An extract from… Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey
In his new book, Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey, Nick Rowan chronicles an extraordinary adventure that led him from Venice through Eastern Europe, still recovering from brutal warfare; on to Turkey, the gateway to Asia, and muchmisunderstood Iran; across the exotic steppes of Central Asia, emerging from Soviet domination; and finally into a rapidly developing yet still mysterious China. Containing colourful stories and characters, wrapped in the local myths and legends told by the people who live along the route today, this is both an entertaining travelogue and inspiring introduction to a part of the world that has largely remained hidden from Western eyes for hundreds of years.
In the third of a series of short extracts from the book, Open Central Asia follows Nick into the “Switzerland of Central Asia”, Kyrgyzstan. In this extract Nick travels by horse to the Tash Rabat Caravanserai, near the Chinese border, with fellow Silk Road traveller, a German named Tom, who he met in Bishkek.
A wise man isn’t he who has lived the most, but he who has travelled the most.
– Kyrgyz nomadic saying
It was mid-morning by the time we arrived at Kazybek village, but there was no sign of our horses, let alone a guide. This was one of the last settlements before the Chinese border, and if At Bashy had been deceptively lifeless, this village seemed positively abandoned. The mudbrick buildings with their enclosed courtyards and corrugated tin roofs stood still. Through broken fences I could see hay piles in the corner and clothes hanging on sagging lines. It looked like life still existed, but nothing stirred.
Tursan sent her husband to investigate while we were left stranded just east of the village, wondering how long it would take. Tursan kept smiling, tamely assuring us that all would be well. In the distance, a convoy of Chinese trucks heaved their goods slowly up the narrow passes as they traversed the Tien Shan Mountains. Laden with cheap Chinese goods and heading west, they were spurred on by plumes of black smoke billowing out of the exhaust.
Finally, three horses appeared over the horizon, raising our spirits. We exchanged our spluttering Mercedes for horseback, and once in the sheepskin saddle we waved goodbye to Tursan and her long-suffering husband. We already knew it was going to be a long day. Our guide was 22-year-old Norsultan, and we named our horses Pomme and Fritz for lack of anything more imaginative.
Tom and I were two city slickers who, having ridden horses only once before, were heading off on a far-tooadventurous trek. Tom confided in me that the last time he sat on a horse he was ten years old. Nonetheless, he told Norsultan that he was more than a novice, but our guide looked far from convinced. Fortunately our horses were responsive to novice riders. Tom and I spent most of the time amusing ourselves by riding up to each other’s horse andwhipping it, which would send it off into a frenzied gallop. The only problem with this technique was that after a while, my horse learned that whenever he saw Fritz behind, he should gallop off—which he subsequently did without anycommand at all.
The first stage of our journey was to traverse a flat, fertile, open plain that was surrounded on either side by quilted green mountains. Our destination, the isolated Tash Rabat caravanserai, was some forty kilometres away and at three and-a-half-thousand-metres of altitude. As we started out, the sun beat down unceasingly. I prayed for a little cloud, but the sky remained a solid blue ahead. The only clouds were behind us, casting a dark shadow on the mountainside.
For the first few hours the scenery changed very little. We trotted on but never seemed to get any closer as the plain continued to unroll before us. Yaks, sheep and cows grazed as we rode along, unperturbed by our presence. In the distance, nomadic yurts dotted the landscape, as did crumbling buildings that were possibly Silk Road relics of outposts, forts and caravanserais.
After four hours, with my back and thighs aching, I was ready to stop for lunch as we approached a small stream cutting through the grass, its hypnotic murmur of flowing water making for an alluring place to rest. As I dismounted I could hardly move and almost collapsed to the ground. Unmoved by my immobility, Norsultan got on with preparing a simple lunch of Kyrgyz flatbread with cheese and sausage. We’d barely tucked into the food when a man dressed in dirty overalls, sporting a cowboy hat, and carrying a spade over one shoulder, walked over to us. He introduced himself as Narynbeck, and we invited him to join us for lunch. Lunch turned out to be a jolly affair, and my limited Russian went a long way. In fact, we ended up with an invitation to stay the night and have a lamb slaughtered in our honour. We spared the lamb, instead taking up the offer to be proudly introduced to Narynbeck’s family and inspect his lodgings.
Narynbeck was a proud man who had set up his family in the traditional farming way. He was hardly thirty years old but his leathery skin made him look older and a few grey hairs had started to appear in thin streaks across his head. Like many of the villagers in the region, he was a semi-nomadic farmer. In winter he and his flock stayed in the comfort and warmth of their village home. But for five months of the year, the whole family and their
animals migrated to the summer jailoos and lived in a traditional Kyrgyz felt-covered yurt.
Our newfound friend gave us a tour of his animals and introduced us to his wife and two daughters. Slightly embarrassingly, his apple-cheeked wife was finishing the bath of his youngest daughter, but seemed totally happy for us to glimpse the most basic of daily rituals. We sat around the central stove that was heating a pot of water, and spent the afternoon drinking endless cups of kymyz. We chatted, joked, made fools of ourselves, and laughed.
‘Does the city ever tempt you?’ I asked, wondering whether he had ever considered a different life.
‘What is there in the city for someone like me?’ he replied. ‘Nothing. I am not a teacher or an accountant. I cannot be a shopkeeper. I am a farmer. This is my place in life.’
‘And your children? Will they follow you?’
‘I don’t know. Things are changing so fast here. But, maybe they will,’ he said thoughtfully as he slurped another cupful.
An hour later, Narynbeck reluctantly let us leave and return to our grazing horses.
Soon after we left, the landscape changed dramatically and became claustrophobic. The flat plain gave way to narrow, winding valleys between pointed mountains with the last of the winter snow still resting on their peaks. Each time we surmounted one of the smaller peaks, we landed in the gravel tracks of the next. We trundled on, crossing a dry riverbed with its ashen banks before starting to climb into one of the valleys. There was little commotion from nature save a few hawks that whirred, hunter-like, around us.
Around teatime we were chased down by a lone man dressed in a worn grey suit and wearing a traditional Kyrgyz white felt hat. He’d spotted us and insisted we take tea in his yurt. We were probably the only people to have passed his patch that day, and any company at all was likely welcome relief to the monotony of pasture life. This was great for us as well, for the riding was proving to be a gruelling experience. The tea turned out to be
more milky kymyz, but we gratefully accepted. His daughter, prepared some bread and jam to satiate our hunger.
‘Drink up, drink up,’ the man encouraged us, the wrinkles on his face deepening in disappointment with how slowly we were consuming his brew. Tom’s stomach was churning from the earlier rounds and he could not drink any more. Soon after he passed out from exhaustion on the yurt’s soft floor.
‘I’m full,’ I tried to explain, but to no avail.
‘Now we must toast,’ came the call, as my cup was re-filled. ‘To the President!’
Norsultan and I held our cups aloft and then drank, smacking our lips in appreciation as we finished.
‘Your turn,’ came the order.
‘To family and friends!’ I proffered, and we drank. We then proceeded to name each family member and drink to their health in a ceremony that lasted nearly two hours. Each time a new round of toasts began, a feeling akin to despair overcame me as I realised that I would have to consume yet another cup of kymyz before we could be on our way again and reach our destination. My stomach was getting worse with every drink. I could not complain, however; it was easy to become lulled by the hospitality and forget that life on the pastures was difficult. Our host had been most welcoming and jovial, and I only hoped I was not enjoying something that he could not afford.
It was getting late and we neededto move on in order to reach Tash Rabat before dark. The last part of the journey seemed to take an age as we wound our way through the narrow valley. The horses were tired and no longer had a spring in their step. Adding to our sense of urgency, the weather was closing in and it was clear that a storm was brewing. It gradually became darker as we wound our way along a narrowing path and through a ghostly causeway. It was almost nightfall and getting cold when we rounded the corner to see the stone fortress of Tash Rabat. Soon after, a small cluster of white yurts came into view, a faint amber light shining like a beacon in the hills—showing signs of life against the jet-black sky.
The Soviet-renovated stone caravanserai, which some claim has stood since the 10th century a.d., was an impressive and welcome sight. It is supposedly one of the few medieval stone buildings in Central Asia. We’d arrived, exhausted but relieved. Sadly, the caravanserai no longer accommodated travellers, so we stayed at one of the yurts run by a local family headed by a short, weather-beaten man named Obyrbeck. They had not been expecting us, but with a little commotion they installed us in one of the yurts, started the stove’s fire, and brought a warming vegetable soup with pieces of meat for supper. A small wicker lantern, flickering against the yurt’s wooden frame, gave the only light. We slept on the floor on thick mattress-like blankets and went straight to sleep.