Heights of Alay Loop, Day 3: Feel the Burn

We have a two-pass day ahead of us today, so we are eager to get up and going when the alarm goes off at 6. The family is already up and at work around the homestead when we emerge from our room. One of the sisters is carrying breakfast from the kitchen to the dining room, while the other is busy getting all of the kids dressed outside underneath a large tree that one of the kittens is using as its morning playground.

We thank all of the family members and wave goodbye as we set off for the day at 7:30. Down in the village, we are starting off at a much lower elevation, and we can already tell that it is going to be a warm one. We walk along the road for a short while before turning up the valley where we pick up the trail again. I expected today’s walk to run alongside a river, so I am surprised to find no water in this valley. It looks like a ditch has recently been dug to divert water this way, but, for the time being, it’s bone dry. Immediately, we start gaining elevation pretty steadily. There’s no breeze to speak of making this an insta-schvitz affair. I keep my face cloth handy and use it to wipe the sweat off my face every few minutes.

The scenery today is more grassy than rocky, more bucolic than majestic, and it’s a straight climb up to the top of the pass. With little to distract us from the task at hand, we march up the hill at a pace, trying not to stop until we get to the top. We pass up the porters, and Matt teaches them to say, Feel the burn! and Keep on trucking’! Max takes a liking to them and repeats it as his mantra all the way up to the top.

The first pass is a grassy knoll that has been commandeered by a herd of cows and a little shepherd boy who is there to keep his eye on a herd of sheep who have climbed up to a ridge way above us. His name is Samak, and he is seven years old. He is dressed in camouflage pants, a sweater, a little sport coat and a cute hat, and he observes us as closely as he would his flock of sheep.

His mother is not too far away, and she smiles on as we share our snack of dates and raisins with him. Our binoculars are always a big hit with the locals, especially the shepherds, who enjoy getting a close-up view of their flocks from far away, and Samak is no exception. When he is done, he gets back to his duties, sitting quietly by himself on top of the hillside, with nothing more than the grass blades to play with for distraction. What a different life this little boy leads than the children in our own country.

After a nice long break, we make a quick 45-minute descent down to lunch at a yurt camp set in the middle of a lush green valley. This yurt camp is particularly charming with grasses growing on the roofs of the stone structures and a tidy, fenced-off green onion field.

Just as we are putting our bags down, a man comes galloping up on a horse, stopping just in front of us. Timu tells us that he is very happy today because he has just learned that his wife has just given birth to his third child back in Osh. He reigns his horse up for us to show his excitement.

We are invited into the yurt for lunch, and right away we can tell that this is going to be a special meal. The dastarkon or dining cloth is arrranged beautifully with piles of fresh bread in the middle, small plates of scrumptious salads and little bowls of jams and fresh cream scattered all about.

One of the jams is different than anything we have been served elsewhere. It is almost black and as thick as molasses. Timu tells us it is blackberry jam, and, when we dip our bread into it, we discover it’s one of the sweetest, most intense concoctions we’ve ever tasted, practically a blackberry balsamic glaze. If we only had some ice cream!

After appetizers, our hostess brings us big plates of grechka. It’s a lovely wheatberry-type grain salad topped with fresh tomatoes and cucumber, which is as beautifully arranged as it is delicious. The biggest hit of the meal is the big bowls of airan, super fresh yogurt that just yesterday was freshly-squeezed cow’s milk. Everything we are served tastes unbelievable, and we declare it to be the best food we have tried so far in Kyrgyzstan (besides Karakol’s ashlan-fu, of course!). We ask if we can stay for dinner, but, alas, we have to move on.

We make our way up the valley and cross the river on a footbridge, which is a big thrill. We are always happy to avoid a ford where we can! The horseman catches up to us here and offers to carry the porters’ bags up to his camp on his horse. The boys are thrilled and tie two of the bags together to drape over the horse’s back. They hand him a third, which he wears on his back and then takes Timu’s bag and carries it on his lap. It’s a wonder the horse can even move with all that weight, but off they go. With nothing to carry, the porters practically skip their way up the trail.

We plod along behind, following the trail as it cross-crosses a little creek running down the middle. We catch up to Timu and the boys at the horseman’s camp, where they take their heavy packs back from the nice man. As is typical, the shepherd has a dog here to protect his animals from wolves that may prey upon them. This dog is more friendly than any of the others we have encountered and playfully bites at Amy’s boots while the porters get set to go again.

It’s not too far to Sari-Bel Pass (10,350 feet) from the camp, and, when we get there, Timu tells us to take our packs off and walk up to a viewpoint. Down below us, we are surprised to see impressive red rock formations stretching out for miles ahead of us. The layers of pillowy rocks look like they could have been plucked from the American Southwest. It’s such an unexpected view, and we all have fun taking photos of the scene from this wonderful vantage point.

Photo Credit: Timu!

From here, the trail follows the contour of the mountain, slowly bringing us down closer and closer to the red rocks. Along the way, we switchback our way down through a field of yellow and purple flowers that flows all the way down the mountainside. Every now and then, we pass modern working shepherd’s huts, and we always take a moment to remind ourselves how truly special it is for us to witness this type of semi-nomadic lifestyle in this day and age.

We have one last downhill push for the day which gets us closer to the red rock formations than we have been all day. It’s late afternoon now, and the clouds that were a nice respite from the sunshine have all but disappeared. The bright blue skies look amazing in combination with the deep orange rocks. The wildflowers lining the trail are bathed in golden sunlight, and we do our best not to stop every few feet to snap photographs of the lovely scene.

We catch up to everyone sitting on a ridge overlooking the small village of Kojokelen. We bushwhack our way down the hillside to the small guesthouse where we will spend the night tonight. We are greeted warmly by the pater familias who has a kind, weathered face. He wears a kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz felt hat worn by the head of the household, and shows us to our rooms.

In one of the rooms, we see some dough rolled out in big, flat circles, and I ask if they are for oromo. He smiles and nods, pleased that we are familiar with the Kyrgyz dish. We ask if we can see them make it, and they seem happy to oblige.

After our bread, jam and tea, we are invited back into the room where one of the women starts to roll out the dough using a long wooden stick on a 3-foot wide wooden plank. She rolls it out, adding flour and making it thinner and thinner with each pass. By the time she’s done, the large dough circle that she has created has a diameter of nearly three feet.

She passes the dough over to another woman who coats every inch of it with a thin layer of oil. She then takes the filling of diced potato, onion and garlic and sprinkles it out evenly across the dough. Once it is covered, she takes one edge of the sheet that the dough is on and lifts it, causing it to roll up on itself. We all spontaneously cheer in amazement. The dough then gets rolled into a spiral and placed on a steam plate and placed in a big pot. The whole process gets repeated again another three times.

Over dinner, we eat by solar light because the electricity has been out for most of the day. We ooh and aah over the tasty pastry dish. Once our plates are clean, we chat for awhile in the dark and then head to bed after another very satisfying day in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

8 thoughts on “Heights of Alay Loop, Day 3: Feel the Burn

  1. You are lucky to be able to witness this way of life before it disappears. I don’t know how you are holding up for so long, but I’m enjoying the trip via my computer!

    1. We kept saying the exact same thing while we were there! We certainly hope that isn’t the case, but it’s hard to imagine that this lifestyle won’t be changed in some way as more and more people begin to visit this country. We hope that they make a concerted effort to protect their unique culture.

  2. Not only are you getting to see some awesome scenery, but you are getting to see a culture that almost no one knows about. The shepherd, the man on the horse, the cooking in the home – these are all such unique experiences.

    1. No doubt. We felt so lucky to be in Kyrgyzstan and to experience the culture in such an authentic way. We hope that the Kyrgyz people make a concerted effort to protect their unique culture as Central Asia becomes more and more popular with foreign travelers. When do you think you will visit there? Any time soon?

      1. We are planning to visit Uzbekistan in October! Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are on the radar, but that is more of a summer trip for us, so that may have to wait.

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