19/August/2019: We woke up early and a little apprehensive in Karakol at an altitude of 1,800 meters at the eastern end of the huge brackish mountain lake Issyk-Kul. For me, the third week of adventure was starting in Kyrgyzstan, and for my wife Empi, the third day. We had been promised a musical performance by schoolchildren in the village of Kerege-Tash by our host couple Raziya and Damir. We were both a little overwhelmed by the grand welcome extended to a couple of amateur musicians like us, and at the same time were curious about the stringed instrument Komuz, which is considered the country’s national instrument.
After a comfortable night and excellent breakfast in the modern hotel Green Yard in Karakol, (where, as in the Nordic countries and Japan, outdoor shoes are left at the entrance) we drove east along the northern slopes of the Pamir Mountains, which rose steeply to 5,000 meters peaks only 30 kilometers from the road to the border with China. It felt perfectly fitting to drive around the country in our four-wheel-drive Russian Lada Niva rental car, which we had chosen as the cheaper alternative in the capital Bishkek two days earlier.
It was the last week of the summer holidays for the approximately 1,000 students in Kerege Tash’s only school, but there was an impressive crowd of Komuz musicians on site. A Komuz is slightly larger than a Ukulele, is made of a solid piece of wood (usually juniper or apricot) and has three strings that can be tuned depending on the piece of music. At Kerege Tash’s school, the principal told us that as many as 250 students play the instrument, and about 100 are serious practitioners and perform regularly. The technique includes so many ways to strum, pluck and slap the strings and the wood that a guitarist becomes quite enthralled, especially considering the age of the musicians. A 16-year-old boy played a really excellent solo piece after a few pieces by an elite group under the strict teacher Tolon Kasabolotov.
Komuz musician, Kerege-Tash school
After a larger group of students performed outdoors, I was invited to the stage to play in a children’s song that I learned the night before at the home of the teacher Kasabolotov. Komuz expert Kutman Mega made a small show to teach me the song spontaneously right there on stage, which was a kind gesture, given my modest ability.
Empi and I bought a whole grilled chicken from a Russian lady at the roadside and had a picnic lunch on the banks of the raging river Arasan. In the afternoon, we learned more about Karakol’s history as a Russian military post in the city’s historical museum and Orthodox church. As in many cities in Central Asia, soldiers and families were moved from remote parts of the Russian Empire to Karakol for more than 150 years, and even today you get a sense of a frontier town with low light-painted houses in wood, dusty streets and cows and horses roaming free here and there. Today’s Karakol with about 67,000 inhabitants is, however, an established base for the region’s growing tourism, and in several restaurants and cafes in the city sat expectant tourists and prepared adventures on horseback, on foot or by jeep in the mountains.
Orthodox Church, Karakol
After a brief visit to the city’s mosque, which was established in the 1880s in connection with the arrival of thousands of Hui Muslims on the run from religious riots in China, we began our longest day of travel to a high plateau almost 450km south the following morning. The roads along Lake Issyk-Kul’s southern shore have not been renovated in line with the more well-developed northern shore, and we took a break to rest sore bottoms and swim in the wonderfully clear water that is not unlike the brackish water in the Baltic Sea. Along the coastal road to the west, the landscape is almost lunar, and only along the few streams and rivers that carve the mountainous desert have plants and small communities managed to take root.
In one of the deeper valleys near Tortkyol towards the western end of the lake we veered off the main road onto a winding dirt road with our Lada and arrived at an oasis by a some rapids. Local businessman Ulan, wearing a traditional hat and built like a shotputter, met us at the hanging wooden footbridge and invited us to the dining table at the edge of the rapids. It was the first taste of the highlands’ unique drink Kumys, horse milk which after a couple of days fermenting in leather bags achieves an alcohol content much like light beer and a smoky, quite sour taste. We toasted and sang, among other things, Helan Går, with a basic translation into Kyrgyz for the slightly puzzled but amused lunch guests. Somewhat drowsy after the good trout lunch and drinks, the afternoon program picked up some pace. An eagle-trainer, or bürkütchü showed his four-year-old eagle sitting quietly but constantly squeaking on his leather-gloved forearm. Hunting with eagles is a tradition in the region, but our young eagle failed with his dive to catch the domesticated rabbit they released from a cage for our enjoyment. There were more than a few of us in the group who were discreetly satisfied with that outcome.
Bürkütchü with Eagle not fond of rabbits
A five-hour drive on a yet again excellent road through increasingly wild landscapes and higher mountain passes led us to a 2,500 meter high plateau near the village of Ak-Muz just 50 kilometers from the Chinese border. The cold penetrated our jackets and hats, and we immediately went into the Yurt, the traditional tent that still functions as a home in the summer for many in this country where 90% of the land mass is over 1,500 meters. Gathered in a row and clad in white ironed collared shirts, a group of school-age musicians sat ready with their Komuz instruments, as well as some flutes. Our friend and tireless interpreter Damir told us that the children lived in small communities on the plateau, and one of the younger girls had traveled 85 kilometers to take part in this performance, which was also combined with a one-day seminar for musicians in this small Yurt camp. The darkness inside the Yurt and the melodic tunes from the music group invoked a spiritual feeling as we sat cross-legged on top of layers of wool rugs.
We were very hungry from the cold and the long drive, and the host performed a precise partitioning of a lamb which had been cooked for many hours during the day. Besh Barmak, which means five fingers, is eaten, as the name implies, with the hands, and it is of utmost importance that the pieces of meat are distributed in the right order and to the right guests according to to seniority, gender, relation to the host couple and so on. A mistake is punishable by a lifetime of social rejection. The evening ended with a poignant presentation of Kyrgyzstan’s national epic Manas by our fellow traveler, musician Samat Bilain. It is a great honor for the few men in the country to be given the title Manaschü to sing the mythical Manas story. This war hero fought against hostile forces and established a homeland for the Kyrgyz, according to many about 1,000 years ago. The record for an uninterrupted appearance of the 500,000-line epic is supposed to be over 40 hours, when the Manaschü enters a kind of trance. Samat also disappeared into another world where he sat with his eyes closed and sang with the whistling vocalization of the region for about half an hour.
Manaschü Samat sings the Manas epic, Ak-Muz plateau
It was a short night’s sleep dressed in our outerwear to keep warm. We were worried that the little splash of fuel left in the tank of the Lada would not suffice for the return trip to a gas station in the town of Naryn just over 50 kilometers north, and had decided with one of the hosts Baish that he would get us a few liters of gasoline from a neighbor in the village of Ak -Muz. A little over five in the morning, we drove from the heart of the Kyrgyz Mountains towards distant Bishkek under the millions of stars of the Milky Way , with amazing memories of this country that proudly keeps traditions and the knowledge of its ancestors alive.
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