After an epic first 24 Hours in Kyrgyzstan, the day had come to saddle up venture on my debut horseback ride. I figured it could be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I signed up with a super-lovely tour guide Erkaim (who reassured me it didn’t matter I’d never been on a horse in my life).
Setting off, we travel along what was once part of the Silk Road. Along this very path, there were important trading cities in their day (Navaket, Suyab, and Balasagun – none of which managed to survive), all situated 20k apart. This was the furthest distance people could travel at the time during daylight hours and these were safe havens from any bandits in between. It took more than a year to travel the whole Silk Road apparently. Back in the 18th Century, Dungan people from China – adherents of Islam, and many of whom were farmers – came to these parts and to this day there’s still an appetite among Chinese tourists to revisit these lands and hear their local dialect.
A famous Chinese poet was also born here, Li Bai – credited for taking traditional poetry to new heights, and a leading figure in the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry”. Apparently, one of his most famous works was “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day” so I guess, if I could comprehend his work, I’d have been a fan.
Daydreaming about the historical importance of the journey, we arrive at a local’s manor. The manor it turns out is run by the dude with the four-legged beasts - and the time has come to mount them. I spot a few bulkier ones that I like the look of but I’m not selected for those. Instead, a medium-build one chooses me, or I think that’s what the locals said. I climb aboard a handsome chestnut-coloured beauty for my first ever journey on horseback. With some of the basics instructions explained, the main way to get the beasts into first gear was to kick them in the ribs (I think) and utter the word “Chu” (the Chinese word for go). I did ask if the horses were Chinese and I was met with ridicule but I later learned this part of the world was once part of the Tang Dynasty.
We set off in a steady convoy, two side-by-side, and the dirty dozen of us (mainly comprised of US Foreign Office Staff) trotted off gently – although Dave, as my first equestrian partner became known, did like to stop frequently to attend to an itch or three. With the occasional whip of encouragement from one of the local guides, we meandered through the stunning countryside of Chong Kemin Valley. The Tian Shan (heavenly mountains in Chinese) range covers a whopping 80% of Kyrgyzstan and they add for a stunning backdrop in almost every direction. It's why the country is sometimes referred to as "the Switzerland of Central Asia".
Snow-capped mountains with tree-covered hills had rivers sporadically streaming through them and it made for a refreshing change of environment after life in Dubai. The feelings that stunning nature can bring are almost forgotten living in the Sandpit.
Rain clouds appeared to be coming our way despite the warm weather. And, it did indeed start to rain briefly and it was glorious (it wasn’t exactly a storm but hey). I haven’t stood, or been sat rather, in the rain for over a year essentially. Sadly, it didn’t last so long and we trotted on pasts cute waterways.
Further up the trail, we spot some cows grazing away and minding their own business. As the lead from the dirty-dozen startles some calves, the cows' offspring come running over the hill to meet mama cow – and the girls (and some of the guys) let out a collective and audible “ahhhh”.
Meanwhile, my bollocks are taking an absolute pounding. I haven’t really worked out where to place them to avoid the constant bump, bump, bump as the horses walk on oblivious to my discomfort. Going downhill is certainly the worst: it’s like hitting your balls hard against a brick wall and it's total agony. Feeling my pain, metaphorically at least, the tour guide offers to swap horses with me soon.
After an idyllic trip – minus the literal ball bashing – through some densely covered woods, we arrive at our resting point for our half-time break. Munching on our snacks and posing for pics with the Kyrgyzstan flag – a flag that features 40 points, each meant to represent one of the 40 tribes that make up the Kyrgyz people.
Anyways, for the second leg, I get a VIP upgrade… Dave is relegated to the tour guide’s companion and Ben – as he would now be named – was a much more worthy partner. Ben was proper solid and sturdy. Much more me I felt, although I’m not sure he felt the same. A machine of a beast – pre-programmed to simply jog on and not fanny about swatting itches. The saddle was also an upgrade too, which help to ease some of the ball-banging I’d suffered this far. After sampling Red Dead Redemption during lockdown, I felt all I was missing was a rifle and a cowboy hat. And probably some boots but whatevs.
We marched on in unison. Gazing around at the tree-covered mountains that seem to roll into infinity in the background. At one point a random stud who's tied to a post gets a little excited spotting these other horses come flirting by. Swinging their tails, battering their eyelids, and farting occasionally and there’s almost a ruckus. But, like the peace-loving peoples we are, we swerve the danger and ride around the horny one.
After a brief stop to admire the local flora, we were inching closer to the ranch where a feast fit for Mongolian Khans would be served. The end would be nigh almost. And, despite the fact there was probably a good chance I could never have kids again, in a way I didn’t really want it to end there.
For anyone too young to get you the title reference…