Horsin’ Around

After the half-day horse trek organized by the London School and SRAS, a few of us students were left wanting more. Four of the eight SRAS students agreed to go. There are many companies offering treks and excursions in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, but typical of broke college kids abroad, we were looking for the best price. Enter: Indy Guide, the Airbnb of tours in Central Asia and Eurasia. All you’ve got to do is search your criteria on their website. For Ross, Sam, Zak, and I, we wanted a weekend trip that left from Bishkek (or nearby) with accommodations, meals, and transport included for under $200 per person. 

Once your criteria are entered, Indy Guide displays excursion organizers that offer treks that match. From that point, you can message the organizer through the website for a full itinerary and to arrange details. We got connected with a guy offering a three-day trek (Friday morning to Sunday afternoon) to the alpine lake Song Kol in the Naryn region with everything included for $600 total. Split between four people it was $150 each, which was ideal for us.

This price included: 

  • transportation from the village Kochkor to where our trek would begin (about 45 minutes outside of the village on the side of the road)
  • Lunch, dinner, and overnight in a yurt camp Friday night
  • Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and overnight in a yurt camp Saturday night
  • Breakfast and lunch on Sunday
  • English-speaking guide to accompany us
  • Transportation back to Kochkor from where our trek would end (about an hour and a half from the village)

That left us on our own for finding transportation between Bishkek and Kochkor (a three-hour drive), and a place to stay the night Thursday so we could be ready to meet our guide there at 8:00 Friday morning. Ross took the initiative to message our guide and confirm payment and the schedule. He also emailed our London School SRAS program coordinator to adjust our lesson and test on Friday to allow us to depart Thursday night. Our test was moved to next Friday and we missed out on one communication lesson that wasn’t compensated. (Rest assured, our Russian skills were tested on this journey!)

Coincidentally, my host mom invited me to go with her to her hometown the day before when I didn’t have classes. We bought seats in a minivan at the “avtobokzal” (essentially a bus station for cars) and I found myself in Kochkor! Her brother and his family (who I had previously met in Bishkek) live there and hosted a party. It was suggested that the four of us could stay with the family on Thursday night. 

Ross, Sam, Zak, and I came to school that day wearing our hiking shoes and carrying our backpacks. We left class at 4:00 pm to make a pit stop at the nearby shopping center. We needed to stock up on toilet paper and snacks, as well as withdraw USD from the ATM to pay our guide. We also got a box of chocolates as a gift for our generous hosts. (In hindsight, I should have bought  sunscreen and left the chocolates on the shelf.) We then ordered a taxi to Bishkek’s western avtobokzal because we were not about to try to squish into a marshrutka with such big backpacks on. 

The avtobokzal is like a bazaar, but for men soliciting rides in their personal vehicles. The ride with my host mom the day before cost 250 som there and 200 som back, so I knew what a good price was so we could avoid being overcharged, as we looked aggressively foreign. We easily found several minivans departing to our destination and Zak haggled the price down to 350 som. The fun thing about these rides is that they don’t leave until all of the seats are full. We thought we had it lucky because we pulled out of the station with just the four of us. After about ten minutes of elation, we pulled over to pick up a babushka, dedushka, and another guy, finding ourselves shoulder to shoulder for the three-hour drive. 

We Were Hustled, Scammed, Bamboozled, Hoodwinked, Led Astray!!!

We arrived in Kochkor at 8:00 Thursday night and I called my host-uncle and when our driver heard me struggle to relay our location in Russian he snatched my phone and told my host-uncle himself. A few minutes later he came to retrieve us and we were treated to a delicious dinner (soup, salad, bread, tea) and good conversation. We slept comfortably in the guest room and had a great breakfast (oatmeal, bread, tea) as well. We felt very grateful for Kyrgyz hospitality. 

Shortly before our guide picked us up at the house, my host-aunt pulled me aside and in Russian that I had trouble understanding, let me know that it was time to pay up – 1000 som each. This is a steep price for Kyrgyzstan. It was unexpected and I was frustrated that she was not being direct and speaking in such a complicated way to dance around the awkwardness of it, so I just gave in and coughed up 4000 som ($57 USD) which we later joked likely inflated the entire village economy. I’m not sure if payment was mentioned at any point by either my host mom or the family before the morning we left and I didn’t catch it, but we felt slightly scammed. Comparatively, we could have easily stayed at a guest house with dinner and breakfast included for about 650 som ($9 USD) on booking.com. 

Our ride was an hour late, so we stood on the road outside of the house and were ogled at while families dropped their children off at the preschool nearby. Our host was very concerned and called the local tourism office for us and tried to organize taxi rides for us despite our assurance that it would be alright.

Becoming Acquainted with the Nomadic Lifestyle

The four of us were finally picked up by our trek organizer, who took us to meet our guide on the side of the road a half hour out of town. Our guide, Bakyt, studied English at university and guided trips frequently throughout the summer. He told us basic horse-riding instructions: commands for go and stop. That was all it took for us to head into the mountains.

The itinerary promised about five to six hours of horse-riding every day. We stopped for lunch for about an hour and a half after about three or four hours of riding before arriving at our yurt camp for the night.

The food was delicious – classic Kyrgyz cuisine such as plov and lagman. At the yurt camps, we met a lot of other travelers, all from different European countries. Our first interaction was with two young Polish hikers, who offered us shots of vodka from the bottle they packed with them so we could “clear the bacteria out of our stomachs” after eating.

We were told to prepare for cold weather in the mountains so we each brought a backpack stuffed with long pants, sweatpants, wool socks, sweaters, warm jackets, hats, and mittens. It was actually really warm during the day and we neglected to bring sunscreen which was a mistake. We were all really crispy by Sunday. I did regret not bringing a pair of shorts to put on once we made it to our overnight yurt camps. It was very cold at night, however, so bringing our warm clothes was absolutely worth it. Both nights, we hiked to the top of a hill to watch the stars. The light pollution was zero, and the Milky Way was incredibly and beautifully clear. 

Over the three days, we journeyed across several beautiful mountain passes and jailoos (Kyrgyz for “summer pasture”). Horses, cattle, and sheep were being herded from these summer pastures in the mountains to the village and we experienced a few traffic jams along the way. 

Our full day of riding on Saturday was wildly beautiful. There wasn’t a lot of precaution when it came to riding the horses; if they began to gallop we went along with them until our guide knew to bring them to a stop. I’m definitely a beginner rider, but all that’s really required to know is the direction to pull the reins to reroute the horse if necessary, listen to the guide, and trust the horse. That’s all it took for us to survive the weekend without any mishaps and it felt nice to have free rein without our guide hovering over us.

We stopped for lunch at a ritzy, glamp-y yurt camp and played games of soccer and volleyball with the German and Catalonian couple we made friends with. We reached lake Song Kol Saturday afternoon and camped nearby. In the evening chill, the lake was too cold to swim in, but that didn’t stop me and Sam from trying. We didn’t bring swimsuits, so we pulled off our clothes for the sake of living in the moment and almost died of hypothermia.

The camps we visited on Saturday had flush toilets, a sauna, and stoves in yurts, which were luxuries we were not expecting. It was a nice relief from the cold night before, and having to piss into a hole in the ground in the dark. 

Our way back Sunday, we passed over the Tuz Ashuu pass for a panoramic view of the Song Kol valley. The highest point we were at was 11,154 feet (3400 meters). I woke up that morning with a swollen eye, which my guide informed me can be a symptom of 1) me sleeping on that side of my face and 2) altitude sickness! It was back to normal by the time we reached the bottom of the valley and a van and truck were there to take us and the horses to the village for a final lunch with a host family. After that meal, we were transferred back to Kochkor. 

Our guide, who we had then made friends with, also needed to find a ride back to Bishkek so he haggled with mini-van drivers to secure us each a 300 som ride. We should’ve gotten a discount because at complete fault of our driver, the minivan got a flat tire and we had to pull over and wait on the side of the road for an hour and forty-five minutes. 

There is no AAA in Kyrgyzstan. There are, however, other friendly minivan drivers who may be willing to pull over and share their spare tires. The first spare tire we were gifted did not fit, which was discovered after driving down the road for three minutes where we had to pull over again and wave goodbye to our driver who rolled the flat tire to the other side of the road and got into a car without a word. We assumed he hitched a ride back into the village to repair it, and our theory was confirmed in another hour when he returned with a repaired tire. 

At that point, we could continue on at 50mph and we reached Bishkek at 10:30 that night. Although we were all tired and in desperate need of showers, we made friends with our fellow mini-bus passengers. A Kyrgyz girl our age who coincidentally knew our guide was super excited to practice English, Russian, and even some German with us. She had temporary tattoos with her that we applied roadside while we waited. We made sure to exchange contact information, as she offered to show us around Bishkek and more of Kyrgyzstan!

After getting into Bishkek that night, we had dinner with Bakyt, who I am sure we will be running into down the road. We were all very glad to leave the trek with two new local friends.

It Was Worth the Trauma

Altogether, our trip came to a total cost of 13,119 som each ($188 USD). I would absolutely recommend booking an excursion through Indy Guide. Taking care of transportation between the villages was super helpful, and not having to try to find gear like sleeping bags or tents was ideal. We learned so much from our guide about the region and his experience living in the Kyrgyz countryside. The four of us had a great time bonding over our occasional misfortune because everyone had a very easy-going attitude and we shared a lot of laughs throughout the weekend. I chose to study Russian in Kyrgyzstan for the country’s nature, and for such a good price, I was very glad I had the opportunity to experience the rugged beauty with such great people.

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