I left Almaty on a Monday morning in a car called up on my Yandex app. Sitting comfortably in the back of a grey Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, we headed west. The towering and rugged mountain range panned by on the left, and on the right, the long expanse of the Mongolian steppe, once dominated by Genghis Khan and his warriors, stretched off into the horizon.
I had considered taking a marshrutka, which is a great way to meet locals, but given COVID-19 and my propensity to stop and take photos along the way, I went for a private car at the cost of about $50 for the four-hour journey. A marshrutka is a fixed-route shared taxi minibus, often driven by a madman who has one hand on the wheel while the other holds a mobile phone, which he constantly yells into incomprehensibly.
We drove west until there was a break in the mountain range where we could journey south past a massive wind farm to the border town of Korday. My driver dropped me off at a crowded border crossing with a monumental gate and the usual vendors streaming in and out of the traffic selling cigarettes, nuts, gum, and everything imaginable. After turning down several hopeful guys with dollies, I noticed a pedestrian crossing and wheeled my suitcase down the sidewalk and into a hall with immigration officials. I first had to stamp out of Kazakhstan before walking down a long corridor and into another hall with several booths, each with a heavily uniformed official questioning travelers. As far as I could see, I was the only foreigner crossing the border on foot.
“Traveling alone?” he asked.
“Haven’t you heard that Central Asia can be very dangerous?”
“Well, from my experience, I’d say you are some of the friendliest and most hospitable people on Earth,” I replied.
He smiled, winked, and stamped my passport—no visa required. “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “I am sure you will enjoy your stay.”
I ventured out into a herd of taxis and found one to take me into Bishkek and to the City Hotel, a wonderful little gem within walking distance of everything. My review on Google Maps will tell you that it is “clean, courteous, and affordable.”
Bishkek is a modest city of wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings interspersed with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks surrounding non-descript interior courtyards. The people (Bishkekians?) are super friendly, and there are some excellent restaurants, including Sierra on Manas Avenue. My review on Google Maps: “If you eat here, you will want to go back to every restaurant you have ever given five stars to and revise them down a notch.”
A King, His Princess, and the Spider
Talgat Bokeshov came to pick me up at the City Hotel on the third morning of my stay in Bishkek. I serendipitously found him online while searching Google for “horse adventures Kyrgyzstan.” It was a spontaneous decision—I had no plan or idea of what the next few days would bring. I had to be in Tashkent the following week for a short work assignment, but until then, my calendar was wide open.
Talgat is a young Kyrgyz in his mid-20s who offers adventure tours around his beautiful country. I arranged to spend a day on horseback with him in the same mountains I could see a week earlier from Almaty but on the other side of the border. His company, Datka Travel, promised the “nomad lifestyle while you visit via interacting with local people, exploring the Silk Road, and the pure nature of Kyrgyzstan!” I wasn’t disappointed.
Our first stop was to see the Burana Tower, which towers above the green meadows of the Chuy Valley not far from Tokmok, where Talgat was once in boarding school. The tower was actually a minaret built in the eleventh century and is now the only structure remaining from the thriving metropolis of Balasagun and the Central Asian headquarters of the Karakhanids. You can enter the tower and climb to its top via a very tight passageway accessible by stairs. If you meet someone going up when another is going down, one of you needs to do an about-face.
The Burana Tower Entrance
Legend has it that (according to Talgat) the tower was built by a local khan (king) when his daughter was born. To celebrate his daughter’s birth, the king arranged a huge feast to which fortune-tellers from all over the kingdom were invited. Most prophesied a long and happy life for the princess, but one of them had a different opinion: he said she would die before her sixteenth birthday. Infinitely worried about his daughter, the khan built the tower and locked his daughter inside to protect her from danger.
For 16 years, servants provided her with meals and protected her from harm. On her sixteenth birthday, the khan was so happy that the prophecy had not come true that he rushed to his daughter with a basket full of fruit, not knowing there was a poisonous spider that lay hidden inside. When the princess reached for the fruit, she was bitten by the spider and died.
Before leaving the tower, I ventured over to a field of tombstones called balbals from around the sixth century. They are made to look like the person who died and were often revered by future generations as symbols of their ancestors: no name, no date, just a stone carving depicting the person who was buried underneath. I guess by the time of the princess’ untimely death, the tradition itself had died, as I could not find a carving of a young woman at sweet sixteen.
Back in the Saddle Again
We drove up toward the Kazakh border and east into the Chon-Kemin Valley, with two towering mountain ridges on either side. After a few hours, we reached a remote village of horse herders where we met Azim, my guide for the day. Talgat and I were each given a horse, and we headed up into the mountains. Mine had the name Kara Boz, meaning simply “Dark Grey,” his color.
It took me a while to recover my riding legs. I rode a lot as a kid in Arizona (before moving to the Yukon Territory) and had forgotten the importance of moving with the horse rather than against it. Fortunately, my rhythm returned before too much damage could be inflicted in the nether regions.
We rode high up into the trees, with spectacular views across the valley. Horses were everywhere with herds scattered across the countryside. I was starting to feel like I was developing a relationship with Kara Boz as we galloped down the trail when Talgat caught up with me and asked, “Are you ok with eating horse meat?”
Horses Scattered Across the Countryside
“Shhh,” I whispered so Kara Boz couldn’t hear, “he might hear you.”
Talgat told me not to worry, as the horses they ride are given names and are almost family members; the ones reserved for eating get numbers. I thought back to the dozens of horses we rode past in the fields, wondering if any of them had names.
Beschbarmak, which means “five fingers” in the Kyrgyz language, is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan and is popular throughout the region. The meal consists of horse meat cooked for several hours in a broth and served over homemade noodles with parsley.
Most of the three million horses inhabiting the vast Mongolian steppe live in huge quasi-feral herds.
For centuries, they were essential to the nomadic lifestyle, and life in the mountains and on the steppes would have been impossible without them. Cows came much later, but horses in Kyrgyzstan were and still are used for transportation, payment, and food.
To say Kyrgyzstan is the Switzerland of Central Asia hardly does it justice. It would be more appropriate to say Switzerland is the Kyrgyzstan of Europe. In Kyrgyzstan, 94 percent of the country is covered with mountains. In Switzerland, by contrast, mountains cover just 69 percent of its territory if you count both the Alps (58 percent) and the Jura (11 percent).
I enjoyed my day on horseback so much that I asked Talgat if he would be interested in driving me across the country to Osh, an 800 kilometer serpentine journey across several of Kyrgyzstan’s 88 major mountain ranges—each one somehow uniquely different from the other. The country also reportedly has 30 thousand rivers and two thousand lakes, fed mainly by melting glaciers. The entire country looks like it came from a Tolkien dream.
The only other options for getting down to Osh were either to fly and miss out on all the incredible experiences on the ground or to take a marshrutka and miss out on experiencing the rest of my life. More than a hundred of them passed us on the road going in the same direction during the two days of our journey to Osh. I saw a few that had crashed along the way.
Our first destination was Toktogul, a sleepy town of about 20,000 that serves as the district capital of the same name. A good chunk of the drive was spent winding our way through traffic until we finally reached the outer suburbs of Bishkek. Then, like a sunrise merging into daylight, the road opened up, and we were driving along tree-canopied country roads under a clear blue sky. We soon ran out of that six percent of the country that is not mountainous and were winding our way into the heavens.
The town of Toktogul oversees the 65-kilometer-long Toktogul Reservoir, a large and elongated lake that appeared when the Soviets built a dam across the Naryn River. The town’s highlight, however, is the Rahat Guesthouse where we stayed. It is run by a charming woman and her husband, who also offer tours around the region. They provided a hearty breakfast included in the price. In the central garden, they have a fantastic yurt and a table on which I spent several hours catching up on some long overdue work. She pointed the way toward a picturesque park at the far end of which is an old, broken down, and abandoned Ferris wheel from a long-ago festive Soviet amusement park.
Kyrgyzstan Mountain Ranges
The next day we set off early around the lake and headed up into another mountain range toward Karakol. The website Destination Karakol describes the country’s fourth-largest city as “the crossroads of Central Asia” and a “fascinating gateway to the region’s diverse history, cuisine, and nature.” We, however, drove right past it along precipitous canyon ledges, towering peaks, and rushing waters en route to Osh.
We reached Osh after sunset, and Talgat dropped me off at the Art Hotel. The owner, Meergul Karakozueva, is a wonderfully charismatic entrepreneur who did not let the challenge of deafness get in the way of her business plan. With support from the UN Development Program, the Government of Japan, and advice from business accelerator John Galt, Meergul built the hotel on her own with local artists. It is now the best place to stay in Osh. Read more about her story here.
It was time to leave Kyrgyzstan, but my journey across Central Asia had one more stop. I was headed to Uzbekistan, following the path of the Silk Road to cities of culture, arts, and famed archaeological sights.
Join Dreams Abroad for the first installment of Adam’s journey across Central Asia as he travels to Kazakhstan.