By Kathryn Ryan
I picked Kyrgyzstan for the oddest of reasons. I could have studied Russian in a more predictable country, like Russia. I could have picked a bigger country like Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Or I could have picked a more familiar country, like the United States. In each of these counties there are immersion programs for Russian, but Kyrgyzstan had one unique caveat that the others didn’t: a mountain horse trek. And this trek was not simply the kind where one pays a few dollars and spends an hour following the paths worn bare by the tourists before them. This trek was more real, more wild than that. It was seven days in the wilderness with nothing and no one but the saddlebags bouncing behind the saddle and the company of traveling companions. As it turned out, these expectations proved to be insufficient, and in the end, they were entirely eclipsed by the reality of my adventures in Kyrgyzstan. And I am not simply referring to the horse trek. Let me explain.
Before I even got on the plane to leave for Kyrgyzstan, my mind was already in the mountains, despite the fact that I had weeks of language study beforehand. I was already counting down the days until I would be traversing the rugged terrain on my faithful steed. As I got off the plane in Bishkek and met my host family, reality hit me and forced me to withdraw my gaze from the future into the present. I was standing in Kyrgyzstan! I continued to marvel at this new revelation throughout the entire trip. There were moments when I knew, for certain, that I was not in the United States any longer. As fermented mare’s milk and sheep lung sausage appeared on the table in front of me, I felt as though my past American life was very far behind me. But there were moments too when I almost forgot that the small post-soviet country was not my home. I quickly found that I had a new family in Kyrgyzstan, a new circle of Russian speaking friends, with whom conversations of life, faith and experience flowed easily. The hospitality and warmth of the Kyrgyz people encouraged me to soak up, like a sponge, all that was new, both language and culture. I cherish the many moments of humor and laughter that made up much of my time in Bishkek, moments after which I was able to appreciate just how quickly my language was improving. The patience of my Russian instructors and their willingness to become my friends constantly reminded me of the wonder of language learning. As my friendships grew, entirely in Russian, I marveled, and still marvel, at the beauty of connecting with people in their own languag
It was in one of these moments of profound appreciation for language and my opportunity to study in Bishkek that I remembered, in a sort of off-handed way, that the horse trek was coming up. Six weeks had passed in the blink of an eye. My intensive one-on-one language instruction was almost complete. I had only two weeks remaining in Kyrgyzstan; the horse trek and one more week of classes. I was slightly confused because I knew that the upcoming horse trek should bring me the same mind-boggling excitement as it did before, but I couldn’t muster anything beyond a slight anticipation. I felt that my time in Bishkek was too short; all too soon I would leave Kyrgyzstan. I went to speak with the director of the trek and we arranged for me to return to Bishkek a few days early from the trek so I could have a few extra language classes and therefore extra time to spend time with the people I had come to love.
Eight hours outside of Bishkek, I found myself, along with three other students and three Kyrgyz guides, mounting my dapple-grey horse and heading toward the mountains. We spent only a few hours on established roads, all of which were little more than ruts ground into the earth by shepherds and their livestock. The trek was situated in the mountains whose ridges were constantly rimmed in snow. The terrain was mostly grassland and low bushes, kept trimmed by the many farmers and their herds who use it communally. No fences barred our passage of the mountains. Often, we would pass herds of semi-wild horses who would stare down at us from high above as they grazed the steep slopes. The people who live in this beautiful wilderness are semi-nomadic yurt-dwellers who generally move back into the towns or villages for the winter. As a consequence of their summer living habits, we would occasionally encounter a lone shepherd tending his flocks or pass by a working yurt. Twice, we were invited into such a yurt for tea and fermented mare’s milk. We quickly abandoned any assumptions we had about these rough-living individuals as we discovered that some worked as lawyers or businessmen when they were not living in a yurt raising cattle or sheep.
My expectations for the horse trek were completely outshone by the reality. The rugged beauty of the mountains combined with the seasonal rhythms of the Kyrgyz lifestyle to produce a sense of quite peacefulness and reflection. After a brief taste of mountain life, I was excited to return to my friends in Bishkek. With a week and a half left in Kyrgyzstan, I found that I had enough time to say lengthy goodbyes and to communicate to my instructors just how influential they were to my language learning and to my overall experience in Kyrgyzstan. I learned, among many things, that I should have more three-dimensional expectations when I travel. After all, I chose to study in Kyrgyzstan because of a horse trek that, though amazing, turned out to not be my favorite part of Kyrgyzstan. The connections I made in Bishkek will forever ensure that I remember the country as one of adventures, beauty, and, most importantly, friends.