When I was a child, I had a dream. No, not becoming President of the United States of America or an astronaut. I only wanted to own a horse and live a life at the countryside. With this horse – at least in my imagination – I would ride to school, go shopping for my parents and spend the best time of my life. Even with the best will I could not understand why my relatives, who lived at a farm in Austria, were not living this life on a horse I always imagined. “Unrealistic” my parents kept answering this question. Riding lessons were too expensive and so I buried this dream together with the desire to eventually become a princess. If I had known that people and children in Kyrgyzstan live exactly this life, I might not have given up so easily.
Over 20 years later this long forgotten dream becomes true quite unexpectedly. I am in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and it has been raining for days. Originally I wanted to take the motorcycle to a lake named Son Kul – but thanks to the masses of water a part of the road was washed away and became impassable.
What would other tourists do?
Nevertheless, I don’t want to miss out the trip to Son Kul as it is considered as a jewel of a mountain lakes. So I do some research: What would a normal tourist do to reach Son Kul? There are only two answers: hire a driver and a jeep – or do it like the locals and take a horse. After 10 minutes more of research and two phone calls to the local tourist information I got everything arranged: I would change my bike for four to a horse and ride through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
The Kyrgyz flag is red with a yellow, round sign with stringers. It represents the view upwards in a traditional yurt, the temporary home of shepherds and nomads. And my horseback trip keeps up with the expectations the flag raises from the first minute. A jeep picks me up and brings me to three yurts in the middle of nowhere.
I have been on a horse before
Already waiting are the saddled horses and my guide. He has a Kyrgyz name I can not pronounce. „You can call me Bek” he says with a smile, after I fail to say his name a few times. He is two heads shorter than me and looks skeptically up to me from below. “Can you ride?” He asks me. “I have been on a horse before,” I reply diplomatically. Of course he knows what that means. „Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to ride a horse.”
However, more than riding skills initially strong nerves are needed. We climb hardly recognizable beaten paths along steep rock walls on loose gravel, we ride through rivers that are so deep that even on a horseback the water goes up to my knee and we cross fields whose growth I still can’t identify when it hits my face. Amazingly my horse – unlike my motorbike – has its own will, and in many cases it’s not the same like mine.
When we reach a flat step at 3,000 meters altitude, Bek turns in his saddle. “Ready for gallop?” he asks. I shrug my shoulders. „Don’t get stiff and don’t hold on to the saddle!” he shouts while he already runs our both horses with his whip and the typical Kyrgyz “Chu, Chu“. I send a last suffrage up to the sky and already see myself with all bones broken lying on the ground – but miraculously I stay in the saddle and get used to the rhythm of the raging monster. “Chu, Chu!” now I encourage my horse myself. While hooting and shouting loudly we fly over the lush green meadows. And when we arrive at the lonely yurt of a shepherd’s family, I sweat at least as much as my horse. How could I ever have forgotten this dream of my childhood?
The next day I realize that my new life on a horse is not only romantic. Every single muscle hurts. I need Bek’s help to get back in the saddle. Under pain I get my horse going. But then all suffering is forgotten within minutes: In between the green mountains Son Kul flashes like a blue gem in the distance.
Respect for womanhood
Together with a herd of freely running horses we gallop down to the valley. I ask Bek who owns these horses and how they ever find them again. He tells me that the horses are mainly mares – out of respect for womanhood in Kyrgyzstan only stallions are used as riding animals. The horses stay in their herd and come either back to their yurts by themselves or get driven in the right direction from the shepherds. Fences are here as unknown as people being afraid that someone might steal their property.
In the next two days we sometimes meet other riders galloping over the green hills. When we get closer I often realize that they are children not older than eight years, who look after a horde of sheep all by themselves. In Kyrgyzstan compulsory education exists, but according to the rhythm of the life in the mountains, children have free summer months in order to be able to spend them in the yurts with their families.
Cold yurt nights
Though everything seems to be very consistent, it’s a hard life. Even now in midsummer the days and nights can get bitterly cold. For sleeping in the yurts I wear every single piece of clothing I brought with me – and I am still freezing anyway. Bek and the locals with whom we stay are amused because they are used to completely different temperatures.
Before we say goodbye to the Son Kul, Bek makes another horse-dream come true that I did not even know I had beforehand.
Swimming with horses
We go swimming with the horses in the freezing lake. First my horse hesitates but after some light strokes with my whip it listens to my orders and gets into the water deeper and deeper until we lose the ground under our feet. When we come out of the water spluttering, coughing and laughing, I for the first time during this whole trip feel easy and unselfconscious like a child. Maybe it’s never too late to make old dreams come true – even if we have nearly forgotten them and they lost the urgency and importance they once had. When I think about it, maybe I should also try the one about becoming a princess. In the end I will be in India soon…
Travel infos Kyrgyzstan
To go: Kyrgyzstan is famous for its mountain lakes. Issyk-Kul is the second largest mountain lake in the world and its north side offers party and sandy beaches, the southern side remote villages with impressive mountain scenery. Lake Son-Kul is smaller, but more authentic. There are no hotels, only yurts.
To do: The green nature of Kyrgyzstan invites to all kinds of outdoor activities: for example kiking or multi-day horse tracks through untouched nature.
To book: The “Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association”, or “CBT”, helps organizing all activities, provides drivers and guides and can plan nights in yurts and homestays.
This article was written for Glamour Germany. Click here for the german version.