Kyrgyzstan is unbelievably beautiful. Almost every place I’ve been here has a backdrop of dark, craggy mountains still covered with snow. We’ve been through dry, scrubby desert; alpine meadows; red canyons; high mountain passes where snow by the road still hasn’t melted.

I spent two nights sleeping in a yurt in a high (10,000 feet above sea level) meadow, green and smooth and grassy, where sheep and cows and compact Kyrgyz horses graze. It’s just above Song-Kul Lake, which – like all lakes in this country, it seems – is a deep blue, even on a cloudy day. The valley lies up a rough track off the main dirt road, which itself follows the lake and cuts between two snow-covered mountain ranges. As we drove between the lake and the mountains, we saw a gathering of horses and people and cars, so we stopped the truck and walked up the hill to investigate.

It was an afternoon of games and contests, mostly on horseback: races, wrestling (where the objective is to knock your opponent of his horse), and the local specialty: a cousin of polo, played with the headless carcass of a goat. Horses cluster together as their riders lean and reach for the prize, and horses and riders fall over and get up again. The winner, sporting a magenta t-shirt, earned a roar from the crowd (sitting on the ground, on horseback, and on donkeys) and kissed the cheeks of a few of the girls in our group. Little boys, some probably only nine or so, sat on horses and donkeys. When we commented on how easily, how fluidly, they rode, our Kyrgyz guide said, “They are born on horseback.”  Most of the boys posed for cameras, grinning and showing off; one, with a dark green hat on, sat solemnly on his horse a little apart from the crowd. Tourists and locals and horses mingled, everyone smiling, grinning, shaking hands, cheering for the winners of each new game.

The yurts are made by hand, with wooden frames supporting woolen walls and felt mats on the floor. The opening at the top opens with a tug of rope to let in the sunshine, and closes again at night to keep us warm. So warm, despite the fact that the temperature dropped nearly to freezing. It rained the second morning, but just up the valley, fresh snow dotted the hills and mountains. If this is July, no wonder they don’t spend the winters up there. Each spring, people drive their livestock – on foot – from the lower villages to their summer territory, bringing their yurts to set up and paying the government a fee per animal for grazing rights. It’s a beautiful, harsh place to live, where water is pumped from the river and no plant larger than grass will grow.

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