The hunter asked me to brace my forearm as he prepared to lure the golden eagle from his arm to mine. The eagle touched down on my arm, gently at first, and then tucked away its wings, transferring its entire weight on my arm. I have lifted full-grown dogs that were lighter. I was in a small village called Bokonbayevo on the southern side of the Issyk-Kul, which is the second largest mountain lake in the world after Lake Titicacain Peru and the second largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea. The region surrounding this lake is one of Kyrgyzstan’s main tourism draws and I, along with a bunch of adventurous travellers, was on a motorcycling trip around the country.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the ‘stans’ of Central Asia that, for the better part of the 20th century, were in the shadow of the USSR. When I went for a stroll in Bishkek, the capital, I was frequently greeted by imposing black statues, reminiscent of the region’s communist past. Most of the statues were symbolic by way of messages about duty, sacrifice and the common man’s compulsory obligation towards the welfare of the state above personal gain. Since capitalism replaced communism–in the aftermath of the 1990s era of perestroika–billboards now advertise western brands.
However, this isn’t Kyrgyzstan’s first tryst with fancy merchandise from faraway lands. Its geographical location meant that the region lay plumb on one of the parallel routes running from Europe to China, popularly called the Silk Road. Along this road flowed ideas and inventions between the eastern and western hemispheres of the medieval world.
Our motorcycling route took us on a roughly clockwise circuit of the Issyk-Kul with brief forays into the Tian Shan Mountains that ring the lake. Riding out of Bishkek, I was at once impressed by the quality of the tarmac and the way it had been ergonomically wrapped around the mountains to afford superb riding pleasure with great cornering opportunities. But then, it wasn’t a big surprise considering that mostly Chinese companies are given road-building contracts here. Anybody who has driven in China will tell you that the Chinese are masters in road building.
On the first day, we stopped at a village which was hosting an exhibition of horse games. Like most of Central Asia, the horse (not the bullock) was the beast of choice for transportation here. Even today, over a hundred years since horsepower was packed into a crankcase, the horse plays an important part in Kyrgyz society. Many farming families revere the animal. Often on our ride and especially on the stretched out steppes of the tundra, I came across herds of horses galloping wantonly across fields. Of course, they weren’t wild–the mark of the branding iron on their rumps were proof–but the sight of them galloping alongside or ahead of us, hooves drumming on the dirt road or ringing with a metallic tang on the tarmac, became one of the highlights of the ride.
Even Kyrgyz marriage rituals are tied with the groom’s prowess at the reigns of his steed. To win a girl’s hand in marriage, a suitor must outride the girl and kiss her. Sometimes, multiple suitors have to fight each other on horseback. The last man left in the saddle is the winner. Alarmingly though, there have been incidents where these old rituals were corrupted into kidnapping a girl and forcing her into marriage, an unlawful practice that the government is cracking down on.
On the first night, we switched off our engines at the Karven Four Seasons Hotel in Cholpon Ata, about 290km from Bishkek. This resort on the northern banks of the Issyk-Kul is a tourist hotspot during summer, thanks to its sandy beaches. During the days of the Soviet Union, tourists would come by the trainloads; today, they arrive in private, chartered planes to sunbathe on the lake’s beach or take a dip in the water. Interestingly, this lake never freezes over, not even during the harsh winters this area sees. In fact, Issyk literally means ‘warm’.
The fuel attendant at a service station told me about the petroglyphs (ancient rock drawings)–an abundance of which had been found in an extensive field of glacial boulders in Cholpon Ata. We zipped to the protected site to see for ourselves the ancient figures etched onto boulders–their timelines ranging from 1500 BC to the 10th century AD. They portrayed scenes from everyday life. Hunting was represented quite often, and the most spectacular one was that of an ibex (long-horned sheep) being hunted with domesticated snow leopards.
Our aim for that day was to get to Karakol, which was just 160km from Cholpon Ata, but on the way we took a detour into a gorge which eventually led to another highlight of the trip.
At the start of the journey, when we were first shown the bikes, I had wondered why the service provider had chosen dual-purpose bikes like the Suzuki DZ-R400. These were motorcycles meant for tarmac as well as dirt and I had never been a big fan of them. But when we turned left into that gorge it became apparent why. My previous dirt road experience had been limited to riding a Royal Enfield in Spiti and Ladakh–sliding that heavy motorcycle on dirt roads with skinny tyres meant for tarmac wasn’t really a pleasant experience.
But this torque-heavy 400cc bike, with its long travel front suspension and grippy tyres, changed the game altogether. The tyres gripped loose dirt and inspired confidence, so riding hard through the gorge, sliding the rear into corners, was more fun than fear. Our support vehicle had carried on ahead and found a little picnic spot by a small lake. By the time we arrived, they already had meat and potatoes sizzling on the barbeque.
We hit the tarmac again just as the sun was going down behind the Tian Shan Mountains and the cold crept in quicker than we could fathom. I remember seeing a sign that said ‘Karakol: 30km’ and wondering whether I would last that long. By then the cold had already breached the protective layers of leather and wool and was worming itself into the marrow of my bones. When we finally got to our digs at Karakol, I had to prise the fingers of my left hand off the handlebar grip, where they were frozen stiff thanks to a hole in my glove.
On the third day, we rode the southern bank of the Issyk-Kul through a profusion of fall colours contrasted by the deep blue of the lake. Now the roads were local and our speeds were reduced. It was a good thing because there was so much natural beauty in the region to witness. That day, we stopped at Bokonbayevo and had lunch at the home of the hunter with the eagle. He was also a trapper and there were fox pelts lying stretched out to dry in his front yard. At lunch, his mother served what looked like minced meat with some flat noodles. He later explained that the dish was horsemeat, a delicacy reserved for important guests.
The next day’s ride from Balykchy to Naryn turned out to be another day of off-roading adventure. We detoured via yet another dirt road through the mountains, and were greeted by rolling meadows on both sides of the track that gradually ascended towards the snowline. The meadows were flat and I rode out into them aiming towards the snowline thinking that I would stop and turn back when the incline became too steep for the bike to handle. It never did. We rode right up to the snow.
The support staff arrived a few minutes later and brought out their portable samovar to provide some steaming hot tea. If only there were some milk to add to the tea, I spoke out loud. Arseni, one of the two support crew, instantly whistled to a herdsman in the distance. He galloped up, a few words were exchanged, and he galloped back. Arseni held a smirk on his face as the herdsman returned with a leather flask stoppered by a piece of bone. He had milked one of his mares.
Now I had had past experiences where drinking untreated milk had led to bowel trouble, so I passed. But the others who drank it, said it tasted the way a stable smelled.
My travel advisory had said Hotel Khan Tengri in Naryn was a quiet little hotel. But obviously the hotel itself had not got that memo nor had the local townsfolk. That evening, there was a rollicking party in the banquet hall where nearly all the people of the small town were present. The Kyrgyz seem to have a fascination with music that Bappi Lahiri wrote for movies starring Mithun Chakraborty because the DJ repeatedly played I am a Disco Dancer and Jimmy Jimmy. Or maybe he was just trying to make us feel more at home. So were the townspeople, who kept grabbing our hands and coaxing us onto the dance floor. And as more of the local Kyrgyz moonshine flowed freely, the more crowded the dance floor got.
The next morning’s early start was predictably deferred to 10am. We didn’t have to pack up and check out that day as we were riding out to Tash Rabat and back. The reason for riding 114km southwest was to visit the enigmatic caravanserai standing at Tash Rabat. A monastery of the Christian church of the Sassanian Empire stood here in the 10th century but it was refurbished as a caravanserai for weary Silk Road travellers in the 15th century. Today, it is a tourist destination that seems stuck in that era. When we arrived at the caravanserai, light snowflakes were falling, giving the place an ethereal feel. There area few yurts (typical herdsman homes) around the caravanserai where you can stay overnight, but be warned that the interiors smell of sheep fat as that is what is used to waterproof the sheepskin the yurts are made from. The landlady had set up a fabulous traditional meal within the main yurt that we did good justice to, thanks to the appetite worked up from riding in the cold.
Tash Rabat is also a centre for horse trekking around the region. During our visit, though, the horses seemed shy and skittered away whenever we approached them. We spent the morning and most of the afternoon exploring the region. When it was time to ride back, the horses seemed to overcome their initial introversion. They galloped along the fields bordering the dirt road, their hooves kicking up a cloud of dust and their manes and tails blowing in the wind. At one point, they even came onto the road and galloped ahead of us before turning back and heading to their paddock near the caravanserai.
It was a fitting goodbye from Tash Rabat and a fantastic conclusion to our six-day motorcycle ride across the country.
There are direct flights from Delhi to Bishkek offered by Air Manas and a return trip costs about â‚¹23,000. The flight takes around 3.5hrs.
Indian nationals need a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan which is obtained using a Letter of Invitation issued by a travel agency in Kyrgyzstan. It costs around â‚¹11,000.
You will need an International Driving Permit along with your Indian Driving License. You will also need a riding kit. This should ideally comprise a snug (preferably full-face) helmet, a riding jacket with shoulder and elbow pads and preferably back armour, riding pants or at least knee pads that can be strapped on over your jeans or pants, and a pair of gloves. Remember that it will be cold and you have to factor in the wind. Wear comfortable boots that you can ride with and also walk around in.
MotoRover (motorover.in) offers curated motorcycle tours in Kyrgyzstan. The next tour is scheduled to start on September 10, 2017. A team leader leads the motorcycle tour and a support vehicle transports luggage from hotel to hotel. It is all-inclusive and all you need to do is show up in Bishkek (with your riding kit) and ride. From â‚¹1,60,000 per rider and an additional â‚¹1,10,000 for a pillion rider.