Boz Oy’s, Jailoos, and Perewalds
Moving to higher ground in Kyrgyzstan
After getting a little tip off about a remote area full of traditional shepherds, we excitedly loaded up on food, water, and fuel to make the assault on Urumbash pass, a low altitude pass at 3000 m, but which we would have to climb from about 400 m, a long climb, on a very bad road, with a very heavily laden quike.
We had been told by locals that there were some shepherds living out there for summer, who would be moving pastures soon for winter, and thus we have a narrow window in which to catch them before they moved off to somewhere else where we couldn’t find them (we only found them by word of mouth).
We rode off from Jelalabad in on the 28th of September and took a couple days to get beyond the towns. Riding down a steep gorge we were disappointed to see that before we could start the climb, we would have to lose a few hundred metres, only to have to regain this altitude further down the track. Once we had finished the short but steep climb back up, we finally topped out at a small village called Archangeleski (the real climb hadn’t even started yet, we were still some 60 km away from the base of the climb).
Riding through the village, we suddenly heard someone yelling out to us from the side. Turning around, we saw a middle-aged lady running towards us waving some freshly baked bread in her hand. Stopping to talk to her, we were soon invited in for chai, and then to stay the night. It was here that we were again told about the shepherds up in the mountains near the mountain pass. During our brief stay in that village we were shown the main seasonal industry there - production of sunflower seeds. Every family grew a large patch of them in their backyard, which then they would harvest in autumn, then dry and sort, before sending them off to the Bazaar to sell. One of the hard aspects of this work however, was that it all took place on the “road” of town (there was only one “street” in town), so donkeys, cows, horses, sheep, goats, and chicken continually snacked on the seeds as they were drying.
The next morning, we were loaded up with fresh pear jam, a 1 kg cabbage, a couple of breads, and a few extra kilos of carrots, potatoes, onions, capsicums, eggplants and apples (we don’t know how she expected us to fit it all on the quike…..but it did anyway!). After gifting us all of this, she was still abit afraid that we would run out of food on our journey to Kazarman!
It was after this final village that the road started to get increasingly worse, as we headed into the walnut forests. These walnut forests blanket the whole lower slopes of the mountains in this regions, maturing and thus becoming ripe for harvest in late autumn - right when we were riding through. Riding along the road we were stopped by a lone horseman, who unloaded handfuls of freshly picked walnuts from his saddle bags onto quikey, before riding on – not before his horse had a chance to fart on quikey. We also confirmed with him that we were indeed on the correct road (this road was on none of the maps we looked at, and thus we couldn’t really gauge where we were or where to go, except by word of mouth).
Passing by a lone babushka camped in the walnut forrest (in a small wooden hut, surrounded by walnut trees), she yelled out to us, asking us to stay the night and meet her children who were out collecting walnuts from the trees. We stopped for a quick chat, but being pressed for time (the snow would be arriving anyday now, making the pass more treacherous) we had to continue on to make a few more K’s.
As we pushed on past the walnut forests, we passed many many sites where boz oy's had clearly been over summer, and we feared that we had arrived too late! We would see a clear green patch with brown, worn-out flat circle and nearby a tandir - the evidence of jailoos past. That evening we camped at one of these areas just by the river, and imaged what type of atmosphere might have been at these grounds at the height of summer.
This similar terrain continued on through that day and the next day's ride, at the end of which we found ourselves at the base of the climb. We crossed a river on quikey (the great thing about a 4 wheeled half ton jacked up vehicle is that it makes river crossing a breeze, you don’t even have to get your feet wet), camped in a spot where it looked like a few shepahrds had camped in the past, only to find some leftover onions and potatoes on the ground, which we cooked up for the night on a dung fire (on of the good things about cows in the mountains, they leave plenty of dung behind to cook with!).
That night however, it started to rain, and continued through the next morning. All around the ground had turned to mud, with the road turning into a small stream, and our previous day’s river crossing turning growing in volume and speed. Sitting the morning out in the tent, we were hoping that the rain would subside rather than build. However, since this was now officially the start of winter, when everyone else had the good mind to pack up and head for lower ground, we feared that this bad weather might just settle in for the next few days, getting colder and wetter and maybe even white-out the pass. So we agreed that if we waited out the storm any longer, it would ony get worse (due to winter having arrived) , putting us in a potentially worse and less safe position. After a quick lunch it was time to pack up in the rain and make a push for it. Our first challenge was negotiating the mud down to the river, and then the river crossing. Quikey being the all terrain beast he is, handled it all just fine.
Looking up to the top of the pass, the climb seemed extremely improbable, heading straight up a spur! Setting off on our climb we could really feel how steep a climb it was, and so we prepared ourselves for the physical challenge, each finding a good gear and cadence to settle into for the day. After what seemed like ages (in 3 hours we made some 3km….) we saw 3 girls on donkeys, who stopped to talk to us. They told us that they were part of 3 families of shepherds who lived in Boz Oys about 1km from there. Asking us to follow them on their donkeys back to their Boz oy, they sped off, leaving quikey to catchup.
About a kilometre down the road we were greeted at the trio of Boz Oys by representatives of all three families. We were invited in for tea, but then tea turned into a big lunch of good sheep meat and potatoes (the Kyrgyz national dish of Kuurdak). After the meal we went and visited the biggest of the Boz Oys. They explained to us the centrepiece- the number of cross hatches represents its size, in that a 4 hatch centrepiece is for a 4 metre diametre boz oy. The biggest had 6 but the other two had 4 cross hatches. The big Boz Oy was for the children to sleep in - two boys (aged about 10 and 12), and two older teenage girls (aged 16). We stayed with them for a while, playing their favourite game, knucklebones using small stones. Then we taught them a new game which was kinda made up on the spot, but based on marbles.
We were intrigued to find out why these children were up in the mountains, even though the school year had long since begun. These particular families were herding specialists, and they would stay up there longer than is comfortable or convenient for other people of the town (many of whom would stay in the high valley in the warmer few months, then retreat in August). It was their duty to herd the sheep through the onset of winter, grazing the last inches grass on this good, high land before it was smothered by snow.
Life at the jailoo was simple, it revolved solely around the animals. The only supplies that had been brought up were potatoes, rice, sunflower oil, and onions. Everything else they garnered from the animals. The day starts at dawn when the girls milk the cows. Following this, the boys guide the cows off to the high mountain pastures to graze and leave them there for the day until their second milking at dusk. The girls stay back and boil the milk, then make cream (kaimak) from the fresh milk, and butter from the remains. This takes a few hours. They also make thousands upon thousands (all handmade) of kurt balls (hard salted balls of curdled milk). These sell well at the Jalalabad bazaar because they are quality - made from mountain cows' milk, fed on lush mountain pastures in the clean air.
We also met one young man there was the manager or over-seer of all the village animals.The sheep of Arkangelskoie and neighbouring villages had been left in the responsible hands of this man and his co-workers. Other men were out there also with the sheep herds, sleeping out with them in small Boz Oy each night.
The next day it was time for the final assault on the pass, much as we would have liked to have hung around with the families, and followed them to their winter pastures, time was pressing. Any day now the winds and snows would arrive, making our ride up the pass increasingly treacherous. Unlike the horses and other animals, we could not just stand around all day in the middle of winter without freezing to death - we wish. It was only another 500 vertical metres to the top of the pass, not far, but very difficult on well over laden quike and difficult terrain. Traversing up the spur we continued, before finally topping our just before dark. Setting up camp next to a small tarn, we knuckled down to some 12 cakes of noodles (yes they are the same size as standard magi noodle packets....we were hungry after all that riding!) and stock cubes. We had finally reached the top of Perewald Urumbash (Urumbash pass).
Over the hill we took the muddy track down, which had a few wiped out sections where part of the road had disappeared over the edge. We also saw many a site for Boz oys past, but those had obviously headed for lower ground already, like the other side. Nearer to the township we spotted a few tents onsite and a sole boz Oy next to the river that looked as though it was starting the pack down for winter.
As we were descending down from the pass, some very ominous looking clouds were approaching - we could see it raining very heavily in the distance. It was soon a race between us and the rain clouds, to see who was quicker. The clouds however had the upper had, as we had wind our way around the mountain track to descend, whilst the blanket of clouds just pressed on into our path, racing us to Kazarman.