Kyrgyzstan: In the hall of the mountain kings

'Asian ibex, Marco Polo sheep, Siberian deer." The elderly German trophy hunter was unashamed as he reeled off his wanted list. "No snow leopards then?" I asked facetiously. "No, no. We cannot. They are shy creatures." He leant towards me conspiratorially. "There are gold mines as well, you know, up there in the ice."

We were sitting in the restaurant of the Silk Road Lodge in Bishkek, eating toast and cheese fossicked from a most curious breakfast buffet, discussing the Tien Shan, the "Celestial Mountains", which dominate Kyrgyzstan's topography and represent this relatively anonymous country's best tourist-pulling card.

I had just arrived in Kyrgyzstan and the Tien Shan were taking on semi-mythical proportions in my mind, populated as they were by giant sheep with unfeasibly long horns named after a roving Italian who had been dead eight centuries. The hunter could have told me that there were hobbits in those mountains and I'd have believed him.

Wandering Bishkek's wide, empty streets later that day, I caught glimpses of the Tien Shan's peaks, tantalisingly close, beyond the gloomy cityscape of functional grey Soviet architecture. In true Soviet style, Bishkek is a city of monuments. In Ala-Too, the main square, a winged lady with flowing skirts and pigeons in her hair holds aloft the centrepiece of a yurt. This symbol of Kyrgyz freedom stands where Lenin did until three years ago.

Later I saw a real yurt in the centre of Bishkek, among the brightly lit department stores and Italian restaurants and expat bars. It was bound with neon cords, as though paying lip service to its urban surroundings. I sat down outside at a plastic table and an overweight oriental woman in an apron served me puffy fried bread and a bottle of vodka for the price of a British Sunday newspaper. Opposite sat two grey-haired men who smiled warmly at me when I looked over. Though they wore modern suits, a tall embroidered hat made of white felt, traditional Kyrgyz headgear, was balanced on each man's head.

Those semi-mythical mountains turned out to be nearer than I had imagined. Half an hour's drive from the capital city brought me to Ala-Archa National Park. The scenery in this alpine wilderness was lovelier than I could ever have anticipated: steep rocky slopes decked with russet trees; bubbling ice-blue streams. There was a wishing tree near the entrance, its branches hung with scraps of coloured cloth, each representing a human desire. Picnickers were camped for the day along the river-banks, barbecuing kebabs and drinking beer in the September sun. A group of excited students stopped gathering wood for their fire and crowded round me, eager to have their picture taken with a tourist.

"Go to Karakol," I'd been told by Ben, an Australian backpacker I had met in Osh Bazaar back in Bishkek. Ben had hiked through the Tien Shan and camped in the mountains. I'd told him that I wanted to see the traditional Kyrgyz mountain life that I had read about: nomads and horses and patterned felt carpets. "You can watch them playing polo with a headless goat and sleep in a yurt if you want."

The road to Karakol was dotted with Muslim cemeteries and racks of dried fish. Roadside caf├ęs took the form of yurts and served bowls of fizzy fermented mare's milk. Horses pulled ploughs in the fields. For much of the way, the road followed the shores of Issyk-Kul, an enormous salty lake some 110 miles long that never freezes, even in the icy winters.

Eye-blue and sparkling in the sun, Issyk-Kul looked as vast as the sea. I stopped at Cholpon-Ata, a crumbling Soviet-style resort with sandy beaches and ancient pedalos rusting in the water. The beach bar was constructed out of a bright pink tarpaulin stretched over a frame, its fridge powered by cables that ran exposed over the sand.

The man who sold me beer was a young Kyrgyz. "The trouble," he said in careful English, "is that Kyrgyzstan has no leader." He looked past me to the white powdered mountain peaks that towered over the lake. "We thought that things would change after the revolution, but they did not." The Kyrgyz transition from Communist state to nominal democracy was not bloody, yet neither was it smooth. Their 2005 revolution was dubbed the Tulip Revolution. "The Kyrgyz people do not like trouble," he explained. "We carried flowers instead of guns."

The streets of Karakol were dusty and windswept. Only the main roads were sealed. Carcasses of cars were piled outside wooden houses. At the market, women in headscarves and tracksuits sold bread out of prams. I spotted other Western tourists for the first time, drawn here, like me, by the proximity of the Tien Shan.

Behind some dreary concrete apartment blocks stood a brightly coloured mosque decorated with dragons and flowers. The roof curved upwards at the eaves like a Buddhist temple. An imam wearing long dark robes plucked a pear from a tree in the garden and handed it to me. "The Dungans were religious refugees from China who came here a century ago. They built this," he pointed to the wooden mosque, "without using a single nail."

On the other side of town was the Russian Orthodox church. Its exquisitely carved wooden walls were topped with a green roof that was crowned with golden onion domes. I half expected to find Hansel and Gretel inside.

My lodgings were modern but the electricity intermittent. A fair-haired girl with green eyes knocked on my door to give me candles. The guesthouse was owned by her parents. "My father is Ukrainian. My mother is Russian and my stepfather is Uzbek," she told me. "Many Russians have left since we became independent." I asked her if she ever considered leaving. "Kyrgyzstan is my home," she replied. "Where would I go?"

In the beautiful valleys to the south of Karakol I found what I'd been looking for. I bathed in the hot, sulphurous water of a rock pool cut into the side of a gorge and listened to the rush of meltwater a hundred feet below me. I watched a flock of sheep being herded over a rickety wooden bridge by a shepherd driving a Lada. I got lost in an alpine meadow and knocked on a yurt door for directions. A family invited me into their tent and fed me potatoes. On the inside wall of their yurt hung a tush kiyiz. Embroidered on it was a grinning fox running on two legs through a field of mushrooms with a chicken tucked under its arm.

I saw horses grazing in a pasture, watched over by a man wearing dark glasses and carrying a shotgun that looked too rusty to function. He spoke no English, so I pointed at his horses and wrote some numbers on a piece of paper. In this manner, we settled a rental price. He saddled up a grey gelding and I cantered towards the snow-clad mountain peaks. The sun clouded over and it began to rain. I turned back when the rain turned to hail.

Returning to Karakol in the dusk, I caught a lift in a minibus ferrying locals home. The mood in the vehicle was jovial. They passed round biscuits and vodka and the women sang Kyrgyz songs in gentle voices and made jokes about the old man sleeping on the back seat. When I got out in the town centre, someone handed me a piece of paper: photocopied, handwritten Russian letters that I didn't understand.

"It is a poem," said my hostess when I showed it to her later at my lodgings. She read it to me in English. It spoke of birds and apple blossom and wished the reader luck, prosperity and love.

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