This was to prove to be one of the most beautiful drives of the trip so far.
After another hearty breakfast, we left Naryn just after 9.00. The scenery was interesting and picturesque all day. Once Outside of Naryn the road became very basic with signs of the Chinese road building interventions, with huge road surfacing machines and associated earthworks very much in evidence. For some time we travelled along a mountain lined corridor which then opened out into a broad valley.
We passed several animal markets along the way where groups of nomads gathered to trade their animals. Goats, sheep, cattle and horses all seemed to be under discussion. The location seemed to be random – just a cross roads or roadside venue. There were no towns or villages around. As we gradually got higher there were the family yurts of the nomads who take their herds up to the high summer pastures. The climate is too harsh for them to stay up at this level and before the end of September they will be moving back down the valley. Apparently the snow can start any time from now.
Every now and then we saw a lone horseman looking down on the road from the top of the hill, silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky. They tended to be the herdsman and usually some way away we would see a large herd of animals. It all seemed a bit cavalier to me with the animals seeming to dictate where they went, but I am sure it was more scientific than it seemed. We had to slow at one point for a herd of horses to be driven across the road.
Eventually we left the road and started climbing a track which clung to the hillside to take us steeply up to the top of first one and then a second pass.
At the top, Simon stopped the truck so we could look down the valley and see our route snaking up through it. I think he had not got the truck out of second gear for a considerable time and the dust that our progress had created surrounded us in a halo of terracotta sand. En route we had seen a glacier with it’s ice twinkling in the sunlight at the top of a distant mountain. This was in stark contrast to the heat of the truck as all the windows had to be closed so we could breath. It was good to get out and to breathe the fresh air as we looked back over our route. Across the top of the plateau we could see lake Song Kul shining silver in the sunshine.
The inevitable lone horseman watched from his perch on the skyline as we marvelled at the view and took pictures. Keith went up to have a conversation with him and there was lots of pointing as he identified the territory his herd grazed, which was vast. The afternoon was moving on, so we piled back into the long suffering Penelope and set off to the lakeside, our camp for the next couple of nights.
We drove up and over the top of the hill and started our descent into the valley with the lake ahead. As we neared the lakeside we turned off the main track and took off bouncing over the pasturelands. Ahead we could see a large gathering of yurts that appeared to be set almost on the lake shore.
All around us large herds of sheep and goats cropped the pasture, but it was very dry and looked to supply very little nourishment. As we got closer to the Yurts we saw more horses and cattle.
When we arrived at the yurts we found they were actually quite a distance from the water and we were offered the opportunity to ‘upgrade’ from our tents to a yurt for our two night stay. We decided to take this option and abandon the Ritz (probably the only time in my life that I give up a Ritz overnight stay!), not least because a yurt is considerably warmer than a tent and we had been told that it could snow at any time.
We found ourselves, therefore, sharing with the Australian ladies, Wendy and Sara, which was great as we get on well with them. Having the Yurt was also useful as I was on cooking duty and it would have been difficult to help put the tent up and make supper.
The meal – a lasagne – was cooked in a Dutch oven over the fire with hot coals placed on the lid to brown the top. It was all very successful. We opened a bottle of the French wine we had found in Datong, so a very jolly meal was had by all.
The difficulty of our camp nights is that once the light has gone, the temperature falls rapidly. In these circumstances there is little alternative but to adjourn to bed, particularly when the stove has been lit inside your Yurt – the trouble is that it is often about 8.30 and there is a long night ahead!
We are still at circa 3,500 metres above sea level and breathing is quite hard at times particularly if you have been at all energetic.