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I woke up the next morning feeling like a school girl with ponies on the brain. The toughness and training of the Kyrgyz horse was a prime factor in my decision to come to central Asia and I could hardly wait to get in the saddle. But first we had to make our way to Son-Kul, the third largest in the country.

This required a half day’s journey over the mountains surrounding the lake, via one-lane dirt roads and through sleet, fog and snow. We navigated narrow switchback as we passed hills full of marmots, and several herds of yaks.

The road spat us out onto a long plain, with the shimmering lake stretching out for miles. The lake sits at an altitude of over 3,000 meters and the surrounding area has been used by nomadic people as summer grazing lands for their herds for thousands of years. We arrived just at the start of the summer season, and the weather was still unpredictable. We drove past small groupings of yurts, some still under construction. Our guide told us it only takes two people a few hours to raise a yurt, though every building party we saw included a much larger group. We passed a mysterious 10’x10’ cement block near the lake. Apparently that is the only area in the valley where one can get a cell phone signal and in early evening there can be quite a crowd of locals there.

We arrived at our camp of yurts at the far side of the lake by lunchtime. We would be spending the next two nights here, living with a local family, eating the dishes they prepared for us and sleeping on heavy mattresses inside the thick felted walls of their yurts. The weather continued to worsen as we ate, but I was still determined to get in as much time as possible on horseback and arranged for one to be brought to me after lunch.

I got a gray mare, stout and taller than I imaged the notoriously “sturdy mountain ponies” would be. I was given a quick crash-course in Kyrgyz horsemanship by the eldest woman of the family. “Shuh!” she said, mimicking forward moving reins with her hands. “Purrrrrrrr” she rolled, pulling back on her imaginary reins. She urged me to mount. I was slightly disappointed when she took away the crop all the Kyrygz use while riding. I am used to riding with one and figured the horse was too, but it didn’t matter, I was on a Kyrgyz horse!

I gave her a good squeeze and we set out trotting in the direction of the lake. Our local guide had warned me earlier the other direction was home to a stallion and it was inadvisable to take our horses there. It felt incredible to be out on my own on the vast plains, but also slightly intimidating. Should my horse decide to throw me, or I get lost, it would be a long while till anyone noticed. I kicked her into a canter and we continued down the road. We passed a row of foals, tied to a long rope so their mothers could graze and return to them as they please. They all stood, pulling at the end of their rope and whinnied to my mare. This also sent out the family dog, who tore from a distant yurt, barking and bearing his teeth. I braced for my horse to startle, but she simply looked at the frantic german shepherd mix with boredom.

We walked to the shore of the lake, then up the nearest tall foothill for a better view. Even at a trot she was starting to sweat and I wondered how hard she’d already been ridden that day. It took a good deal of convincing to get her to cantor again on the way back, but she was well behaved and sure-footed. I had told our local guide, Farhad, to make sure the next day that I got a “really fast” horse to ride and assured him of my confidence in handling a bit more feisty beast.

The temperature continued to drop and as we ate our Plov-like dinner it rained heavily, then hailed, then snowed. I almost felt bad for those who hadn’t brought puffy down jackets like my Mountain Hardware, but then again, what part of the trip’s description made them think there wasn’t a good chance of encountering snow? We huddled in the dinning yurt, drinking tea, vodka and beers and playing games till it was time to huddle under the thick blankets of our yurts for the evening, gently illuminated by the flicker of a lantern while the wind howled outside.
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May 2017

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