Aksu Jabagly and the Hidden Valley – Aksu Jabagly National Park, Kazakhstan

Aksu Jabagly and the Hidden Valley.
Aksu Jabagly National Park, Kazakhstan

Horses scare me! I mean I like them and everything, but I’ve always been a bit nervous about actually being on top of one, particularly the shaggy looking one that was staring at me now!
This particular horse was one of four animals that had been specifically selected to carry my three friends and I up a snowy pathway to a Ranger’s cabin high up a foreboding looking mountain of the Central Asian Tien Shan range. Located on the southern most border of Kazakhstan, the Aksu Jabagly National Park is the home and birthplace of the tulip and one of the few surviving habitats of the elusive snow leopard.

Our guide was Volodya, a gaunt Russian scientist with hawk-like features that were as chiseled as the mountain rock that now faced us. He had set up his home and family in Aksu Jabagly, and was now one of only two or three Russian families that still lived in the area, the rest after Kazakh independence in 1991 having moved back to Russia. I had first met Volodya in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan and he looked completely ill at ease and out of place. Here, dressed in a mixture of fur, leather and khaki outdoor wear and mounted on a huge looking horse, he looked as if he had been born in the mountains.

Ranger's Cabin
Ranger’s Cabin
“Don’t worry, Tim!” he assured me. “I picked out especially sleepy horses for you!” I’m pretty sure he was smiling as I tried desperately to mount my steed. No matter how easy it had looked during all those years of watching westerns on TV, I was wondering just when might be a good time to mention that I had never actually been on a horse before. Of my companions, Steve, an American, was the only one of us that had really had any experience riding before and I watched him climb onto his horse with ease. I copied him nervously and somehow managed to get up onto mine. It suddenly seemed a long way up. Neil, a tall lanky Midlander and Ken, a wiry Scot, also climbed into their saddles, as our mounts remained quite still munching on some grass. Neil’s horse turned out to be the smallest of the group, so at over six feet three, it appeared that his feet were almost touching the ground.

The Ranger, Murat, with his weather beaten face, proceeded to give us all some tuition on how to ride a Kazakh horse.

“If you want the horse to go faster,” he told us, ” you should say ‘Noh, Noh, Noh!'”

Dutifully we all repeated to him the words out loud to prove we had understood. Unimpressed, he just stared at us. Then made us repeat the words again as if we were at Sunday School.

Without smiling or changing his expression, he continued. “If you want the horse to go slower, then you make this noise.” He rolled his tongue and blew through his lips to make an unlikely resonating sound “Brrreeerrrr”

After a couple of practices it seemed obvious that we probably weren’t going to get it at all. Murat turned to Volodya to say something along the lines of “Good Luck!” then gave us a wry smile of a man who was probably never going to see us again and suddenly we were on our way!

The journey up the mountain path was a good two-hour trip through some stunning mountain scenery, slightly reminiscent of something you might find in Switzerland. We were only going to spend the one night in the cabin, and as our horses slowly followed one another in a slow procession up the first steepish incline, I was already beginning to get excited at the prospect. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been slightly obsessed by wilderness, in fact the wilder the better. I don’t know quite where this came from as I grew up in South London, which can be wild, but in a slightly different way. I was following Steve in line, with Ken and Neil somewhere behind me. Ever so often I would glance behind me to see how they were getting on, just in time to see Neil’s horse veer off in a random direction or Ken showing off by riding one handed with his free arm waiving in the air giving the impression that he had absolutely no control over his mount. Later that night he confirmed that he hadn’t and was so scared that he actually couldn’t remember what the command for slowing down was. I could also hear Neil’s voice constantly calling out the correct command “Noh, Noh, Noh!” to make his horse go faster, which seemed to then turn into a more panicky “No, No, No!” when his horse actually did.

By contrast Steve seemed in perfect control and slinked back in his saddle lazily, green woolen hat at a jaunty angle, just watching the snow-lined countryside roll by. Occasionally, he would call back some advice to me as my horse, obviously hungry beyond control, would trot off to some scrawny green plant struggling for life by the side of the road, stop quite still, then drop his head to eat. When this first happened I pulled hard at the reins to try and lift his head so we could move on, but it soon became quite apparent that this wasn’t going to work, so I developed a pose of relaxed nonchalance, creating the illusion that feeding my horse en route to our destination was all part of my plan and I was the better person for it. I really don’t think it fooled anyone, least of all the horse.

Man and Horse as One
Man and Horse as One
When he wasn’t eating, though, he was generally pretty calm, or as Volodya had promised, “sleepy” and I was able to spend most of my time looking around me. It was a glorious winter’s day and despite the deep snow, I could imagine a myriad of life watching us slowly traipse by. It was splendidly quiet though, without any sounds echoing around from the outside world. When I first started traveling to such isolated and remote places, I always used to find my first few nights away from the sounds of the city to be strange as it took me a while to get used to the silence. No police sirens or planes flying overhead seemed to make it harder to get to sleep so accustomed had I become to their sound. Now it didn’t seem to worry me so much and I could fall asleep almost anywhere at the drop of a hat, though I was determined to make sure that I didn’t while on top of my horse. All I could hear was the gentle sloshing in the snow of hooves and somewhere behind me in the distance, Neil’s voice nervously calling out “Noh, Noh, Noh!”

In my dream-like state, apparently while at some private party in my head, I suddenly became aware that my horse was actually going faster. Even more disturbing was the fact that he was now trotting in a completely different direction and had left the track having spied some green shrubbery in the distance. Desperately, I tried to rack my brain for the command to slow down.

“Brrrrrrrr” I called out loudly whilst trying to pull back on the rein to no avail. Again I tried, but again without luck. On reflection, the horse probably wasn’t going that fast, but novice that I was, bouncing around on top it felt as if I was in a steeplechase. I tried the command a third time and again there was no response. I cursed the fact that as an Englishman I couldn’t roll my “R’s”, and that a mixture of the cold and possibly fear, had frozen my lips even more. Its no wonder the horse didn’t understand me!

Suddenly, he stopped at and isolated piece of ground loosely covered in snow. Then, almost in slow motion, he kneeled down on his front two legs. His hind legs folded soon after as he proceeded to roll on to his side. Somehow I had managed to stay mounted, before being lightly tumbled off his back and dumped ungainly in a soft pile of cold wet snow. I lay there on my back, completely unhurt, but laughing hysterically with a mixture of relief and embarrassment as my equine friend rolled around as if he had some unattainable scratch around his neck. Ironically, I had been previously getting my boot stuck in the stirrup. This time, for some reason I had been flung gently free from his rolling body. To this day I’m still convinced he did it on purpose. Steve and Volodya were the first to arrive. Their worried faces showing relief as they realised I was actually laughing and not at all in pain.

Volodya scratched his head as he looked down on me. ” Well, I’ve never ever seen a horse do that before?” he exclaimed.

Steve smiled as he grabbed my horse’s reins and pulled him effortlessly to a standing position. “You know that you have to get straight back on, don’t you?” he informed me.

Ken showed up soon after arm waiving wildly as he rode straight past me and in the distance I could still hear Neil calling “Noh, Noh, Noh!”

Slightly nervous, but determined to remount, I climbed back on and took the reins back from Steve’s hand. Back on the road I made a mental note, not to drift off into my own thoughts again, but given the beauty of the nature around us, that was always going to be difficult. However, some of the snow from my fall had slipped down the back of my neck, helping me to keep focused, at least for the time being.

The terrain started to become steeper and more uneven as we closed in on our destination. Surrounded by mountains on either side, I gradually became aware of the sound of water nearby. The track turned a corner as a small picturesque stream cut across our path. In my innocence I couldn’t see a way across as the banks seemed quite steep, but then to my horror, I saw Volodya lead his horse straight down the side and into the water. The stream wasn’t that deep as he stopped halfway across to urge us through and to let his mount have a drink. I could sense my horse getting nervous, nodding his head disapprovingly as Steve followed Volodya into the water. Apparently my mount didn’t want any part of this and veered to the left, missing the step down. As I struggled to keep control, my horse turned three times in a circle. Ken careered passed me in a successful, but ungainly way as his horse led him down into the stream with a splash, with Ken on top looking confident, yet pale. Neil also caught up with us and took an alternate route down with Neil still calling out various commands. Suddenly, I was the only one left on the top as my four companions let their horses drink from the stream.

“Come on Tim!” Ken shouted unsympathetically.

“Lean back as you come down!” Steve helpfully offered. I noticed that Neil had taken his camera out. After missing my first fall, he was determined to capture this one for posterity!

“Noh, Noh, Noh!” I commanded with what I hoped was the authority of a Kazakh nomad as we edged towards the bank. Looking down, perched high up, it looked unlikely I was going to stay dry. Slowly we descended the bank and almost slipped into the water in what I thought was a most inelegant manner. As we climbed down I remember Steve’s advice to sit back in my saddle. Utter fear in my chest, but determined to look as cool as I possibly could, we splashed our way across to the others. I could sense some disappointment in Neil’s demeanor as he showed me the picture he had taken on his digital camera. With a look of grim determination on my face, for some reason I looked completely in control…and they say the camera never lies!!! Such was my confidence now, that I led the way up the other bank and onto the path ahead, my heart still racing, but leaving enough time to turn around and call out.

“Come on guys, what are you waiting for?”

Eventually, we arrived at our temporary destination of the Ranger’s cabin, beautifully located at the top of a valley. We tied our horses up outside and dismounted. After over two hours in the saddle, suddenly finding ourselves on our own two feet felt a little weird at first and to be quite honest, walking wasn’t the most comfortable thing either, yet we managed to limp our way, with true John Wayne walks, around to the front of the cabin that was to be our home for the next night.

As we wandered around we were suddenly stopped in our tracks, all four of us struck dumb by the view that was laid out in front of us. The valley dropped down to a fast moving stream, before rising sharply presenting a mountain view like I have never seen before. Intermittently, wild sheep, perched on rocks grazed on the sparse foliage, which tried desperately to survive the cold mountain air. Facing us the snow-covered mountains dominated the panorama continuing as far as the eye could see, leading eventually into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Utterly speechless, I felt small and insignificant surrounded by the immensity and beauty of the environment around me. Volodya now followed from behind the cabin. He had seen this view many times, but still it excited him. “Who needs the city?” he smiled, “When you have all this.”

Spring was approaching fast and new life would soon fill this hidden valley and the snow would recede until only the mountain peaks were covered. Beneath our feet, already breaking through the melting snow, tulip bulbs had begun to appear. In all likelihood, we weren’t going to see the shy snow leopard, but had seen a side to Central Asia rarely visited and had even survived my first horse ride in one piece. As I breathed in the cool fresh mountain air and gazed around me, I thought to myself. “All in all, this was turning out to be a pretty good day!”

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