Storm blows in towards Lake Son-kul

Storm blows in towards Lake Son-kul

A breeze can turn to a blast in seconds. We lazed at the door of our yurt in the last light of day, and the wind did just that. “Ai!” yelled the matron of the camp, if that’s the way to describe a tough as nails Kyrgyz mother. Seeing her start tying down the other yurts, we clued in quickly and did the same to ours. Moments later the storm hit, sending dust flying and causing the horses to whinny in complaint, their high pitched wail rising high over the thumping flap of woolen yurt doors cutting loose from their ties. Rain splashed down, brief but hard, and then, almost before it had come, it was gone. The sun put in one last effort, the air was soft again, and the cold night fell.

Lake Son-kul is perhaps the least frequently visited of the beautiful lakes on Kyrgyzstan’s visitor circuit. Smaller by far than the enormous Lake Issyk-kul that accounts for over three per cent of the country’s total area, less immediately spectacular than the cobalt blue Lake Ala-kul nestled at 3,500 meters amongst the peaks near Karakul, it is nonetheless a remarkably picturesque and (almost) pristine high lake surrounded by green meadows and rolling hills rising from the lake’s already-high 3,000 meter elevation. A series of yurt camps dots the green landscape near the more accessible end, but continue on horseback further afield and you will soon enjoy relative isolation, at least in the shoulder season. If you have even more time, you can attempt a circumnavigation, which must be a memorable experience.

The nearest main city is Kochkor, a pleasant place where you can easily arrange horse-riding and transport onwards to Tash Rabat or Kazarman.

The mountains are that way, lied Lenin. (Kochkor)

The mountains are that way, lied Lenin. (Kochkor)

Sunset in Kochkor.

Sunset in Kochkor.

We visited in summer 2013, bracketing a few days horseriding between our Karakol trek and visit to the Eagle Man near Lake Issyk-kul, and our visit to Tash Rabat and further west to Arslanbob. Our skies were blue, our air was fresh, and our horses were a lot better behaved (ie they actually moved) than last time we tried riding in the high mountains in the Tibetan area of Qinghai Province. As usual, Yon was better at it than me, and managed to get her horse to ride alongside the clear shallows of the lake, as though she was a sort of (Central) Asian Jessica Harrison to my Jim Craig (yes, it’s a Man from Snowy River reference, minus the ability to actually ride a horse). We teamed up with some friendly young Dutch backpackers and rode for two days, stopping at the stormy yurt just described.

"She's certainly tamed that horse". "But what man can tame her?"

“She’s certainly tamed that horse”. “But what man can tame her?”

As everywhere in Kyrgyzstan, the local people were very friendly and generally not too jaded by the small but steady flow of visitors from outside. The legendary hospitality was there too, perhaps a little less epic than in other places (and probably due to the distance) to anywhere supplies could be found. It was a nice place to spend some contemplative time by the water’s edge, or up in the nearby hills.

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To confuse the cow, Yon hypnotised it with yoga.

To confuse the cow, Yon hypnotised it with yoga.

John Young's "big navy salute" is much harder in full gravity.

John Young’s “big navy salute” is much harder in full gravity.

Plenty of space for resting, too.

Plenty of space for resting, too.

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Tying down the yurt in the flash storm.

Tying down the yurt in the flash storm.

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From this area westwards, after our detour to the Silk Road caravanserai at Tash Rabat, we had a long and lonely journey across the heart of the country to Arslanbob.

Into the mountains...but not before we blew a tyre right here.

Into the mountains…but not before we blew a tyre right here.

From Naryn, the road dives deep into rugged mountains, headed towards the remote and lonely town of Kazarman. We had a flat tyre before we even reached the mountains, and the driver and I cussed and grunted our way to replacing it. After a long, grinding day we arrived in Kazarman and found a neat guesthouse with slanting ceilings run by a gruff but welcoming old lady. The weather held off the whole day long, so we took the last light and walked uphill through town to the bizarre and dusty cemetery on the plateau above the settlement. Here decrepit but elaborate tombs slowly fell apart in the wind.

Kazarman is a small town, and a long way from anywhere.

Kazarman is a small town, and a long way from anywhere.

These friendly little kids offered us some of the apples they'd just gathered.

These friendly little kids offered us some of the apples they’d just gathered.

The cemetery above the village.

The cemetery above the village.

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Some vivacious Italians were at the guesthouse when we returned and we quickly fell in with them. One woman was at the end of her rope with the Kyrgyzstan diet of potatoes, pasta and bread all in the one bowl. Speaking English for the benefit of their Belgian friend, the Italian man made fun: “Oh, you are really Talibanic about this, eh?” A useful term. We agreed we’d all go together tomorrow in their excellent four wheel drive minibus, and thank heavens, because the next day’s route was hair raising in places. A wet, muddy mountain trail, shored up in places by doubtfully engineered wooden beams, somehow maintained enough strength to hold up the vehicle and prevent us tumbling to our deaths down the steep valley sides. Finally, when we cleared the second of two passes, the sun came out. We said our farewells at Jalal-abad and found a ride to Arslanbob.

Horses outside in the rain seemed much more suited to the terrain than our 4wd minibus, as good as it was.

Horses outside in the rain seemed much more suited to the terrain than our 4wd minibus, as good as it was.

After the passes, the sun came out again and lit up the glorious landscape.

After the passes, the sun came out again and lit up the glorious landscape. From here it was not far to Jalal-abad and beyond