Discovering Kyrgyzstan

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 Political Map

My journey started at Son Kul Lake – which is between the Y and Z for KYRGYZSTAN in the map above.

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.

Kyrgyzstan mountains

The mountain views just go on and on…

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.

Kyrgyzstan flag

The flag of Kyrgyzstan is red with a yellow sun in the centre that contains a depiction of a yurt.

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.

Son Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan

Son Kul Lake.

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!

horse riding in Kyrgyzstan

Getting close to the action during the games.

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.

kyrgyzstan horses

Enjoying the mountain grass.

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.

kyrgyzstan trail riding

My horse ‘Melman’ waiting patiently whilst I learned how to tack-up.

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.

yurts in kyrgyzstan

Most families have two yurts – one where they sleep and another where they cook.

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.

riding in kyrgyzstan

If the path was narrow, we would ride in single file. But most of the time we rode in an open order.

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.

horseback in kyrgyzstan

Me and Melman after having a lovely canter through some open farmland.

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.

riding in the steep mountains of kyrgyzstan

Leading the horses on foot down steep descents was great for stretching our legs.

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.

kyrgyzstan market

The market was so big – it was very reassuring to have such a knowledgeable guide like Helene to show us around.

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.

sunrise in kyrgyzstan

Blue skies and the open landscape made for beautiful sunsets.

The 2018 dates and prices are out and if you’d like more information about riding in Kyrgyzstan and wish to book your place, please contact Lucy on +44 1299 272 238 or via email


2 responses to “Discovering Kyrgyzstan”

  1. Dardenne Françoise says:

    Dear Lucy,
    I would like to know ,if the trail was not too difficult for walking with the horses at high altitude. What was the average age of the group? If you did also the Andorra trail, can you compare it?
    Thanks if you can give me some more information.
    Best regards

    • In The Saddle says:

      Thank you for your comment Françoise.
      We will get back to you shortly with further information on both the Andorra Trail and riding in Kyrgyzstan.

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