

Even the section of the route that Diane and I have tackled with 21st century technology available reveals why so few travelled the full route. We can report that the factors which everyone has moaned about over the millennia are still in play: distance, deserts, mountains and awkward locals. On the plus side, however, I can list oases, views, discovery and lovely locals.

What’s the Silk Route like now, then?

Tour group on the Silk RouteAs a travel biz marketing ploy, you’d have to  say it’s not doing too badly. The great oasis cities of present day Uzbekistan, Bokhara and Samarkand, have had some serious money spent on doing up the mighty mosques and madrassas of yore. There’s not exactly hordes of tourists but no doubt enough to keep the restaurants, hotels, taxi drivers, coach drivers, guides and souvenir sellers going for a fair while yet.

Tourists are also doing a great job taking on the role fulfilled by slaves in the old days. They obediently shamble around in little gangs, getting shouted back into line by barking tour guides if they show any inclination to wander off. They are a tradable commodity too- guides will happily deliver them to your tat emporium for a small commission.

I myself have been captured and sold on quite a few times at the long distance shared taxi stands.

We made a deal with a guy who swore by all that is holy that he was leaving now, yes, now, definitely! He grabbed our bags, locked them into the boot….and promptly disappeared. Of course, he needed two more passengers to make the trip worth it – a situation we were already very familiar with.

Shock, horror, a taxi driver lied to us! It’s only happened to me about 1,500 times, so why am I always surprised? Maybe there’s something in the middle class English upbringing which doesn’t prepare you for the real world. Anyway, there we squatted disconsolately in the dust, waiting for our master to come and release us, when he was ready.

Another time, we were turfed out halfway through the journey and transferred to another driver. It was done quickly and furtively, but I spotted Driver 2 paying Driver 1 the bit extra for the lucrative tourist fare. We cost about £1.20, if you’re interested.

So at least one traditional Silk Route commodities, the slave, has found a modern substitute, the tourist.

But a big improvement – the tourist pays for his own food and drink and makes only half-hearted attempts to escape.

Deserts, Mountains, Oases.

View of desert landscape with mountains and an oasisThese three are the clichés of Silk Route reportage from 300 AD onwards and with good reason. The deserts are still dry, dusty, huge, mostly ugly (ignore the guidebooks) and frightening. The mountains are still almost impassable, very high and awe inspiring. Their weather is maddeningly, not to say dangerously, unpredictable.

The oases are life savers. The sheer joy of arriving at them seems to have inspired the building of some of the most beautiful cities ever to have existed. No wonder the poets and travellers have gone into raptures about pomegranates, fountains, fig trees and so on. It’s the feeling that you’ll never see another one that stokes up your enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

21st Century Deserts

1. Khiva to Bokhara, Kyzyl-Kum desert, 374 kms. Shared taxi took maybe 9 hours. Grey dust, gravelly stones and so little vegetation that I saw no animals and that means very little vegetation. The only town is built to serve the natural gas wells which have been drilled in the desert. Absolutely impossible to imagine living there in ugly concrete blocks, 45 ̊ heat and dirt. The name of this place is Gazli, meaning “got gas”. Yeah.

2. Bokhara to Shahkrisabz, Karshi Steppe, 253 kms. Shared taxis about 6 hours. Very barren. Huge, almost derelict industry lurking in unlikely bits of desert. Still working, but I couldn’t work out what was being produced.

3. The Erkeshtam Pass to Kashgar, 200 kms of the driest, dustiest, greyest yet. Gravel extraction, road building and mobile phone towers waiting to be erected.

Oil well4. Kashgar to Turpan, 1,400 km. The “Taklimakan” (“Go in, don’t come out”) desert. No need to say more.

The Chinese have built and are still building innumerable industrial plants in the desert: oil extraction, petrochemical installations, mineral extraction and quarries for stone, sand and gravel. The dust clouds are therefore much worse. The stark, relentless stamp of this human activity seems to make the desert, if anything, even more forbidding.

Mordor, indeed!

21st Century Mountains

Aaah the mountains, how we’ve loved them! The freshest air I’ve ever breathed, the most entrancing views I’ve ever gazed upon and the brightest stars shining down on the path ‘twixt bed and midnight wee. Diane in the mountainsEven Diane’s enthusiasm (making Julie Andrews appear positively disenchanted by comparison) hasn’t been enough to dent my love for the mountains.

So the great push to conquer the pass into China, which had filled me with foreboding ever since I first looked at the map to check the altitudes, no longer held any terrors for me. I’d worried about our visas, the weather and the political situation in Xinjiang (would we even be allowed in?) but as we ascended towards Sary Tash (altitude 3500m), before hitting the border first thing in the morning, I breezily confided in Diane just how good I was feeling. Mountain viewNone of the problems I’d foreseen looked like materialising, the sun was shining and we were speeding along nicely.

A few hours later we sat in a room so hot we had to leave the door open to the sub-zero outside in order to breathe. It was now clear that the previous night I had finally found vodka cheap enough to give me an evil hangover. Altitude sickness was causing shortness of breath, dreadful nausea and, in the words of the ever-helpful guidebook “general malaise”. I had also started a nasty urine infection with a raging temperature. No doubt I would live, but I didn’t want to.

“As for his intestines, he could no longer claim them for his own” (H.E. Bates)

In the end I tackled the pass and the descent into Kashgar with the aid of lots of encouragement from my lovely and resourceful partner, my own paltry reserves of “can-do” spirit, some fierce anti-biotics aimed at the nether regions and two hardboiled eggs.

These last two had dire repercussions. My first five days in China went by unaccompanied by bowel movement. I was faced with an appalling dilemma. I could find no chemists or traditional medicine shops in Kashgar with anything but Chinese labels and Chinese speaking staff. No Boots, no Superdrug. So should I practice the Mandarin for “Could I have laxatives please?” and repeat this several times in my hopeless accent until somebody in the shop got what I wanted?

Chinese laxatives

The first shop assistant able to stop giggling would eventually serve me, but humiliation was certain. Or go for the mime option? On reflection, I realised that this would not only require nerves of steel to carry off, but would run the dreadful risk of giving the exact opposite of the intended message.

Fortunately, I found a phrasebook with the relevant information (full respect to “Just Enough Chinese to Get By”). Highly motivated, I made myself understood at only the fourth attempt. A capital young shop assistant and I managed the whole transaction with the seriousness and professional dignity appropriate to the gravity of the situation. Climb every mountain, guys.

21st Century Oases

I guess the area of irrigated land under cultivation nowadays would amaze early travellers. It amazes me, anyway. Every drop of water flowing along the course of the Amu Darya is potentially divertible for agriculture. I was excited to be crossing this mighty and legendary river. In ancient times it was the Oxus, giving its name to one of the oldest known civilisations. A whole region, Transoxiana, was defined by the fact you’d got across it.

We approached, rammed into the back of a shared taxi. Oh, the cruel disappointments that travelling sometimes has in store! The taxi bounced through the river bed, occasionally across pontoons spanning the shallow streams that wound between the gravel. The banks of the once enormous river towered either side of the poor remnants of the current. It took ten minutes to cross the river bed, but very little of that time was spent crossing water.

Between the glaciers feeding the sources of the Amu Darya 1,500 miles to the east are hydroelectric schemes, lots of ageing Soviet-built industrial plants, field and fields and fields of cotton and several quite large cities. The countless small farms and villages that also share the water would have been there in ancient times too, and so could not be blamed for the stricken state of the river. It’s the Amu Darya that once fed the southern half of the Aral Sea, and this no longer exists. So the oases of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are now bigger, but not without cost.

My Personal Top Five Oases

French Klezmer band in Bishek1. The Registan Café, Samarkand. A real cup of proper, lovely, caffeinated Turkish coffee! Bliss! Astounding, but there’s hardly a coffee worth the name on the whole Silk Route from Khiva to Lanzhou.

2. Bishkek. Parks, museums, a decent art gallery, restaurants, the ballet (Swan Lake for £2.75!), a great French klezmer band (Kekiristan Republic?) playing for free. A capital city of culture!

Stream among trees in Aslanbob3. The village of Aslanbob – an Uzbek enclave in the midst of troubled southern Kyrgyzstan. Listening to every sound running water can make, we wandered up to the enormous walnut forest. Gentle Uzbek villagers kept on inviting us in for tea and snacks.

4. The little Chinese caffs in Turpan. Fantastic tasty meals for a quid, big Tsingtao beers at 50p. A welcome respite from the endless lamb kebabs and chai.

Jim snacking5. Speakers for the laptop (for only £4.50 from a Chinese electronics superstore) providing me with an oasis of good music – an antidote to the relentless diet of Chinese pop and rock played on every form of public transport.

Jim and Diane in a cafe

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Over the mountains to China

View of mountains, plains and a riverI had read Lonely Planet’s section on crossing the border into China where the possibility of hitching rides on Chinese trucks is mentioned. I had thought to myself “Yes, I’m sure that’s what I would have done when I was a young traveller. Luckily we won’t have to”. So what on earth are we doing here by the side of the road at 8.30 on a very cold morning hoping for a ride on a Chinese truck to take us to the border?

Our attempts to be sensible and middle aged and throw money at the situation failed miserably in Osh where we couldn’t find any taxi willing to take us the whole way. So we got as far as Sary Tash and spent the night there. Sary Tash is a village which owes its existence solely to its position at the fork in the road between the Tajik and Chinese borders – one road leads over one set of mountains into Tajikistan and the other over another set of mountains to western China and Kashgar.

Sary TashIt’s a cold and bleak place where winter already seems to be setting in and the dried dung piles (for winter fuel) are stacked high. The nearby graveyard has a weirdly animist atmosphere with horse tails fixed to the grave posts (presumably a reminder of the occupant’s favourite mount?)

The inhabitants of Sary Tash make their money doing seasonal farm work in Russia or scrape a living from their few animals, taking in the odd traveller (like us) or selling petrol, tea and vodka to passing motorists.

While we are sitting outside the shop (the throbbing heart of this metropolis) a party of Kyrgyz tourists turn up fresh from a day out in the mountains and already rather The Sary Tash shopthe worse for wear. I am dragged into the party (rather unwillingly honestly), have to be introduced to everyone and then just to be sociable,join them in downing a very large shot of neat vodka followed by kurut –crumbly dried sour yogurt, yum! This could easily turn into a bit of a session but Jim is feeling too ill to join in (altitude sickness is diagnosed) so we make our way back to the hovel we call home for the night

Next morning we are standing at the petrol station at the edge of the universe hoping someone will help us to reach the border. Hitching in Kyrgyzstan isn’t quite like elsewhere in that it’s very acceptable and what’s more you always pay for your lift so it’s a good way to share petrol costs -a system which could be adopted everywhere I reckon.

Jim and a truckA couple of trucks go past but luckily it’s not too long before a lovely warm people carrier comes by and praise be! It stops, and in we hop. The mountains look amazing in this light and the road is brand new and as smooth as anything. It was only finished this year and was built by – guess who? The Chinese.

A preliminary passport check, then 10 kms. to the second passport check and we’re out of Kyrgyzstan and on our own. But there’s another seven kms. until Chinese immigration and this is achieved in a series of further passport checks with lifts from lorry drivers in between. As we’re hauling ourselves up into very high truck cabs fully laden with rucksacks, I remind myself that we are doing this trip now while we’re still fit enough to do it.

Jim in front of "Welcome to China" signFinally the last driver pulls up behind a great queue of trucks and tells us it’s still at least 2 kms to the border. He urges us to wait but the rate the trucks are moving means that we could very well still be in the queue at night fall. We decide that we can easily walk 2 kms. – even if it is at 3,600m and thank goodness, we just about can! We’re through the final checks and it’s welcome to China!

Luckily we’re the last people through before the 2½ lunch break which the Chinese border guards obviously need (what for – an extended 14 course banquet?) Unluckily, this means that nothing moves at all and there is no possibility of a lift down to Kashgar.

We spend the time chatting to a group of Uzbek ladies who have come over to buy stuff here to sell back in Kyrgyzstan – same business as us really, and a Dutch guy who is trying to get his Land Rover in. There’s plenty of time for us to negotiate a lift back with the driver who brought Dutch guy’s Chinese guide here, but we can’t go until Dutch guy’s Landy gets the all-clear and various bits of bureaucracy are seen to (it gets complicated)

Three Bactrian camels in front of some red mountainsFinally we’re off through red mountains, past dirt poor villages and herds of horses and huge stately Bactrian camels. The road deteriorates fast and quickly moves up into a second place (behind the never to be forgotten Khiva to Bokhara) as worst road of the trip so far. The story is the same – they’re building a new road but instead of doing it bit by bit, they just tear up the whole lot and then replace it here and there, so there are a couple of miles of smooth tarmac followed by dozens of dust choked rocky track.

Eventually after a journey I thought would never end we get to the outskirts of Kashgar and the Uyghur driver pulls into his favourite Uyghur caff. The Uyghurs are Turkmen people and speak a variation on guttural Turkish but now live in the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” and occasionally feel obliged to riot against their Chinese oppressors.

The restaurant is a showcase of both Chinese kitsch (plastic flowers, electric animated “aquariums”) and Muslim devotional wall decor (huge dioramas of Mecca, enlarged scriptures from the Koran) But the food is delicious (Hello taste buds! Where have you been for the past 2 months?) and the price is ludicrously cheap.

Welcome to Xinjiang!

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Kyrgyz Felt DolliesWe have been selling felt dollies in our shop for a few years, since we found them in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Mohammed, a Kazakh trader has been sending them to us every now and then and we had assumed they were made in Kazakhstan. However we were wrong – they come from Kyrgyzstan and I have been keeping my eyes out for them all over the country. But in vain!

Now here we are in “Tsum” a great big department store in the middle of Bishkek, the capital, and finally here are the dollies. We’d like to find out where they are made and buy a pile. Easier said than done it seems, but then we find Mirgul (sounds more like “Miracle”) another very competent young woman. Mirgul has a little shop selling felty souvenirs to tourists and expats, and just the fact that she is helpful marks her out as unusual, and she speaks good English too.

Yes, they are made in Bishkek and yes, she can get us some, but we can’t visit as the woman who designs them and oversees the workshop is rather touchy about visitors.

Anyway suffice it to say, felt dollies are obtained and various other things too (Mirgul is a pretty good saleswoman) and now comes the hard part – sending them home.

With the searing memory of the Uzbek Postal System still so fresh we are rather dreading it. But come on, it has to be done. So we persuade Mirgul to come along with us to smooth the path and translate Russian officialese.

Everything is weighed and inspected and no great obstacles are put in our way apart from the necessity of finding a big enough box to squash everything into, and the rather eye watering amount of money it is going to cost!

Mirgul in her shopJim is dispatched to go in search of a box and tape and after several attempts we manage to get almost everything in. Meanwhile people are coming and going bringing in the things they want to send abroad, getting everything out for inspection and filling in the numerous forms. Each category of item has to be listed and weighed separately so it all takes quite a while!

At last our box is handed over and now a bag has to be made for it. White cotton fabric is first measured out and then it is sewn up on the sewing machine -oh so that’s why it’s there. Next the box is inserted into the bag and needle and thread fetched for the ends to be hand stitched – nobody is in a hurry and those waiting suppress their barely audible sighs and wait their turn.

Finally hot brown sealing wax is applied to the stitching – at least 15 blobs. But hang on, we’re still not finished, the Kyrgyz Postal System official stamp has to be cleaned and pressed into each of the 15 or so blobs to the postmistress’s complete satisfaction.

Everything is done at a slow and careful pace, there’s no point in getting impatient and finally we are out of there – hey it only took 3 hours.

Only the large sweating Russian lady who came in shortly after us and who I believe is trying to send her son’s stuff to him is still there, having to fill in another set of forms (I know exactly what she was sending as it was all inspected including a large silver pop up photographic screen which unfortunately popped up while being inspected and which we all struggled to manhandle back into its bag).

Hooray, our felt dollies, felt hats and felt rugs are off our hands and a great weight is lifted from us. I just hope our parcel has at least left Bishkek Post Office by now.


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A shyrdak from KochkorKochkor is a perfectly ordinary little Kyrgyz town. It has its fair share of picturesque, dusty, poplar lined streets, its open man holes, clapped out Ladas and “mountain” Audis, men in white felt hats and large women in flowery head scarves. It may have more than its fair share of men sitting on street corners playing cards, grocers shops with not many groceries but 65 different varieties of vodka and indeed plenty of members of the all-day VDC (Vodka Drinking Community).

Kochkor womenKochkor

Kochkor menVodka

However it does have some good home stays and it’s a centre for shyrdaks. What the hell are shyrdaks? I hear you ask. A few weeks ago I asked the same question, and now I can tell you the answer in perhaps too much detail. A shyrdak is a felt rug and you will find several of them in every Kyrgyz house or yurt you visit. Every Kyrgyz woman makes a large shyrdak and a large alagi’iz (that’s another kind of felt rug) for each daughter she has and gives them to her when she gets married. They are also a good way of using up some of that surplus sheep’s wool and of generating some much needed income.

Jim in shyrdak shopKochkor is a well-known centre for buying these rugs and so that’s why we’re here. We are lucky to meet Dinara (a very confident and competent 27) in the “Altyn Kol” (Golden Hands) handicrafts shop. There are lots of shyrdaks on sale made by thirty or so different women who live in Kochkor and the surrounding area.

First of all Dinara takes us to meet an elderly lady who is one of her best shyrdak makers. She is working in the back yard at her home and she makes all her rugs herself from start to finish.

This involves

  1. preparing the wool
  2. making the felt (you are already an expert in how felt is made – if not, read my last post)
  3. drawing the design and cutting out the felt
  4. spinning the yarn used for the edging
  5. sewing the pieces together
  6. quilting the top felt onto its felt backing.

Here’s some pictures of some of that…

Making shyrdaksMaking shyrdaksMaking shyrdaks
After all that we have to buy some. Most of the colours are just a little too bright for our subdued British tastes, so we go for the ones in natural wool colours. However we can also order rugs and that way we get to choose the colours and designs we’d like, and even better news, Dinara will ship them to us when they are ready!

So there we are all ready to leave Kochkor with six shyrdaks and full rucksacks to carry and now we just need to find a shared taxi. The price is right and there are already two passengers, so all is well – the only problem is that there’s a quarter of a dead cow in the boot and its bloody carcass is leaking through the totally inadequate bit of cardboard it’s sitting on. There is no way we are going to allow our precious rugs anywhere near that!

No problem! Passenger transporting said carcass to his friend in the city is despatched to fetch plastic bags to cover it up a bit and we gingerly allow our bags in the boot. Honestly fussy bloody tourists! It’s just another typical Kyrgyz moment.

ShyrdakMaking a shyrdak

Making shyrdaks can be communal work and baby- sitting may also be incorporated. Here the felt backing layer is being quilted onto a very large rug.

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Yurt among the treesMany country people make their own yurts from wood and wool but if you don’t have the time or the amazing skills in woodwork and felt making needed to make one, you will have to order one from a professional yurt maker. We met one such in Barskoön – a village on the southern shores of Lake Issyk Kul.

Mekenbek Osmonaliev got interested in yurt making when he was an art student in Bishkek in the 1970s. While he was there he helped to make a yurt for the Kyrgyzstan pavilion in an important Soviet exhibition. He hasn’t looked back since and has been all over the world with his yurts (including London) – mostly teaching the museums who have bought them how to put them up. He looks the part too dressed in his Kyrgyz hat

A yurt takes about 2 or 3 months to make and his small workforce can make about 4 a year – a medium sized (5 metre diameter) yurt will set you back around £3,000 (plus more for the felt and the interior decoration)

Poplar wood is used for the framework as its strong and light and can be steamed and formed in to the right shape for the lattice-work walls (kerege) and for the 75 or so roof struts which go up to the tunduk or roof dome. In the daytime you can stare through this to the blue sky. At night if it’s warm enough to leave open, you can see the stars. The yurt tunduk holds such a special place in the Kyrgyz heart that it features as the centrepiece in their flag. I find it quite endearing that such a domestic symbol is used to show national identity.

Yurt images

Mekenbek says he has never known a properly erected yurt blow down no matter how bad the weather and the wooden structure should last a lifetime as long as you take care when putting it up and when transporting and storing it, although the felt may need replacing or at least patching every 8 years.

When we visited the yurt factory there was no order on, so the wood workshop was quiet but the felting ladies were busy making big sheets of felt. Twenty five sheets of felt are sewn together to make the large pieces which cover the yurt roof, walls, top cover and door – and all together they will weigh around 250 kilos! They start with double that – 500 kilos.

Anyway here’s how the felt sheets are made – white wool is used for yurts and dark brown for felt rugs.

2. A couple of women pick out the twigs, burrs and bits of this and that still sticking to the wool and pull the fibres apart.

1. The wool, fresh from the sheep, is tipped onto a bed frame with a metal grill base and a woman sits beating the hell out of it with a couple of metal sticks. The dirt drops through the grill onto the floor.

4. Two women are working next door on a large wooden slatted platform which has a reed mat on it (about 5’ x 15’) They lay four separate thin layers of the processed wool onto the matting and very carefully spread and patch each layer so that it’s even.

3. This wool is fed into an amazing Heath Robinson type machine which passes the wool through a series of rollers. These comb and card it to produce a nice soft fluffy roll of fine wool ready for felting.

6. The three of them roll the wool up tightly along with the reed matting. More buckets of hot water are brought and poured onto the wool through the matting as they go.

5. When they are happy with this nice bed of wool, one woman begins to ladle very hot water over the wool. They now call in a third woman to help.

7. The long bundle is tied up tightly and then it is rolled into the pummelling machine. This noisy machine takes just 20 minutes of squashing, turning and pummelling to turn the wool into felt.

The felt sheets are sewn together to make large pieces and then finished by sewing a thick cord round the edges. Thick woven straps will keep them in place on the wooden frame.

Various woven, felted and embroidered decorations will also be needed to make the outside and the inside of your yurt beautiful. These include embroidered dividing screens, woven bags in various sizes, and of course thick felt rugs for the floor. There are also painted wooden or metal chests and always piles of thin mattresses and quilts which can be used for sitting and sleeping on. In a yurt, the furniture is almost all made from textiles.

Without a pummelling machine, this part is usually done by human feet or by tying it to the back of a horse and dragging it over rocky mountain paths!

Another essential is the reed screen which is rolled between the trellis and the felt. This keeps cold winds out or lets air through when the weather is hot and the felt is raised.

This screen (called a chiy) is made from reeds. Each reed is individually decorated by wrapping it with unspun dyed wool. When the reeds are joined together, they make a sometimes quite complex design. I have only just discovered the existence of these amazing textile treasures and now I notice them everywhere!

A fully furnished yurt needs a lot of time and skill to complete.

Let me know if you want one – I know a very nice man who will make you one!

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Diane next to a YurtAt last I’ve done it – my life’s ambition has been accomplished and now I can die happy – I have stayed the night in a proper felt yurt (and I wasn’t even at a Festival).

Unlike most dreams it was even better than I had imagined. I’ve had this romantic yearning to stay up in the “summer pastures” since the times Jim and I used to go to Turkey when the kids were small and we got to know some semi nomadic people in the Toros Mountains. They were always urging us to come to the “yayla” where they decamp to in the summer months. It always sounded very tempting – even if it really just meant getting in the back of their truck with them as they moved a few miles up the mountains to their Riversummer home. But we were never there at the right time of year.

Lonely Planet keeps going on about the delights of the Kyrgyz yurtstay but we are here right at the end of the season, it’s getting very cold at night in the mountains and many people are packing up and going back down to lower altitudes for the winter.

Anyway we’ve got to give it a go so we trek up from the Seven Bulls rocks early in the morning with an overnight bag, just in case. If we go early enough we have time to get back to town if there’s no sign of the yurts, and anyway the scenery is wonderful. As the track crosses the river for the fifth time the mountains open out into flat pasture land and we are in luck!

Three yurtsThere is one camp still operating and we negotiate ourselves a bed for the night – and discover that the good thing about being late in the season is that we can have a yurt all to ourselves.

It’s hard to work out who’s who at the camp because there are at least three different families milling about. A sheep is also being butchered. Luckily we have missed the grisliest parts but we’re in time to see the head being singed over a fire – chap with blackened sheep’s head on a stick – nice!

Two nomad women preparing sheep-based delicacies

Gulmira and Reyha, my new best friends. Reyha attractively posed holding on to the sheep’s windpipe.

And two grannies (I will be careful not to call them old ladies as they’re about the same age as me) are carefully pouring milk into the windpipe and lungs of said sheep for a special Kyrgyz delicacy which I am hoping I am not going to be offered.

We take ourselves off for a walk around the pastures and woods and when we get back some of the sheep has been cooked and large plates of potatoes and lamb’s liver, boiled meat, slabs of white fat and what I can only describe as “mutton water” are pressed on us. Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country but if you are a vegetarian (or even if you don’t want meat for every meal) you have a lot of explaining to do.

Finally all the uncooked meat (including the head and those milk filled lungs) is put into plastic bags and the family start saying their goodbyes. So all 6 adults and 4 or 5 little ones (I didn’t count properly, they were a bit of blur) get in the one car and they’re off back to the capital, Bishkek tonight. We reckon they came out from the city for a weekend in the country and brought their own sheep to have a meat feast.

Yurt interiorAnyway we are now left with just two people -our lovely hosts Bakit and his wife who has such a long name we call her Mrs Bakit. They live up here from May to September and at the end of this week they will be packing everything up and going back to their village to do “potato business” over the winter.

They have 3 yurts, 20 sheep, 3 cows, 2 calves, a cat, a dog and 4 teenage children. We have a fantastic night – dinner in their cosy yurt with stove and then back to ours where we wear all our clothes including hats and get under two quilts and fleecy blankets with tigers on.*

Up there the stars are even bigger and brighter than on a Shropshire hillside and the sound of the river rushing down from the mountains is the only sound until morning.

Next morning after a breakfast of pancakes, clotted cream and thick white honey, we set off back down the track in the sunshine with enormous great smiles on our faces.

Stoking up the samovar

Stoking up the samovar. The Kyrgyz like their tea as much as we do.

Yurt with painted wooden door and a thick felt door cover

Painted wooden door and a thick felt door cover keep out the cold winds.

A summer pasture

A lovely summer pasture – a yayla in Turkish, or a jai-loo in Kyrgyz. It’s enough to make a nomad’s heart sing!

* Toilet Note

Long drop in little wooden shed on a hillock accessed over the stream. Torch definitely needed.

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