Heights of Alay Loop, Day 2: Knock, Knock!

Rob describes the yurts that predominate summer life here in Kyrgyzstan as stationary RVs, and he’s right in the sense that the yurt performs multiple functions in a single tiny space throughout the day. It is a place to sleep at night, of course, but it’s also a place to dine—for afternoon tea, dinner and breakfast— as well as a place to gather and converse. If it has a stove, it’s also the kitchen and, if necessary, a place to dry wet shoes and socks in a pinch.

All of this was in evidence last night and this morning as we awoke in this busy shepherd’s camp that is playing host to both our group and a group of thirteen Belgian trekkers. It’s amazing to witness the energy and constant flow of work performed by, as far as we can tell, just two women with the aid of their young grandson, Muhamet.

It’s all very entertaining…except at 4:16 am(!) when our hostesses enter the yurt to stoke the coal fire on the stove and begin making breakfast. They do their best to move quietly, but the shine of the flashlight, the light clang of the spatula on the “ash”, the sizzle of eggs being fried and the occasional exchange of words wakes us up and keeps us light sleepers from falling back asleep.

By 6 am, Alison and I give up and use the time to read and write a bit. Half an hour later Rob and Amy are up as well. Slowly but surely, the yurt camp comes to life in the early morning. The realization that folks up here are working constantly all day long—gathering water, prepping and cooking food, cleaning dishes, making kurut and, I’m sure, many other chores we are unaware of—is impressive.

After breakfast, we all pack up and say our goodbyes and begin to head off down the valley. Today is meant to be a short, easy downhill walk to a village where we will stay in a guesthouse. After yesterday’s big day up to Sary Mogul Pass followed by a monster descent, nobody’s complaining about a recovery day.

The sun is shining, and all are in a good mood chatting away as we set off. Within minutes, however, we have to cross (mercifully) our only river of the day. Nobody wants wet shoes again. We are in luck—we have a donkey bridge at our service.

Each of us takes turn riding the donkey with one of of our porters as our bags are ferried across by Maksat, who seems to relish leaping across the river from boulder to boulder. We each arrive, one by one, on the other side with dry feet. For my part, I discover that, for shallower crossings, I prefer the donkey bridge to the horse bridge, if only because the potential fall would be less severe.

We drop over 3200 feet today. Even though the trail is all downhill, it’s an easy path and never descends too steeply. We can see a mountain at the end of the valley that appears quite arid by contrast with the green jailoo. Gradually the terrain changes as we descend below treeline where the junipers grow. We start to see more birds, including a pair of White-winged grosbeaks and red-mantled finch.

Lower down, as the land becomes drier, the vegetation changes and begins to remind us of the last day of our Stok Kangri Circuit. It’s getting warmer. Soon the trail crosses an irrigation canal that provides water to the village that is coming into view. Down below us is a river and, on either side, a green strip that stands in stark contrast to the drier surroundings. Riparian corridors like this are a lifeline for animals and certain plants that are dependent on water.

After a brief stop at the river we walk through a small village with fields of potatoes and head down to a road. After a few minutes we arrive at a guesthouse for lunch. We wash our hands, take off our shoes and walk into a room…with chairs!

Nothing against sitting on the floor in a yurt, but it’s great to have a back rest. We see a familiar looking woman and realize she was our host at the yurt last night. It turns out that this guesthouse is run by Orozgul’s husband and this is their winter residence. We wonder how she got here so quickly, and Timu tells us that she rode the same donkey that we used this morning to cross the river. Well done, Orozgul!

After a long and leisurely lunch out of the sun, we are back on the dirt road but, as it turns out, only for about 30 more minutes of walking. Soon we pull off and enter a farmyard where our guesthouse for the night is. It’s a pleasant compound with a small vegetable plot and mounds of fresh cut hay in the yard.

We drop our bags, and Timu gives us an orientation tour of the property that is owned by a small family with three generations under one roof. Behind the guesthouse is a low building that has a tandoor oven for baking bread, storage for dried dung which is used for fuel, a Russian-style sauna and a kitchen.

Attached to this is space for cows and horses, which are up pasturing in the mountains at the moment. There is also an enclosure for turkeys which are bred primarily for food. Finally, there are two adorable kittens playing around in the yard, and we can’t resist picking them up and playing with the little fluff balls.

We arrive here in the mid-afternoon, giving us all plenty of time to clean up in the sauna and relax. The imposing mountains keep a cool, gentle breeze blowing. It is quiet except for the occasional truck full of coal which rumbles by, an odd sound given how little traffic we have seen anywhere.

We take afternoon tea in a small room with a table and corner bench. Rob and Amy read while we write, and we remind each other of details of the day’s hikes.

Dinner is served and shortly after we all turn in for the evening. We are sleeping on the floor of the family living room. We think we have the room to ourselves but we soon realize the difference between a guesthouse and a homestay. Immediately outside our room the family sits and chats while watching Kyrgyzstan’s version of an American Idol-style show on TV.

Several times throughout the evening the women come in without knocking (there is no lock) to grab blankets or get something out of one of the cupboards. At one point after we’ve turned the lights out our hostess comes in and snaps the lights on without apology. The concept of privacy is not a given in this culture where living spaces are shared and not used for one single purpose. Eventually everyone goes to sleep, and we are able also to enjoy some peace and quiet.

2 thoughts on “Heights of Alay Loop, Day 2: Knock, Knock!

  1. You’ve so clearly described what the home in homestay means! The women who run the yurt camps work tirelessly while providing tea, snacks, meals, bedding and warmth from coal-fired stoves. Thanks for capturing yet another magical day through your beautiful photos and artfully crafted prose.

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