We left behind the mountain saddle at an altitude of 3,458 m above sea level and slowly descended to the lake (the whole journey is described in the previous article: Kyrgyzstan 2). In this country, we had already seen slopes dotted with tall white flowers that looked like altar candles, we had also seen a meadow with yellow flowers, but now a meadow full of forget-me-not appeared on the right side of the road. The tiny flowers formed entire bands of sky-blue color.
The road bent into the valley and the valley was closed by a lake – blue and motionless, the largest reservoir of freshwater. Water is the great wealth of Kyrgyzstan, it supplies the country and its inhabitants with life and energy, so they build their yurts near the rivers. Four rivers fed by the glacier water of surrounding mountains run into the lake. Only one river flows out, it is called the same as the lake, and then flows into the Naryn River.
Song Köl, the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, lies at an altitude of 3,016 m, is 29 km long and is 18 km wide. The depression in which it was created is flat, so the lake at its deepest point reaches a depth of only 13.2 m. In the winter months, it freezes and turns into an ice-snow desert. In summer, it has a beautiful blue color, but the color changes according to what clouds gather above its surface, and also according to whether it is morning or evening.
If I were to describe this place concisely, I would say: an endless steppe, endless herds, a strip of endless water, endless mountains and endless clouds, grouped into strange formations. The lake is surrounded by the mountain ranges of the Tien Shan, mountains that the locals also call the heavenly mountains. In the distance in front of us, huge gray-blue ridges rose to the sky, while on our shore, the hills seemed milder, here and there they were still adorned with white spots of snow. The green and blue were complemented by white yurts, scattered along the mountainsides, and grazing cattle in all shades of black and brown.
When the spring sun begins to rest on the shores of the thawing lake at the end of May, the land warms up, the meadows turn green and bloom with many flowers. During that time, there is an important movement throughout the country. Nomadic families who have spent the winter in their dwellings in the valleys will drive their flocks of sheep, goats and cows and herds of horses to fresh alpine pastures (jailoo). The season ends with the first snow, usually in the second half of September.
The roots of the nomadic tradition in Kyrgyzstan go back to 800 years BC. The Soviets forced the nomads to settle, which of course they did not like. The conflicts arising as a result of violent collectivization have been very well described by the most important Kyrgyz writer, Chinghiz Aitmatov in his novels. Although the communist regime marked the way of life of the nomads to some extent, it failed to eliminate the desire for freedom that still circulates in their blood. Every spring they come to the lake to build yurts where their fathers and ancestors used to build them many years ago. For me, groups of horses have become a symbol of this freedom. One horse aroused the others, and the whole herd ran as if the horses were driven by some uncontrollable force. Stallions with uncut manes galloped so freely, their wise eyes glowing with wildfire and their tails dangling in all directions. The thud of their hooves lingered in my mind for a long time…
Lake Song Köl is still a remote place, far from the hustle and bustle of civilization. No public transport, no houses, no telephone signal, no electric poles or wires. Nomads generate electricity using a generator. Otherwise, they get everything they need to live from the animals they keep. Nomads live simply, all experience and knowledge – about animals, about nature and its laws, about the weather, etc. – is passed down from generation to generation. In recent years, however, many of them started being accompanied by tourists. Although at first glance it may seem that there are quite a lot of yurt settlements, the lake is huge and it is not difficult to find a peaceful, quiet spot for yourself.
On a narrower dusty road, two calves stopped and looked at us… exactly just like a cow at a new gate. Other calves were grazing nearby, looking like plush toys. A vulture rose to the sky from the grass. Cows and sheep enjoyed the nearby juicy meadows. Meat and milk from this area are said to taste best. There are twice as many sheep as people in Kyrgyzstan. Sheep wool is used to make felt, which is used not only to make yurts but also clothes, such as the typical hats. Colorful, felt carpets (shyrdak) on the wall are also traditional.
After our arrival at the lake, the sky clouded over, the black clouds boded ill, although the horses and cattle continued to graze undisturbed. The water in the lake turned gray. Heavy but short rain started.
While we rested in the yurt and tasted homemade specialties, the clouds dispersed, the sun appeared again and the lake shone with a beautiful, dark blue color. Wherever we looked around, we couldn’t see a single tree, not even a bush. The meadow, on the other hand, was full of various flowers, except that all the flowers were like miniatures of those we know. Dandelions, buttercups and edelweiss were the most abundant here. The edelweiss looked different from the ones we had seen the day before. They were also smaller and as if completely made of felt. On an alpine pasture, they probably need an even denser “fur coat” to protect them from the cold.
There were not only flowers on the meadows but also many butterflies. Sometimes we didn’t even notice them on those crouched little flowers at first. Only when we wanted to take a step, all of a sudden, the butterflies flew up and fluttered their orange wings. We counted 4-5 species. They were almost always in threes. After the rain, they dried their damp wings on the low grass and stones.
Even though the surroundings of the lake seem calm, something still happens here, you still have something to observe. As soon as we had reached our yurts, two dogs chased away a stallion, which answered them with a loud neighing, while two more horses began to test their strength. They reared, the exuberant mane of the black horse shook in the battle, at one point the horse even found itself on the ground, but immediately he jumped up again, did not give up, and continued to stretch his elegant body while rising up. Occasionally, one of the shepherds would gallop by on horseback, either chasing after a stray sheep or just needing to show off in front of the foreigners.
A distant flock of sheep looked like an army of beetles, suddenly a group of black crows rose in the sky above them, flew up to us, cawed and circled the horses, but those paid no attention to the impertinent birds and continued to graze delicious grass. The disappointed crows ended their unsuccessful performance, took off again and, with a huge arc, flew somewhere into the unknown.
At the lake, especially horse lovers will enjoy themselves. Horses are said to be like wings for people of the steppe, which is why they treat them as family members. For them, horses are not only a means of transport and a source of livelihood (mainly milk, because horse meat is consumed only occasionally) but also an investment and a display of wealth. Alfred Edmunt Brehm, a German zoologist and writer who visited Kyrgyzstan in 1876, wrote in his travelogue that without a horse, a Kyrgyz would be like a man without his homeland.
The meadow was soft and soaked in many places, but the locals showed us the ruts in the grass, which led us safely to the very shore of the lake. I was surprised at how many empty vodka bottles were thrown in the grass, I counted up to seven in one place! Would the local nomads, even though they are Muslims, try to cure altitude sickness by alcohol? Or did they drive away sadness? I really don’t know, but they should definitely clean up those bottles.
Smoke rose from the narrow chimneys of the yurts to the sky, the late evening sun was shining through the overblown heads of dandelions, turning them into small round lanterns, and adding a golden tinge to the other flowers. The shadows lengthened. The cold and clear water washed around the stones at the bottom of the lake, the foam of the tide moved barely noticeable. The tired sun slowly floated beyond the horizon, turning the gathered clouds orange.
The sun still radiated the last beams of light. We accompanied its fading bow with our eyes until it completely disappeared. The mountains on the other shore were silent, dusk fell on the land. The moment had arrived which opens the depths of the soul…
A similar feeling overcame us in the morning. The horses grazed on the dewy grass, the sun had already set out on its daily heavenly journey, gentle clouds were floating over the yurts. The morning breeze gently wrinkled the waters of the lake. Time dripped off drop by drop. There was a calming silence everywhere, and all the world’s worries seemed to be away. The mind was reset and the soul was charged with new energy.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid and Katka, Travelpotpourri