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Posted on November 13, 2017
In The Saddle’s Lucy Downes tells us about her adventure in Kyrgyzstan back in August 2017:
When I told my friends and family where I would be going, many had not heard of Kyrgyzstan and didn’t have any idea where in the world it was.
Kyrgyzstan is a small country in the middle of Central Asia. It is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. The country is 90% mountains and I would be exploring the Kyrgyz Ala Too mountain range in the centre of the Chu Valley.
I flew with Aeroflot from London Heathrow to Bishkek, via Moscow. I hadn’t flown with this airline before, but I thought I would test it out because of the good connections and reasonable fare. The flight to Moscow is just over 3 hours and from there, I had a further 3.5 hours to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. I was very impressed with Aeroflot and I will be recommending this route to our future guests.
I was met at the airport by Yann Guillerm, the owner and a guide and was whisked away into the mountains to meet the group. The ‘Great Trek’ is an epic 17 night adventure on horseback but if you’re short on time you can join the first 9 nights (Secret 1) or the last 11 nights (Secret 2). I was riding Secret 2, which starts at the beautiful Son Kul Lake. The rest of my group were on the full Great Trek and it was really interesting listening to their stories of the journey so far.
We spent a couple of nights at Son Kul Lake as the highly nutritious grass by the lake shore is great for the horses while they rest, recuperating for the second half of the trek. Whilst at the lakes, we watched the exciting games played by the locals – using a dead goat – it was kind of like rugby on horseback!
All the horses owned by Yann, Helene (Yann’s sister and another guide) and the team are much loved, well fed and great at their jobs. The geldings used for the guests on trail live in a herd up in the mountains throughout the season so they all get on together and it is a pleasure to ride them next to each other in an open order. They are strong working horses responding to voice commands, neck reining and traditional English riding. I had full faith in my boy throughout – from clambering up rocky tracks, navigating a narrow pass or leading him down a shingle slope.
A highlight of this trip for me was being able to interact with the local people and help in looking after the horses. The tack, especially the saddle and girthing system, was a challenge at first but was a great feeling when mastered! The traditional, handmade saddles sit on top of blankets to keep the horse comfortable. Another blanket is then folded on top of the saddle to keep the rider comfortable.
Sleeping in yurts, whilst being hosted by a local nomad family next to the lakes and in the mountains, with the flock of sheep outside, was a truly special and a memorable experience. All the families were friendly and great hosts – feeding us up for the next day’s riding and never letting my cup run out of Chai. All the meals were social occasions and we would often share the table with the team, local families and anyone else from the area who’d ridden in to meet us. Fresh bread and jams were the starter. Main was a traditional stew or soup and of course, lots of Chai. After dinner, we would rummage through our luggage and share sweets and chocolate which was a welcome treat. A round of UNO or other card games whilst wrapped in our sleeping bags was a nice way to wind down for the night.
The scenery on this ride is stunning and ever changing. The lakes and rivers are crystal clear, although very cold when having a quick wash whilst camping! From the top of a mountain peak, we had a view that went on for miles. All the guides have great knowledge of the area and Helene (my guide for this trek) pointed out towns in the distance, where we had come from and where we would be going. Helene is also really knowledgeable about the local traditions and culture on Kyrgyzstan and shared her stories over lunch and dinner.
I rode up rocky mountain passes, across open flat farm land (which is great for a canter), and over green rolling hills where mare herds roam and sheep gaze. As the pace is mainly at walk due to the terrain and long hours, there were plenty of opportunities to take photos and enjoy my surroundings.
Stopping for a picnic lunch on the side of a mountain, often next to a stream, was just perfect. After refuelling with pasta, bread and a couple of sweets there would be time for a nap or quick explore on foot of the area.
On our final day, we explored Bishkek with and visited the bazaar (like a market) which was eye opening! The bazaar is huge and Helene guided us through, stopping at shops and speaking to the locals. I could have bought anything from fishing tackle to textiles and from spices to a new TV. Bishkek has a population of around 1 million and it was a massive adjustment being surrounded by people again having spent so long in the mountains.
Ride through great scenery, immerse yourself in the culture, try traditional dishes freshly prepared (such as fermented mare’s milk called ‘kumiss’), learn the history of this great country and enjoy a digital detox.