Kyrgyzstan: Jyrgalan

Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country, and one of the main reasons to come here is to enjoy the outdoors. In September, the days are still warm in the mountains, but the nights can dip to freezing. Rain in the lower elevations is snow in the mountains, and the multi-day trekking trips start to shut down. I was not equipped for winter weather. If I get to go back to Kyrgyzstan, I will plan to include a trek through the mountains.

As it was, I was able to spend a couple of days in Jyrgalan. It is a tiny village, about a thousand people, in the foothills of the mountains east of Karakol, not far from the border with China. I traveled by marshrutka again because I was enjoying seeing everyday people in Kyrgyzstan, and they seemed interested in me:

The scenery on the way became more and more rural. The valleys were filled with fields of hay. The potatoes and onions that are sold in giant mesh bags at all of the open air markets are grown in these valleys, too.

The marshrutka reached Jyrgalan about two hours after leaving. The driver stopped at the main stop, and then proceeded to drop all of us at our specific house or, in my case, guest house. I was a little concerned about his traction through the muddy roads, but he made it.

Only the woman in charge of the guesthouse spoke English, but smiles and nods and pointing worked pretty well with everyone else. The guesthouse is currently the office for Destination Jyrgalan, but next year, the office will move to the municipal building where the village government is housed.

I saw the village offices as I walked around the village, along with a very nice-looking school. The children all waved and called “Hello” to me as I walked by. The houses, even in this village, sit behind fences that shield them from the road and passers by. If they had cows, those areas were more open.

Pretty soon, I was joined by some children, about four or five years old, and two older children, about twelve, who were carrying brooms and were on their way somewhere. It was clear they were accustomed to visitors – I pointed at my camera, and the two youngest posed themselves so I could take their photo, which I then showed to them. They smiled and giggled their approval.

In the communal dining hall that evening, I ran into the first of many Israeli tourists in Kyrgyzstan. They were an older couple (meaning not students,) around my age. Diane was from the United States, but had lived in Israel for about thirty-five years on a kibbutz, where she met Latze (my spelling may be off.) Diane said that she fell in love with the kibbutz first, and then Latze, and has never regretted her decision to emigrate to Israel.

They had gone horseback riding at a different place in Kyrgyzstan, and she said she “couldn’t walk for two days” afterward. Oh, I thought to myself, she must be out of condition. We talked – well, mostly Diane talked, and it became clear why Latze was a man of few words, but when he had something he wanted to say, he spoke up. They were very amiable.

I asked about a day of horse trekking, but I was told that there were no more horses available. I was a little bummed about that because I had only a couple of days. I figured that I would go hiking.

But, next morning, I was told that someone had cancelled, would I like to go? Well, sure. And off we went for a full day, about seven hours, of riding through the beautiful hills and up to the higher elevations, but not so high as the snow.

From the beginning, my horse seemed to have sore feet. She would walk on any strip of softer dirt by the harder, baked road, and clearly preferred walking on grass. But she followed the others, and so she seemed a good horse for me. I had ridden before, and even taken a few lessons about thirty-five years ago, but I am by no means an experienced rider.

We went up gentle hills, and then the hills became steeper, and the paths a little rockier. My horse insisted on following the softer ground, which I didn’t mind except when that meant going through the brush or under tree branches. She and I had several discussions over which way we were going. One of the other riders, a young woman from France, said, “Suzanne, your horse seems to be a free spirit.”

In the end, my daughter (who does know how to ride and well) would have been proud. My mare went the way I intended, and I was able to keep up and on track, even if we were often at the side of the track, and not exactly on it.

We stopped occasionally to rest the horses, and then for lunch at a large pond in the upper hills. Our guesthouse had packed box lunches for us, and the guides had their lunches, but also a thermos of “kymyz.” Kymyz is the national drink of Kyrgyzstan, reputed to cure whatever ails you, and make you stronger to boot. It is fermented mare’s milk, and there are special containers used for making it.

Kymyz has been around a long time – Herodotus, the Greek historian of the 5th century BC, mentioned kymyz as part of his description of nomadic Scythians. The Scythian empire covered the Central Asian steppe to the Tian Shan mountains. Kymyz was used by Persians as part of their medical practice in the 11th century.

This is an antique container used to carry kymyz. The object behind and to the right is the container, made from cowhide or horsehide, used to ferment the milk. It’s called a sabaa. Traditionally, kymyz is served in small, handle-less, bowl-shaped cups, called piyala.

We all tried a little bit. It was a little fizzy, and tart, in the same way as yogurt is, the result of the fermentation. My taste was too small to determine if it was alcoholic in any way, but according to our guide, it isn’t. I learned later from a Kyrgyzstan tourism flyer that it is alcoholic, but about the same as weak beer.

Food always tastes better after spending the morning in the fresh air, and we had a good rest and conversation, then headed onward.

Another break in the afternoon, and then we ambled back toward the guesthouse.

By the afternoon, I was getting very sore, and I thought of Diane with a lot more sympathy than I had before! It wasn’t two days, but I felt mighty sore. The horse and I both survived, and I was grateful to be able to spend such a beautiful day in such a beautiful place with such nice people.

The next day, I went hiking in the valley near the guesthouse. It was beautiful, just being outside in the air in the middle of the gorgeous scenery, walking along the small river that runs through it.

A herd of horses came wandering through. I don’t know if they are, strictly speaking, wild, but the herd seems to wander at will.

Horses are central to the Kyrgyz nomad culture for obvious reasons. Our guide on the previous day’s trek was taught to ride by his grandmother when he was five. It’s no wonder that the Kyrgyz are so comfortable with their horses. When I was still in the Kyrchyn Valley, watching the World Nomad Games, there was a Kyrgyz boxing competition. Not being a boxing fan, I was watching the watchers, who used their horses like ringside seats, sometimes standing in the saddle to see better.

I climbed up to the top of the valley, only to find that it wasn’t the top, but a “shelf” in the valley side.

It was a peaceful day, relaxing, and just what I needed.

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