Dreaming up to Lake Song-Kol. A horseback-riding experience.
We are sitting in a yurt after ascending the steep mountain slopes that are separating us from the famous lake. It is pouring with rain outside and we just made it in time to the family that lives on the very last end of a valley before the steep mountain hill begins. In the family’s yurt it is warm, despite the tent we were having lunch in. We stopped our journey here and now as we are well fed, we are getting terribly tired and relaxed. Our guide Kanat, who was looking after the horses before, already leanes back on the mattress. I am sitting close to the stove with tucked up legs, my fellow traveller is already half-asleep. I am listening to the sound coming from the centrifuge separating milk from cream. The family´s girl is impassively moving the handle which drives the machine, pouring some fresh milk in the funnel occasionally. I watch the milk coming out of one pipe and the thick, yellow cream dropping from another into a tiny bucket. Watching it, it feels like an allegory for the time that seems to dripple down like this cream from a pipe, falling down, building a little pile on the surface before dissolving.
I feel like I must fall asleep immediately here in the yurt, hearing the steady sound of the centrifuge and the waves of rain falling on the roof, driven by the wind. A dream would rise up in my mind, and take me on to the journey to the blue lake:
We get on the horses as soon as the rain has stopped, leaving only white fog wrapping the mountains tops. We directly start to climb a steep grassy slope and, although I am sitting on a strong, dark anthracite stallion, I am falling back a bit from the other two. It doesn´t bother me being behind, it gives me time to perceive the mountainous environment. I am guarded by the two dogs that followed us from the village. They are casually chasing Marmots with the astonishing success rate of zero hits. They are way to slow for the little fellas watching the mountain slopes closely, warning each other with loud whistles. I realize that my horse, although we already become friends (at least I imagine that we did) is not at all willing to climb up the hill straight. After it stopped several times I give way to a slower but steady zigzag up the green hill. On top the others are already waiting for me, the eyes turned to the other side, overlooking the Jumgal Valley. It is bordered by greenish and brownish hills that resemble dunes in a desert and watched by higher, rougher mountains covered in snow and ice. We resume the ride, going straight into the fog that is covering the Tuz Asuu-Pass. All of a sudden it gets absolutely quiet. Have we been hearing birds and cows, a song played on the phone of our guide, sheep and marmots before, now there is nothing to be heard anymore. The fog absorbs the sounds making the whole scenery appear even more unreal. Did I fall asleep in the yurt below us or am I riding along this pass in real life? Is it just the centrifuge that stopped and evoked the feeling of noiselessness in my dream?
I let myself falling back a bit and listen to the numbness. Only the clopping of the hoofs of my strong dark horse is hearable, accompanied by the slight panting of the dogs surrounding me. I like these two, the one is beautiful, husky-like looking and quick, the other one more like a stray dog, missing a part of its tail and having a fumbling attitude, especially towards my horse. Up here in the greyish white nothingness of the fog I am not realizing the steep cliff on my left falling down some hundred meters. It is all just white, and we pass by even whiter bits of snow remaining from the winter. It follows the pass with a blue sign installed that shows the altitude: 3400m above sea level. Our guide climbs down his horse, a beautiful brown one with a white dot on its nose and hides a big bottle of Kymyz, the fermented mare’s milk under a pile of rocks. We will enjoy it on our way back and the rest will be brought to the village.
Then, not having spoken a word in the mysterious scenery of the fog we begin the descend towards the direction where, according to Kanat, the famous Song-Kol must be located.
Suddenly the white wall of fog disappears and ahead of us stretches a smooth green valley, leading our view directly to the azurin blue of the lake. We are looking literally though a window in the clouds opening up to the lake that shimmers and reflects in the sunlight. As sudden as it appeared and long before the other tourist could get a hold of his camera, the window closes again with white fog. Sitting on my dark horse I have to lough out loud on the scenery as it all seemed pretty silly: The fog, the cloudy window, the unlucky attempt to take a picture of the short, intensive sight. And as it wasn´t enough, the whole scene is played on horses descending a steep pass, shaking the riders from one to the other side. After a while, below the clouds, we got all the time to enjoy the view of the lake. It is framed by the green slopes beside us, laying there reflecting the light in different shades going from dark indigo and cobalt blue to some greyish colour of lead.
We pass through several Yurts in the jailoo, and are overtaken by an old, shabby red VW Polo. Sitting on the horse I wonder about how different the world looks like for different people. The authors of my guidebook recommended any traveler going to Song-Kol by car to have at least one with four-wheel-drive but made clear in between the rows, it would be better to have some hovercraft-tank-truck-helicopter-all-terrain-vehicle to reach it safely. For Kyrgyz people, a roughly 25 years old red VW Polo seems to be enough.
After the Polo is out of sight and its sound and smell of overheated clutch is gone, it is again us three and the shore of the lake on our right as we follow it towards the east. The strong wind that is going over the water makes it break on the beach in small waves, and the cloudy scenery casts shadows on the mountains on the other side as well as on the strangely long planes that connect the mountains with the lake. The changing light makes the lake change its color from grey to purple and back to blue in short time, altering the color of the surrounding landscape from green-beige to brownish and back to a bright fresh green. Catching this environment in a painting is hard for my eyes are unfamiliar with the perspective of this vast landscape. Most of it is the sky, the lake below stretches out long and flat branding against the massive mountains that chain the horizon with their bright snowfields and rocky cliffs. Arrived at the Yurt Camp “Song-Kol “ which is run by the family I am volunteering at, I sit down in the comfortable and warm assembly yurt. I am being served with tea and snacks and wrapped in a traditional coat feeling a bit silly with the white Kalpak (traditional Hat) on my head, laughing about the extravagant scenery.
How crazy it is, am I thinking to myself, that I am now just here, sitting in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Central Asia, drinking tea with the lovely hosts in a comfy yurt. I didn´t have to pinch myself to make sure that I am not dreaming as I already realized I wasn´t, thanks to the sweet pain in my back remembering me: You have been riding to Song-Kol today!
Ekkehard Metzger (Jena, Germany)
Volunteer with Kyrgyzstan Tourism and Song-Kol Travel
Drawings by the author