There are several yurt camps scattered on the shores of Lake Song Köl, we even saw a signpost in two places, referring to accommodation, petrol, kumis and other dairy products. We had nothing arranged in advance. I don’t think there is such a rush of tourists, so it is not difficult to find a quiet spot with a free yurt.
You just need to know what you want and what you don’t want. We definitely didn’t want a sterile tourist camp with beds and showers (because they already exist here, too). We didn’t want a camp with many yurts. 5-6 are ideal. So when our Kyrgyz guide asked us if we were going right or left, we said – left, because there were fewer yurts. Our choice turned out to be optimal because one yurt was a kitchen and storage, another one – a dining room, in the third yurt the host family slept, the fourth one was for us (four people) and the other one for our guide.
Not far from the yurts, in the middle of the green grass, there was a washbasin (our bathroom) and at a sufficient distance, tin walls of the pit latrines glistened in the rays of the afternoon sun. It was our greatest luxury that we had two of those latrines! Sometimes a horse grazed at one and a dog guarded the other one. But inside, there were only four boards with a gap in the middle which covered a pit in the ground.
Samat was 21 years old, living here with his young wife Ulgelshin, who was the only one who knew a little Russian. Almost every time she said something, her broad cheeks were colored with a soft blush. There was also an older woman Guljamkan living with them. The country has a population of more than 6 million, up to two-thirds of whom are families of semi-nomads who live with their herds on mountain pastures (jailoo) in the summer and return to the valley in the winter.
We met at least one little boy almost anywhere in Kyrgyzstan. There was one here too. We saw him soon. A short distance away, he stood in the meadow – a boy, a dog and a horse (almost like the title of a novel or a movie…). Six-year-old Alichan was sent to the fresh air during the holidays. It’s a very common practice here. Kyrgyz families are large, there is always a relative in the countryside who can take care of a child over the summer.
We tried to get the boy’s attention with lollipops and candies, he seemed pleased with them, though the expression on his face remained unchanged and his gaze suspicious. This has again intensified my impression that people in this country are smiling less and not expressing their emotions.
Alichan picked up a small shovel and a large, yellow plastic box, which he pulled behind him on a string. We felt sorry that he had an old canister instead of a toy car, we had no idea that the shovel and the box were not his toys, but work tools. It wasn’t until we met him again with the box fully loaded – he even smiled a little and “helped” to pull with his tongue, as children use to do – that we understood. The little boy was in the meadow collecting cow dung, dried in the sun. In these high treeless places, it serves as fuel.
It was raining, so we hid inside the yurt. While the outside world is painted by natural colors – blue, green and brown, when you enter a yurt, you find yourself in a completely different world – full of bright colours, among which red colour undoubtedly dominates.
Every little thing in the structure of the yurt is made by the many years of experience of previous generations. The wood frame was painted red. The wooden poles tied together with ropes were arranged in diamond patterns. The other 74 long curved poles met at the top of the yurt. The round roof which is placed on them is called tündük. It is not just a vent, it is a symbol of the family, a symbol of home. That is why it found a place on the Kyrgyz national flag. While other parts of the yurt may be replaced over time, the tündük remains, passed down from father to son.
Tassels of various colors hung from the wooden poles. The ribbons, wall carpets and fabrics that covered the yurt from the inside were full of colours and geometric, paisley and floral ornaments. Beautiful handicraft in which the soul of man rests. The felt mats on the ground were also colorful and patterned. Thick mattresses and almost equally thick and heavy blankets were already prepared on the floor. In the middle of the yurt, there was a pile of other pillows and blankets. The yurt is a very variable home, the traditional one has a diameter of about four meters and if necessary, up to ten people can sleep inside.
Apart from a small old iron oven, there was no furniture in the yurt. It was a simple but clean dwelling, we even had to take off our shoes before entering.
The yurt is called boz üy in Kyrgyz and means “grey house”. We could see the grey felt layered on a wooden frame on the yurt-kitchen in our camp. It is waterproof, lasts 15-20 years, is warm in winter and cool in summer. The felt pads are covered with white canvas, which provides insulation and protection against wind.
The entrance to the yurt is always oriented to the southeast, where the light comes from. According to tradition, the door should creak – as a signal that someone is entering. One felt carpet is also above the entrance, rolled up during the day, at night and in bad weather you just pull the cord and the carpet falls down.
So we sat in our colourful yurt, leaving the entrance open, although we only had a view of the two outhouses. Fortunately, just as quickly as the rain came, as quickly did it leave. The host family invited us for tea to the yurt-dining room. In front of the yurt, there were a prepared samovar and the boy’s yellow box with a full charge. The drying meat hung on a string. Concerning the consumption of meat, the Kyrgyz are on the very top, jokingly saying that only a wolf can beat them.
There was also an explosion of red colour in the yurt-dining room, red was reflecting on the plastic which covered the table as well. Additionally, there was a red Kyrgyz flag with a yellow tündük and sun. On a small table, there were teapots and pianki – small bowls without handles for green or black tea. Bowls of nuts and candies, yellow granulated sugar and tea were waiting for us on the table. According to tradition, a pianka is filled only in half. A full cup would be a sign to leave.
They also brought us qurut and kumis for tasting. I have to admit that I didn’t like either of them very much. Qurut is made from dried yoghurt, formed mostly in balls, but these seem to have been pressed into rollers so that the grooves made by fingers were still visible. I imagine that this is how smoked lime must taste. Kumis, fermented sparkling mare’s milk, also has a lightly smoked taste. Kyrgyz call it kymyz, it is their national drink. It also contains a little alcohol, which is caused by the higher amount of sugar in a mare’s milk.
However, we really liked boorsok – small, freshly fried pieces of dough, especially when we dipped them in delicious homemade strawberry (in Kyrgyzstan they have up to four crops a year), berberry and other berries jams. We also enjoyed those jams for breakfast the next day – with pancakes served with fresh cream. Later, we got dinner – salads with noodles and pickled vegetables, meat with potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage in the yurt-dining room. The host family didn’t eat with us. Everything was already prepared in bowls and on plates, which was a bit of a problem for me. Since I don’t eat so much in the evening, it was impossible for me to eat everything. I was full of remorse that the hosts would find me ungrateful. At least I was comforted by the fact that there were enough cattle outside, so I guess they would eat the leftovers.
We went to explore the surrounding pastures, meadows and their inhabitants (butterflies and birds) and the flowers in the grass (edelweiss, buttercups, dandelions, daisies, etc.). Samat was riding, galloping here and there, and then curiously looking at the photos in our cameras. He even wanted us to send some of them to him – via WhatsApp, in the winter when he would be in a valley with electricity and telephone signal.
While cows are milked in the morning and evening, the mares are only in the evening. They were all tied together with their foals in one group. Ulgelshin put on a protective sleeve on her right knee and tied up the left front leg of a mare. The mare stood still and Ulgelshin was kneeling, both with one leg bent, the milk spurted out in all directions, into the bucket but also outside. Only now did I notice that the young woman had polished nails – a small symbol of a civilization that remained far away from here. The buckets were soon full, the milk had to be fermented. You can drink it the next day.
The sun was slowly moving towards the other shore of the lake. Shepherds gathered their sheep, goats, cows and horses, which could freely graze on the meadows and nearby slopes all day, to the pens for the night. In my language, we use to say “you go like sheep” and I always thought it was negative. However, it was not like that. Samat and his dog chased the sheep and goats until they all gathered into one dense herd and ran one next to the other like a rippling river into a fold. They bleated loudly, the cows started to moo and the horses joined them with their neighing. A loud open-air concert scattered along the shore, a couple of goats jumped up on the pen as if they wanted to conduct this whole symphony of different animal sounds.
Ulgelshin offered us electricity for half an hour, which they produce using a generator. We politely declined. Before dusk, we were still preparing our things in the yurt, when we suddenly heard a strange sound, as if a bird was singing nearby – we just didn’t know if it was the brown one or the grey-white one we had seen in the grass on the meadow before. And then we spotted “it”. Alichan walked in front of our yurt – with his right hand in the pocket and a small whistle from a pack of candies that I gave him in the afternoon in his mouth. With his eyes closed, he inserted himself into the whistling so deeply that the flowering heads of the dandelions were shaking softly, afraid that their hats would be blown away…
Before dark, we walked to the lake and watched the sunset. Then we hurried back quickly to the yurt before the surroundings were completely shrouded in darkness. In the small oven, flames bounced powered by the fuel which was collected by the boy-bird. It was pleasantly warm in the yurt, but we didn’t want to sleep yet. So we reminisced about our childhood and lying on our mattresses, we played Name City Animal and Thing.
Shortly before midnight, we ran out of the yurt once more. Since there is no light pollution, billions of stars spread above our heads. The meadows were already asleep, the mountains were silent and the animals in the pens fell silent too. There was such an amazing silence and peace everywhere. The fire in the oven was already extinguished, the cold was creeping into the yurt, so we dived even deeper into the sleeping bags and thick blankets. Good night – Жакшы жатыңыз (Zhakshy zhatynyz)!
A surprise awaited us in the morning. I don’t know if the host family considered us spoiled Europeans, but in that provisional washbasin in the middle of the meadow, hot water flowed! The women churned butter and centrifuged cream and yoghurt from cow’s milk. I asked about what they do during the winter in the village. Ulgelshin said: sleep. We both knew that wasn’t true, after all, the blush on her cheeks spoke for itself. Cattle and kitchen need to be taken care of in winter as well.
We said goodbye and looked for Samat. We found him in a group of other men and boys. Near them, something black and hairy lay in the grass. It still had all four legs, but it didn’t have a head. It was a goat that is used instead of a ball in the traditional Kyrgyz game kok boru, which has its origins in the hunting training of the nomads, and since 2017 has been added to the UNESCO-List of Intangible Heritage.
One of the men separated from the group galloped to the headless goat and grabbed the carcass by the fur while riding. The others were already approaching him, crashing into a wild crowd, trying to snatch the hairy goat body from his hand.
The carcass fell down, the man in the black winter jacket grabbed it with a quick movement, the horses twisted wildly and scattered across the meadow for a moment. Then they sped forward at a sharp trot, tilting to one side or the other, stamping relentlessly on tiny dandelions, showing their teeth, tossing their manes and snorting loudly. Some little boys also joined, their legs not yet reaching the stirrups, they had them hung only in the straps, but they controlled their horses brilliantly as if they had already been born on a horse. One boy jumped on a horse behind the rider’s back, it was not clear whether he was a help or a burden, he could fall down at any moment. Finally, one of the players managed to get the goat into the goal, built of several old tires (until then we wondered what these tire pyramids on the meadows were for).
The horses pounded on each other’s hips and tails, the cold metal between their teeth turned their faces into scary grimaces. The men put their whips in their mouths to keep their hands free as they tried to pull the goat from the rivals who were hiding the carcass under their legs. I have no idea who actually played against whom and I don’t even know which team scored more goals, but I didn’t mind at all. We didn’t pay for this game, so these men didn’t do a show for tourists but played for themselves. I was satisfied, I finally saw faces full of emotions and passion!
Samat cantered closer to say goodbye to us. Then he returned to his yurt, his wife and the lake, to the vast area of its shores that gives him a feeling of liberty – until he returns to the village with all the conveniences of civilization, but also the worries and problems that modern life brings…
*** We did not book the accommodation in advance, but it was not a problem to find a free yurt on the spot. For one night we paid 1050 soms (about 13 €), dinner and breakfast were included.
*** Be careful when tasting kumis, it can have laxative effects for someone, and even though we had two outhouses, it would certainly not be pleasant.
*** Bring warm clothes with you even in summer. The weather at the lake can change very quickly and the nights are cold as well.
*** A sleeping bag is also suitable, especially if someone has a problem with the fact that the bed linen is not changed here like it is in a hotel, or if the thick blankets would not be warm enough for you.
*** As there is no electricity, you need to have a powerbank. A hand torch will also be helpful.
*** You need to be prepared for the fact that you may be affected by altitude sickness, which is caused by low air pressure with less oxygen at higher altitudes especially if you move quickly to higher altitudes. Symptoms: headache, nausea, fast pulse. What to do: rest, limit harder physical exertion, drink enough water, take pain killers against the headache. Mild symptoms should subside after one night. You can read more about it: here
Our trip to Kyrgyzstan was organized through the travel agency TourAsia based in Bishkek. They also arranged a car with a guide-driver who spoke Russian, German and English.
You can contact them via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TourAsia.online/
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Katarína and Janette, Travelpotpourri