On Celestial horses

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Posted on August 24, 2015

I asked how long Elyaman had been riding. After a short exchange with the interpreter, he broke into a broad grin and held his hand about two feet above the trampled grass. Then, with a big laugh, he raised two fingers. I may not understand any words of the Kazakh language but I got the message.

Elyaman Jamalbai Elyaman Jamalbai.

We were in the centre of the wonderfully named Celestial Mountains of central Asia, verdant uplands that form a natural border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The trails were a blend of feint and guesswork: full of meadow flowers, empty of anyone. It is the most pristine of all landscapes that I have ever trekked through.

Elyaman is just 18 years old and together with his friend Dauren took charge of the five horses that were our pack animals for the eight-day journey.

Dauren Adulkasym Dauren Adulkasym.

I am used to working alongside horses of some form or another to lug all that is needed to get a group from A to B, sometimes mules, sometimes donkeys, always bony, sore-covered and sad looking. But these were of an entirely different league: graceful, impressive, strong and very beautiful.

And I never saw any of the horses buck, lash out, stampede or even flinch. They were acting counter to all my worst imaginings of what a horse is.

Leading the pack animals Leading the pack animals.

I’ve always had a healthy fear of horses, they have a nasty front end and a dangerous back end. They are a lot larger than me and (in my imaginings at least) have mischievous minds and are strong willed. I lump them into the same category as bears, hippos, moose and kangaroo: great to look at, but always and only with a big space between us.

I think my mistrust of equines started as a kid when, acting without properly thinking, I dropped out of low chestnut branch onto the back of a donkey being held by a friend. Who knew that donkeys could run at speed and buck like a bronco? Well, I learnt quickly - within two seconds of hitting its back. In my hasty attempt to hang on I lurched forwards and grabbed hold of the incensed animal's ears, which failed to calm it. My inevitable fall was mercifully soft, but it instilled in me the knowledge that donkeys, or horses, or anything that looked like them, were not to be messed with. Or got on, ever.

But these Kryg horses were different and forced me to think again about my feelings for the animals and more particularly the relationship that humans can have with them.

Three Kyrg boys outside their yurt Three Kyrg boys outside their yurt

While we were walking, we passed several small clusters of herders who live in yurts for the summer grazing season, from May to September. From their bases they let loose small groups of sheep, cattle and yaks to munch the plentiful grass that fill the valleys knee-high. This is the perfect model for sustainable grazing. Each yurt swaddles a small family – always wellie-clad - is edged by snarling dogs and has several horses tethered to low fences. Even though some families have jeeps or four-wheel drives, their horses are the preferred transport. I frequently saw the grazers emerge from a tent, leap onto a horse and gallop up valley to attend to some unseen urgent business. It wasn’t unusual to see children as young as six climb up into the saddle unaided and bounce off across the land to move their stock along.

A Kyrg herder and his young son. A Kyrg herder and his young son.

But before I get too misty-eyed it is worth stating that horses in this region are not only ridden and used as pack animals; they are eaten. As we threaded our way through the mountains we came across small herds of them, un-fenced, unfettered and allowed to roam freely. To all intents and purposes they are wild horses, gathered in at the end of the season and, when ready, taken to market.

On the final day of trekking we crossed extremely difficult terrain: grass-hidden holes, several hundred metres of wobbling boulders the size of coffee tables and a short but nerve-jarring glacier. The final ascent to the 4000-metre Ashutok Pass, where the clouds were resting, was a tough 40-degree scree slope. It had been a difficult and very tiring day for many reasons but my thoughts frequently turned to the horses and what their day must have been like: how the hell did they, laden with up to 90 kilos of gear, manage to cross this? Or this?

As I neared the pass, my thoughts were answered emphatically. To cries of ‘hey hey’ and the sounds of stones rolling on stones, the five horses crested the ridge and rode the scree, almost as if they were surfing. They had crossed the pass ahead of me, dropped our camping gear, and were heading back home, being gently but insistently driven by Dauren. The graceful animals flowed past me quickly, crossing the land effortlessly.

Our five pack animals flowing past me on the screes below the Ashutok Pass. Our five pack animals flowing past me on the screes below the Ashutok Pass.

Elyaman had waited at the camp to be paid the wages before catching up with Dauren and heading back to his home. I watched him riding towards me from the distance. When he reached me, he stopped and leant forward to shake my hand. We had very little language in common, but it was a friendly exchange. ‘Thank you,’ he said, before trotting back up towards the pass, as if on a daily hack across a flat home-counties field.

I watched him ascend the scree slope. Just 18, I thought, and more mature than any teenager I have encountered back home. He looked so at ease in the mountains, a part of the landscape, his landscape. He and his horse were supremely fit for their world. I also realised that I had grown to like these horses a lot - I even stroked a couple of them. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m still not in a hurry to ride one.

Elyaman heading back up to the pass. Elyaman heading back up to the pass.

This Blog was written by Rob, recently returned from leading the Heart of the Tien Shan trek for KE Adventure Travel of Keswick. He has been a guide for KE for the past 13 years.

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