We left Karakol at 8am knowing we had a long drive ahead of us. Our route took us up the eastern side of Issyk Kol lake before turning west along the northern shore which we had to traverse to our next campsite.
At first we drove through fertile farming land along the edge of the lake, but after a few hours the scenery changed and became more arid and rocky. We began to pass resorts, of which there are many on this northern shore. Apparently this is where the citizens of Bishkek come on holiday. It is also a popular spot for Russians, Uzbeks, and of course, tourists. We saw a Ferris when and rollercoaster in the distance, so I guess it’s a bit like Blackpool.
The land became increasingly rocky until we stopped at a place where boulders of all sizes were scattered so thickly on the ground it was hard to imagine anyone every being able to farm the land. At some time in history there must have been a catastrophic flood from a local river which spread this debris across acres of land.
Using these rocks as their canvas, ancient hunters and gatherers painted and carved petroglyphs on the stones.
The stones lie in the open, with no protection from the elements, so they are faded and worn. Ibexes are the most common subject, commonly associated with pictures of hunters carrying bows and arrows.
Some drawings have shamanic purposes that predate Islam. Our guide explained that even today it was not uncommon for local people to invoke local gods for domestic matters. Islam is of course the dominant religion here, although Russian Orthodox makes up about 6% of the population.
Religion seems to be a remarkably tolerant issue in Kyrgyzstan. The guide has frequently reminded us of the complex ethnic mixing pot this country is, and that tolerance and respect for all has always been the Kyrgi way. Still, I do wonder whether 100 years of Soviet rule, when any religious observance was forbidden, may have contributed to the relaxed attitudes that prevail here. Two or three generations grew up in an entirely secular state, and although religion is now allowed, I imagine few younger people would be prepared to return to the old level of authoritarianism and restrictive practices.
We had an unexpected stop at the racecourse. It’s a fine, very attractive venue, particularly used for Central Asian sports such as horse racing, wrestling and other local competitions. A race began just as we arrived. The jockeys were young boys – maybe 15 or 16 years old. They all rode bareback – no saddles or stirrups, and of course, no hard helmets. Some of the boys didn’t even have shoes on their feet.
With no stirrups to stand up in the boys rode glued to their horses backs. The race ran for 5 laps of the courses, and although none of the horses were likely entrants for the Melbourne cup, the racing was tactical and demanding.
We continued to Chong Kemin. I’d assumed we’d arrived at our campsite for the night, but I was wrong. Two opposing villages had organised an equestrian competition. Among the classes were wrestling (where competitors attempted to pull each other off their horses; basket pick up from the ground at a gallop and a race between a young woman and a man. If the man won, his prize was a kiss. If the woman won, she beat the man with a quirt. Naturally we all supported the woman.
The final show stopper was goat polo. It was as ferocious and dynamic as you might imagine. Several competitors fell off during the game, which shows how vicious the game is as they stick to their horses like burrs. Apparently in the really serious, top level competitions it is usual for several riders to be badly hurt.
There was a change of ‘ball’ at half-time. Apparently the first goat was too light, so a second was sacrificed for the second half. Kyrgyzstan is NOT for the squeamish, but it is what it is.
Rather amusingly a large german shepherd dog participated throughout in the games and joined in every scrummage, nipping and pushing at the horses’ legs in the middle of the melee.
Our campsite for the night was across the road. The weather has again been kind, the site was beautiful and it made for a great final bush camp on this holiday.
The happy couple
Jockeys at the racetrack
The unfortunate 'ball'
Young man and woman racing