We didn´t like Jalalabad. Then it snowed and the road to Naryn was closed again. So we retraced our steps and thanks to the wrong bus found ourselves in an amazing little grassy valley near some place called Mali Sye. Two different goat herds found us the following day – as they inevitably do, I´ve found. One later returned with bread and bagfuls of nuts and dried fruit, and at long last I discovered what it is that goat herders do with all that time (main image). He had a more precise back flip for display but this deformed cartwheel made the better shot. The next day´s hitch hiking went without a hitch as we scored ride after ride without having to wait for more than a few minutes. Despite heavy snow over the passes we were back in Bishkek in time for ´bar opening´ in the apartment of our friend Devendra Pal Singh. Dev is an ex Indian Airforce pilot who after retiral set off around Central Asia and Russia in search of the next challenge. He is now a co-ordinator and head teacher of English, Hindi and Sanskrit at the Manas University. His command of the idiosyncracies of English put me to shame on more than one occasion and we have now spent a total of six very entertaining nights with him and his friends. We met Dev through www.couchsurfing.com, a brilliant site that introduces instant contacts, free accommodation and potential friends in foreign countries. If you dislike the hotel perspective of a strange land, as we do, I recommend it.
Ayelen holds the purse strings on this trip, as she does in our life together, and I am extremely happy that she does. It´s not that I´ve ever been a spend thrift. Any non-essential purchase of over a hundred quid has me in throes of agonising indecision; a Scottish thing perhaps but I want my money to be there for doing fun things. I´ve never spent more than 2k on a car for example. But while the pounds stay put the pennies seem to drop away as if through a hole and I´ve never had the patience to try to account for it all. Ayelen is more disciplined where the pennies are concerned so, as the saying goes, the pounds look after themselves. She also, indisputably, gets a better price where any haggling is to be done. So I have willingly handed over those particular reins. But it does mean I am destined to walk over these sodding mountains to get to China on the other side. If my trousers in this relationship didn´t have little pink frilly bits on them we´d be hopping in a taxi and budget be damned. Hitching has been good so far but the next bit is 200+kms over a snow swept pass of over 3500m, then a 12km no-man´s land between the borders – for which you may read mountain peaks – and then another 300kms to Kashgar. It´ll be Baltic cold with precious little traffic but for heavy trucks whose drivers, in my male experience at least, rarely feel like a bit of extra company to break the monotony of their routine. And there´ll be naff all in the way of shelter but for our tent when nobody does pick us up. My God she´s stubborn and sometimes it´s just easier to go with the flow.
Two days pass and the pass draws nearer. The scenery has been gobsmacking, when I haven´t been staring at the ground in front of my feet, weighed down by not just my load but part of hers as well. We´ve had some lifts but there´s been a lot of walking too. It´s looking like tent time again when two shifty looking dudes in a beaten up Audi pick us up and take us some 40kms and before veering off the road suddenly and across an undulating, pie-bald plain of dead grass and snow-filled hollows. Instinctively I check the whereabouts of my puny pocket knife and try to envisage a flurry of martial arts and the valiant saving of the day. But then we arrive at a tiny little house of mud bricks in the lee of a low hill. As ever the mountains rear up in the background and a young man with impossibly ruddy cheeks, as if rouged, is steering the last of a very big flock of sheep and goats into a pen adjoining the house. His name is Lorbek. Then others arrive in another beaten up car with a trailer. While Ayelen goes inside to make friends with Lorbek´s very pretty wife I help the men pick out the ten fattest sheep from the flock. This is done by grabbing a likely, and already fleeing contender by a back leg, manouvering the animal between one´s legs and, once stable, feeling through the wool for the ribs. The men try to teach me the difference between those of one destined for the trailer of doom and one given a reprieve but the grass is sparse at this time of year and miles have to be covered for a nibble. To my mind, none have any meat on them.
The men and doomed sheep leave and Lorbeck fetches his horse. We have to go and round up stragglers he explains, thrusting the reins into my hands and then disappearing inside. I am a bit nervous about riding right now. I haven´t done very much of it, the saddle looks insecure and I am as cold as the ground. I feel as if every bone in my body will simply shatter if I come off but I don´t want him to see the pink frilly bits on my trousers so by the time he comes out in a thick coat I am mounted. As the sun sets we head straight up an adjacent hill, Lorbek at a run, but after an initial trot my steed slows to a begrudging plod and it´s clear I´m going to slow him down. He takes over and lashing left and right with the long reins, his legs splayed out in what looks like a fertility-compromising position, bounces to the top in a few seconds. By the time I get there he is in the middle distance: man, horse and dog working as an ancient team in this astounding place. I feel a pang of envy and it won´t be the last of the evening. When he returns it is with all the cattle and I help him close up for the night. There´s one cow that´s not well and she goes under cover. So too does a ewe with a late season lamb. The horse and donkey get hay and the dog gets the frozen heart of whatever it was that was last slaughtered here.
Lorbeck and Samira, both 24, spend the winter here with their 2 year old son, snug in their mud home of two rooms and a hallway. The windows are glazed with two sheets of thick plastic sheet which works surprisingly well; there´s almost no condensation despite the intense heat given off the home-made dung stove and the view into the breath-fogged sheep pen is clear. On the whitewashed kitchen wall is a gawdy poster of a Beckham-esque style mansion and the contrast could hardly be greater. I nod quizzically towards it and they both laugh, and as the evening progresses it becomes increasingly clear that both are wise enough to know they are better off here. They talk animatedly of the summer decamp to pastures above 3000m where they set up their yurt by a lake. “We have 400 sheep and goats and forty cattle.¨ Says Samira, who studied law in Bishkek for two years before returning to her childhood sweetheart. ¨When we need to buy something we sell a few. When we need meat we kill one. We have friends around and we help one another.¨ After a supper of meat and potatoes in a spicy soup, eaten cross-legged around the low table, Samira lays out thick cotton-stuffed mats for us to sleep on and under and we drop into the sleep of the dead. In the morning they beg us to stay longer and refuse Ayelen´s offer of some money for food and board. We put it on the window sill. They have a lot of livestock but it´s still a tough life and they don´t allow themselves much in the way of luxuries.
By now it´s Saturday. After four hour´s walk uphill not a single truck has passed us and it´s becoming clear the border might be closed at the weekend and we are the only ones not to know about it. We are wishing we´d stayed with our gracious hosts when an old Russian army jeep grinds its way up the twisting road and stops. Two of the three occupants fall out of the passenger side and then embrace and fumigate us in equal measure. They are absolutely twatted. The jeep is full of engine parts and drums of diesel with multiple leaks. The driver is sober and looking wholly cheesed off with everything about his day so far. He maintains a motionless silence at the wheel, staring fixedly through the cracked windscreen as we try to get ourselves and packs in without absorbing too much of the fuel swilling around the floor. Tolkonbek is repetitive when drunk and Kachyr soon turns into an aggressive drunk. Kadyrbek the driver remains mute. When the tarmac ends the jeep becomes airborne at times and I break my neck against the roof. Diesel is slurping out of the drums, Tolkonbek is still repeatedly asking where we are from and Kachyr is pawing Ayelens arm and slurring at us, ¨Money, money, money!¨ But hey, a lift is a lift.
Their destination is 25kms inside a militarised buffer zone, a large wooden building surrounded by ancient snow and earth-moving machinery. These are the men responsible for keeping the passes clear and smooth enough to avoid broken necks. To Ayelen´s relief a woman is there and beckons us in but by her side is another man clutching another bottle of vodka and we want to press on. The road climbs on and on though, we are at almost 3500m, it´s mid afternoon and a very chill wind threatens an ugly night, so we settle for the drunks. After more vodka, astonishingly they all move outside to try to get the only new-ish snowplough working. Within minutes they manage to break the front grill and then decide to remove the perfectly good starter motor when the batteries are clearly flat. Once the only decent bit of kit in their arsenal – a gift from the People of Japan, stickers all over it proclaim – has been thoroughly degraded they retire inside for a drink. I wonder how old the rest of the machinery really is.
When a breakdown team crawls down from the pass towing a depressed looking Russian in his truck, Kachyr, the aggressive drunk hitches a lift back down the mountain and the mood inside our new lodgings lifts immediately. When Tolkonbek falls asleep it actually becomes quite a pleasant evening and the food, as usual, is great. I love the meat and potato variations of Kyrgyzstan. Or maybe I´m just constantly relieved not be served a testicle in tripe. Arslan and his wife Jamilla are grandparents looking after one of their progeny, a three year old girl who latches on to Ayelen immediately. Jamilla initially refuses the endless Vodka shots passed her way, screwing up her face in disgust, but after a while she forgets appearances and gets stuck right in. They show us photos of themselves with children and it´s clear they´ve been in this isolated spot all their married lives. I´d hit the bottle too.
In the morning Kadyrbek drives us and a gearbox to the final Kyrgyz checkpoint and the small hamlet of Torugart. The latter is a row of trailer huts and two of these are operated as a sort of guesthouse by Sarabay – a solidly built man whose head is so vast he reminds me, appropriately enough, of Jabba the Hut – and his wife, whose name I fail to get the first time and whose expression of utter disinterest discourages me from ever asking again. We walk a few hours to the frozen lake of Chatryr Kul and film mountains before returning to meat and potatoes. Trucks have been stacking up against the border post all afternoon and two drivers join us for the meal while outside a ferocious wind sets in for the night. It´s our last in Kyrgyzstan and apparently must be spent in an oven. Stopping just short of physical violence I cannot deter Jabba from loading up the enormous coal burner in our tiny room. We are forced by the heat to join the truckers in their room and watch episode after episode of a Russian mini series until the hero finally and tediously exacts his revenge and our room becomes tolerable.