Janabai is 30, has four kids, 46 horses, and a ton of sheep. He’s wearing an unzipped sweater and a worn Yankees hat. His bottom teeth are perfectly straight; two are capped in gold. When we pull up to the side of his yurt, he welcomes us like family.
“Sit here so the sheep won’t run out,” he tells Jie immediately after shaking hands. Janabai and his father, whose entire mouth is gold teeth, are busy trying to get the herd into a chicken-wire pen on the edge of a small waterway. Jie sits down, but when the sheep keep coming out and not in, he tries to get up to move the flock with his arms. From across the riverbed Janabai motions with his hands: sit back down. We may be part of the family, but we still have a lot to learn about our chores.
We’ve stopped at his yurt to ask Janabai if we can ride one of his horses. A lot of visitors here to Song-Kul, an alpine lake in central Kyrgyzstan, go on multi-day treks by horseback, cutting up and over the mountains, but I just want to get in a quick gallop towards the water –I’ve got my own steed to ride. Janabai is still having sheep trouble so I ask his son, who’s maybe ten or eleven and is walking back home with a friend on a donkey. Without hesitation he pulls over a tall grey horse tied to the hill closest to the yurt.
“This one is mine; that one’s my dads,” he says, pointing over at a white stallion with grey hair. He pops into the tent and comes out with the pads for a saddle. I motion no with my hands and ask if I can ride bareback. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, and here seems like the place to do it.
“No problem, if that’s what you want. Do you know how?”
He asks in a tone that’s in no way condescending, only comforting –a tone that emits the feeling that he somehow places full trust in a stranger to ride his horse the first time he’s met him. I answer, no, I don’t, and he shows me how to get up: grabbing the spine of the horse by the base of its neck with one hand and the side of it’s back with the other and pulling himself over.
He grabs the reins to explain to me what to do. “Left,” he turns the rope with the horse’s head; “right,” he comes back; “and stop.” He pulls the reins back hard. I feel better that at least I already know this part.
“Gas” he lets the reins in and makes a “chook” sound. He looks back at me and curls his hand into the motion of turning the throttle on a motorcycle. “Gas,” he says again, smiling.
I manage to get on without too much trouble, and try to make my way towards the direction of the lake. Without a saddle, the horse’s spine digs prominently into your thighs. You can feel the full extent of its skeleton turning as you move. It’s not comfortable in any way, but it’s definitely inspiring.
The horse seems less impressed than I am, though. He moves in a slow trot, but no matter where I pull he always wants to go back to his post, unentertained by my apparent lack of force –most Kyrgyz horseman use a small whip. With a bit of coaxing we manage to get into a brief gallop and in a flash he shows me how overpowered I am. His legs fully flexed into the soft peat of the lakeside, he pushes hard across the plain. With no saddle to hook into, I almost fly right off the back.
Janabai and his wife are back at the yurt when I return. Neither seem the least bit concerned that their son has let a random visitor take their horse out for a stroll unchecked. Janabai gives me a thumbs up. I’m not sure if it means good try or good job not dying.
It’s not until Janabai and his son jump on the horses themselves that I realize how out-classed I really am. The same horse I could barely get to move Janabai’s son can spin with the flick of a wrist. He gallops over to corral the rest of the herd while his dad saddles up his own horse. Janabai’s stallion isn’t a fan of the saddle, and keeps trying to buck; he motions for me to move back. “Watch this,” Janabai says, and he pulls the horse back up hard, rearing it up into the air. When it’s hooves hit back on the ground it’s calm. He repeats this maybe five times, each time with his mouth open, each time yelling out into the wind. Soon, his son is doing the same. It’s showmanship I’ve never seen in real life. These are the Kyrgyz cowboys; the Song Kul 12’o’clock boys. There’s no rodeo out here; this is the every day.
As Janabai, Jie and I get to talking he brings us over to where his wife is milking the horses. In the summer, the family lives in the yurts out in Song-kul; in the winter they head back to Kochkor, where he’s from. His wife, who he later makes a joke that he stole away –bride kidnapping is still a very real tradition in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—is from nearby Nayrn.
We watch the milk spray wildly out of the horse, whose leg Janabai’s wife has tied back. Janabai asks if we like Kumis, fermented horse milk with that’s extremely sour and oddly carbonated. We try to beat around the bush but he already knows our answer: “you may not be used to it, but Kumis is good for you. It makes you a man.” He shows us the rest of the herd –in which there’s only one male, an old stallion with a braid in his grey mane—and invites us into his yurt for tea.
Janabai’s home is made up of three tents. One with a kitchen and a pantry, another with a living/dining room that couples as a bedroom, and a yurt that Janabai tells me is for tourists to sleep in. We sit on the floor in the living room and eat bread with three different kinds of cream and butter and the best jam we’ve had in all of Kyrgyzstan;
Janabai starts to talk about the rest of his family. He has two daughters that are both in Bishkek, the older one is in university now, studying English and Chinese as some part of a military program. His other son is in Kochkor. As he’s talking, he goes to the drawer and brings out a stack of family photos. Paging through them, I begin to feel like we actually know each other. His life and his family is suddenly spilled out to us in full on the table, through portraits of him and his wife when they were younger, a photo of him riding a stuffed bear in Bishkek, and a shot of his son and “his first girlfriend” on a bench (they’re both about 3). The stack of worn photographs transcend effortlessly beyond a broken lack of a common language, beyond lifestyles that are almost unexplainably different. I run to the bike to get the two photos of my family that I have with me: one from when I was young, and the other from two years ago. I explain who everyone is and match up faces as people have grown up. In an instant we go from a chance encounter to friends in context.
As the afternoon winds down, we talk a bit more and I go out to play with his son. On horseback he slowly points to each part of the horse and the matching part of his body: the mane and his hair, the neck and his neck, the leg and his legs. I repeat back to him the English words for each part, which he pronounces in a surprisingly impressive accent. I even try to teach him “head shoulder knees and toes,” explaining that it’s how I learned as a kid. Inside Janabai writes us a note in a book we’ve brought to remember the trip by. He writes in Kyrgyz but explains in Russian. When he comes to the end, he lets out a full, round laugh, one of the many that have filled our afternoon here. He points to the last sentence, “This part says: next time come back with girlfriends.” Him and his wife can’t stop grinning as he hands the book back to us.
Towards the end of the afternoon some traders stop by the yurt. Driving up in a blue soviet Lada —an automotive staple in Kyrgyzstan— their backseat is full like a magazin with watermelons and candy bars. Janabai and his family bring out their goods accordingly: fresh kurut hanging from bags by the sheep pen and a parade of buckets of kumis, some of which we just saw milked. It’s hard to really tell the going rate for kurut to watermelons, but everyone seems pretty happy. On the moving caravan we also spot something we’ve been eyeing for a long time: a black sheepskin. The plan had always been to pick one up in western China, but when that didn’t materialize, I’d essentially moved on. Earlier that day was the first time I’d mentioned it since, when we happened to be talking about the skins that covered Janabai’s floor. Suddenly, here it was. Manifest in pure fate.
We have no kurut or kumis so the trader asks us for 200 som ($3.50!!!). Trying it out on the bike, it’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of. Soft and supple, long enough for the seat but short enough to be folded, it still smells thick with sheep –it’s maybe even awkwardly fresh. Janabai helps us cut it in two parts. I slide my half under the tents strapped to the back of the bike and up over where the gas tank meets the seat. That afternoon, I barely feel the bounce of the gravel on the unpaved roads; that night I sleep serene, warm on the curls of black wool.
As the sun starts getting lower in the sky, we start to get ready to leave. We need to get to the other side of the mountains today, and to do that we still have to ride. We pack up and say goodbye to Janabai. He sits with his back to the yurt, genuinely upset that we’re not staying. “I hope we can meet again,” I manage to get across, trying to find a smile that matches how happy this has made me. We wave all the way back to the main road.
Around Song-Kul there are myriad yurts like this, maybe even all full with people as warm, genuine, and caring as Janabai and his family. The lake itself it is nothing less than picturesque but as cliché as it sounds it’s them that make it beautiful. None of the gorgeous scenes we’ve driven through resound like the ones where we can know the people that fill them. The morning before we got here, Jie and I were talking about how weird it was to have sat down with so few Kyrgyz people; camping every night and driving every day, we didn’t know what actually made this country move. On the alpine grassland, against full spires and an outstretched saline expanse, Janabai offered us that chance.