Snowy trails in the Kyrgyzstan mountains

Snowy trails in the Kyrgyzstan mountains

Karakol Livestock Market

Horsemanship runs deep through Kyrgyzstan's veins. Traditionally a nomadic culture, the ability to ride horses and ride them well was not only esteemed, but often necessary. In today's culture, it is common to see men and women riding their proud horses through towns and villages and mountain passes on a daily basis. Regular riding competitions are held both nationally and locally throughout the year.

In Karakol, where I found myself somewhat unexpectedly, there is a livestock market every Sunday. It is reserved for locals from far and wide to come together, barter and exchange their livestock, and of course, their horses. Interested as always in local culture, I had to go.

It was snowing hard but I was assured this would not deter anyone. Sure enough, when I arrived the market was heaving. Everywhere I looked there were people tugging on animals, pulling them this way and that. I even watched as a sheep was unceremoniously bound by the legs and shoved into the open boot of a nearby saloon car "“ it wasn't even an estate! Horses were however by far the stars of the show, and made up the majority of the livestock I saw on display.

I was told in no uncertain terms just how valuable horses still are in such a culture. I was itching to experience this culture first-hand, so I booked a tour on horseback for the following day.

Mongolian Horse Trekking

When I woke the following morning, it was one of those pale winter's days where all the colour seems to have been drained from the world. No matter how grey the day, I was still excited. Today I would ride my first Kyrgyz horse.

Unlike the traditional nomadic ponies of Mongolia, Kyrgyz horses stand tall. They are not as small as their counterparts and I had not expected such commanding presence. I was introduced to my horse for the day, a beautiful black mare named "Mahnee". I was told she could be a little frisky. Having grown up riding horses this excited me rather than scared me, and I couldn't wait to get back on horseback.

The saddle was worn leather with two long straps on either side for the simple metal stirrups hanging from them. I put my foot inside one and jumped onto Mahnee's back. My guide for the day, who spoke no English but smiled a lot, waved me forward and we were off.

It was winter and I was in the mountains. Soft, floury snow covered the ground in thick swathes more than a metre deep. At first I followed the guide along tyre tracks but it wasn't long before he cut away from the compressed snow where the vehicles had gone before and headed up the snow covered banks that surrounded us.

Unsure at first how Mahnee would cope in snow so deep, I hesitated.

She was clearly used to it though. As I urged her on with a gentle "Tchu" (Kyrgyz for "Go"), she plunged forward into the powder. It was fun! She half walked, half trotted until I hit another small track. This time it was horses that had gone before, not cars. Hoof prints marked the snow in front of me, and I smiled to think that once upon a time, this would have been the only type of trail to follow.

The path wound it's way through a narrow valley. Wild horses grazed the rough grass that poked through the snow. A foal nuzzled it's mother. I was captivated. What kind of magical place had I stumbled into, that I could trek on horseback through an otherwise deserted valley, with wild horses flanking my sides?

Written by: Laura Ricketts

Laura Ricketts picLaura loves the wild places of the world and is always looking for journeys that will take her to the remote corners of the globe. She enjoys traveling slowly, taking the time to explore a place before moving on to the next. When she is not writing, she likes to cycle, rock climb and camp on beautiful beaches. Follow her at:

All Photo Credits: Laura Ricketts

For more ITKT travel stories about Asia