On a journey across the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, from the capital of Bishkek to the lake of Song Köl, our writer embraces the nomadic lifestyle - along with drop-hole loos and questionable meat.
Ninety three per cent of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains. Masses of sprawling, unspoiled, gloriously green mountains, some so tall their peaks are frosted with ice and camouflaged beneath the clouds. In the taxi en route to Bishkek, the country's capital, I realise I won't have to travel far to catch sight of Kyrgyzstan's prominent mountainscape. As the sun rises over a watermelon-hued horizon, I catch my first glimpse of those celestial peaks.
I first heard of Kyrgyzstan after reading an article in an in-flight magazine. I was intrigued. What was it like to travel in a country so exotic that its name features only consonants and boasts a Scrabble value of 30? As it turns out, it's brilliant. I wanted an adventure, and Kyrgyzstan, with its salty horse meat and proudly nomadic past, hit the spot.
Big city life
Bishkek is a curious city with broad streets, a handful of local bazaars and a very Soviet-looking central square. It is fine, but nothing to stick around for. Like most travellers, I use the capital as a gateway to plan my next steps. After a night in a basic guesthouse, I jump in a hire car and head off.
My first few days are spent getting my bearings. I do a couple of easy hikes to Ala Archa National Park and Kol-Tor lake and, almost daily, find myself caught in a very different kind of traffic jam - one in which sluggish livestock block the roads, utterly unphased by our impatient beeps.
A few days later I find myself in Kochkor - a small, sleepy village at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains. It is here that I spot my first fellow tourist - an American woman in her mid-sixties wearing hiking boots and a Patagonia t-shirt. She has just returned from a three-day horseback ride to Song Köl and is starry-eyed with elation. Located in the northern Naryn Province, the alpine lake of Song Köl lies at an altitude of 3,016m. Its glistening surface is crystal clear. I plan to set off the following day, via the quaint little village of Kyzart.
My guide for the horse trek is 13-year-old Beksultan. He has a face like pudding and a steady, assuring smile. After some initial trepidation - are they really going to let me on the back of this horse? Do I really have a teenager as my guide? Do they know that that mountain is actually pretty steep? - I gather myself and begin the somewhat treacherous ascent.
The journey to Song Köl is just as striking as the lake itself. We ride for hours each day, my bruised behind pressed uncomfortably against the saddle. We are alone in the mountains, Beksultan and I. Every so often we pass a yurt camp, but generally life is slow here in the peaks of Kyrgyzstan. Local shepherds ride horseback in the mid-June sun, while the grunts and groans of disgruntled cattle ricochet into the peaks, swallowed into the surroundings.
Kyrgyzstan has a proudly nomadic heritage. Every year, shepherds spend the summer months tending to their flocks, trotting towards higher pastures and living in yurts along the way. There's something humbling about the nomadic lifestyle. I guess it has got something to do with being able to live off the land, moving with the flow of the seasons and having the skills to be able to provide for yourself.
Three days, two yurts and a mug of fermented goat milk later and we arrive at Song Köl. It's every bit as beautiful as I imagined. The snow-tipped peaks create a dramatic reflection on the lake, which is clear and remarkably still. It's peaceful until a grin appears on Beksultan's face.
"You want to swim?" he asks, pointing at the icy cold lake. I am horrified. Then I remember that I haven't bathed in three days.
Unspoiled and untamed
As we begin the long descent back to Kyzart, frozen and fragile, I speak to Beksultan about his future. His greatest wish is to travel to France and study. He also wants me to add him on Instagram, which I find remarkably ironic as we scale down the rocky cliff face. A gentle reminder that the social media generation knows no boundaries.
I wrap up my trip the only way I know how - with a cold beer on the steps of my dilapidated Bishkek guesthouse. It's been two weeks, and between the horse farts, the drop-hole toilets and the questionable "meat", I've certainly found the adventure I was craving. Kyrgyzstan is a land of intangible beauty, and now it's etched in my memory in a kinetic fusion of scenes. It's a vast alpine meadow, a smattering of stars, shepherd's smile and a child's curious wave.
Hire car: I opted for a hire car as I wanted the freedom to be able to choose the route as I went along. Be aware that you need an international driving license and should be a confident driver - some of the roads are a little sketchy.
Tour guide: Booking a tour guide is one of the easiest (and most expensive) ways of getting around the country. You can book through Community Based Tourism (CBT Kyrgyzstan) or at most hostels and hotels in Bishkek.
Shared taxis: Shared taxis are generally the cheapest option and can be found in most major towns and villages. Be sure to agree the fee in advance.
Fly: If you'd like to save some time, you can fly between Bishkek and Batken, Kerben, Jalal-Abad and Osh.
Where to stay
CBT Kyrgyzstan: Thanks to a well-connected community of homestays across the country, I had a bed to sleep in each night and a basic breakfast almost every morning. If you're looking for luxury, you'll have to look a little further in Kyrgyzstan. Most nights I peed in a drop hole, and showers were few and far between. CBT also provides local guides and a range of high-value tours across the country.
TIP: If your trip takes you to Lake Issyk-Kul, make a stop at Tong. Jurten Camp Almaluu is a beautiful, sustainable yurt camp with cosy, fire-lit yurts and delicious homemade food. It's a stone's throw from the lake and an easy place to mingle with other travellers.
When to go
Kyrgyzstan's climate follows the four seasons. While summer can be scorching hot and reach up to 40°C in the cities, winter is icy cold. Weather changes fast, so it is best to bring layers: even summer can bring subzero temperatures up in the mountains. If you are looking to hike and be outdoors, summer (specifically mid-June
) is the best time to travel.