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In the backwash of Brexit my first resort has been Foxit. Shocked by the news, I bolted from Oxford to east Kyrgyzstan to the remote mountains of the Ala-Too range. With me went five stallions, two Kyrgyz guides and intrepid Harriet Rix from Devon, willing to sleep on the floor of a yurt and to gallop with hair flowing free below glaciers towards western China. One aim was to ride all day for nine days. Another was to see the flowers of a landscape that even Alexander the Great never entered. These aims were soon joined by a third: survival.
It began idyllically. As night fell, we sat in a homely shelter while hospitable ladies prepared mutton-fat pasta for six. An elderly Kyrgyz visitor reaches for his komuz, a three-stringed instrument like a mandolin, and for an hour delighted us with orally learned music. His star turn is a melody composed for a messenger who has to report that a hunted boar has killed his ruler’s son. The ruler threatens to fill the man’s mouth with molten lead for bringing such dreadful news. The messenger explains that his komuz, not his voice, has delivered the message. It cannot be filled because it has no hole. In the Roman empire the first Christian ruler Constantine prescribed that hot lead should be poured down the throat of anyone who helped a girl to elope for premarital sex. Historians sometimes dismiss this punishment as an impossibility. In ancient Central Asia it was not.
As he sings, I think, as ever, of The Iliad. Also in a tent, Homer’s Achilles plays his lyre and sings. A messenger fears death when he brings him news that beloved Patroclus has been killed. Like Homeric rhapsodes, professional Kyrgyz singers recite an ancient epic poem which has 20,000 verses about mighty Manas, their answer to Achilles. Our guide, Ulubec, tells me that Kyrgyz boys are expected to learn without reading or writing the names and stories of seven generations of their male ancestors. In Oxford, few boys know any beyond their grandpa’s. Despite 43 years in the EU they also know few, if any, foreign languages. In Kyrgyzstan schoolboys speak Kyrgyz and Russian and the majority begin English grammar at the age of five.
On the next day we meet our horses. They are not what the poet Matthew Arnold called “shaggy ponies from Pamir”. Mine is named Kara, black and ballsy. Under hot sun we trot ever higher past wild white roses and rocks crammed with saxifrage and campanulas. The fields glow with violet-blue meadow aconites and drifts of rose-pink clover. As Kara frisks, I adjust my soft hat, a present from an ex-pupil who taught in north Pakistan. She found it for £1 in a Chitrali market where Alexander’s Macedonians once conquered. Fancifully, scholars have derived it from the “kausia”, a flat hat that his Macedonians wore. I am honoured to attach to such legends. Our guides even claim that Alexander came to Kyrgyzstan and visited the wild walnut forests, still visible with foxtail lilies round Arslanbob. All the walnuts in Greece, they say, derive from Kyrgyz walnuts that he took home. Actually, the best Greek walnuts now grow in northern Euboea. On sale in Harrods, Artemision walnuts are picked off trees that came from a nursery in Provence.
We gallop at evening to our hilltop yurt, made of bent red canes and canopied with silks. They are patterned with green and pink peonies and the English word “love” written upside down. Only the stars are missing, usually clear in a Central Asian sky. Their absence is an omen.
After dawn we saddle up and Harriet explains to our excellent guides that I taught in a university. They revere the word “Oxford” and look suitably baffled when I mention Cambridge. They even know about Britain’s repulsive tuition fees, so once again, I denounce Lord Willetts’ vengeance on the hard-working young. “Is Oxford in London?” they ask me. They have never escorted English riders on the arduous route ahead, but once, they rode with an Englishman who was 71. They say he had visited 200 countries since he retired. To Harriet’s disgust, I become pensioner-competitive.
All morning we ride through rolling green meadows and enough white edelweiss to be serenaded for a lifetime by Captain von Trapp. We roll face down at lunchtime among forget-me-nots, blue gentians and glowing yellow ranunculus, while herds of free-range horses graze beneath snow-capped mountains. At the Holburne Museum in Bath, this summer’s exhibition is Stubbs and the Wild. If only he had visited Kyrgyzstan, he could have painted wild mares and foals in a truly wild landscape.
By mid-afternoon I am struggling mentally to keep up with that rider aged 71. The skies have darkened and a stupendous thunderstorm penetrates my eiderdown jacket. My Saddlehugger jodhpurs become skin-huggers and painfully exfoliate my legs. The rain passes, but returns redoubled with lightning among peaks and lakes never seen by English eyes. After four bedraggled hours, we are taken in by shepherds who have migrated to the mountains with their yurts and herds. They offer the ultimate test, mares’ milk in bowls from a stove fuelled by blocks of horse dung, stored, dried and then cut by elderly family members. Warming slowly, I reconsider the British allowance to pensioners for winter fuel. In summer, we could keep fit by stockpiling human and animal manure. Then we could burn it indoors to keep warm all winter. The scrapping of our allowance would allow the abolition of student fees for the young.
Days two, four and six become similarly testing and stormy in mid-afternoon. Kara refuses to trot uphill and between sightings of fabulous primulas, I gasp for breath at heights above 4,000 metres. At evening we lie on yurt-floors in our soaked Saddlehuggers while girls in bright silks separate horse-cream from horse-milk by turning handles on their metal churns. Without a stove I shiver acutely, until a muscular shepherd pours liquor down my throat like molten lead. On the label of its prized bottle an ibex is bounding as if on a legal high. As his daughter churns, she reveals a shirt with an embroidered logo, “Style is Lourdes”. I am thankful for her father’s alcoholic miracle.
In the 1060s the greatest poet in Kyrgyzstan, Yusuf Balasaguni, wrote a long rhyming poem in Middle Turkic about a vizier’s young son called Highly Praised. Highly Praised’s brother was a scholar-hermit called Wide Awake who lived alone, enlightened, in the mountains. At night, I sympathise, wide awake, but in a yurt with eight snoring bodies and wild horses whinnying outside.
Each day, the changing flowers lift our spirits. Creamy Clematis sibirica runs through roses and yellow potentillas. Fluffy flower-heads amaze us on weird thistles. At the snowline, ice-blue Trollius lilacinus is the find of the trip. Much of the superb flora is uncharted and I cannot yet name all we saw. On the eighth day, we descend to a short dirt-road and meet three car-loads of ladies from Israel. “What is there to see?” they ask us. “Primulas, miles of gentians,” we begin . . . “No, no,” they stop us, “waterfalls?”
We trot wistfully to our final camp beyond a valley of pale blue asters. That 71-year-old Englishman, our guides reveal, rode only for five hours. He merely wanted to stand on a hill with a panoramic view. If Style is Lourdes, stamina is a week on stallions, taking mares’ milk with rain and thunder. When Brexit’s trade talks fail, this Fox is confident of brokering an Oxford-Kyrgyz entente.
Photographs: Harriet Rix; Getty Images
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