After trekking Ala Kul Lake, I decided to head to Song Kul Lake. Situated at an altitude of 3,016m, Song Kul Lake is the largest freshwater alpine lake in Kyrgyzstan. The good and bad thing about Song Kul is that you can drive up there.
Being a freshwater water, Song Kul freezes much more easily than the salty lakes like Issyk Kul. Being less accessible than Issyk Kul, it is also less commercialised. You won’t find hotels and shopping centres here. Accommodation is all in yurts and toilets are the traditional holes in the ground. People who still choose to come here are those who with hearts big enough to accommodate Mother Nature. People in this club often get blown away by the awesome scenery of Song Kul. It is regarded as one of the most scenic spots in Kyrgyzstan. There are several ways to get to Song Kul Lake and you can find them in any guide book. I planned to go up there from the nearest town, not on wheels but on four legs.
The horse is an integral part of Kyrgyz culture and tradition. Kyrgyz people rear them, ride them and even eat them. Beshbamak, a soupy noodle dish often made with horsemeat, happens to be Kyrgyzstan’s national dish. Kumis is an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk. How can a trip to Kyrgyzstan be complete without a horse trek? I decided to go on a horse trek to Song Kul Lake from Kochkor. I did ask Prof Chung if he would like to join me, but he confessed that he had never ridden a horse before and wasn’t keen on riding such a long distance on his first attempt. I went alone.
When I first shared the videos of my horse trek on social media, many friends and even my parents were surprised that I can ride. In Singapore, riding is a very expensive hobby. Surely, I couldn’t afford it. So where did I learn to ride? The short answer – from the School of Soft Landings. My first experience riding a horse was in Indonesia. First, was the beach at Parangtritis. Then the sand sea of Mt Bromo. I rode independently, took a couple of falls on the soft sand and was soon able to gallop confidently. I rode several times in China by informally renting horses for the day from Tibetan horsemen. I had a lot of fun galloping on the grasslands, so a horse trek, though a novelty, was not entirely unfamiliar to me.
From Karakol, there is no direct transport to Kochkor. From Karakol’s avtovazal or bus station, I had to get to the sleepy fishing village of Balykchy first. As you can see, it’s not a short trip, going back in the direction of Bishkek, along the northern shore of Issyk Kul. From Balykchy, I was lucky to be able to get the last seat on a shared taxi to Kochkor.
It was an uncomfortable 1-hour ride, squeezed on the backseat of a car on a winding road. Presently, we arrived at Kochkor. Hot and dusty, with crudely constructed buildings, it resembled a nondescript town in Nepal. Not being able to book any accommodation with apps, I asked around but got no answers. I didn’t have a good experience with the local CBT (community based tourism) office at Karakol, but left with no choice, carrying my large backpack in the 30 degree heat, I decided to head for the CBT office off the main road, just opposite the bus station.
I was served by an unusually small woman by the name of Nora. She was very friendly was enthusiastic. In perfect English, she described the 2-day horse trek to Song Kul that would suit me. We discussed a few optional extensions, but given my limited time, I decided not extend the trip.
Nora found me a guesthouse that was still under renovation. It’s rather shabby, but for about USD 8, there’s really nothing to complain about. What’s more, Nora gave me the keys to the whole place. Again, I felt flattered by her trust as I had felt with Prof Chung who decided to join me on my trek after just a brief conversation on the bus to Karakol. I could have thrown a party at the guesthouse, but unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone in Kochkor.
The next morning, I went down to Nora’s office and found a very big young man sitting there. He reminded me of my son and was introduced to me as my horse trekking guide. His name was Beck. I collected my riding helmet from the office, bade Nora farewell and got into a car with Beck. An hour later, we arrived at a vast rolling field where Beck held a brief discussion with a horseman and then began to saddle up two horses.
“This will be your transport for the next two days.” he said in jest.
The animals were beautiful, with the metallic sheen of Central Asian breeds and the thick mane of Mongolian horses. Over many generations, the Kyrgyz horse has been bred for endurance and agility at high altitudes. I mounted my horse, but the animal refused to move at first. Beck asked me to whip him. I was reluctant to do so, but when I did, the animal obligingly followed Beck. We were soon on our way. Every time my horse slowed down to a crawl, I would show him the whip and he would get the message and obediently get moving. I was relieved as I really didn’t want to whip him. Soon, we were on a dirt track, slowly climbing till we reached a pass with an amazing panoramic view of the velvety, rolling grassland below. From here, the grazing horses and cattle looked like tiny dots. The yurts were the only sign of human habitation. After a brief stop for photos, we descended from the pass to continue our ride to the night stop.
Without a tree in sight, this part of Kyrgyzstan seemed quite a world apart from the forests and snow capped peaks of the Celestial Mountains around Karakol. Despite the full sunlight sweeping across this ocean of grass, it wasn’t hot. In fact, it was quite chilly when the wind blew. When we were back on the grassland where a crystal clear stream meandered, we dismounted to let the horses rest. Far from the road, the fields here were bursting with wild flowers of every colour. There were a few bushes here and there, but without the screening effect of the trees, it’s easy to imagine how strong the winds can get.
My guide Beck spoke excellent English. I was surprised to learn that he was only 19 years old. Unlike the majority of the “conservatives” here, Beck comes from a politically enlightened family that does not see a future in Russia. He and his cousins have enrolled in schools in Bishkek. They are focused on learning English, hoping eventually to find a job in Dubai and the US. Horse trekking was Beck’s summer job and he would be graduating as a software engineer in a couple of years. Meanwhile, he has already secured an internship with an MNC. Like many young people in Singapore, he is concerned about rising property prices and stagnant wages and their impact on his future.
From our rest point, we rode on and finally came to a jailoo with grazing cows on a vast carpet of grass studded with yurts. This temporary settlement was run by an elderly lady, two young ladies and a 12-year-old boy. While this jailoo was obviously catering to tourists, it has decidedly not given up its traditional nomadic, self-sufficient lifestyle as we shall see. Lunch was served in one of the yurts, furnished like a dining room.
Sweets, candy and fried pieces of dough called boorsok are laid out uncovered for diners to nibble on before the main course was served. There were also cups of jam and cream to dip the chunks of bread in. The cream was my favourite, but the bread was cold and stale. Still, with a proper kitchen, the food here was a lot more inspiring than what I had on the Ala Kul Trek.
The beds were to be found in another yurt. I went inside to do comfort test after lunch. Suddenly, there was a commotion outside the yurt. I heard shouts from Beck and loud neighing. Beck then mounted my horse and tried to “tame” it for me. There was no TV, no mobile signal. We spent the afternoon just horsing around, enjoying the freedom of the steppes. I found this landscape extremely therapeutic for the squeezed and oppressed. How much more space does one need? How do such lands inspire conquerors?
Presently, a group of three foreigners, two French and one Briton rode into the jailoo. Without going through a CBT, they had negotiated directly with a random horseman on the steppes and rode here with him. They had saved money bypassing the agency and guide, but they also tried to get a “free ride” by getting information from Beck, all the while ignoring me. In return, they offered to add Beck into some Facebook group where he could mingle with folks like them. Folks like them? No thanks. They probably weren’t thinking of supporting the industry with what it needs most.
Dinner was served. The French woman couldn’t stop talking, to Beck, to her companions, completely ignoring me as if she didn’t know that Beck was a commercial guide and I was the one who hired him. Evening time was also milking time. It wasn’t my first time watching someone milk cows manually, but it was still fascinating to watch the old lady do it. She collected two plastic buckets of milk. The cream, the cheese and the mare’s milk fermenting somewhere, came straight from the animals being herded here. Nothing was for show like in China. As the sun set, it became decidedly chilly and there was nothing else to do.
There was total darkness in the yurt. Sleep was reasonably good. The next morning, the jailoo was already ablaze with sunshine at 5.00am. The ladies were busy preparing breakfast while Beck and the boy were busy preparing the horses. After a quick breakfast, we mounted our horses and continued the trek. There was another pass to clear. This time, the trail was not so deserted. We ran into another group of tourists, a family with children on horses.
They had spent the night at another jailoo but we converged at the second pass on the trek. They were all excited when we came to the top of the pass. It was cold, breezy and beautiful. This pass was a little higher than what we encountered the day before. Looking back, the distant landscape resembled a brain coral. When we descended into the steppes on the other side, the altitude was still above 3,000m. It was cloudy but the silvery white Song Kul Lake was visible in the distance.
By midday, we had arrived at another jailoo. It was another vast open space where the kids could play football with herds of sheep grazing in the distance. It took quite a while before lunch was served but once we were done, Beck rushed off to our night stop, trotting and galloping until we finally reached the shore of the lake. It was a windy day and the gusts sent waves crashing on the beach lined with gravel instead of sand. Riding along the edge of the choppy waters, we came to a group of picnicking locals. Like our East Coast Park, the place was thronged with weekenders.
Beck dismounted and greeted one of the groups. It was only then that he revealed to me that his elder brother was celebrating his birthday party by Song Kul Lake. After a brief exchange with the folks, he brought me to our night stop, galloping all the way. After checking in to our yurt, he told me that he would be back for dinner after the party. Off he went with my horse. I unpacked my stuff in the yurt and walked out to take some pictures. Song Kul Lake presented the unusual scene of people sitting by the sunny beach, wearing their warm clothing. It was bright and sunny but only slightly warmer than Ala Kul Lake.
Song Kul Lake is indeed picturesque. In a virtually endless sea of grass was a massive body of water and majestic mountains in the background. As I walked along the shore of the lake, a youngster approached me. He was Beck’s cousin Erbek. He somehow recognised me and invited me to join Beck’s brother, Mr Azamin’s birthday party. Beck had gone out with the car to buy some things. So I sat with a group of total strangers who offered me food and drinks. They were all very hospitable. Like Beck, his cousins were fluent in English and saw their future in the West instead of the East. I tried the familiar BBQ chicken wings and vodka. As a sign of courtesy, I didn’t refuse the unfamiliar kumis either. My impression of fermented mare’s milk? It tasted like a mixture of beer and yoghurt.
After a long wait, Beck returned from his errand. As all guests were required to bring a gift, the birthday boy requested for a birthday song from me. I gladly obliged. We sang together and Mr Azamin led in a prayer to close the party.
We returned to the camp and waited for dinner. The dining yurt here was considerably more opulent than the one I dined in the night before. At least there were chairs to sit on. But on the table, were the same beautifully displayed but uncovered candy, bread and snacks. I tried not to snack and waited for dinner. At least that was freshly prepared.
There was a group here that refused to leave even after most of the local visitors had left that evening. Summer sunsets are always lingering and Song Kul Lake seemed reluctant to end the day. The group here had several bottles of vodka left on the dining table and one might wonder if they still wanted them. Anyway, they asked if I could sleep in a smaller yurt since they had more people. I agreed to move. Probably I should have asked for the vodka in return for the favour.
The next morning, Beck had the rather unenviable task of returning the horses. He had to ride over 50km, retracing our steps over the last two days to where he got the horses. For me, I had the whole morning to myself and I just had to wait for the jeep to arrive and send me back to Kochkor.
There was no wind that morning. The lake was calm and the water was clear. The crowds from the previous day had also dispersed – along with their vodka. The yurts were emptied ahead of another summer’s week. I strolled pensively along the shore, only interrupted once by a Russian woman who politely asked to see the photos on my camera attached to a telephoto lens. I had plenty of time to kill.
Back in the yurt, the lady in charge of the jailoo tried to strike up a conversation with me. Her English was nowhere near Beck’s, but I understood that she was trained as a nurse and wished she could work in a hospital in Dubai some day. At the moment, her children were having their summer holidays. By September, Song Kul would be abandoned as snow block the roads. Her kids would be back in school and she would be looking after the animals on the lower, warmer pastures in the lowland village.
By noon, the jeep arrived and took me back to Kochkor. Nora asked me for a brief appraisal and after giving my feedback, she invited me to stay another night at Kochkor. I declined after hastily booking a hotel with my app, I boarded a marshrutka minibus to Bishkek.