Snow and Jam

By Rob Packer

What do you do in Bishkek when the first snow falls in a mountain valley? You head there to play in it. This wasn’t the plan that we had when we headed to the Chong-Kemin valley for a Kyrgyz getaway this weekend, but it turned into one of the things that made it so great. If you get the snow just as it falls, you get to experience it powdery and crisp before it gets churned up by people, cars and animals to become a brown, icy mess.

Getting out of Bishkek always seems like a trial as it runs to a developing world schedule (things leave when they’re full), which has the potential of being a nightmare when you want to get out early enough to make the most of the Saturday because you’re leaving for Uzbekistan on Sunday night. This weekend’s trip out was surprisingly simple and involved a quick marshrutka to Kemin followed by a taxi ride in the only kind of car I trust in snow: a 20 or 30 year old Soviet one. As if to prove the point, the 20-minute ride to Chong-Kemin only involved one unscheduled stop to readjust the cardboard box supporting the bonnet.

Watering his horse in the snow.

A semi-frozen river.

A fantastic old photo of the owner’s grandparents.


We arrived at Ashu Guesthouse in Ashu village early enough for lunch and were shown around by Stanbek, the proud owner of this rural guesthouse with Japanese touches (shades of the ikebana harvest festival back in October). The Japanese connection is because the owner’s parents visited Japan a few years ago; judging by the Japanese calendars, paintings and stylistic touches they really liked it. And judging by the small wooden panels surrounding the main room as a more interactive version of a guestbook, a lot of their guests are Japanese as well.

After lunch, we went horse riding in the snow, an activity I’d been secretly dreading as I’ve been on a horse once or twice before and not really enjoyed it. Trying something you’re unsure about in the snow is definitely the test. Working out the Kyrgyz commands (chuuu is for starting and drrrr is for stopping) was part of the fun, but our horses really had other ideas. Mine was very uninterested in staying still for the first part of the ride, but as soon as we got to any kind of slope, it had second thoughts. And Aurelie’s was so unimpressed by a downward slope that it turned round and had to be guided back by our Kyrgyz guide. It was easily the most fun I’d had on a horse, although their cantering excitement at getting back to the guesthouse did not work well with the almost corset-tight waterproof trousers I’d borrowed from Anne for the ride.

By Sunday morning the snow clouds had cleared and the valley and mountains were blinding white. Annie and I had to leave early to get back to Bishkek to do some preparation for work on Monday (Annie) or to start an Uzbek adventure (me), but there was enough time to go for an hour-long walk up to where the mountains start climbing above the valley. Although I’ve never seen a white Christmas, there was something very festive about being in such a stunning landscape with snowflakes covering blades of grass or a semi-frozen stream trickling over blocks of ice. It was a good relaxing end to the trip before reality came back to hit us when the yellow marshrutka back to Bishkek pulled up with around 25 passengers already on board. Of course there was room for a few more, so Annie and I were wedged between seats and other passengers before two Kyrgyz babushki took pity on us. I can barely describe the manoeuvre they managed as they got off the marshrutka: Annie says that one of them grabbed her and forced her into the newly vacated seat before anyone else could pounce in. Marshrutkas are a dog-eat-dog world, and the help of a babushka is priceless.

Throughout the weekend, one of the undoubted highlights was the hearty Central Asian food with plov, stews, buckwheat soup, and the obligatory endless cups of tea. At Ashu, a pot of tea was produced around every four hours and each one came with a bowl of jam. Whether it was raspberry, apricot or blackcurrant, in tea, on bread or by the spoonful (Kyrgyz style), their jam was delicious and the perfect complement to the crisp winter weather outside. But it’s best not to think about how many bowls of jam the four of us got through in the course of 24 hours.

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