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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.