A Kyrgyz adventure
Wild horses and Bactrian camels were all part of a spectacular and exciting motorcycle journey through unspoilt Kyrgyzstan, says Rishad Saam Mehta
I was riding a motorcycle on a dirt road in the Tian Shan Mountains. The visor was like the cinema screen through which I was viewing the splendid scenery that made me continuously gasp in awe. A landscape splashed with orange, gold and red that told of the arrival of autumn, ringed by snow-capped mountains. On my right an ice-blue stream ran alongside the road and gurgled louder than the burble of my motorcycle’s exhaust.
The dull drumming of hooves came in from the left, like the directional sound effect of Dolby Surround in a multiplex and steadily grew louder than the gurgle and the burble, causing me to glance in its direction. It was a herd of wild stallions galloping with wanton glee. Game for some sport the herd ran onto the road ahead of me continuing to gallop, ears set flat and manes and tails flying. I could see their muscles rippling under their glossy coats. In a world where wilderness is rapidly diminishing those few precious seconds with those horses running wild and free ahead of me will forever stay etched in my mind.
This was in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and part of the erstwhile USSR. Eight of us had signed up for Embarq’s Silk Road motorcycling adventure. And adventure indeed turned out to be the key word.
Our ride started in Bishkek, the capital headed east and went around IssykKul in a clockwise direction to end back in Bishkek.
IssykKul is the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in Peru.
When I first saw the Suzuki DZ-R motorcycles that had been hired for this trip I was a little sceptical because they looked quite battered as if they’d been through a lot. But in a land where the horse sits high in the hierarchy of favourite beast, these motorcycles turned out to be that carthorse on the starting line that beats every thoroughbred to the finish line. Quick on power on the tarmac and great with grip on gravel these motorcycles enhanced our ride simply because they were so easy to ride and so confidence-inspiring.
That first day when we started off from Bishkek towards Choplon-Ata on the banks of IssykKul we stopped at a little village 120km from Bishkek and 20km off the main road. Here the locals showcased some of their traditional nomadic sports that are usually played on horseback. The first up was to be kokboru that is an all out mounted brawl involving the body of a headless goat. This was meant to be practice for young shepherds so that they could easily catch a wolf by the scruff of its neck when it attacked their livestock. To our considerable consternation they were going to relieve one unlucky goat of its head so that the game could be played. We hurriedly stopped the butcher and made him sheath his knife.
The next sport — one where everyone stayed alive — was kyz-kumayor kiss the girl. This is a traditional custom in which the girl, on a faster horse with a head-start, has to be caught by her suitor who rides hard after her and only once he catches up with her and kisses her can he ask for her hand in marriage. If he fails then the girl gets to chase him and whip him.
It was quite the different take on speed dating.
Riding out in the Kyrgyz countryside I was rapidly realising that she was a very pretty country and during autumn when I was there and she was even more stunning as if preening for the prom.
And the IssykKul was the shining blue emerald set amongst the creased and crumpled mountainous countryside. A combination of extreme depth, mild salinity and thermal activity ensures that the lake never freezes even though general temperatures go down to -24°C when the cold Siberian winds blow over from the north during winter.
In fact, during our ride from Bishkek to Bishkek via Cholpon-Ata, Karakol, Balykchy and Naryn we encountered the first of the winter chill. We could see fresh snow every day on the mountains and the wind sweeping down from them sent the temperature plummeting to around 4°C. But we were well clad and riding in that crisp weather with bright blue skies along fields of gold and past pastures with trees laden with ripe apples was a buzz that I am still tripping on.
Sometimes we’d leave the tarmac and go into the mountains because these motorcycles were meant for fun stuff like that. And we would ride on trails that have been trammelled by a multitude of traders and adventures over many millennia as they headed for high-mountain passes on the Silk Route from Asia to Europe.
At an incredibly scenic location we’d stop and the support team in the back-up car carrying our luggage would prepare a picnic of hot soup, roasted potatoes, barbecued meat and refreshing coffee.
But it is the route from Karakol to Balykchy along the south end of the lake that stands out as a picture of raw, untouched and wild beauty. Often we’d ride into the grasslands that bordered the narrow ribbon of tar and wild double-humped Bactrian camels and horses would thunder along with us seeming to enjoy the sport.
On another occasion, we took a dirt track into a gorge that led to grasslands bordered with gentle hills on which there was fresh snow. We at once peeled off the dirt track onto the grass and rode right up to the snow line where traction ended and we ended up with our bottoms on the snow laughing like little boys at our collective impulsiveness. That day we had the perfect picnic lunch with the motorcycles parked on the snow.
At a village where we stopped for lunch on another day the guest house owner offered us a local delicacy —horsemeat and noodles. When I made a face that must have let on that I wasn’t exactly overjoyed with the choice of meat, the host took me out to the back and got out his handsome hunting eagle which he asked me to launch from my hand so that it could catch a rabbit which he hoped would prove more palatable.
I could have told you about my trip in correct chronological order but it is adventures like these that made my ride so exciting. And because Kyrgyzstan is still off the regular tourist trail the countryside is rustic in appeal and raw in beauty, the food is local because it caters to locals rather than tourists and people are genuinely friendly and hospitable.Also we encountered local customs because they are a way of life rather than a tacky tourist performance.
It won’t remain like this for long simply because it is prime countryside for an adventurous yet comfortable road trip. The hordes will come; I suggest you get here before they do.
• How to get there: Air Manas has direct flights (3.5 hours) from Delhi to Bishkek. There are many direct flights from Calcutta to Delhi.
• What to do: Embarq Motoring Experiences offers motorcycle and motorcar self drive trips in Kyrgyzstan. They take care of the vehicle hire, the route, the stay, the fuel and the logistics and you enjoy the ride. Check them out at www.embarq.in.
Photographs by author