After a celebratory bottle of cognac and double portion of Lagman (nomadic noodle soup), it was impossible to look past the next challenge: the final climb before Almaty, shorter than this one in length but again reaching above 300m. We would sleep at its base, and give it our best the next day. Because of our altitude, we were expecting freezing temperatures at night, and I was not in the mood to repeat my Romanian experience of camping at altitude of waking up shivering with the outside of the tent crusty with frost.
The early evening ride put me in a mood to watch the Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, especially that awesome scene following the mountain beacons, Gondor calling for Rohan's aid, being lit one after another. Flying down along the meadow, the plains of Rohan stretched out to my right, and to my left I was half expecting to see fires pass along the epic peaks. As this setting faded to darkness, and we reached the base of the hill, we started to knock on buildings asking for hotels or cafes. Nothing was forthcoming, a freezing canvas tomb beckoned, and the stomach flinched at the thought of breaking biscuits for dinner.
As we backtracked, we found a sign pointing onto the up-slope of the steppe, proclaiming a tourist camp somewhere in the dark. We followed this and triumphantly found a crowd of gers and caravans, we had stumbled onto Kyrgzstan's finest nomad experience and gratefully received the hospitality on food and shelter. The owner manager Suzun took great pity on us and only asked for heavily discounted rates, after she had seen quite how much more frugal we were compared to her usual Arab, Almaty or rich Bishkek customers. We were all set for a great final climb the next day, that is before Rob's nine nocturnal trips to the outhouse. After a morning stomach evaluation another sick day was the only option, the silver lining on the bog roll was that a Great Nomadic Games was being held that day a car trip away. Brimming with excitement at this prospect, I gave a hearty thanks to Rob and his timely bowels.
Our companion for the day was Manus (stage name: Talk-to-Bae). The dining ger the night before, we had been sitting with host Suzun and Manus, I had remarked on quite how hardcore the rap music was that boomed in the tent. It had excited the resident baby sparrows to run loops around the conical roof, like those spiral coin drop boxes that hypnotise kids. Suzun spoke as Manus blushed,
'That's Manus' voice, he's quite a famous musician in Bishkek, although he's turned to pop after he finished spitting out all his pubic rage'.
Manus that went on to explain his reason for being at the camp: he was on a rural retreat from the ravaging party life in Bishkek. The Manaas, fermented horse-milk, in this area was famous throughout Kyrgzstan for it's restorative properties. Apparently this stemmed from the pale herbal grass that the herds here grazed upon, nonetheless, it still tasted diabolical. This miraculous Manaas was all Manus had consumed for the last 8 days, at a rate of 3L a day, and he had two more milky days before the course was over. I concurred with his friends in Bishkek, this seemed less of a retreat and more of a Madonna-esque rehab country Kyrgz-style. As a city boy, he was as green as us regarding traditional Nomadic sports, and made for a enthusiastic and relatable companion.
On the way there we were told the event was to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the birth of XXX, a Kyrgz Hercules famous for his international wrestling prowess. His primary legend was supposedly carrying his injured horse across his back in a blizzard over a mountain pass. Firstly, I felt there was a reasonable comparison somewhere with us and our heavy steeds, and secondly I was amazed that legends of that nature could still told and believed when the hero had died in the mid 20th century. The festival stadium was a perfect use of the natural landscape, a huge concave bank ran the length of the setting. This provided a banked stand from which you could view the wrestling ring, the bare-chest horseback wrestling, or the main event a championship match of Kokboru - horse rugby gives the most accurate picture.
Hundreds of hastily erected Gers lined the arena, most acting as private dining tents, serving up the oily rice and charred meat mix cooked in great firepits dug out from the earth. Car boots were piled high with the Manaas milk, excessive consumption is meant to lead to an inebriation of some form, this was presumably the aim of the great majority aggressively swigging it from recycled 2L Coke bottles. That being said, it definitely wasn't total, an older more raggedy class of men stumbled around the festival 3/4's cut and had had more than milk. One wobbly chap woke an ailing Rob, crouched over him, and insisted vodka and salt was the finest cure for an upset stomach.
After some traditional music, the wrestling commenced. The starting heavyweight division saw monstrous men stride out in front of the crowd, fix a red or blue belt to their naked torsos, and then start grappling on the other's belt like fleshy stag beatles. The ultimate goal was to bring the opponent down squarely on his back, whereas landing him on his shoulder or forcing him out the ring were worth points. The fights progressed, some were over in seconds as top seeds travelling from the other 'stans wanted to win quickly and save energy, others were technical or draw-out affairs that would exhaust both the wrestlers and the crowd's attention. Hometown favourites would be roared on, a few late no-shows maybe marked cowards fleeing from a looming opposition - one of these was especially memorable. A bulging but fleshy colossus from Uzbekistan stood alone in the red corner, he must have weighed around 130Kg and was the largest figure we had seen. The blue corner remained empty; I had assumed another coward, but just before the officials called time, a sinewy young man with a washboard stomach stood forward in sports shorts and a T-shirt. The official quickly sent him packing, presumably for safety reasons over the weight difference, and the fight seemed off. However he returned breathless, now in white trousers like all the other competitors, it was his uniform not his survival that the referee was concerned with. This was a reenactment of David and Goliath, but with no stone sling David used quick feet to frustrate. Then on a charge from the larger man, David lowered himself and the rolled the giant over himself, his opponents broad back thumping squarely down. The classic and implausible underdog story had played out in front of this fierce crowd, it seems you can't escape Hollywood - even on the Kyrgz mountain steppe.
The horse wrestling was a similar format to it's grounded brother, extra likely animal cruelty was the major difference. The competitors were also more wiry: they clung like limpets to their mounts, sometimes by a single limb, their whole body wire taut to keep a false equilibrium. This led us into Kokboru / Horse Rugby, the 4 riders on each side must drag the 'ball' (a complete sheep carcass minus only the head) into the giant bin at the far end of the field. The sport is full contact and galloping driving mauls are common. Horses will crash full speed into each other, and after several falls of rider and horse, we had all seen enough of the game and weren't all convinced by it: rugby players choose their mad sport - here horses don't get that luxury. Without bikes, we had an interesting time hitchhiking our way back the camp. We had 3 different conveyances and they progressed steadily in luxury from the sheep shit back of farmer's truck, to a cracked old soviet Lada Riva, ending in a city boy's Hyundai. This alternate mode of transport necessitates a very different form of patience, I think I prefer the tortoise agency of a bike against the uncertain hare of hitch-hiking.