Horse Culture in Kyrgyzstan

I’ve learned a lot about horses after trekking in Kyrgyzstan. In this country, covered 94% by mountains, a semi-nomadic people still maintain a co-dependent relationship with their horses. They use them to travel, they use them for sport and games, they work them as shepherds, they drink their milk, and also eat their meat.

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a herd of mares and foals drınkıng

Around central Asia, they play a type of team sport on horseback called Buzkashi that slightly resembles polo, except the ball is a goat, who starts out alive and usually ends up less living by the end. There’s also a game where a boy and girl on horseback compete, where the boys goal is to kiss the girl, and meanwhile the gırl can run away and beat him with a whip. The girl wins if he doesn’t manage to kiss her, although I wonder why the girls even bother to play – of not to get a kiss, then just to hit the poor boys.

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our brave mounts for the trek

The Kyrgyz horse resembles the Mongolian breed, a small but tough, colorful assortment of hard working horses. During Soviet rule, the Russians tried to prove the Russian horse was better, proving it to be stronger and faster in races, and then interbreeding them with the Kyrgyz horse. Today you have few purebreds and a lot of mixed blood, and both are incredibly adapted to the terrain – they define ‘mountain horse’ to a whole new level.

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climbimg up and down these passes was no problem for the horses, even wıth us and all the luggage on theır backs

Horses are often named after their colour or owner – a fun tradition also common in Iceland. Female horses used to be ridden only by females, but today mostly only geldings and stallions are ridden. The mares are used for milk, or ‘kumis’, and to produce hillsides full of fluffy foals each spring.

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riding through canyons and gorges in 35 degree heat

A horses age is not counted the first three years. First they are ‘tayi’, in the second year they are ‘kunan’, and their third year is called ‘Byshty’, which means ‘ready’. Then a 1 or 2 year old, which is actually 4 or 5 years old, is trained and used as a riding horse. Most boys are given a horse at birth, a new born foal they get to grow up with. This forms a lifelong partnership between a man and his horse, something too beautiful to describe but you know it when you see it.

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thıs 8 year old shepherd still can’t reach the stirrups, but his German Shepherd and his stalliıon don’t care how little their boss is

The stallions are ridden with other stallions and geldings without much fuss, and free roaming mare and foal herds are naturally protected by one stallion. I wonder what happens when herds meet… But I didn’t see any fighting or injured stallions.

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Kazakhstan, nice to meet you

The first president’s park

I had a red-eye from Istanbul to Almaty, with the budget airline Pegasus who’s seats don’t recline and you don’t get fed in 5 hours, so I arrived a grumpy and slightly disoriented Katrin at sunrise, 4:50am Friday. After getting thru customs and finding some tourist info, I realized all the country was abuzz for Expo 2017. Public buses start at 5:30am so I slowly made my way into the city center. I don’t know why, but I was a little apprehensive about traveling alone there, a place seemingly so big but yet a huge question mark.

The President’s Palace

You can’t get your bearings that easily once you’ve arrived either. The faces are a mix of North and East, the language mostly Russian, the religion largely Muslim, and the streets and buildings a showy blend of big, efficient Soviet/communist architecture and Las Vegas wannabe. Shiny, glass towers and Dubai-like malls pop up between the concrete grey, and all the boulevards and blocks are twice too big. The cars are sometimes right-hand drive, even though the roads are too, and everyone has a brand new smart phone and is addicted to Instagram and selfies more than Chinese tourists are addicted to selfie sticks. There’s a significant minority of Koreans and Turkish residents, which also made race and language identification tricky. I barely heard Kazakh, and even ethnic Kazakhs sometimes speak only Russian, but only my couchsurf host and a few of her friends spared me with English.

My Kazakh friends

I saw faces which resembled ancient Mongol warriors, but with milky white skin and mouse grey hair. The city of Almaty was spread out below snow-topped mountains whose peaks make even the Alps and Rockies look small. The lush green-ness, even in the city center, slapped summer straight in your face, and a humid 30•c have warm tingly feelies to my barefeet toes.

Portraits by @ninachikova

The nightlife was slightly international but anonymous at the same time. I went to a whiskey bar that made Scottish choices seem limited, and a nightclub sigh exactly the same top40 as New York. I was randomly approached by two separate photographers to take my portrait, just because.

Kok-Tobe

I went on a roadtrip to two places out of the city, and it didn’t take long to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere. Only 25km away from the city center is Big Almaty Lake, a reservoir for the city’s drinking water nestled between white mountain peaks. I lucked out to be there at the same time a traditional Kazakh dance video was being made, and tried to photobomb it, just a little.

Big Almaty Lake

Me and my couchsurf host, her son, and a friend with his girlfriend took me to Lake Kapchigai, and nearby Ile river to picnic and swim. It involved an endless, open road, thru a semi-arid steppe where we only ran into horses and livestock, and one turtle crossing the road. We saw some petroglyphs of Buddah from some long-ago Silk Road traveling Buddhists, and marijuana weeds growing wild were just starting to bud. I didn’t try it, but I did have a horse pizza – not quite as exotic for an Icelander, but the local Kazakhs where thrilled I wasn’t offended or grossed out by horse meat, and even more surprised that it was also done in Iceland.

This river starts in China

I left Kazakhstan by road to Bishkek, a comfortable (and incredibly cheap – €5) 3.5hr drive away. The only stops were for a wooden squat toilet and to get gas, and this ‘Royal Petrol’ station whose service area and parking lot covered a plot the size of an American super Wal-Mart, but with only 6 pumps. I guess when you have so much space, why not be a little excessive.

Stopover Berlin

Traveling from Reykjavik to Bishkek isn’t so common, but you can get there in a pretty straight line as long as you have enough time for stopovers. I spent less than 24 hours in Berling but managed to visit two Icelandic horse fanatics (both Germans who I met on tour in Iceland) and their extensions (boyfriend, father, child, mother, horse). I got to ride a pony and a big horse, and I have to admit I missed the tolt a little.

Riding with Jana

I drank some German beer and ate a bratwurst, as well as some amazing Indian food, and the highlight of my trip was an interview at Fritz Radio in Potsdam. Here’s a link to it (it’s in German and English), you’ll find my name under interviews.

https://www.fritz.de/sehen-und-hoeren/audios/fritzaktuell/fritzaktuell-feed.html

Next stopover is Istanbul, but only a few hours in the airport, and then a weekend in Almaty, Kazakhstan.