Welcome to nomad’s land - where “no man’s land” takes on an entirely new and different meaning.

It all started with one of those clickbait-fuelled deep internet dives where I found myself staring, transfixed, at a photo of a woman doing a Scorpion-style handstand, balancing on stilts mid-air, while poised to simultaneously shoot a bow and arrow using her feet. Yes, her feet. It’s one of the most iconic images from the World Nomad Games, a sports competition that takes place in Kyrgyzstan every two years.

This international sports competition involves a number of former Soviet republics such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Russia taking part, along with a few others such as Mongolia, Turkey, Afghanistan, and even the United States. It’s dedicated to the unique ethnic sports practiced in Central Asia, such as Er Enish (wrestling while on horseback), Alysh (another wrestling game that can be likened to Jiu Jitsu, only here, competitors wear trousers and jackets, and must hold onto their opponent’s belt), and Salburun, a variety of hunting games that can involve anything from eagles or Taigan – a Kyrgyzstani sighthound dog breed – to mounted archery. This would explain the aforementioned woman shooting a bow and arrow with her feet. Perhaps the most lionized of them all is Kok-Boru, a game that is, in a way, like football, wherein each team aims to score a certain amount of points by kicking a ball into a goal. Except here, the players are mounted on horses instead, and instead of a ball, it’s a goat carcass. The World Nomad Games aren’t all about physical prowess, however – there are also a number of them surrounding mental mastery and discipline, such as Toguz Korkol, a two-player board game played with two rows of stones set across nine holes, and Shagai, a variety of games played using the ankle bones of a sheep or goat in numerous ways, such as being rolled like dice or marbles, tossed and caught, or shot, to name just a few.

Sounds exciting, right? Except I didn’t actually make it to see the World Nomad Games, since my dive down the online rabbit hole occurred during the in-between year of 2017, and the next edition wouldn’t take place until September 2018. Yet by that point, I’d already been bewitched by the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan, so I decided to visit ASAP anyway, Games or no Games. At a first glance (or Google Image Search), Kyrgyzstan – also known as the Kyrgyz Republic or Kirghizia – looks like it’s all rolling green hills and grassy fields. And that it is, in large part – after all, the country is 93% mountainous. However, one of the most incredible things about this landlocked country is just how different its terrain can be depending on where you go. In the span of a couple of days, we went from the backdrop of The Sound of Music to The Wind in the Willows and then Jurassic Park.

Here’s a tip if you ever plan to visit Kyrgyzstan: Unless you really enjoy freezing-cold weather or intend to ski, plan to visit between June to September. My first attempt failed as I realized, crestfallen, that it would be -8 to -10°C (if I was lucky) in mid-October. I wouldn’t be able to stay in a yurt – a round, portable tent that is the traditional dwelling of the pastoral nomads across Central Asia – or camp near the mountains, or spend much time anywhere I wanted to unless I fancied becoming a human popsicle. I resigned myself to a delay in plans, and finally found myself on a minibus en-route to Kyrgyzstan’s Jyrgalan Valley in the summer of 2018.

There are hidden gems, and then there are the diamonds in the rough, and Kyrgyzstan’s Jyrgalan Valley is truly the latter. Even for a country that is fairly off-the-beaten-track for many, this area, located in the Aak Suu region of Kyrgyzstan, just East of its famous (and enormous) Issyk-Kul lake, the Jyrgalan Valley is one that even many Kyrgyzstanis are unfamiliar with. Even the driver of our 7-hour Marshrutka ride from Bishkek (taken from the Bishkek Western Bus Station for 3400KGS or 50USD to have the entire 8-seater to ourselves) hadn’t heard of it, and was concerned about dropping two female backpackers off into the wilderness. “Are you sure it’s there? Maybe check the map again”, he said to my friend Ausra in Russian. (Here’s another tip for visiting Kyrgyzstan: Speak some Russian, or if you don’t, then learn some. Most people speak Kyrgyz and Russian, and not much English, especially if you go further into the wilderness). “I’m sure we’ll find it, let’s just keep going a little bit longer,” I said, trying to hide my anxiousness as I tapped on my phone, with nobody answering at at the guesthouse we’d booked. Our driver slammed on the brakes and we looked up, startled, to see a team of horses cross the path, their manes flying in the wind. “That must be it!” he said, gesturing at a number of small houses clustered in the valley just below.

We were staying at the Alakol-Jyrgalan Guest House, a clean and comfortable accommodation that’s also home to the official Destination Jyrgalan office. The tourism company had been set up by Emil Ibakov and his wife, Gulmira Primova. Craving some peace and quiet away from their busy life in Bishkek, they moved out to Jyrgalan Village back in 2014. As founding members of the Jyrgalan DMO, their guesthouse was the first in town. The rest of the community eagerly followed suit, and now, there are nine guesthouses in the village. “My father ran horseback riding tours and often took guests out there from the bigger cities. But the scenery was so naturally beautiful, they often wound up spending much more time there than anticipated. He ended up buying a place to stay during the day while the riders would spend hours exploring on horseback, and saw the potential for both the community, in terms of developing the area for more tourism, as well as for visitors, by opening up more opportunities for them to explore by giving them a place to stay overnight,” their daughter Kim explained. Kim, an international lawyer working out of Bishkek, now comes out to Jyrgalan as often as she can to not only help out the business, but also to enjoy the area’s intoxicating tranquility. “When my husband first bought this place and we moved out here, everyone said we were crazy. But now, people are starting to take notice, and we’re so happy to be able to share this beautiful part of the world with more travellers,” Gulmira said.

That night, after a hearty meal of freshly-baked bread, homemade jams, and stewed meat and vegetables served with steamed rice, we tucked ourselves into bed, grateful for the thick blankets. Gulmira had said the summer season had started late, and it was unusually cold for June this year. Our showers the next morning would be our last for days, as we grabbed our backpacks and headed out on our trek. Although the Jyrgalan community has, with the help of USAID and a few experienced hikers, marked out a wide variety of trails, the area is still incredibly remote and one wrong turn could lead you seriously astray, with dangerous consequences. The stunning landscape is virtually untouched, but that also means that if anything were to happen to you, you’d be a long way away from help. “We were out there for four days and didn’t see a single other person,” said three hikers that we’d met at the guesthouse the night before – a South African and Australian couple, and a British friend of theirs. With that in mind, we’d hired a guide, as well as a horse porter, a common practice for many hikers planning to camp out for days. Our horse porter was a stoic young man with a wide smile who spoke Kyrgyz and a bit of Chinese, while our guide, Altynbek – “My English name is Golden,” he said – spoke Russian and a few words of English. They loaded two tents, four sleeping bags, and some supplies onto our horse, and we headed off.

It was one of the slowest hikes I’d ever been on, simply because we kept stopping every few minutes to either take photos, or marvel at the scenery. With each turn of our heads, we saw jaw-dropping vistas in every direction. Of all the countries I’d been to, I’d never experienced anywhere quite like it, and I had to fight the urge to do a Julie Andrews-tyle twirl while singing about the hills being alive. But alive they were, with birds, row after row of colorful yellow, blue, and flame-colored flowers scattered around a sea of emerald green, and wild horses roaming around freely. We only paused from gaping to cross stream after stream, which involved a fair bit of footwork and trickery to cross without dousing our feet. We had intended to do the Keskenkiya Loop Trek, a roughly 64km trek that could be done in 3-4 days. But by 6pm on our first night, a nasty rainstorm had begun, and the dark clouds rolling in over the mountains ominously suggested it wouldn’t let up anytime soon. “We won’t make it to our intended campsite in time,” said Golden, and we quickly set up camp right in the middle of a small hill facing the Tian Shan mountains. We had hardly erected them by the time it had started pouring down, and we crawled into our tents hurriedly. Ausra and I huddled up, trying to stay warm and pass the time by reading. It took 3 hours for the rain to stop, before we could pop out to cook a hasty dinner of rice and vegetables on a camping stove. It was so cold that my breath came out in puffs of white smoke, and my hands, which had begun to turn blue, gripped my tin teacup with relish.

It rained throughout the night. A dark figure had made its way over to the tents, and we all wondered if it was a human or a wolf, until Golden realized it was a friend of theirs who had set up camp a couple of hills away. They murmured quietly in Kyrgyz; the next morning Golden told us that his friend had brought news of trouble further along the route. The rain had flooded so many of the streams that they were now waist-high, which would put a serious dent in our plans. We made an executive decision to change route, and headed the other way. The hike had become much harder overnight. Our feet were damp and cold, we’d hardly slept, and even with our new trail, we were stuck – the water was too high to cross without becoming soaked, and since we’d be camping at the foot of the snow-capped mountains, it would be too cold to camp there without getting sick. As we tried to find another way around the stream, we walked past a group of nomadic men and two young boys fixing up an old truck outside their yurt. Puffs of smoke billowed out of the pipe in its roof – something hot must have been cooking on the stove. They spoke with our guides in Kyrgyz, and the boys’ mother, a shy nomadic woman with a genuine smile, welcomed us into the yurt for some tea and bread. Once they realized our conundrum, they immediately offered to help take us across the stream using their horses.

Once we’d made it to the other side, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. We were much closer to the mountains here, and we stumbled into a field where wild horses of every colour grazed around us. If we walked very quietly and slowly, we could get close. If we made a sound that was too loud, they galloped away as a herd, majestically powerful against the unforgettable backdrop. “The government believes that in these places, the land should belong to no-one. This is the way of our nomadic people, and part of our history,” Golden said, explaining that the nomadic families would either rent part of the land (at around 500KGS or 7USD per hectare), or earn money by looking after the horses that roamed the hills, being paid per horse – or both. They would do this for the season, before packing up their yurts and moving on. The yurts could be built within 3-8 hours. I found it fascinating how much respect they had not just for their land, but also for each other, with this attitude – and I wondered about how different the rest of the world would be if we were to all loosen the reigns a little on our need for possession in this regard. After all, we often equate owning land with having roots – yet here, the nomadic people seemed incredibly grounded with their idea of home, as if they were simply somehow connected to the nature itself.

We walked until we couldn’t feel our feet anymore. Although we’d covered less distance than we had the day before, I found it harder and harder to breathe easily as the temperature dropped and we hit higher altitudes. But it was worth it once we found the lake. The Ailampa Lake lay nestled in the mountains, not far from the border of Kyrgyzstan. There was nothing else in sight, and the silence fell peacefully around it, enveloping us in a sense of calm.

 By the time we got back to our intended campsite, it had already begun to rain again – and this time, it was more insistent than the night before. We waited 6 solid hours, sharing travel tales and ghost stories while staring up into the darkness of the tent roof, before accepting that it wasn’t going to stop. We resigned ourselves to having to cook dinner and answer the call of nature amidst the freezing pitter-patter. Then we woke up to snow. After sipping hot coffees safely from the inside of our tents, we packed them up and began walking just in time, since the snow had rapidly turned into hail.

Our last day was the hardest, and the longest. Since we had changed route and had to cut our trek short, it was going to be a long way home. We’d run out of dry clothes, and everything was soaking wet with the cold kind of damp that gets into your bones. But still, we kept going. If we didn’t make it back in time, we’d miss the last bus out of town, and not make it to our next destination. Jyrgalan Village only gets a few buses back to town per day, and the last one left by 4:30pm sharp. For 80KGS (1USD), it would take us the hour’s drive back to Karakol, where we were to take the latest car we could schedule to Jeti-Oguz, an area further south of Lake Issyk-Kul known for its curious rock formations and mysterious mist.

 We gritted our teeth and put the pedal to the metal, so to speak. The valleys were still stunning, but the streams that had been so much fun to cross a couple of days before now seemed to mock us, as the water had risen so high there was no way to cross without stepping straight into the cold running water. Our backs ached, and we silently cursed every extra item we’d packed, although we’d wound up needing it all. Perhaps it was knowing that a bed and a hot shower were at the end of the journey, but after some quick heartfelt goodbyes to the family at the guest house (and some more of their delicious breads and jams for the road), we made it to the bus just in time. Jeti-Oguz and its legend of the seven bulls awaited.