Eating horses is a Kyrgyz tradition. So is riding them. We’ve tried both. Riding is probably more satisfying. We spent a day on horses outside a small town called Naryn en route to the Chinese border. The landscape we rode through was beautiful. The hillsides looked like they’d been drawn in pastel.
At the start of our trek and were greeted by a sixty something grandmother who was once an English teacher. Her smile glinted with gold teeth and her English was the only spoken to us all day. She asked if we could ride horses. We said we couldn’t, really. We asked our horses names. She said mine was Brown Horse and Fiona’s was Black Horse. Inventive. Fiona took to calling hers Blackie. I stuck with Brown Horse for fear Brownie implied my steed was up for desert.
Riding was fun and surprisingly easy. Our horses were generally obedient although averse to sudden swerves to the right. On occasion they would only go right by going so far left that they ended up right again. Perhaps they knew their riders too well. I was also enthused by how easily I could get Brown Horse to trot and canter. It felt like changing gears in a car. There was a short crunch as the horse got itself ready and then its whole motion changed and we were off.
I continued my 3/3 streak of getting the most rebellious animal on offer. Desert boy the camel lived outside Jaisalmir, India. He had a tendency to veer off, not following the line made by Fiona’s ride Celia. Brown Horse liked to try and chomp at the other horses. And he once successfully had a wee chomp at Fiona’s thigh. She has an impressive bite shaped bruise to show for it.
A highlight of our day was a visit to our guide’s home. He, his wife and four kids live in the middle of nowhere without electricity or running water. His wife served us weak milky tea, bread, jam and sour cream. We were also offered fermented mare’s milk. It smelt like retching and I just couldn’t get it down. Fiona made more progress than I, but we were both left with embarrassingly large untouched bowls of frothy goo.
We’re so accustomed to the basic questions that we get asked that the absence of English wasn’t too much of a barrier to our communication: Yes, we are married, two years…. No, we don’t have children… But we struggled to provide a satisfactory explanation for why we don’t have children (married for two years, what could possibly be the hold up?). Explaining that we were neither Muslim nor Christian was also a stretch especially as we resorted to some unfortunately graphic miming of what we think happens when you die.
We have an app on our phone called Point It which is supposed to assist in situations like these. It’s just a collection of loosely ordered photos that are designed to avoid endless charades. It’s good for specifying you want chicken, but it was little help in conveying our understanding of the meaning of life. One the upside, using a touch screen to look at photos was massively entertaining for our guide and his kids. I think they scrolled through every photo there was.
How excited locals get about playing with your phone or seeing their picture on the tiny screen of your digital camera is a pretty good yardstick for development. Smartphones are all over China, but our guide was only half joking when he offered to buy mine. His kids marveled at the magic of pushing a button and seeing an image appear. Evidently it doesn’t take much cantering away from towns in Kyrgyzstan to see wealth levels really decline.