August 20, 2018
We have a go at being nomadic horse riders… it doesn’t go so well. So, we take it easy in Kyrgyzstan before blasting 2000 miles through Kazakhstan and Russia to the Mongolian border
Imagine a deep blue lake in the middle of nowhere and surround it with rolling green hills, jagged mountains and deep valleys. Pepper it with a thousand horses, cows and sheep. Throw in a sprinkling of white yurts filled with nomadic families and you have Song Kol Lake, Kyrgyzstan.
Lake Song Kol is a Kyrgyz gem
Nomadic families are sprinkled around the lake
The sun starts to dip behind the horizon and the cold sets in as we sit in our own little yurt overlooking the lake. A nomad with a bucket of manure strolls in, shovels the dung into an already blazing metal oven, wishes us goodnight and rolls the sheepskin door down behind him as he leaves. As the room fills with heat, we sit back in our bed and watch the orange glow flicker.
The mad month in Tajikistan, all the breaking down, hours fixing the bike on the roadside, non-stop off-roading, arguing with border guards about lost paperwork, the two-week wait in Osh for a new shock absorber to be sent from the UK – all the troubles of the last two months dissolve in the fire and disappear with the smoke into the Kyrgyz sky.
We’re where we want to be – in a yurt, in the middle of nowhere with nothing but greenery and horses - and it’s spectacular. As soon as the sun wakes up we swap two wheels for four legs and rent a couple of horses (£1.50 for an hour). We opt to take a guide (as we’ve only been on horses twice before) and all set off into the surrounding hills.
Horse riding around the lake has got to be one of the best experiences of the trip so far
But it’s pretty easy to get lost as hills and mountains merge into each other
As we crest the peak and gaze down on the hidden valleys it’s like we’ve trotted back in time. Yurts are surrounded by livestock, children wash in streams and young boys and girls race around on their horses. There’s no electricity, no connection to the outside world - just nomads living off the land.
Our horses are well behaved; they gallop and stop when they’re told, take on steep declines and clamber up hills without fuss, leaving the guide with nothing to do but ride far behind us.
So, as the sun rises the next day we rent two new horses. But this time we don’t take a guide, having ridden three times in our life we now think we’re professionals. We tell the family we’ll be back in about four hours and set off alone on a new route into the mountains.
Alissa’s horse isn’t shy, the slightest touch of heel to belly and the horse gets excited and starts to run. My horse is the opposite. The higher we climb the mountains the more stubborn mine becomes – nothing like Hidalgo I had yesterday. Hours of slow trotting, bursts of galloping and lazy walks pass by. Up and over mountains, through rivers and lost, but loving every second.
Sometimes walking a horse is just as much fun as riding one. It’s also good to give them … and our butts a rest
We finally cross our last mountain before seeing the lake again and the main track back to our camp. As the pasture flattens, Alissa and I swap horses. I let loose and her horse gallops faster than our motorcycle. I come back to where Alissa is waiting and she takes a couple of photos. I go again in a giant loop, this time the horse runs even faster. I tell Alissa I’m going for one more final sprint. The horse is breathing hard but itching to go, barely able to stand still.
We go… and we don’t stop. The metal bit flies out of the horse’s mouth and the reign half falls off. With nothing to stop him the horse is free to run like he’s been raring to all day. Metres turn to kilometres; my foot comes out of the stirrup and I nearly fall off. He finally comes to a stop 4km later.
Moments before it all goes so wrong…
The horse runs past the mountain to the right and all the way to the lake
I enlist the help of some confused Kyrgyz shepherds but can’t get back on as the horse starts to run immediately. He’s too excited and they explain he needs to be walked to calm down. Meanwhile Alissa is stuck with a horse that refuses to budge and the reign falls off completely. Alissa is stuck up the mountain, miles away while I’m stuck down the mountain. There’s no choice but to walk the horse. It’s a long walk back to Alissa, a long struggle getting both reigns back on and an even longer trek back to camp. Maybe we’re not horse-riding nomads after all. Perhaps we’ll stick to the bike.
Maybe we’ll just ride alongside them and make horse noises instead?
Our favourite nomadic family
Alissa got a good tan in Kyrgyzstan
The head of the family and his new wife
The mum cooked the most delicious food using two stoves and a bottle of Fairy
We make our farewells to our proper nomadic family and leave (on two wheels) to explore the rest of Kyrgyzstan’s many twists, turns and epic landscapes. It’s a raw, rugged land and feels more remote than Tajikistan. It’s dubbed the ‘Least known about country in Central Asia’ and for good reason – Kyrgyzstan doesn’t rely on tourism; a huge portion of its people still live an ancient nomadic lifestyle and you can ride for hours without seeing another soul.
But we can’t hang around. We dive into Almaty, Kazakhstan to arrange our visas for Mongolia and Russia. Mongolia gives us a full 30-day visa in about 10 minutes at the embassy. While Russia takes five days, costs a fortune and only allows us a 10-day transit.
To celebrate our thicker passports, we head to Charyn Canyon, otherwise known as the ‘Grand Canyon’s baby brother’. Then it’s 800 miles through Kazakhstan’s nothingness to the Russian border.
Taking ‘living life on the edge’ a bit too literally. Luckily we thought about which side to put the door…
Locals call it the Grand Canyon’s Baby Brother
Should we walk down there or not? Not, obviously… it’s way too far
Bags searched and paperwork stamped we blast another 700 miles through Russia’s Altai region, stopping only to fix the bike and camp in its tranquil forests. The last few weeks through Kazakhstan and Russia are fast, long and tiring – but we have no choice. Russia’s transit visa is date specific and we can’t risk it with breakdowns. We also need to think about the weather heading north out of Mongolia and into Siberia as it drops to -40C.
Camping in Russia was easier and prettier than we thought
The Altai region is bursting with lakes and mountains
Admittedly it was pretty good being on sweet black tarmac again
But none of that seems to matter anymore as we approach the Mongolian border… a country we’ve been dreaming of for the last ten years. More excited than a four-year-old at Christmas we ride into the customs area, walk into the office to get our passports stamped and are met with “We’re going on lunch, come back in two hours…maybe”.
Three hours later we’re stamped and our adventure into Mongolia starts…
Hmmm, Mongolia’s around here somewhere…