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Destination Turkestan: In Search of the Golden Springs

There’s electricity running through my veins, a power pulsing through my body. I am furiously and intensely alive. I toss my backpack onto the bed. My vision is fuzzy, my palms are buzzing, my senses are sharp. The purity of the moment is too potent to handle. I have been revealed a sublime vision.

Let me rewind. Like any good story, this one begins with blood. But before blood must come sport. I’ll start from the beginning:

A Nomadic Bloodsport

A week before, we landed in Kyrgyzstan, ready to discover the country’s epic landscapes and take a long, delicious trek through a fabled trail in the mountains. We had only spent one night in the capital, Bishkek, before taking a shared minibus to the shores of Issyk Kul, one of the largest and deepest lakes in the world. The lake was a natural midpoint between Bishkek and Karakol – a backpacker haven and the start of our trek – and the stopover would allow us a night’s rest before beginning our journey through the mountains.

The entrance to our yurt camp in Issyk Kul.

Upon arriving to Issyk Kul, we quickly found a large yurt camp and paid a few hundred som (around ten dollars) for a yurt and a hot meal. At dinner, we met our driver, Jyrgal, who we had arranged to take us to a nearby canyon the next day. He asked us, if, before going to the canyon, we would agree to come see him and his friends play kok boru: one of Kyrgyzstan’s national sports. He figured that in order to both play his favorite sport and keep us as clients the next day, he could invite us to watch and get the best of both worlds. Is it alright if we go see the canyon after?

On the shores of Issyk Kul.

We exchanged glances. Why not? Although we didn’t know anything about kok boru, it sounded like an interesting experience. Plus, the guy seemed really eager to play with his friends. Behind his thick build and tough-guy look, I could tell that Jyrgal was sentimental. It was something in the way he would flash a cheeky smile when joking with the staff at the camp. He was also a bit sheepish when approaching us. Little did we know how sheepish he actually was, but we were soon to find out. That night, we settled into our yurt and took refuge underneath layers of thick blankets to shelter us from the cold, excited for the next day’s adventure.

In the morning, our driver was right on time: at eight o’clock sharp, he was sitting in the driveway with his jeep. As we sped up a dirt road, Jyrgal and I passed the time quizzing each other on the similarities between Kyrgyz and Turkish. After all, they are part of the same language family and share many words. The Turkish yildiz (or star) is “jildiz” in Kyrgyz. Yok (or none) is “jok.” Even the numbers are the same – and I had a good chuckle after realizing that my Turkish was good enough to count to one thousand in Kyrgyz.

Eventually, we reached an expansive plain surrounded by mountains on all sides, as Jyrgal sang along to his favorite Turkish hits, including one especially mournful ballad about cuddling. We stopped by a modest plot of farmland with a few chickens, a barking dog, and sheep tied to a pole.

“My friends coming. We play game down there,” Jyrgal said, motioning down the valley. “We will go there ten minutes.” Shrugging our shoulders, we headed down the small hill towards the middle of the valley, waiting for the game to get started. Taking in our surroundings, we got lost in small talk for a few minutes…

...Until a few moments later, I looked up to see Jyrgal galloping towards us at full speed on horseback, wind in his hair and a fierce pride in his face. He was holding the now headless sheep by the testicles, having decapitated it just moments before. It was not only missing a head, but also its four feet. Blood was seeping out of its limbs, getting on both Jyrgal and his horse as he pulled up in front of us.

Our driver, Jyrgal, in his element.

“Best way to hold,” he said. “You want?” he offered, flashing his toothy grin once again.

Before I could answer, several other men on horseback came dashing towards him, and he kicked off. Rearing up next to our driver’s steed, another man grabbed a hold of one of the sheep’s limbs, and they started wrestling over the trophy. As the half-men half-horses tugged away at the body, kicking up dust every which way, I took out my camera to get a picture of the action. Before I knew it, Jyrgal landed on his back with a heavy thud in front of me. He groaned deeply and slowly, and took a good minute to get back to his feet.

“I OK,” he assured us as we looked on with concern. “Last year, I break collarbone and three months in hospital. My wife don’t want me play, but I love kok boru,” he said, still wincing in pain.

As the other riders took off into the distance, Jyrgal explained the game. Two opposing teams face off. A collection of rocks on either side of the field marks the goals. The aim of the game is to get a hold of the sheep and toss it into the opposing rock pit to score points. It’s a bit like polo, except it involves a decapitated carcass. The game is played all over Central Asia – including in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan – and has been part of nomad tradition for centuries.

We observed with interest for about an hour, and the game wrapped up with Jyrgal scoring the final point. Beaming with pride, he galloped back towards where we were sitting and threw the furry remains at our feet, somewhat akin to a touchdown celebration.

On the drive back we asked our driver more about nomadic horse culture. He explained that horses were very valuable in Kyrgyz tradition, and it often took a man several years to save up money to buy one. If the horses were weak or slow, they would be killed for their meat and distributed among the community; especially during special occasions like weddings or holidays. Strong, fast horses were used for hunting, transportation, and to play kok boru, until they eventually grew old – at which point they would also then be killed for their meat. He told us without any hint of sadness that, once his own horse – which he has had for nearly ten years and considers his best friend – grows old, he will eventually slaughter it for the meat. When I balked at the idea, he just looked up to the sky with a hand over his heart: the circle of life, I guess.

The slightly underwhelming Skazka canyon.

Later that morning, we arrived to the canyon as promised. But after the excitement of the kok boru tournament, we found the canyon a bit underwhelming. We only spent about 20 minutes exploring the area before heading back to our yurt. Just as quickly, we had packed up our bags. With a quick goodbye to Jyrgal and the staff at the yurt camp, we were off in another bus to Karakol, starting point of our trek to Altyn Arashan.

A Turkic Trek

We had heard about the Altyn Arashan trek from doing research on Kyrgyzstan, and the hike enjoyed a stellar reputation among lovers of the outdoors. Everyone we had met in the country so far had nothing but good things to say, and we were looking forward to soaking in the natural landscapes. Altyn, meaning “gold,” and arashan, or “healing hot spring,” refers to a collection of natural hot water springs at the end of the hike. The trek was supposed to be challenging, but we were to be met with a treat at the end.

We began at the trailhead, which meanders besides an ambling river. Cool, sky-blue waters trickled over stubborn boulders. Forests of dark green pine trees gave way to large, flourishing valleys. At a bend in the river, the view opened up to a sunbaked meadow, where dozens of wild horses drank calmly from gentle streams. Hills of pine trees rose up elegantly on either side, the imposing white mountains towering in the distance. The beauty was jaw dropping: we felt we had stumbled across some sort of unspoiled, mythical paradise.

A couple of kilometers later, we were meant to cross a large wooden bridge over some furious rapids – but a major flood had recently snapped the bridge in half like a twig. So, we had to walk for about another hour until it was possible to cross the river by foot. Taking off our socks and shoes, we carefully traversed the lowest part of the river, up to our knees in freezing waters.

After drying off our feet, we faced a steep uphill climb through a winding trail in the forest. We clambered up the mountain until the raging river was but a fading blue string in the distance, and reached our campsite around dusk. The first day was a ten hour hike from start to finish, and the next day would be even longer. We wolfed down some cheese, dried fruit, and peanut butter and then eased comfortably into sleep.

The next day, we woke up feeling fresh and continued up the steep mountain incline. We saw the trail lead up and over a waterfall in the distance above us. Our packs were heavy and our legs burned, but the fresh morning air filled our lungs as we trudged up to the sound of flowing water. About two hours of a straight uphill climb over dusty rocks led us to our first big reward: Ala-Kol. This dazzling turquoise alpine lake provided an ideal respite for lunch. It was also the perfect spot to fill up on some fresh mountain water. We filled our water bottles with ice cold runoff from the waterfall we had just scaled, and then sat back to enjoy the view.

Ala-Kol in all its majesty.

Ahead of us, we saw what would prove to be our hardest challenge yet: the Ala-Kol pass, at 3,900 meters. The lake was situated in a crater of sorts, a steep bowl of rocks and sand rising above us in every direction. Our next challenge would be to get over the mountain pass to the top of the crater’s bowl, which would put us on the other side of the mountain to start our descent. An arduous climb and several breathless breaks later, we made it to the summit.

We were greeted with an awe-inspiring 360 view. Stretching into the distance, we could see the booming Tien Shan mountain range – which stretches from Uzbekistan to Xinjiang in western China – in all its imposing beauty. The wind blew gently over the pass as the sun descended over the horizon. Light pierced the clouds, wrapped lethargically around this lost, rugged corner of the earth. Tien Shan is an ancient term meaning “heavenly mountains,” and from here, we could see why. We sat in silence and drank in the view: the treasure we had been looking forward to all this time.

After a slow, sketchy, and dark descent down the mountain, we set up camp halfway to Altyn Arashan, and by the next afternoon we had made it to the village of the golden springs. Nestled in a valley near a gentle river, Altyn Arashan consisted of a handful of yurt camps and wooden lodges. A rustic little outpost in the middle of nowhere, it was surrounded by mountains in every direction; another full days’ walk from the nearest town. We ventured eagerly to the hot springs surrounding the yurt camps and submerged our sore bodies into the sizzling water. Here we were in our own little sauna, enjoying the fruits of our labor. We let the heat soothe our souls, the steam massaging away the stress and strains.

Idyllic Altyn Arashan.

We followed up the indulgent soak with a hot meal. Nothing felt more luxurious than a heaping plate of rice and meat after subsisting on granola bars and peanut butter for so long. What a treat. And then there was our cozy yurt. Under a mountain of heavy blankets, thrilled with the success of our trek, I drifted slowly into slumber while a little stove fire crackled away.

A Cold War Carriage

To get back to Karakol, we could either walk for another full day, or share what was described to us as a “truck” for a drive over the trails. We opted for the latter, having heard that it was quite the experience. The truck turned out to be a Soviet era military jeep called GAZ 4WD, specifically designed for mountainous off-roading. With its giant suspension, this vehicle was capable of rolling over the deep trenches, sharp boulders, and rolling hills that separated us from the rest of civilization. It was driven by a gruff, battle-hardened Russian chewing a cigar, his face etched with leathery wrinkles. I took one look at him and knew we were in good hands: if anyone could drive us over this “road,” it would be him. With his calloused hands and unwavering scowl, he looked like a special forces veteran from a video game.

On the drive back to Karakol.

We fought our way up and over the trails, the truck rocking violently side to side. At a certain point, we steered across an especially narrow trail with a sheer drop down the side. As our truck tilted over the edge of the cliff, I was at eye level with the bottom of the mountain. I half expected to see the carcass of a car, its victims still trapped, their bodies rotting away from decades ago. The trail tossed us around the inside of the jeep as we held on for dear life to the steel rails above our heads.

The Ultimate Now

A couple hours later we were back at our hostel in Karakol. My body was teeming with warm energy and a hearty gratitude. There’s something special about the mountains. By stripping life down to its bare necessities – food, water, shelter, heat – you appreciate everything you have just a little more. In distilling life to its essentials, you are able to connect with your environment in a more meaningful way, and every step is an opportunity to meditate. Every morning, you set the simple goal of getting to the next campsite, and with each day of exertion you are rewarded with a fulfillment that is all too hard to find in the day to day.

The exhilarating trek among the striking greens and blues of the Kyrgyz countryside; the intense trail up the mountain pass; the view from the summit, in which we felt closer to God; the soothing hot springs; the appreciation for a warm meal and a bed; and the rambling journey in a Soviet jeep back to Karakol… I looked back on the last few days with a rare satisfaction. A satisfaction that had crystallized into the Ultimate Now of Golden Clarity: a converging of events that, for but a passing moment, revealed the true purpose and nature of life. I was humming along on a higher plane.

There’s electricity running through my veins, a power pulsing through my body. I am furiously and intensely alive. I toss my backpack onto the bed. My vision is fuzzy, my palms are buzzing, my senses are sharp. The purity of the moment is too potent to handle. I had been revealed a sublime vision. For just a few moments, I had all the answers. I knew the whats and whys of life that we all seek. The clouds had parted, and at that moment, I knew what I was chasing, why I was chasing it, and what could lead to fulfillment and purpose… And just like that, ever fleetingly, it was gone.

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