A Midnight Escape From a Kyrgyz Alpine Lake

Lake Song-kulAfter spending 12 hours on a horse, drinking a bottle of vodka with lunch and wearing basically a sheep with sleeves to keep from freezing to death, I didn’t think anything else in the 3500 meter-high jailoos at Lake Song-Kul could catch me off-guard.
Lake Song-Kul is the second highest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca shared by Bolivia and Peru. In summer local shepherds set up camp in the pastures by the lake, called jailoos, where they tend their sheep, graze their cattle, and make fermented mare’s milk, known as kymyz. To make extra income, some also host travelers during the and show them the ways of life on the jailoo. They work in accordance with organizations in a nearby village that set up travelers with a host and a driver.
The shepherds live in simple, white huts called yurts. A yurt is a wooden structure covered with multi-layered felt, not unlike the Native American wigwam. The outer later is waterproof and the inner layer is designed to block the wind. The most important part of the yurt is the shanrak, which is the hole at the top that lets out the smoke from the stove and also controls the yurt’s temperature. The tyndyk is the design in the middle of the shanrak that is found on the Kyrgyz flag. The floor of the yurt can be covered in brightly-colored rugs called shyrdaks, or left as natural ground. Colorfully-designed tapestries are also hung from the walls to add a bit of color. At night piles of colorful blankets and duvets are brought out, creating a very comfortable and warm sleeping place. It was from this serene state that my next experience was about to begin.
I was having a really interesting dream involving an Uzbek horseman and a child. The Uzbek was involved in some kind of a jousting tournament and the child was cheering him on. Obviously the day’s horse trek and being called an Uzbek by nearly every Kyrgyz I met influenced that part of the dream but what about the cheering child? I slowly awoke from my dream to hear the yelling of what I thought was a small boy. I looked at my watch and it was 23:48, a little late for the kids to be out playing, especially since it’s pitch black and near freezing. I heard Duncan mutter something beside me but as he is not unknown to talk in his sleep, I thought nothing of it. I then heard some rustling towards his side of the yurt as well as movement behind me from the driver’s side. I was still half asleep so I had no idea what was going on. The noise on both sides of me lasted for about a minute and I just lay there in the darkness wondering what was going on. Just when I was sure the driver had stood up Duncan turned on his flashlight and, as I thought, the driver was making his way for the door. Duncan asked, with a serious tone in his voice and a look of worry on his face, if there was a problem. ‘Yes, problem,’ said the driver. He didn’t answer when asked what had happened but instead went outside. At this point I asked Duncan what the hell was going on and he looked at me with astonishment and said ‘didn’t you hear all that?’ ‘All what,’ was my reply. Because of, or maybe thanks to, my heavy state of sleep I missed out on the events that had transpired.
According to Duncan about five or six men on horses came to the yurts. They then galloped around the area, including around our yurt, while screaming out our hosts’ names. It was violent screaming and shouting, not at all like calling after your friends or neighbors on a dark night. The screaming got louder and more intense and it was at this point that Duncan went for his flashlight and I woke up. The cheering child in my dream was actually the screaming of our host’s wife and the galloping horse was that of one of our late-night visitors. He was certain that they were going to burst into our yurt looking for our host. There were three yurts so the horsemen just kept galloping around until thankfully our host and his wife came out of their yurt to confront them. The seriousness in Duncan’s voice made we realize that something was very wrong.
I had millions of thoughts running through my head. Has someone been hurt? Has something been stolen? Has one of the children been kidnapped? Did they know we were there and wanted to rob us? Who knows. This was after all the middle of absolutely nowhere in the middle of Kyrgyzstan, a country still living out visions of the Wild West. If something happened what do we do? We were at least two hours from Kochkor, the nearest village, by unpaved mountain road, which was in turn three hours by car from Bishkek. No electricity, no phones, nothing.
We set the world speed record for getting dressed and as a precaution even packed our bags in case a quick escape became necessary. I tried to mentally prepare myself for one of three options. A) Someone is dead or seriously hurt. B) Run for my life into the hills. C) Grab something and fight to defend the yurts. It was absolutely freezing when we went outside but everything was quiet and the horsemen were gone. Thankfully I still had my sheep coat from earlier but even that couldn’t keep me from shivering. Our host came to us and we asked what was going on. Fortunately neither A, B or C were necessary. He said that the people on horses were drunk and wanted him to drink vodka with them but he refused. He then mentioned something about a shot and tried to explain some more but I didn’t really understand what he was saying. Violent drunks is a very likely story considering where we were but for all the commotion there must have been something else to it, and there was.
Duncan and I, along with our driver, went back into the yurt and tried to go back to sleep. 10 minutes later our host came in and began speaking with the driver. He again got up, got dressed and went outside. Something was up. Our host came back in a couple minutes later and told us he and the driver were going to the police station in Kochkor and would be back in about five hours. Excuse me? Going to the police station in Kochkor at this time of night? Something was really serious if they felt the need to drive for two hours each way on an unpaved mountain road at 1 a.m. to visit the police, especially as we were due to leave early the next morning. What was so important that it had to be dealt with now?
Within two minutes of being informed that they were going to the police station we were up getting dressed again, this time even quicker than the first. The thought of being left alone up here in the jailoo after God only knows what just happened, not knowing any Kyrgyz and just a bit of Russian was not very appealing. Add to that we were the oldest ones up there and going back to sleep would be next to impossible under the circumstances. The thoughts running through my head ranged from bad to worse. What would we do if we were stuck up here? Better yet, what would we do if the horsemen came back and we had to fight or run into the hills? There were other yurts around, even yurts with other tourists, but they were at best a couple kilometers away. We made the decision to ask to go with them to Kochkor. I thought of even just asking to be taken to another yurt but then our driver would have to come back for us so the easiest option was to just leave. We came out of the yurt and informed our host that we would not be able to sleep. He then asked if we wanted to accompany them to Kochkor and stay at our driver’s house, to which we quite happily said yes. We got our things and put them in the car. Our host came and put his things in the car along with a sharp piece of splintered wood. The wheels were turning in my brain again. Why did he put this in the car? Was it for protection? Was it something the midnight horsemen broke? Was it one of their weapons? Who knows. The only answer we got out of our host about the whole situation was ‘yes, big problem, crime.’
Added to the fact that we were being evacuated from Song-Kul in the middle of the night, the car’s engine was not sufficiently warmed up enough to make it up some of the hills so we had to get out and push. It was about a five-minute-drive from the jailoo to the main road along what was literally no more than a line cut in the grass. Now that doesn’t sound like much but pushing a Lada up hills on a dirt track at an altitude of 3500 meters with the temperature hanging around zero is not a pleasant experience. The car needed a push on three separate occasions but it made the warmth of the inside of the car even more enjoyable. Negotiating a Lada over grassy knolls, around sinkholes and through puddles, occasionally giving it a push start isn’t the most inspiring start to a journey of such magnitude but thankfully we got to the road without any further problems and the journey out of Song-Kul began.
The only lights in plain view were the Lada’s headlights and the light of the full moon. Bits of the road had been washed away due to heavy rains so certain sections required a diversion onto the grassy sides in order to avoid meter-deep puddles of water. At one point though we encountered the headlights of another car. It was parked off to the side and we soon realized it was the local checkpoint. I don’t know why they were checking or what they were checking for but there was a man with a flashlight standing by the side of the road that flagged us down. There were another three or four people in the car with the headlights turned on. The strangest part was that none of the people were police or any other kind of authority. They must have just been local shepherds (or militia) standing watch. A few words from our driver and we were through without any trouble.
When the road reached the north side of the lake it began to climb up and over a 4000 meter pass. The view of the lake through the back window, slightly illuminated by the light of the full moon was spectacular. If ever there was a time for the word isolation to be used, this was most certainly it. 4000 meters, mountain pass, alpine lake, windy mountain road, two hours to the nearest village, nothing but the moon and the stars, no living souls except for the animals. This was isolation. It was what I wanted to experience in this region of the country, only not exactly under these terms.
The road was incredibly dark and there were sheep and horses to both sides so it was imperative for the driver to pay close attention. One thing is for sure, I will never again make fun of Ladas. They may look bad and smell even worse, thanks to their 76 octane fuel, and their maximum speed might only hit 60 km/h, but they are tough, strong little cars. Our faithful Lada bounced over the potholes and crevices in the road with the sturdiness of a sure-footed mule down the side of a steep cliff. I could even use the term ‘hauling ass’ even though that and the word Lada don’t really belong in the same sentence. I didn’t know it was possible for one to go so fast, especially on such a bad road.
Despite the drama and chaos of the situation, I must say that our departure from Song-Kul was probably one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced. How can I possibly look at the beauty of nature as we’re bouncing down a narrow mountain road in the middle of the night after being woken up by drunken Kyrgyz horsemen? The moon was full and lit up the night with a pale iridescent glow that enabled me to see the outlines of the mountains and the shapes of the cliffs and rocks. The sight of rushing mountain streams containing the reflection of the moon was awe-inspiring. This was the path beyond the off-the-beaten one. One of the most isolated and beautiful regions in the world and after waiting more than a year to be able to see it, I was being treated to a midnight performance with only Duncan, our host and driver and the full moon as its audience.
We arrived to our driver’s house at 3:30 a.m. He woke up his family who then quickly made up beds for us and made sure we had everything. Imagine being woken up at 3:30 a.m. and changing your bed sheets so you can give your bed to some mangy travelers and sleep on the sofa. Well that’s what his family did for us. The hospitality of the Kyrgyz people never failed to impress me.
The excitement of the night took about 30 minutes to wear off. We spent the time playing detective, trying to guess what the hell just transpired over the last four hours. We made a lot of guesses, drew many conclusions and at the end of it all had absolutely no way to explain anything.
Neither our host nor our driver ever told us what really happened and maybe it’s for the best. First of all it’s none of our business and second they didn’t want us to think that drunken horsemen showing up at midnight was a regular occurrence as it would make both them and the host organization look bad. So I will have to rely on my imagination and the few facts I know in order to come to a conclusion that makes a bit of sense. Family feud, fight with the neighbors, bandits or just plain drunks, I’ll have to go with what my mind tells me really happened. The impressions of that night through the mountains in Kyrgyzstan will stay with me forever, no matter the reasons for its initiation really were.

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