“Do you think we can hire a horse for today? My children look forward to riding a horse,” I asked Belek, the slim but very athletic guide for our four days and three nights trek to Song Kol Lake in Kyrgyzstan.
Belek smiled at me without replying. Next to him was Arina, a tall woman who is a decedent of Russian and Dungan (Chinese Hui) ancestry.
Arina had a sparklein her eyes as she motioned Belek to come closer, “Do you think we should tell Jonathan?”
After some eyes winking and smiles between Arina and Belek, Arina whispered to me, “Jonathan, our whole group decided to give Annie a birthday gift. We want to give Annie a horse for today’s trek!”
It took me few seconds to comprehend what was happening. It was only our second day of trekking and it never crossed my mind that they would decided to do something so generous and special for someone who was a stranger only yesterday. Although we were all eating breakfast around the campsite, we do not speak Kyrgyz or Russian, so we did not know some of what they were discussion. Without us knowing, the seven of them which composed the rest of our trekking party, agreed to each contribute money to give Annie a surprise 45th birthday gift.
After we all ate breakfast together as a group, a teenage village girl rode a majestic grey horse with white spots and charged across the river splashing cold river water into the air. The horse was the lead horse for the pack and from the movement and the muscular tension of the horse, one can see why. To Annie’s surprise, the horse was brought over in front of Annie. When the group finally announced it to Annie the birthday surprise, Annie’s eyes and mouth were wide open.
While the rest of us struggled to climb up our final and highest mountain pass at 3200 meters, Annie rode slowly and graceful on her horse a full body height above everyone else.
“I saw the valley and mountain differently being so much higher,” shared Annie joyfully, who is only five feet one inch tall. “As I rode and observed the mountain and pastures around me, I thought of all the different water paintings I want to paint!”
One day earlier, the eleven of us plus two guides started from Kochkor town at 2300 meters to the four day trek to the aqua blue alpine glacier-fed Song Kol Lake. We were part of a local trekking club of Bishkek called Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (TUK) where locals organized themselves to go on various one day and multi-day trekking trips throughout Kyrgyzstan. Unlike a typical trekking tour group consisting of foreigners, our fellow trekkers were all local people from Kyrgyzstan.
Joani recalled “The Kyrgyz hostel host at the Tashkurgan Lake in Xinjiang said that ‘Kyrgyz good’ but I had no concept of what other Kyrgyz were like until we started hiking. When we all got on the minivan, no one smiled or talked with each other and we don’t know Russian. Awkward…”
“Then I remembered our friend the Adamson warned us when we walk on the street in Central Asia not to look or smile at strangers because locals there don’t greet strangers and would misunderstand you if you smile at them, especially if you are a woman. But as we hiked, we begin to talk and then to share food. And when we don’t know what they were laughing about, Arina or Rahat would translate for us into English,” Joani continued.
Olivia laughed, “I think we got the better end of the bargain in terms of sharing food. We brought the least amount of food while Boka (husband or Arina) carried cans and cans of delicious can fish, a bottle of vodka, and different snacks.
“It was Rahat who first asked me if I understand the movie that was playing in the mini-van,” Annie remembered. “That was when I was found out that Rahat can speak English!”
“I was surprised when one by one they begin to speak English to us!” Jonathan recalled excitedly.
During the four days 35 kilometer trek, we all had many opportunity to chat with our new Kyrgyzstan friends since we trek at least 6 hours each day.
Olivia shared about her conversation with Rahat, “She is quite a visionary person because she has so many ideas. She wanted to start a mobile science lab for the village children of Kyrgyzstan to get them interested in Chemistry and Biology because she said the children do not have exposure to subjects other than language and math so there are very few scientists in Kyrgyzstan. She is also thinking about starting eco-tourism in Kyrgyzstan and ways of reducing the use of plastic bags by the people.”
Nathan, being a natural historian and connoisseur of facts was fascinated by what Arina shared about the history and politics of Kyrgyzstan.
“How was the government like during the soviet time and what were the changes after the revolution in 1991?”
“There was changes on the outside but internally, there was little growth in the country because the new government of Kyrgyzstan was still corrupt. Some older people liked the Soviet days better because at least everyone was equal, there was access to education, and everyone has a job,” Arina shared. “I often watch China’s CCTV news channel in Russian. The news said that China is trying to get rid of corruption. That is so impressive. How is that going?”
“Haha…Haha…” Olivia laughed. “It funny to hear people in other countries think that China is so great, but China is just the same.”
“The Chinese news is just a cover up,” Nathan commented.
During the trek, we all contributed money to buy food to cook two dinners and three breakfasts. When we wake up or when we arrived at our destination for that evening, Madina, a energetic Kyrgyz whose family originated from Kazakhstan, would organize everyone to help cook the meals. It was also an opportunity for the children to see how food are cooked differently in different countries.
“In Kyrgyzstan, they like to put sugar in everything. They use sugar cubes for the tea, eat bread with condense milk and add condense milk in the porridge,” Jonathan observed.
Annie added, “I was surprise how much condense milk Belek put in his porridge”
“It was a lot! It is like us Chinese putting chili peppers in all our dishes!” Joani said excitedly.
Nathan added, “Kyrgyz people really like their tea. Drinking tea to them seems to be a time of gathering and of building community. Every time we stopped, the first thing we did was to drink tea. We also have tea before meal and after meal.”
“It is like taking a break for them,” Olivia commented.
“It is sort of like Dutch’s coffee time,” Annie followed.
Jonathan pointed out, “Isn’t it funny how they have a special tea water ‘hot pot’ passed down by the Russians where they put coal in the middle to keep the water hot? It is just like our Chinese hot pot, except we put food in it!”
Besides Annie’s birthday, we had another big surprise.
“Annie, we would like to invite you over to our home for dinner. What day is good for you?” Arina asked Annie. “You have such as beautiful family. All families should be like this, hiking together. I really like this.”
Annie recalled fondly, “Yes, we squabble. Yes, we fight. But when you just run your family life, it is endearing to people. We have been to so many different hostels and people there enjoy our family, because we bring the feeling of family around us. That is a ministry. God taught me a lesson of if you are being still and being yourself, people will come to you.”
When we planned our trip to the Song Kol Lake, we looked forward to gazing the countless stars in the night sky, to swimming in the clear aqua glacier lake, and to galloping horses along its shore. We did all that and more. What we didn’t expect but what turned out to be our greatest reward was the company and friendship of seven total strangers during our four days and three nights with the people of Kyrgyzstan!