We wake up at 6:15, “early” by Kyrgyzstan standards. Breakfast is not until 8 am, and we’re not supposed to set off for our 5-day trek until 9:30. But we are eager to finish sorting out our gear, pack up, and leave whatever we don’t need here at the guesthouse for the next five days. This is the moment we’ve been working toward, in one way or another, for the last month as we left our house in Chicago behind, shrinking down to a backpack and a small suitcase (which we left behind in Rome) and now finally to just a daypack and a few items that will be transported by horse from camp to camp. We relish this form of the “simple life”…carrying no more than the bare essentials. It’s a liberating feeling to travel light, and we dream of this moment all year long!
We chat with James, the British chap who is volunteering for Destination Jyrgalan this summer, over breakfast and then go out to meet our guide, Urmat, and horseman, Adis. We exchange names, and then they go on about gathering provisions and equipment for camping. We see plenty of fuel canisters, tents and sleeping bags, which is reassuring. We drop off our two small bags to be carried and then leave them to their work. All of this will be transported in four large canisters draped two on each side of a pack horse.
At 9:45 we wander out to see when it’s time to go, and Urmat smiles and asks “Ready?”. There’s no briefing on the hiking plan or double checking to see if we have the proper gear. This kind of trekking is relatively new here, so we think the assumption is that, if we made it out to this remote part of Kyrgyzstan with the intention of going trekking, we must know what we are doing. This is not our first rodeo, so we are not particularly phased by the lack of information or communication. We grab our bags, wave goodbye to James, Gulmira and Farkhat (who is taking all the grandchildren on a day hike today) and head out of the village as a foursome plus horse.
We cross the river and begin heading up the Koi-Jailan Valley following the Jyrgalan River upstream. At first, we mostly follow single track paths through meadows trimmed short by grazing animals, stopping occasionally to take photos and admire the view. The temperature is perfect, sunny but not too hot, with a slight breeze. The sound of the river provides a constant backdrop to the mountain scenery surrounding us. The pace is easy going, and we stop here and there for brief water breaks and to consult the map.
There’s always a certain excitement when we begin a trek, and so we chat constantly until the lunch break. Since our guides have little to no English and we have zero Kyrgyz and three words of Russian, communication will be limited. Thankfully, Google Translate provides some way of asking and answering questions back and forth.
Eventually the trail joins with a rough gravel road, and we follow this for some time. Normally we might be disappointed by this, but this mountain road is only used by a few locals who are transporting their yurt-building materials, furnishings and provisions for a summer of pasturing their horses, cows and sheep in the jailoo.
We see only three cars pass in either direction all day long, all filled with local folks waving hello to us and smiling. At one point we pass a yurt and two young boys come running and screaming “hello” and something in Kyrgyz at us. They keep it up even as we walk off, making hand gestures and giving us a look that isn’t exactly what you would call friendly. We are both new to Kyrgyz, but, if we had to guess, we’d bet they were saying, “Give us a piece of chocolate or get lost!”
We break for lunch beside the river after only about 2 hours of hiking. We sit on a rock and take in the view as we munch on our trail lunch: a cheese and cucumber sandwich with a hard-boiled egg, a juice box and an apple, saving the dried fruit and nut mixture and a Snickers bar for later.
We notice several birds catching flies around the river and do our best to catch a photograph. One is a black and white Masked Wagtail, while the other is very similar but with a striking yellow belly and gray head. Both seem to be competing for territory as they make vertical ascents and quick nose dives down to catch flies in midair. They are quite competent at their work!
As we are finishing lunch, a herd of cows descends the hill and crosses the bridge followed by a much larger herd of sheep with three horsemen, a dog, and a Soviet-era truck urging them on from behind. It’s a cacophonous, dusty and “fragrant” passing which leaves us having to pay attention to where we step as we follow behind. The herds quickly outpace us, but their memory, how shall we say, lingers on in an olfactory fashion!
Further down the trail, we round a corner and see half a dozen folks erecting a yurt, so we stop to watch the process for a few moments. They move quickly, telling us it takes nearly two days to complete from start to finish. It’s a fascinating process of building, knot-tying and teamwork–way more complicated than pitching a tent!
Just around the corner, we see a pass in the saddle of two small peaks with a river, Cholok-Tor, descending. Urmat tells us that this is where his mother was born in 1971, but she now lives in Jyrgalan Village. We crest a hill and cast our eyes over an expansive jailoo (meadow) with three yurts scattered off in the distance and the river winding its way toward gray peaks dotted with snow. This is where our camp will be for the next two days, and we can see that Adis has already erected three tents.
As we descend toward camp, several children come running from the opposite side of the river shouting and waving at us, to which we respond in kind. Some of them are using the word “goodbye” instead of “hello,” but the sentiment is understood. They run along side the river across from us as we make our way to camp. Greeting new arrivals is clearly an event in this valley.
As we walk into camp we note a few cars parked in the grass. Some people seem to be literally car camping, spending the night in the hatchback with the seats folded down. Perhaps they are advance scouts looking for a good place to pitch a yurt? At any rate, it’s time to kick off the shoes, relax in our tent and enjoy tea in the jailoo!
After a while we feel the need to get up and go for a stroll to keep the muscles from stiffening too much. We wander uphill above the river to get a look up and down the valley. The view in all directions is expansive. We can see below that the family has completed building the yurt. Apparently two days really meant about two hours!
As we wander we see lots of wildflowers in bloom and spy a few birds as well—a rose colored finch singing atop a pine tree and several Red-fronted Serin hunting for food on the ground. It strikes me that we don’t often in our trekking get to camp with enough time to really relax and enjoy all the bonus features of camp life. Of course, this is part of the fun of guided trekking where all the camp chores are taken care of for us.
We head back to camp just in time for dinner. We sit outside and eat dinner al fresco: cabbage salad, tomato and cucumber salad, a bowl of noodle soup with veggies in a chili oil broth and bread. Very filling!
Riders pass by on their horses waving hello. As we sip our tea we see how the day winds down in this seasonal yurt community. Neighbors visit on horseback and greet each other with a gentle handshake and exchange pleasantries. Children run around and play with each other, occasionally helping to round up the horses. Most of the female horses have a playful young foal that stays close to them. A few dogs bark as they round up the last of the sheep. And all the while the rushing river provides a peaceful soundtrack.
As the sun goes down, it strikes us that we’ve seen no other foreign tourists today since we left the guest house. It’s a rare place in the world where that’s possible today. It seems like here in the jailoos of Kyrgyzstan we have found it.