Frugal Traveler: Into the Mountains of Kyrgyzstan

“Chut!” Bakut yelled as he yanked the horse’s bridle. “Move!” His cries echoed off the mountains around us, a threatening desert landscape I’d only ever seen in Wile E. Coyote cartoons. But the horse would not budge; it had found a safe spot on the perilously steep and sandy slope, and was not coming down without a fight.

“Chut!” my guide commanded again, futilely. Then he turned to me, chuckled, and said, “Extreme.” Extreme, indeed. It was a comment that could apply to the whole of Kyrgyzstan, and it was just what I’d come here for. After my brief but invigorating mountain climb in northern Georgia, I craved more altitude, wilderness and — Mom, stop reading — the titillating possibility that I might die. Kyrgyzstan, with 94 percent of its land covered by mountains, the highest in Central Asia, seemed like the place to risk it all, especially since unlike, say, Switzerland or Colorado, I wouldn’t have to sign any release papers or show a certificate proving I knew how to ride a horse. So I caught a one-way $450 flight on Turkish Airways from Istanbul to Bishkek, the somnolent Kyrgyz capital, and hurriedly prepared my adventure.

My first stop was the nondescript offices of the Community Based Tourism (, a private agency that promotes “socially and environmentally responsible” travel throughout Kyrgyzstan, from the remote village of Kara-Suu to the tourist area of Lake Issyk-Kul. Its list of activities and prices are refreshingly transparent. You can sleep over in a yurt (roughly 350 som, or about $9, at 39 som to the dollar), watch a folklore concert (600 som) or rent a camel (80 som an hour). Cheap, yes, but more important, the money goes directly to the people of Kyrgyzstan, rather than into tour operators’ pockets.

When I told the agency that I had limited time (I’d arranged to go trekking with a Kyrgyz student in two days) it sprang into action, arranging for me to stay at a yurt camp that very night in Manjyly, on Lake Issyk-Kul’s southern shore. I grabbed my bags, took a taxi (100 som) to Bishkek’s west transit station, then paid 500 som for a seat in a shared Audi taxi to Manjyly. (Had I spoken Russian, as most Kyrgyz do, I might have been able to cut the price by 100 som.)

Escaping Bishkek turned out to be a good idea. The capital was nice enough — broad streets, a few fancy cafes — but nothing to keep a tourist there more than a day. The countryside, on the other hand, was glorious. The smooth highway wound through gritty red hills before entering the Issyk-Kul Lake Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco zone encompassing the 130-mile-long freshwater lake and the surrounding Tian Shan Mountains.

Four hours later, I was at the lakeside village of Manjyly — just a beach, two wagons and two yurts in an otherwise barren landscape of sandy hills studded with scrub grass and patchy lavender. Night was falling, and the hand-drawn map that the agency had given me was of little help, so I followed a sign that pointed to the desert, trusting that, even if I didn’t locate the camp, I would find a nomad willing to take me in. But 15 minutes later, the yurt camp emerged out of the sand like Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine home in “Star Wars.” Soon I was reclining on an embroidered cushion, the only guest, sipping hot tea in a plush, carpet-lined yurt and waiting for dinner to arrive. If this was the nomadic life, then I was ready to cancel my lease and invest in a colt.

The next morning, however, was less luxurious: squat toilet, no shower and Bakut showed up two hours late — he’d lost his way in the “badlands,” as he called the hills between Manjyly and Bokonbaevo, the town where the horses were kept. To make up for lost time, we set off hurriedly, neglecting to pack either lunch or enough bottled water.

For the first few hours, it didn’t matter. We took our nameless steeds (350 som per day, plus 650 for my guide) through the sandstone hills, past a derelict Soviet sheep farm and up a logging road, until we reached a high, sloping meadow where our horses could graze. We had a god’s-eye view of the land: above us, pine forests and the snowcapped Tian Shan range; below, elephant-skin hills and the deep blue Lake Issyk-Kul. In the hazy distance, the beige landscape would sometimes glint, the sun reflecting off the galvanized-steel domes of the country’s countless mosques.

For a couple of hours, we lived the mountain idyll: two men on horses roaming the countryside. But when we began to descend, our situation grew dire. Last week, a reader admonished me for going off the trail during my hike in the Georgian mountains — doing so hastens erosion, he said. But what do you do when the path abandons you? All of a sudden, we found ourselves on a perilous Loony Tunes slope that was too pebbly to climb back up, too steep for the horses to descend without stumbling.

While Bakut yelled fruitlessly, I sat on my own sandy perch, craving water and wondering if this would be the not-so-titillating end of the Frugal Traveler. It wasn’t hard to imagine one of our horses tripping and carrying us down into the chasm.

But with one final “Chut!,” Bakut’s horse relented. His steed took one nervous step, then two, and soon Bakut was leading the horse to level ground. Full of energy, he charged back up to perform the same feat with my horse. After that, it was easy — we remounted, and soon found an apricot orchard fed by a mountain spring. We drank our fill, ate almost-ripe fruit and lay down to rest in the grass. Half an hour later, as the sun began to set, we rode back to camp for a hot dinner of pelmeni — dumplings in soup — and I sang to myself: “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name. ”

And I’m definitely not the only desert wanderer. Throughout my time in Kyrgyzstan, I kept crossing paths with Europeans — French trekkers, a Swiss woman nostalgic for her youthful travels in India and an old Dutch family on holiday — who had selected this obscure little country the same way they would choose a melon at the market. I was getting the feeling that Kyrgyzstan was ready to explode as an everyday destination: affordable, adventurous and accessible, with a Muslim population so moderate it’s not uncommon to see mothers in bikinis drinking beer on the beach.

Those mothers — and their equally scantily clad daughters — mostly congregate at the sanatoriums and resorts of the lake’s northern side, which was where I arranged to link up with Muras, one of five Kyrgyz on, a recently relaunched Web site that lets obsessive travelers offer their spare bedrooms and sofas to like-minded wanderers. A 22-year-old university student who speaks English, Turkish and Chinese — as well as Russian and Kyrgyz — Muras had suggested in an e-mail message that we go hiking in the mountains that form the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Who was I to say no?

So, one silent Manjyly morning, I caught a cramped 100-som minibus to the town of Karakol, a base camp for serious mountaineers at the eastern end of the lake, followed by a far more comfortable 300-som ride in a shared taxi to Cholpon-Ata, a resort town on the north shore. Bakut had warned me that the northern landscape was tame compared to the wild south, but Cholpon-Ata was anything but staid. For one thing, it had tourists: holidaymakers from Kazakhstan and Russia enjoying the restaurants and discos until the wee hours every night. And for another, its mountains were almost equal to those in the south.

Last Sunday, Muras and I packed a lunch of hard-boiled eggs, bread, cheese and cherries from the trees at his family’s house (as well as plenty of water), and set out on foot for the Mazar Gorge, a pink granite canyon woven with narrow trails. It was much like my horseback adventure on the southern shore, with its hardships (crawling through brambles, inching along cliff edges) and unexpected rewards (rare birds, log bridges, spectacular views of a rushing, glacier-fed river).

This time, however, we had something more to return to than a yurt. With a good 10 miles under our belts, we came home to Muras’s family — his grandparents, father, brother, aunt, and cousin. After all this time on the road, I’d forgotten what it feels like to be among people who’ve known each other intimately for their entire lives. And I got to pretend, if only briefly, that I belonged there with them. That night, eating plov — a meaty rice dish traditionally prepared only by men — I certainly felt as though I did.

by Matt Gross
Source – The New York Times