Friday, August 25, 2006

Riding into the wind

August 15, 2006

Aichurek, the owner of my yurt, told me the sun would rise at 6 a.m. So I set my alarm and got up. The sun had already risen, but the warmth couldn’t be felt. I walked out into a bright layer of frost. My hands burned with cold. I looked around at the camel standing tall and lonely, a cow peeing with a loud splash, and the animals, whose noises I’d heard all night, bunched into groups around the yurts. Around me stood the blue mountains and above, I saw the sky glowed pale pink.

After breakfast, the three French guests and I rented horses and went for a ride. Kanat was our leader. We rode up into the hills, across them, and then down to the yurts near the river. Kanat stopped and entered a shephard’s yurt while we waited. When he returned, he told me the family was going to circumcise their three-year-old son and would be holding a toi the next day. They asked him to invite some acquaintances on his way out of the valley.

Kanat told me that when these shepherds gathered the next day, the host would cut a horse and would provide a cash prize for the horse games. Every invited family would be expected to give a sheep, worth about $50.

“What if the family doesn’t have a spare sheep?” I asked. “What if they expect to have some major expenses and need the sheep for themselves?”

“If they can’t give a sheep now,” he said, “then they’ll be expected to give it in the fall or spring. But they have to give it at some time. They will then receive a sheep in return when they hold a toi.”

It seemed like the toi would be a money-making event, and that those who held them frequently could gather some substantial resources. An invitation was almost an order to go. Non attendance would offend the host.

I asked about the circumcision. Kanat said it would be done by a normal man, without any painkillers for the boy. He told me he’d once cut a boy himself.

“Don’t you feel bad?” I asked, when he told me that men hold the child’s limbs down while the child screams.

“What is there to feel bad about?” he asked. “They did it to me.”

We stopped into the yurt of his sister-in-law. She welcomed us inside, where we sat on mats in the close, dirty interior. A chubby, red-faced baby slept soundly on a mat in the corner. There, our host served us cups of koumiss and hunks of bread with fresh cream.
We rode our horses around the edge of the lake, looking down into the patches of bright green moss visible through the clear water.

Kanat told me that in the 1970s, the Soviets wanted to drain Son-Kul and send the water to Uzbekistan. “We barely saved it,” he said, attributing its presence due to the influence of Subaliev, the first party secretary from Kochkor.

We cantered back to our yurt, then I took the horse for a short independent ride.

Lake Son-Kul is the place to go to live out cowboy fantasies. Here, one can feel the joy of moving under a domed sky, across a vast, flat field, with nothing to run into or trip over. It’s a place void of any media, any artificial sound, where the horse and rider live in the same environment and race across it together. It’s a place to stroll, leap, twirl and fly, surrounded by calm, clear waters, soothing grasses, and protective peaks.

On our way to Kochkor, where I planned to spend the night, Kanat took me to his village of Tuz. Neraby is a slat mine that has been tunred into a snatorium. We took a tour and found a surreal place. We walked along the five kilometers of walkways in the part of the mine prepared for resters. Plastic garlands of flowers lined the grey rock walls and chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The rooms within the mine included a table tennis room, a billiard hall, a disco, a sofa with stuffed animals hanging from the walls, beds, a reading room and a DVD hall.

Patients come at 7 p.m. and stay within the mine until morning, paying about $25 a night for the privilege. They must come bundled up, because the temperature remains 9 degrees Celsius year-round. The standard, 10-day treatment, is said to cure allergies, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Our guide told us they received many visitors from Kazakhstan and Russia, where such treatment can’t be found.

Kanat told me the mine used to belong to his grandfather. In 1937, his grandfather was deported to the Ukraine as a kulak. On the way to the Ukraine, he and his family escaped and hid in the mountains until 1942, when his children grew up. He sent four sons to the front and when they all returned with medals, his father was pardoned.

The Soviet state assumed ownership of the mine, where they extracted salt. Now, only three miners work and major operations have halted. At the end of Soviet rule, a local political leader took over the mine. He gave it to the wife of President Akaev as a gift and she acquired credit to remodel it. According to Kanat, she wanted to sell it to Russia, but didn’t manage in time.

“The local leader got lucky and got the place back after the revolution,” Kanat said.

He complained that the current managers didn’t respect the locals. Only this year did they began receiving free salt again for their cattle. The current manager, Kanat’s former classmate, charged us $8 to see the mine.

“They don’t respect the locals – the fact that this is our resource,” Kanat said. “I’ll get revenge on his someday. Not because of the money. Because of the human factor. That can’t be forgiven.”

On the way to Kochkor, we picked up a few local women who needed a ride. I could understand Kanat’s Kyrgyz. “Do you know how much they took from us at the mine?” he asked them.

I’d planned to stay in a guesthouse, but Kanat invited me to stay with his family. It’s not often here that I receive random invitations from local families, so I decided to accept.

I went to his neat, but largely bare house, where I met his wife, four-year-old twin daughters, 11-year-old daughter, and 81-year-old grandmother. This grandmother was probably the one who spent years hiding in the mountains and I looked at her with respect.

They heated up their banya for me and I finally had the chance to wipe away three days of grime. They made me manti, steamed dumplings filled with meat, fat and potato. And I played with his daughters, as they talked to me in Kyrgyz, and I acted like I understood.

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