A word or two on yurts

I am part of a tour group. Keep breathing steadily, Hayden. No need to bolt and run just yet. Yes indeed. The four of us talked to an organiser guy, figured out the details, discussed the prices, and trekked up to this yurt on horseback. We stay probably three days.

I am not sure that this means I am ready to give up independent travel entirely and tour only in large groups in bad clothes with a camera and a voice a few decibels too loud. But you never know. It could be the beginning of the end. Watch this space.

Of course, my fear was the same as everyone’s. Please don’t let this be a yurt tourism experience that descends into tourist-feeding crapola, with the photogenic locals performing a variety of ‘authentic’ Kyrgyz daily chores to smiles and shutter snaps of satisfaction from the packed grandstand.

But in fact, nothing could be closer to real life than this. Certainly they could not have organised a more authentic or more irritating madly barking dog if they had tried (probably just saying ‘let me off this short leash that you tie me to 24 hours a day’, but still).

Just like my life back home, every day is slightly different but mostly the same. Let the sheep and goats out of the pen near the yurt to go graze somewhere where the grass is better. Move the horses over this side of the river if they are needed today. Eat breakfast (prepare it first if you are the cook).

Then comes work. It was shearing time when we were there, so hold a few sheep back for that each day. Tie them up with a string around their neck to a long line secured to the ground. Shear one at a time with long hand scissors. Then set them off to join their fellows in bleating and eating in the sun.

Eventually comes lunch. Then a long afternoon of normal farm duties. More shearing, maintenance, checking out the state of the pastures, hunting, weaning the horses. Play with your kids too, or at least make sure they don’t get into too much mischief. Especially (so we discovered) don’t let them play in the river (wet feet could lead to a deadly cold, so they say).

With approaching dusk the sheep and goats return (mostly by themselves, although they might need some encouragement from the dog to get back in their pen). Then it is time to milk the horses (use a foal to get the milk flowing), prepare dinner, bring things inside, move the horses back over the river (hobble them if necessary), close up the yurt against the cold, and take one last look at the beautiful valley bathed in the last rays of the sun.

My description of a yurt is totally inadequate. Go there and see for yourself. It is not so big. Fortunate that there are no more than four of us really. Round. Felt covers the outside, wrapped around a circular skeleton of wood, with carpets keeping us one layer off the ground. The felt covering keeps the inside warmer and protects against both wind and rain. A door of wood. With a carpet cover hanging outside it to stop drafts.
Inside there is a table that mostly stands in the middle of the room for meals, surrounded on four sides by thick, brightly decorated felt (wool) carpets that you sit on. Or lie on. Depending on how upright you feel. Opposite the door is a big pile of quilts for making chairs and beds, and the roof has a big hole in the top for light and air, which is closed off at night. Around the walls are ranged our bags, in varying states of tidiness and bunches of other useful domestic things.

When it is time to sleep the table is put to one side (in both senses) and the quilts arranged into a sensible and ordered (when they did it) or an insensible and chaotic (when we did it) semblance of a bedroom. Hope you like hard beds.

The family is accommodated for the duration of our stay (comfortably?) in the tent next door, which is also kitchen, laundry and everything else. The toilet is anywhere: just as the other animals do – see how close to nature you get in Kyrgyzstan :-) The topography makes it easy to find somewhere private.

This yurt is four hours up a river valley. The dulcet tones of running water are your constant companion. The accommodation does not feel permanent (because of course it is not) – a narrow, gently rising slope covered with rocks, lodged between high mountains going straight up on one side and more gradually up the other. Views down to the plain below (whence we came) are blocked by the valley walls. All around are animals. Horses, goats, sheep, dogs, whistling marmots (did you know that marmots whistle to each other to warn of danger – like approaching humans?), even ibex, rabbit and wolf. Although you see more of the sheep, goats and horses than you do of anything else.

Our day trek took us much further up the valley – to within sight of the mountains at the top – to a much more luxuriant meadow. They will come up here with another yurt soon, following the grass and the retreat of the snow.

The family is a 25 year old woman, her husband and their two beautiful children (a boy, 4, who is quiet and a little timid, and a girl, 3, who is outgoing, friendly and curious), his brother, and various others. The population oscillates depending on who comes up the hill; we are 4 hours from the nearest town.

With new people comes fresh bread, and the diet is simple but hearty bread, cream, tea, sugar, rice, meat, and potatoes. Expect plenty of fat and few vegetables.

Expect some genuine Kyrgyz culture too. During meals our cook (the woman – note five years younger than me, and she seems already older) sits beside us making sure our teacups and plates are full until we assure her that we are done and she can go. A little eerie in a way to have such a servant. I am always pleased when she is freed to go off and tend to whatever urgent task she has been delaying in order to help us.

Prices are very reasonable too (the other worry of the tourist, of course). There is apparently quite stiff competition in the yurt tourism market. Not to say that our hosts can add, because there is significant difficulty figuring out how much we should actually pay, despite the relative simplicity of the sum. And, of course, the least numerically literate of our group is responsible for negotiating from our side. Ah well. Such cross-cultural interchanges are the bread and butter of travelling.

At night (as soon as the sun goes away – there does not appear to be much in the way of dusk) the temperature drops sharply at these altitudes. The stars are incredible, but it is too cold for the star chart. Besides which, after a day of riding, or riding and climbing mountains to see the view, when darkness comes, sleep quickly follows.

Unfortunately we can not go anywhere from this yurt except back the way we came. The winter has been long and spring late and cold. Passes are not living up to their name.

That does not stop us from climbing nearby mountains to check out the view. It is one of those exercises in self-deception, and quite an interesting insight into one’s own personality to climb up to countless ridges, each time expecting this to be the last and having your hopes dashed every time. How many ridges do you climb before you figure a) the view is already good enough from here, b) it is too far too keep walking anyway and so stop for a while or turn around?

I am sure I have said this before but I read once about experiments with uncertainty with chickens. When the button is pecked, a seed appears. Chicken quickly figures this out and pecks endlessly, receiving endless seeds. Change it so the button no longer delivers anything and chicken quickly learns that the button is a waste of time and loses interest. But change it so pecking delivers a seed only some of the time (but randomly) and chicken will keep pecking forever in the hope of getting a seed.

Thus it is with mountain climbing. How much of a chicken are you? We climbed for 3 hours or so, climbing six million ridges, beyond the snow line, and still not getting far enough up to see the way to the top of the mountain. We turned around when it was getting too late. Or did the time just provide an excuse?

Funnily enough, the next day I did not go walking for fear of the same outcome (not that the view was bad from where we got to, but just that it seemed like we were cheated to not get to the top) and after just 2 and a half hours one of travelling companions reached the top of a different ridge and had a magnificent view out back to the town when we came and to Lake Issyk-Kul in the distance. Is he more of a chicken than me? Not sure.

I feel a little lonely at the moment, despite travelling with other people. Alone in a crowd. There is a poem (probably a whole collection) about that. Maybe it is a combination of my sore throat, my upcoming birthday (I have no plans), and my plans for Kazakhstan (where I have very little time but a strange feeling that I should try to go everywhere). A mix of feeling sorry for myself in the now, and living too much in the future perhaps.

The halfway point of my journey is fast approaching. Early July. I will be in Russia. All going according to plan. Well, at least to sketch diagram.