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.

Its nice to be home

Beautiful Dalvik, in Eyjafjordur

I´m back in Iceland, as it turns out, year after year, this at least stays the same. Iceland is wonderful for Christmas and New Years, but otherwise, May to September, what some could call spring, summer and fall, (or rather, ´not-winter´), are wonderful months, where I always feel like I’m at home. The smell of fresh, clean air and drinking ice cold water out of the tap that tastes like nothing are always two of my favourite things to do the moment I land. Within a few hours after that, I’ve found some natural hot pot or public swimming pool with steaming water to soak my tired bones.

Grettislaug, in Skagafjordur

No return home would be complete without a drunken party with my old Norse friends, a roadtrip to some remote, northern part of Iceland, visiting my horses, and pretending to be young and hip down Laugavegur downtown. In two weeks, Ive checked all of those boxes (some twice), but the horse situation is getting complicated and being ´home´, which is now my dad´s house, has been a little lonely.

Into the Glacier!

But, staying in the same place for more than 2 nights in a row is quite the anomaly anyway, so I’ve already spent half my time traveling around Iceland with friends. A friend of New York was in town and we went north to Skagafjordur. My best friend wanted to celebrate his birthday in one of Icelands boutique countryside hotels in Husafell so we did that, just after visiting Langjokull glacier with a Venezuelan photographer friend. I had a crazy horse in the north I had to ´deal´with (don´t worry, he´s still alive), and two horses I tried to ride home from Borgafjordur. We got more than half way, but then it started to get cold again and dad had to go to the hospital.

my Icelandic father, brother, and nephew

Now my horses are home, but not dad, but both my sisters will be visiting soon. Its weird to feel so much at home and be the only one at home (dads house is kind of out in the countryside of Reykjavik), and even weirder to have all this free time where I’m not traveling or moving or planning anything.

my horses at home

Needless to say, Ive gotten some rest and expanded my livelihood beyond the limits of my backpack, but of course theres already another trip in the works. Before my horse riding guiding season in Iceland starts, I figure I´ll have to get get my butt in saddle shape somewhere before. Anyone else want to come to Kyrgyzstan in June?

fun with Steve in Haugsnes

Mayotte and the Comoros

I´m still so confused as to how I got to France in the middle of the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Madagascar and Mozambique, but not quite the Comoros. Because of some referendum, Mayotte became a part of France in 2011, and thus a part of the EU, but remains the poorest part of France and the outermost region of the EU. There is a large influx of ex-patriots and metropolitans from France, but the local people identify as Maore, speak a language similar to other Comorian dialects, and are almost 100% Muslim. There is a history of Arab invasion and Malagasy pillaging, and the mix of African and Asian features under their colourful clothes takes you worlds away from anywhere European.

Moya beach

I couchsurfed in Mayotte and two of the Comorian islands – Anjouan and Grand Comore. There were only one or two active couchsurfers in each place, and somehow my dates were perfect, but little travel information or tourism appeal made me totally underbudget my time on these islands. I thought 3 days would be enough, on islands only a few hundred square kilometers. But, despite having small populations, centered mostly on villages around the coast, there was endless ecotourism possibilities – volcano and crater lake hikes, beaches only reachable by pirogue, mountain peaks to summit thru the jungle, and wildlife viewing on the way to boot.

on the top of Mont Choungui

In Mayotte, I visited the Dziani Crater lake, walked around it, and dropped down to the Moya beaches (theres Moya beach 1, 2 nd 3 I think) on Petite Terre. In flipflops I summited the second largest peak in Mayotte, Mont Choungui, 594m. The French guy who I was hiking with did the same, but one of his flipflops broke on the way down, which actually proved its easiest to do it barefoot, slowly. The beaches aren´t that beautiful around Mayotte, but Sakouli beach is a black-sand beach with an inviting beach bar under a huge baobab tree.

Mutamudu from the citadel

In Anjouan, the capital city Mutsamudu has a quaint bazaar/central market and an old medina with a few salvaged mosques and old hand-carved, wooden doors. The citadel, who´s walls overlooking the city double as some sort of public toilet, has a beautiful view over the city and port, and consequently the garbage dump that piles up beside it, always in a steady, smoky, burn. I spent one day hiking to a sacred lake near Dindri, which lay somewhere on the edge between mountains and valleys, and earth and sky.

wooden hand-carving, especially doors, is one of the Comoros´ oldest trades

Domoni was slightly smaller and cleaner, with a medina winding around beside the sea, between 4 mosque towers. Anjouan also has its own Moya beach, with one hotel and restaurant on the cliffs behind the yellow-sand beach where you can pre-order a lobster lunch or dinner overlooking the sea. Just be prepared to be the only one there, unless you brought some friends.

In Grand Comore, I couchsurfed with and Indian guy, who was born in Madagascar, raised in the Comoros, educated in Paris, and then somehow spoke Swahili but I think he never lived in Tanzania… but I’m not sure. He thought French cheek to cheek kiss greetings were disgusting and probably had a mild case of germophobia, but he was one of the most hospitable couchsurf hosts I´ve ever had.

trying to rent a boat in Chindini

With a group of his friends, we piled on to the back of his flatbed truck and drove to the southern tip of the island. There, we rented a boat and a driver, put his engine on it, along with some fish and beer, and drove out to an isolated beach which we were promised to have all to ourselves. When two other people showed up from nowhere (landside), we just laughed and carried on acting as if we were castaways in an episode of Survivor.

the man and his zebu

On Grand Comore, there were beautiful beaches, and a lot of hiking that I missed out on. I did visit one crater and hiked around the brim, but only made it half way when I met a crazy farmer who must have been in love with his bull zebu. He kept stroking it and smiling at us when he spoke about him, and then showed us how to arouse a Zebu erection. I wished I had stayed the whole 10 days just in Grand Comore, especially since the supposed 3 hour ferries between islands actually take 12 with delays and waits (don’t trust a word the SGTM Ferry says and give yourself lots of time to travel with them!).

Ciao Nosy Be

I´ve seen direct flights advertised to Nosy Be from Europe and never known where it was. I assumed it was an Italian island. But actually, its a Malagasy island, just off the coast of Madagascar, full of Italian tourists. It was strange to leave the mainland, where I was always approached in French except for the occasional person who spoke English or mistook me for a local, and arrive to an island where all the locals greeted me with ´Ciao bella!´ The first hotel we stayed at, Sambatra Bed and Breakfast, was even run by an Italian woman who seemed surprised, even a little insulted, that we weren´t Italian guests. We only stayed there because it was across the strait from an even tinier island, Nosy Sakatia.

Sunset from Sakatia Lodge

At Nosy Sakatia, you can snorkel out at high tide, or walk out for a kilometer and then snorkel at low tide, and swim with turtles larger than you. I found two, three, even four at a time, and as I floated above them and waited for them to surface right beside me for water, I tried to measure their width and length with my outstretched arms, and sometimes, I couldn’t even reach as wide as their front legs. If you stay at Sakatia Lodge, there´s also unlimited use sea-kayaks and a dive shop with a couple of dive masters who can take you out for night dives with black lights – you´ve never seen the corals and fishes glow so colourfully.

the first guests at TanaLahy bungalow

Nosy Be is famous for the production of Ylang Ylang, a flower made famous by Chanel no. 5. Even the tree smells beautifully, and a few milliliters of ylang ylang oil can set you back €50. I thought the island would be overrun by tourists, but the beautiful beaches, just like the hotels, were everywhere, but nicely spread out. If you want total peace and isolation, go to the north, and look for a place called TanaLahy lodge in North Amporaha/Belamandy bay. Its just a single bungalow, where all the walls open as shutter windows and the whole front of the bungalow is a glass sliding door, on your own private piece of beach. Two beach loungers, two beach chairs, a picnic table and a separate kitchen and bathroom are all yours… one could easily live there for a month just to get away from it all. The road is only a dozen kilometers way from the main ring road, but its more of a dirt road track where you never know if or when the next pick up comes for public transport. But a bld rickshaw driver will get you there and back, for just a few euros.

Ile St. Marie and Ile aux Nattes

The first time I went to Madagascar, I only visited the mainland, and only a small part of the south at that. This time around, I wanted islands, and paradise can easily be found in the Malagasy Islands.

the mainland was great for National Parks, like this one, Ankarana

Antananrivo, the capital, is basically in the middle of Madagascar. The road that goes to the east coast is okay until Tamatave, or Toamasina, Madagascars second biggest city. But from there north, the kilometres pass by a lot slower, and the road slowly ends just after the port for Ile St. Marie where the first unbridged river crossing makes travel further north a bit more complicated. You can take a ferry only once or twice a day out to Ile St Marie, if the weather allows, from Soanierana-Ivongo. They say it takes 1 hr and 15 mins, but by the time the ferry is loaded and departs an hour late, the trip takes 2-3 hours.

leaving behind the filth of Tana’s city

Setting foot on Ile St Marie is like arriving to a new world. The filth and clutter or Tamatave seem countries away, and the roads on the island are paved and sealed (for the most part). Tamatave’s rickety cycle carriages are replaced by brand spanking new rickshaws, and tourists wander between the hotels, restaurants and bars. You can travel to the south extreme of the island and take a pirogue taxi to Ile aux Nattes, a place that made even Ile St Marie seem crowded.

freshly caught, grilled fish for lunch with a three horse beer on the Ile aux Nattes pirogue beach

There are no roads or cars on Ile aux Nattes, but the occasional scooter gets shipped over on a very narrow, unstable canoe once in a while. The trail through the island can be done in under an hour, and at the end of the road is the very charming Hotel Les Lemuriens, which actually has 2 resident black-and-white ruffed lemurs.

The best place to stay was Chez Sica, a beachside heaven where you can rent a private bungalow for less than €10 a night. The bar is always missing its bartender, and one cook shows up for breakfast, and another can be ordered for lunch or dinner. But surviving on avocados and Three Horse Beer usually worked fine throughout the heat of the day, and we always found a kitchen open for fresh grilled fish and sautéed vegetables in the evening.

Chez Sica

If you ever go there, try to spend all your time on Ile aux Nattes, since you can hotel hop for a whole week. If you do want to stay on Ile St. Marie, try the Libertalia, which has an infinity pool and a dock out to a little island where the snorkeling is excellent. Watch the sunset form L’Idylle beach restaurant with a cocktail, and eat steak at Chez Nath’s, who also has a dock out to the seat that’s excellent for sundowners. But don’t rent a scooter; within the first 5 minutes of arriving I witnessed another fatal accident where our rickshaw drove around a mangled scooter and bloody corpse. This is still Africa.