“Yes, I know he does,” I forced a smile and wondered how I was going to
survive the week.
/ The Impossible Becomes Possible /
And then something happened. Or rather, nothing happened. As we walked
deeper into that field, Jettagüs didn’t do anything; nothing naughty anyway. He
danced and snorted in anticipation, but denied his desire to gallop, he never escalated. It was the equine equivalent of a shrug.
“OK,” he seemed to say, “Maybe we’ll run in the next field.” I exhaled and
smiled. Maybe I could do this after all.
When we paused in that first pasture to picnic, Kuwan and Misha tethered
the horses to graze while our translator laid out thermoses, sacks of food, and
a plastic table cloth. We gathered in a circle around tea and a smorgasbord of
jams, tinned fish, dried apricots, local almonds, and fresh-baked bread (sacred in
Kyrgyzstan, and rightfully so).
After lunch, I stood with Jettagüs, scratching his speckled ears while he ate,
exchanging glances with a beige cow and her curious calf. Land in the Kyrgyz
high country is communal, and shepherds let their animals roam at will for days
or weeks at a time. Throughout the week, we passed many herds of horses, cattle,
sheep, goats and even yak.
/ Adventure of a Lifetime /
For the next eight days, Jettagüs’ feisty humor and gentle spirit reminded me
how to trust his kind. When the sky opened up for hours at a time, I tucked my
hands into his mane for warmth. When the clouds broke, we basked, drying our
respective coats in the solar blaze.
We galloped and marched up funicular-worthy trails and forded rushing rivers
that came up to his belly. Completely out of my element and in his, I left most of
the decision-making to those wise, sure feet.
At night, I’d shower him with praise and sugar cubes, just like I did my favorite
horses at 6 and 16 and 26. Kuwan and Misha laughed at my extravagance. Horses
are far more utilitarian in Kyrgyzstan than the U.S. But, horses are their lifeline—
companions who make survival enjoyable, not just possible. If pressed, they’d
confess their affection through a blush and a shy smile.
On our last night in the mountains, we pitched our tents at almost 12,000 feet
beside a stream at the base of a granite cliff. We woke above the clouds but were
soon inside them.
Shortly after setting out, hail came suddenly and we turned our backs. Jettagüs
pinned his ears and tucked his tail in disdain. I hunched my shoulders and leaned
forward to cover his compact neck. I owed him that.
IF YOU GO
Shepherd’s Way Trekking is a
family business. Ishen, Gulmira,
and Rash run an operation that
takes good care of the horses and
promotes socially and ecologically
responsible tourism in Kyrgyzstan’s
high country. They will happily
chat with you about the evolution
of the modern Kyrgyz horse, the
preservation of shepherding, and
their country’s efforts to get back on
its feet after years of Soviet rule.
WHAT TO BRING:
Water purifier; sleeping bag & liner;
down jacket; waterproof boots,
gloves, pants and jacket; big plastic bags to stuff inside the saddle
bag; swimsuit for the hot springs
or to take a dip in Lake Issyk-Kul
on your way to or from Barskoon.
Check the website for more details:
WHAT TO KNOW:
Kyrgyzstan now issues visas for
travelers from most countries on
arrival, making it a relatively easy
gateway to the region. Ishen, Gulmira, and Rash all speak English
and Shepherd’s Way provides
translators for the journey. If you
want to visit other parts of the
country independently, knowing
Russian is helpful.