Son Kul Lake
June 29, 2015
Rumor has it that there is a lake in central Kyrgyzstan that surpasses all in beauty and grandeur. Its name is Son Kul and the gateway to this lake is from a town called Kochkor. There is no public transport and I needed to find other tourists to share the cost of a taxi to the lake. It might take a day to arrange all that I thought. So I left Bokonbayeva by a marshrutka heading to the scruffy town of Balykchy, at the western edge of Issyk Kul. Having negotiated a price, I waited for more passengers and munched on the fried dough filled with potatoes and chives that are sold just about everywhere. I did not have long to wait – there were soon enough people to fill the van and we left for Kochkor. In the van was an American woman travelling with her twelve year old daughter and with them was their guide. On realizing that they too were headed to Son Kul, we decided to share the ride.
A quick lunch and pit stop and a a stop at the bazaar to buy some food stuffs and we headed out. The road out of Kochkor rose steadily and the air cooled. The road was asphalted for an hour or so but that stopped as we veered off to the west along a dirt road. On either side were stark hills with hardly any habitation. We were driving along a valley and rising toward the pass that lay high up. Toward the end of the valley were some houses – with corrugated tin roofs, they seemed spacious.
There were a few other buildings as well and they were surrounded by long lines of low-roofed mud-brick enclosures. These were the enclosures for the animals in winter. Many sported sod roofs with grass growing on the roofs. These are the homes of the herders. In the manner of herdsmen elsewhere, they drive their herds up to higher pastures in the summer and bring them back down in the winter months.
The sky had been clear blue with nary a cloud but out of nowhere it seemed a storm blew up. It was raining with gusts of cold wind. And soon it was not just rain but hail. Small hard pellets of hail, about a cm in diameter
were pinging down on the roof, the road, peppering the slopes. The windshield wipers were doing a losing battle on the cracked windshield. Our driver, Jordaa was clearly an expert and drove on unfazed. We had climbed up the pass and on the other side, the storm disappeared as quickly as it had come. Small pockets of blue skies peered out here and there. We saw herds of yak dotting the slopes among horses and herds of sheep and goats. We were at barely 3200 m. Soon after cresting the pass, we saw the lake in the distance glittering under the late afternoon sun.
We had chosen to stay with a sheperd’s family the first night and Jordaa drove apparently at random it seemed across the meadow along a track marked by tire tracks. Sure enough, we saw a trio of yurts in the distance and were soon greeted by barks of the sheperd’s dogs. Having been acquainted with herd dogs in Tibet and Mongolia, I was hesitant, but these are dogs that are clearly used to tourists and knew not to attack us. We met the family and were shown the yurt where we would sleep that night.
Similar to the Mongol and Kazakh gers from the outside that I remember from Mongolia, these were lavishly decorated inside. Around the inside walls, tied to the wooden poles were rugs made of felt called shyrdaks that is uniquely Kyrgyz. The wooden circle at the top,called tunduk to which the poles are slotted supports a woven mesh from which hung bright coloured tassles. Glitter is clearly highly favoured and appears in the threads and in form of sequins.
A low table was placed in the center and around it were yak skin and sheep skins on which we sat. In front of us was placed bowls of noodles, a plate of bread, bowls of fresh cream severely addictive in taste. Accompanying the cream were bowls of homemade jams made from apricot, mulberry and strawberry. I discovered a hitherto unknown sweet tooth as I slathered the bread with cream and jams. I doubt I have ever tasted jams as good!
The family that are herders are not truly nomads. Like most others in Kyrgyzstan, they drive their own animals and those of family and neighbours up to the hills in the summer, care for them and drive them back down in the winter. The animals are then given back to their owners until the following summer when the pattern repeats itself.
So at any given time in the summer it is common to see one family caring for four hundred sheep, a dozen horses, two to three dozen cattle. When asked if true nomads still existed in Kyrgyzstan, who moved with their herds in the traditional manner, we were told some still did so but were in remote locations, and that it was not easy to reach them. I asked this of others before and got the same answer. I have a sneaking feeling that true nomadism was wiped out with the collectivism that was introduced under the Russian rule to never emerge again.
As the light faded, the family went to work gathering the animals from the meadows and hills they had spread to. The young boys rode on donkeys, shouting wild west style coralling the animals and the women went to work milking the mares and the cows. The milk from the mares is used to make kimiz, a national drink. Slightly fermented, it has a sharp sour taste. I have tasted it before and can drink it under duress but this is clearly an acquired taste and one that I have yet to acquire. The sheep and goat are not milked.
When we could not see anymore in the dark we trooped inside. The family had been hard at work while we were gawking at the animals. The table inside had been taken away and in its place were mattresses laid down on the ground and beds made for us. I had no need for the thermarest and the sleeping bag that I have been carting around. Despite the hard ground and chilly temparature outside, it was comfortable inside. In fact, too warm for me. I was lulled to sleep to the assorted symphony of sheep farting outside, snoring from my yurt-mates and occasional barking of the dogs when they sensed their territory invaded.
June 30, 2015
We had decided to go to the tourist yurt camp the next day and left after breakfast. It wasn’t far, driving over the rolling meadows, we soon saw the lake. The gray clouds of yesterday had vanished and there was patchy sunshine. As we neared the lake we soon saw just why it was called a yurt camp. With four competing agencies that handle tourist traffic and bookings, this was yurt city! Clusters of yurts littered the shore for a kilometer and yet more are scattered at other parts along the eastern edge. There are mountains to the south, most still wearing their drapes of snow. To the north rose gentler hills beyond the rolling meadows. There were horses grazing in groups and in the distance, large flocks of sheep and goats looked like tiny black dots. A very pleasant sight, but somehow it didn’t quite have the wow factor. I couldn’t help thinking of high altitude lakes set at four or five thousand meters that I have seen in Ladakh and Tibet that were far more breathtaking.
It was pleasant though to mingle with the other tourists. Some had trekked in over a couple of days from Kochkor, and some had ridden horses over the pass. During the day we rambled over the meadows. There were plenty of horses for hire and some went riding for the day.
Each group was assigned a yurt for sleeping and these were more lavishly decorated than the yurt we stayed in yesterday. Bright bold colours worked into patchwork squares, the size of bedcovers lined the inner walls. We ate together in the dining tent. The meals were as varied as they were plentiful. An added bonus was fried fish we had. Tired of a constant meat diet, one of the tourists had asked for fish. The fish, caught by some local fishermen was delicious!
My token “tourist” bit is done and nice as it was, I can’t help thinking that Kyrgyzstan is a country that is perfect for the kind of travel that I remember from Mongolia. Where the travelers form groups and rent a vehicle and driver. And then it is simply a matter of going wherever one fancies and camping each night. Both Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan are the perfect landscapes for this kind of travel. I suggested to a few of the hostel owners that they promote this mode of travel. Who knows? Perhaps if I come back someday, I will be able to see more of this great landscape this way.