Son Kul

Son Kul Lake

3025  m

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.

P1020132aA 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.

P1020140aThere 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
P1020143awere 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.P1020185a

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.

P1020180aAs 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.

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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

P1020271aWe 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.

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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.

 

 

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