It was eight hours since I'd eaten a Murray Mint – my breakfast – and I was famished. In the last 24 hours I'd been caught in a high-altitude snowstorm, one of my friends had been heli-lifted off a mountain and, with the other 11 members of my expedition, I had set up an emergency overnight camp with only stale bread, two dozen Bounty bars and assorted tins of fish and vegetables to eat.
Just over a week ago I'd flown into Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, to cross the Tian Shan, the 'Mountains of Heaven', on horseback. The 1,500km-long range has peaks topping 7,400m and stretches from Kazakhstan through Kyrgyzstan into China.
I've been riding all my life, but only in Britain. When I decided to try a horse trek abroad I thought first of heading for the American West – big skies, prairies, hearty country food and plenty of cowboy mythology. Then, on a whim, I decided to visit one of the 'stans' and tap into a far more ancient equestrian culture.
The Kyrgyzstan vibe
Stepping off the plane, the air was dry and hot, even at 2am. At the foot of the stairs stood a handful of policemen in Soviet-era visor caps with large guns.
I met my group – ten UK vacationers and hosts Dom, an Italian now living in Kyrgyzstan, and Essex-born farrier Jonathan who was spending the summer in Central Asia. After seeing the sights of leafy Bishkek, a city whose Soviet legacy is still evident in its austere architecture and wide boulevards, we began the two-day jeep ride to the remote mountain lake Son Kul to pick up the horses.
A route through history and unspoilt scenery
As we drove we planned our route. From Son Kul we'd ride to Sari Tash in the south-west of the country, via Kashka Suu, over the Dawan Pass and along the Kek Suu River and the Chinese border. It was a route that would cover 180 miles – as the crow would never fly – and take eight days, with six hours in the saddle each day.
We'd be riding part of the legendary Silk Road, the network of ancient trade routes that, for some 2,000 years, linked China with Europe. This was also Great Game country, landscape across which gung-ho young Victorian officers took on Tsarist Russia in a surreptitious war to control the area between the Caucasus and China in the nineteenth century.
Lake Son Kul provided the first real experience of central Kyrgyzstan's isolation, tranquillity and unspoiled beauty: no Tarmac ribbons bisecting the landscape, no electricity pylons, no aeroplanes, no brick buildings. The beautiful inland lake is surrounded by mountains and in the distance there are yurts and grazing livestock.
The local way of life
We bonded with our new friends over more than one bottle of vodka: Lilia, our cook; her husband, Monbiot, who did magic tricks; and Max and Zetech, the Kyrgyz guides who rode with us and looked after the horses.
As we rode we passed remote farms and villages where residents waved while staring with curiosity at our cowboy hats. The wildlife added to a sense of the mysterious East colliding with the Wild West; we spotted vultures, a lone Bactrian camel and herds of wild horses. The terrain we covered was just as diverse: we enjoyed long gallops across grassy plateaus and entrusted our lives to our surefooted mounts to traverse razor-like ridges and ride up deep gorges.
When not in the saddle, we indulged in Lilia's sensational stir-fries and thigh-soothing dips in freshwater rivers. I learned to remove saddlebags at lunchtime (the horses had a tendency to roll), and that a traditional shyrdak (felt rug) is a much more effective barrier against the cold than any self-inflating camping mat. I also learned to say two indispensable words in Kyrgyzs: salalmatsizbi (hello) and rahmat (thank you).
The riding was hard but rewarding. The landscape was epic and timeless – and that's not some vague hyperbole. If Genghis Khan galloped into Kyrgyzstan today he'd feel completely at home. The nights were as thrilling as the days – I spent hours gazing up at the night sky – unpolluted by light and smog – and felt engulfed by stars.
Alone in the wilderness
We were progressing steadily along our planned route when, at the start of the second week, events took a dramatic turn. By late afternoon on Sunday we'd pitched tents by a babbling brook at Arpa, a remote flat expanse with a 360-degree mountain backdrop; you could spot the snow-capped peaks of the Chinese border in the distance. It was our first camp without back-up crew. We were alone, miles from civilisation, and it felt extraordinary. Without proper lamps to provide light we dined long before dusk, took photos of the setting sun and, as the last rays of light faded, shared out the beer ration. Saddling up at 9am on the Monday, the aim was to cross the Ferghana Range and meet Lilia for supper.
The sun shone all morning as we headed west across lush pasture punctuated with marmot holes. We covered perhaps 60 kilometres – the terrain was filled with valleys, which slowed progress, and involved crossing several full-flowing rivers. We didn't see anyone; we were riding along tracks that probably hadn't been used by humans since the end of the USSR and cooperative farming.
We realised we weren't going to cross the pass before dusk, and decided to stop and set up camp. We pitched the tents on a steep slope, at an altitude of 3,200m – it was going to be a cold night. We were on to emergency rations: dinner was chicken noodle soup and there was no beer left so we left off socializing and retreated to our cosy two-man tents. The roar of the waterfall was the only sound.
The following morning, the previous week's clear blue skies had been replaced with menacing clouds and glacial winds. Dressed in waterproofs, we saddled up and, at 9.30am, headed up and up, towards where we hoped to locate the pass.
Accident & emergency
An hour later we were immersed in cloud, visibility was low, the air temperature had plummeted and it started to snow. Suddenly, a piercing scream punched the air.
One of the riders' (Jo) horse had stumbled and knocked her sideways into a protruding rock, fracturing her leg. We couldn't have been in a worse spot: 4,000m up a mountain in treacherous weather. Jo needed urgent medical assistance – an airlift to Bishkek and the nearest hospital. Dom mobilised the rescue helicopter via satellite phone, but this was not a complete solution – the helicopter couldn't land in cloud so we'd have to somehow get Jo to a flat piece of grass below cloudbase. We splinted her leg using two whips and bandages, and wrapped her in sleeping bags to prevent her losing too much heat. She was in agony, and we gave her the only painkillers we had – ibuprofen and paracetamol. Our immediate worry was to prevent Jo from losing consciousness.
It was a long and, for Jo, painful descent – her foot was dangling at right angles to her lower leg and every step her horse took sent a shooting pain up her leg, causing her to scream out in pain. We shared the labour: Dom and Jonathan sped ahead to locate a suitable place for the helicopter to land while the rest of us stayed with Jo; four people walked on foot, leading her horse and making sure she didn't fall off. I took charge of the loose horses and we all distracted Jo with jokes and debates about the merits of padded riding pants.
Finally, five hours after her accident, Jo was on her way back to Bishkek. The rest of us were stranded in the mountains, no closer to locating a pass to the next valley. By twilight we were huddled round the campfire toasting the remains of our stale bread, attempting to eat a 'stew' of tinned fish and spinach and, as night fell, discussing the events of the day and swapping disaster stories.
Surviving on Murray Mints and hope
So that was why on the following morning, Wednesday, we breakfasted on the Murray Mints Faye had found in the bottom of her saddlebag.
While negotiating the second high-altitude pass that day I was convinced we'd be camping wild again and began to give serious thought to catching a marmot for supper. It was a relief when, from the top of the pass, we established the exact whereabouts of the valley we needed and were able to plot our descent. We were 4,000 metres above sea level and the only way down was to walk along a narrow scree ridge. Hungry and in air short in oxygen, we were all shattered. Ali, an Army officer and one of the most practical members of the group, was battling vertigo. 'I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing right now... except pushing pins underneath my fingernails,' she complained.
Two and a half hours later, I was sitting on my horse staring down at two mouthwatering rounds of freshly baked bread. The lady proffering the plate was smiling. 'Rahmat, rahmat, rahmat,' I grinned ravenously, and tore off a chunk to dip in a dish of fresh cream. The Kyrgyz custom is to remain mounted on your horse if your visit is brief; if you dismount and are invited to drink tea it's rude to refuse. So we stayed in our saddles, grateful to this family who'd given away their day's bread to a group of strangers.
A few hours later, we were reunited with the ground crew, hot water, cold beer and Lilia's sumptuous feasts.
Last post on a Wild East adventure
Riding under searing sun across dusty landscapes, wild camping on the side of a mountain and not seeing a soul for days had given me a taste of how isolated life can get on the steppes. Riding across Kyrgyzstan might be easier now than at any time in the past, but it's still adventurous – and full of pitfalls. It's also the only way to feel a connection with the nomads who've roamed across this region for millennia.
I'll definitely be returning to the 'stans' to ride – because the region feels untainted and because the landscape was made for horses. Despite the Soviet hiatus, we're not the first generation of British tourists to explore the Wild East. They were, unsurprisingly, a coterie of intrepid Victorian explorers who came to map the uncharted territory. But Kyrgyzstan still feels new and exciting and epic, perhaps because its mythologies remain unmapped - and you can't say that about Montana.
When to go
The summer months are the best time to visit Kyrgyszstan; winter on the treeless steppes being a whole new meaning to the world 'bitter', with temperatures frequently dipping below minus 20ºC in the mountains.
International flights take you to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyszstan; from there it's a disty few days by 4X4 to the Son Kul Lake, where the trek begins.