Shepherd’s Way Trekking in Kyrgyzstan

The far east has a lot of appeal – it’s the orient, the exotic, far away lands, the famous Silk Road, weird but delicious food, colourful décor, nomads, and also horses. I went to Mongolia last year for a horse trip, and found out the same was possible in Kyrgyzstan, but in totally different landscape. I had known the Gobi desert, and now I was going to the Alps of central Asia.

riding in Kyrgyzstan

I’ve always wanted to go to Kazakhstan, and the visa was just as difficult to get as Russia’s visa, except I knew no one in Kazakhstan to invite me. But, since Expo 2017 got scheduled in Astana, Kazakhstan changed the visa requirements and I was able to get one on arrival. Flying into Almaty, only a few hours drive from Bishkek, is a more common, cheaper route from Istanbul or Moscow, the two main hubs connecting Central Asia/former Soviet countries to Europe. I flew with Pegasus airlines, for very cheap, considering the distance, and carried on my luggage. I splurged another 15 euros upgrade to spend my layover time in the lounge at Istanbul airport, and drank enough Starbucks coffees, Effees and feta cheese  to well make up for it.

swimming in Issyk Kul

I was riding with a friend from France, Alicia who came on a tour with me in Iceland. We would only be two guests, but with 3 guides, and spend 10 days in and around Barskoon village on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul. We climbed up to 3900 meters, where the landscape looked just like the highlands of Iceland, except where we have frost at night and snow topped mountains all year round is between 600-900 meters.

camp at 3900m

We only had one horse each, and split all our camping gear, luggage and food in big saddle bags that each of us carried. We cooked on some old Soviet-time portable stove that ran on gasoline, and always had a hot breakfast and freshly cooked dinner. Our lunches were half-way stops, picnics full of biscuits, jams, wood-oven cooked bread, nuts and dried fruits. Although we had enough to eat, you always felt hungry – it was a combination of all the fresh air, hot days, cold nights, and perhaps the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes.

picnic time

We rode through valleys, pine forests, and even up to a glacier, and my favourite day was the Jukku Pass, a track even I became a little afraid of heights. We saw two rock slides, not so far from us, and both ended only a few metres from the road. Our guide figured we’d hear one coming before it was too late so we just carried on along the same treacherous road.

camping and trekking the shepherd’s way

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind horse trip to add to your bucket list, definitely look up Shepherds Way Trekking, and they’ll custom tailor a trip for only 2 people. If you’re not a big horse person, they also have hiking treks, and you’ll still feel like a shepherd after all the other free-roaming shepherds, goats, sheep, cows and horses you’ll meet along the way.

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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.