The hills are alive with the smell of yurt cream

Greetings from the Kyrgyz Republic! It has been a bit since the last post, partly due to lots of yurt-sleeping with no internet and partly due to illness, but at last I can make it happen. I crossed the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan just over a week ago, meeting up with my friends from the states – Rachel and Ben – in the border city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. With Rachel and Ben having just arrived from the US after the exhausting marathon of flying, we spent a relatively relaxed day in Osh, doing some light sightseeing, scoping out a giant Lenin statue and finding a sweet hat at the market for Ben to wear for sun protection.

Me and a giant Lenin.
Please note that Ben’s hat says “Mix Fight” and was purchased at a market in Aravan, Kyrgyzstan from people who definitely did not know what it said.

Our reason for meeting in Osh, other than to purchase stellar headwear, was that it is the starting point for trekking in the Alay mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is an incredibly mountainous country, studded with glaciated peaks and crystalline alpine lakes. Most people come here to experience unspoiled trekking and see nomadic life but sorting through the trekking options can be a bit overwhelming. We eventually settled on the Alay because it is a bit less popular than some areas and is a range that is actually lived in, with nomads grazing their herds on high mountain jailoos (summer pastures) and living in yurts. Rachel’s dream since seeing a National Geographic special on Kyrgyzstan in the 7th grade has been to stay in a yurt, so YURTS MUST BE FOUND.

We were picked up at our guesthouse in Osh by our guide, Safar, a 19-year old who had started teaching himself English only 3 months ago and hiked with a warm bottle of drinkable yogurt attached to the front of his pack (which appeared to be his only liquid consumption for 3 days other than tea), in an old, jalopy Mercedes with a trunk that popped open and a backseat that had worn itself into a hammock. As is usual in third world countries, we stopped every 30 seconds leaving town so the driver could buy cigarettes, melons, gas, oil, chickens, vodka, a wife, etc. and then finally headed into the mountains. Well, ok, not a wife, but the rest of it is basically accurate.

The higher we climbed the prettier it was, until the driver eventually left us at the village of Kojokelen to start the trek. We gradually hiked uphill for the next four hours, following a narrow dirt road and passing herds of yaks, cattle, and sheep. One industrious cow walked with us for almost 3 miles, mooing incessantly. IDK what she thought she was going to get out of it, but we all enjoyed her company. In the evening, we reached the yurt camp where we’d be staying the night, and Rachel achieved yurt-nirvana. Yurtvana, if you will.

Valley at the start of our trek.
My cow friend.
My non-cow friends.
Night one yurt camp.
Rachel reaches yurtvana.
Yurt-snack smorgasboard! Nutella!!

Most yurt camps are occupied by just one family, who graze their herds on the summer pastures that open up when the snow melts. In most cases, these camps are present from June – early to mid September and then dismantled as the families and herds move back down the valley, to the villages below. In our camp, only the women and children live there full time, tending to the animals. The husband apparently works through the summer in Osh. It was remarkably clean inside the yurt, with a coal stove to warm it in the frigid nights. We were fed an absolute feast and beds were made on the floor after dinner with thick pads, blankets, and pillows that rivaled any hotel here.

The following morning, we woke relatively early, ate a hearty breakfast, and then started hiking uphill toward Jiptik Pass. As we hiked, the scenery became more dramatic, with soaring, steep, green peaks plunging to the rocky riverbed below and craggy, snow capped summits rising in front of us. As we climbed, the valley opened up into a broad meadow, filled with wildflowers clinging to rocks and fat marmots popping out of the ground to shriek at us. Jiptik pass is 4185 meters (13,730 feet), which didn’t sound that bad when I signed up, as I’ve certainly been higher. But what I didn’t factor in was the 30 days of traveling at approximately sea level and doing no physical activity aside from walking around in the heat (which I consider to be basically an Olympic sport) prior to this hike. So, yeah, it was rough. I had a pounding headache and started to feel dizzy every time I looked down (which I did many times to take zoomed-in photos of tiny wildflowers for my mother!). Clouds started to blow in as we approached the top of the pass and, finally, about 20 minutes from the top, thunder began to echo over the valley as the clouds spewed icy chunks of hardened snow. We reached the pass in a windy, thundery, snowy gale. I put on all of my clothes. Safar asked if we wanted lunch, apparently oblivious to the risk of death by lightening strike.

The valley stretching out behind us.
Mountains upon mountains back down the valley.
One of the many EXCEPTIONAL wildflower photos I risked my consciousness to take.
“View” from the top of the pass, during thunder snow-pocalypse.
The clouds started to lift on the way down, revealing this incredible valley. I felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings.
Another spectacular flower photo.

We did NOT eat lunch in the thunderstorm at the top of a rocky pass, but convinced Safar to go down to a safer area. The clouds eventually lifted and the snow/ice stopped, but it remained bitterly cold and windy. It didn’t matter. The scenery was worth it. As the clouds lifted, velvety green hills punctuated by spines of prehistoric rock cascaded down the valley in front of us. Out in the distance, their tops obscured by clouds, rose the glaciated high Alay mountains, including Kyrgyzstan’s highest, the >7,000 meter Peak Lenin (and yes, I LOVE that they have not changed the name). By the time we reached the yurt camp, the clouds had descended again and it was raining and frigidly cold. Nothing made us happier to be yurt-camping and not have to set up a tent.

This yurt camp was absolutely stunning, nestled into the mouth of the valley along a bubbling creek. The yurts were even more rustic than our first camp, with the outsides lined with animal hides and a leaky roof. In the rain and damp, the inside of our yurt smelled comfortingly like a sweaty horse. Our host came to light a fire… by igniting a pile of dried cow dung that she bare-handed into the stove. Shortly thereafter, she brought us snacks, including fresh apricot jam and Koymak, a fermented cream made from cow milk on the summer pastures. Rachel took to calling it “yurt cream,” a designation that I found somewhat horrifying but not enough to keep me from eating it. If the recent bare-handing of the cow dung didn’t keep me from eating it, then nothing would.

Yurt camp number 2 (photo taken in the morning, after the storm had blown away).
Rachel, Ben and Safar enjoying bread, apricot jam, and yurt cream.

We left the valley the next morning, hiking down to the town of Sary Mogul. The storm had blown away all of the clouds and the morning was crisp, cool, and clear. As the valley opened up, we were FINALLY able to see all of Peak Lenin and the high-Alay range in its glory.

Look at those mountains in the distance!! 😍
Another one, I can’t help it.
OK, last one. I PROMISE.

We eventually left the mountains and entered a dusty plain between the two mountain ranges. We approached a small village at the base of an immense open-pit coal mine that was servicing a steady flow of trucks, loading up coal to take back to Osh and then streaming down the dirt road, blowing dust behind them. Even the coal mine was somehow rendered kind of pretty by the surrounding mountains. Our driver picked us up in the village of Sary Mogul and, after having to swerve around thousands of cattle, sheep, donkeys and horses that were being herded down an active highway, we made it back to Osh.

One of the MANY full herds of livestock being herded down a 4-lane highway on our way back to Osh.

We flew the next morning from Osh to Bishkek on the illustrious Air Manas. My mother asked if this is a “safe” airline and I recommended that she not ask questions that she doesn’t want the answer to. After the flight, Rachel informed me that when she was trying to figure out how to buy tickets online, all she could find were crash reports. Well, clearly we lived and the flight was gorgeous, as would be expected when flying over such a mountainous country. Bishkek is the capital, but we were using it only as a waypoint to get to Kochkor, a few hours south, and the gateway for the Son-Kol lake. We decided to try and hit one of Kyrgyzstan’s few archeological sites on our way to Kochkor, and took a minibus to Tokmok, a town about an hour east of Bishkek. Tokmok turned out to be an unexpected Soviet gift, with a MIG fighter displayed by the entrance to the town and this exceptional billboard display in front of a Soviet apartment block:

Just outside of Tokmok town is the Burana tower, which is actually a minaret left from a destroyed old mosque. This is what we came to see. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a lot of “sites” – it’s more about the mountains and culture – so you take what you can get. On the ground around the Burana tower, the Kyrgyz government has helpfully scattered a bunch of carvings and stone tools found in other parts of the country, removing all historical context but turning them into a nice little maze of artifacts in the grass.

The Burana tower. A.K.A. “The leaning tower of Kyrgyzstan.” Please note the bride in the corner. Everywhere you go in Central Asia, there will be a bride taking photographs.
Random artifact in the grass.
My statue impersonation. I think it’s pretty good.

From the Burana Tower, our plan had been to take a minibus to Kochkor, but our taxi driver to the tower offered to drive us the hour and a half to the city and gave a pretty good price. He stopped on the way out of Tokmok to buy oil for his car (everyone seems to just “top off” oil when the mood strikes) and a bottle of Fanta and we hit the highway. The road descended precipitously into a deep valley and then started to climb. Almost immediately, the car overheated. Our driver pulled over, dumped his FANTA on the radiator, and we pressed on. Yes, Fanta. I’m unclear if the Fanta was actually purchased for this reason or if he planned to drink it and then it was just handy. Sadly, the Fanta did not provide long term cooling to the engine, the hill continued, and the car promptly reheated again. And again. And again. We all eventually forfeited our drinking water to the cause and then, in a panic, our driver pulled into a driveway and refilled all his bottles in a stream. The climb seemed interminable, and we stopped every 2 minutes to dump water on the engine. Ben peeked over the driver’s shoulder at some point and determined that oil was mixed with his coolant so, really, the Fanta was probably doing a better job. Eventually, we limped into Kochkor, paid our bedraggled driver and used Google translate to wish him good luck.

Kochkor has few sites (except for a Lenin!) but is a base for heading into the mountains and lakes of the central part of the country. Our destination the next day was Son-Kol lake, a large alpine lake with a hearty jailoo culture and TONS of yurt camps. That night in Kochkor, we stayed in a home stay (there are no real hotels, so most people stay in guest houses or home stays). Unfortunately, our home stay had one toilet for 6 people and 3 of these 6 people got sick overnight. Oh, and the plumbing went out. I’ll just leave it at that.

I’ll give you a Lenin photo instead of a toilet photo. You’re welcome.

The next morning, Rachel and Ben were feeling rough. I was still ok and ate breakfast. They decided that they’d take their chances and come up to Son-Kol, because at that point a pit toilet outside of a yurt was better than the home stay. We hired a driver to take us to Son-Kol, a 2-hour twisting dirt road through the mountains. It was predictably beautiful, especially as we got higher and the mountains became greener. Eventually, we crested a pass and the lake stretched out in front of us. Song-Kol is a large, crystal-clear lake situated at approximately 10,000 feet elevation surrounded by summer pastures (jailoos). Hundreds of herds of cattle and sheep and horses spend their summers here, enjoying the alpine grass and fresh water. Yurt camps surround the lake and, unlike the camps we stayed in during our trek, are close together, allowing for socialization between the families. Son-Kol is one of the most popular places in Kyrgyzstan for travelers, so we had expected it to feel really touristy but it actually didn’t. Sure, there were a few other tourists but not that many. It did have a very “summer camp” vibe, probably amplified by the fact that this is one of the last weeks people will be up here – most families leave and take their herds back to the lower valleys during the first week of September. The camp next to us was blasting music and having a vodka party at 2 PM. People were galloping around on horses and laughing and celebrating. The family we stayed with had two young girls, both expert horsewomen, who spent the day chasing each other on horseback and play fighting.

Sadly, Ben was quite ill and spent most of the day in the yurt, bundled in blankets. Rachel was feeling a bit better and decided to join me for an afternoon horseback ride. The husband from the family we stayed with took us for an hour long ride and we tried to converse, aided heavily by google translate. My Russian is at the “learning to speak” stage where I just point at objects and say their name (usually incorrectly). I managed to ask him how many horses he has (five) and then he asked me a question and I assumed it related to the number of horses I have. I said “2” because past tenses are beyond my skill level and then said “I also have 2 dogs” and was feeling quite pleased to have strung together a complete, understandable sentence. He started laughing and then asked me his question again. Finally, with much gesturing, I realized he was asking if I have a husband. So my answer to his question “Do you have a husband” was “I have 2 horses and 2 dogs.” I tried to relay that I do also have a husband, but I’m not sure it was clear (sorry Brad). To recover, I asked how many kids he has (3) and then tried to ask if they were boys or girls but actually asked if they were boys or wives. It went well, obviously.

Our family’s yurts at Son-Kol lake.
Yurt camps in the distance.
Rachel’s lazy redhead horse drinking some water during our ride.

By the evening, the illness had made it to me. I wasn’t as sick as the other two, but could no longer manage to eat anything and just went to bed, after a rather distressing experience with a persistent moth entangling itself in my hair (I think it was drawn to the light of my kindle). In the morning, Rachel and Ben were feeling much better and headed from Son-Kol farther south, to the town of Naryn. I was still feeling pretty turned off by all food and decided to just go back to Bishkek, get a nice hotel, and rest. I checked in at 3 PM and didn’t leave my room until the next day (today). Even today, my appetite was pretty poor and I took it easy, just a light wander around the city. Bishkek is FULL of Soviet marvels, so at least this doesn’t feel like wasted time!

Bishkek’s glorious Lenin (probably my last Lenin of the trip 😢).
Communist star flowers. MAINTENANCE of the Soviet imagery!
Hammer and sickle monument.

I’m feeling better this evening and planning to head to Ala-Archa national park tomorrow, which is in the mountains about 30 minutes south of Bishkek. It looks lovely and will hopefully be a nice place to spend my last day in this country. On Thursday morning, I fly to Mongolia where I will join Brad for three weeks and will finally get to stop explaining to people that YES I am married and NO he isn’t here and YES I am allowed to travel alone.

4 thoughts on “The hills are alive with the smell of yurt cream

  • Oh my – another literary masterpiece (or close enough). Your writing is uber delightful (are young people still using that word?). Soo many times I had to almost chuckle, but definitely popped a smirk. I am regaled by your non-stop wit, sense of humor, and inventiveness, Katie. I count myself fortunate that my ticket for access to your trip adventures was my friendship with your Mom (who is a heart-felt super person, for lack of better words and without getting all sticky sweet). See ? I’m emulating your catchy way of phrasing things, so hopefully you will feel complimented and not irritated. 🙂 (And thanks.)

    Liked by 1 person

  • This is completely unsolicited and somewhat off-topic, but since I don’t have my own travel blog I wanted to add a few practical tips to the interwebs by commenting on Katie’s Kyrgystan post.

    (1) I wasn’t sure whether I should study Russian or Kyrgyz in advance of this trip. As a result, I dabbled in both and learned neither. I should have just focused on Russian, and more than I did. And maybe worked on numbers sometime before the flight to Osh.

    (2) I should have brought a longer skirt. Mine went just above the knee. Too short for anywhere but Bishkek.

    There you go; Rachel’s unsolicited Kyrgystan travel tips.

    Liked by 1 person

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