The Silk Road, China

Sunday, 17 June 2007

The green jailoos (meadows) of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan, unlike much of it's neighbour Uzbekistan, has not been shaped by the Silk Road. It has a population of just 4 million and just two major cities. One of these, Osh, was an important stop over for the caravans descending from Kashgar and the Pamirs onto the Central Asian steppes. But by and large the country is a rural one with the keeping of livestock, particularly horses, being the most important occupation.

The green plains, populated by grazing herds of cattle, horses and sheep, struck us as soon as we descended from the pale coloured, lunar Pamir plateau. Every house seemed to be a smallholding, with a few goats milling around outside next to a donkey cart. Beyond the scattering of houses was the grass plain that so massive that sharing it informally seemed to work very effectively.

At our request, our jeep dropped us in Saray Moghul, a small village near the Tajik border tucked below Pik Lenin - a tantalising non technical 7000m mountain which takes 3 weeks to summit. For now we could only look ... another time perhaps.

There are no hotels in Saray Moghul, but within 5 minutes of wandering around looking slightly lost we had an offer to stay in someone's home and an escort in the form of a man on a donkey. Further offers quickly presented themselves, without a word being understand by either party. In the end we stayed in a Community Based Tourism 'homestay' (a network of B&Bs) as they had served us so well in Tajikistan.

We wandered into the village and found the wise old men of the town playing chess. One man invited us to play and promptly thrashed us (both playing as a team) while literally twiddling his thumbs and pinning down a conversation with his previous victim. Once we stepped aside - thankfully only then - did we see up close how chess is meant to be played. The open moves of the game were played out at a rate of about two a second, with aggressive moves being slammed onto the board and the opponent's piece removed in one motion with the right hand. The piece was then added to the spoils of war in the left hand.

We decided that we should stick to what we do best and bought one of the wonderful Kyrgz felt hats that the majority of men wear in almost every occasion. Once again escorted by another kind man who spoke no more English than we did Kyrgyz, we strolled around the village in the late afternoon sun, the wind moaning as it whistled between the houses.

We could have spent days in Saray Moghul, but the following day we tore ourselves away and headed for Osh and then to Bishkek; we had a few things to do and visas to sort out before we could once again escape to the idyllic countryside. Osh was grim but Bishkek fairly pleasant, with its strange muddle of Russian and German influences (every taxi in Kyrgyzstan is an ancient Audi.) Bishkek was also a hit with us thanks to its variety of cuisine, the presence of Diet Coke in its shops and a shop stuffed with (almost certainly fake) North Face gear at giveaway prices. We had no choice but to invest.


Then to the jailoos, the summer pastures for which Kyrgyzstan is famous. At the country's fringes are the huge mountain ranges of the Pamirs to the South and the Tian Shan to the East and much of what lies between are the meadows which the shepherds make their home every summer.

During Billo's fleeting visit to the UK, I hiked up to Altyn Arashan, a hot spring in the hills near the shores of Lake Issyk Kul in the east of the country. After a perfect soak, I stayed in one of the handful of huts in a green alpine valley otherwise populated only by livestock. This I explored on horseback the following day and had a particularly memorable sandwich underneath the glacier at the top of the valley in a field which was bright yellow with buttercups.

Once reunited with Billo, we decided to spend a couple of nights in a yurt (a traditional tent) with some shepherds en route to China. The place to do this is Lake Song Kul, and once again the system is similar to that of a homestay; shepherds sign up up to a network called Shepherd's Life and receive tourists at agreed rates.

We arrived unannounced at our yurt to see our hosts' three year old daughter wrestling with a horse on the end of its bridle. Her parents were out milking the horses and so there it was far from a fanfare on our arrival. But this was what made it special; we were guests but felt like observers who were fitting into the family's routine. A cup of tea eventually arrived and after this we headed out alone on horseback onto the jailoo.

On our return we were lucky enough to see a yurt being put up. Yurts are circular felt tents about 20 feet in diameter with a cone shaped roof that tapers to a small hole in the ceiling which lets light in and smoke out. In just a couple of hours we saw some flimsy wooden trellises bound together and strips of felt wrapped around the outside to form a sturdy temporary home. A heavy chest is placed upwind, the door downwind and a piece of felt can be pulled across the hole in the ceiling using rope on the outside in case of rain.

And it did rain. That evening the thunder rumbled in the distance and lightning lit up the entire sky. The wind howled and the rain swept across the plain, but amazingly we remained warm and dry in our yurt and awoke the next day to blue skies and sunshine.

For me, this is tourism at its best: by being there we put a value on the shepherds' traditional way of life and at the same time enjoyed an incredible experience that felt as genuine as it could be. It will be interesting to see how scalable such an initiative could be; most of the pleasure came from the absence of other tourists and feeling we were observers rather than having an experience artificially created for us. But already there are signs of this breaking down; a few commercial / non working yurts were visible elsewhere on the jailoo.

Nevertheless, I hope that this kind of tourism will prevent abandonment of the countryside and its way of life in favour of the cities which are so unremarkable. A traditional way of life need not stand in the way of 'progress' - already the shepherds are modernising life in a yurt: using solar panels to provide light and tractors to bring the yurts up to the jailoos. Perhaps the important will remain, such as the ongoing commitment to their herds and the shared use of the jailoos. Certainly, the delightful Kyrgyz felt hats and the repulsive fermented mare's milk (the drink of choice even amongst toddlers) seem in no danger of obselence despite the advent of leather jackets, beer and vodka. Perhaps tourism can play a part in helping local people find a sustainable future in their beautiful countryside.

JM

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