We’ve arrived at China’s most westerly enclave. Before us lie the Stans that form the heartland of the Silk Road. Exiting via the Irkeshtam Pass, we bundle out of the bus and roll our suitcases down the hill into Kyrgyzstan, a glacial steam rushing to our right. Around us hang a double tier of red-stained hills and the snow-dusted Tian Shan mountains. Up here, at over 9,800ft the wind whistles fresh and clean. Our guide, Katchkaybaev, comes striding toward me wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt. “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan,” he says, pumping my hand.
The last checkpoint is a squat caravan painted in army camouflage. Cows graze all around us. I clamber up three giant truck tyres, tiered into steps, to reach the small window punched in the side of the tin can. A capped official takes my passport. “First time in Kyrgyzstan?” he asks, deadpan. I nod and flash him a smile, while surreptitiously taking a peek inside. An army camp bed is on the left and, in the corner, there’s a stove with a kettle boiling on top. From the door handle hangs a plastic bag full of berries. “For jam,” states his colleague, matter-of-factly, catching my line of sight.
The wild mountains are a refreshing change from the modernity of China and I relish the boundless horizon until we reach the hamlet of Sary-Tash at dusk. Columns of wood smoke snake into the indigo sky and horned cows mooch back to their owners’ compounds. We shoehorn ourselves into the local shop — a converted Soviet train carriage — to buy vodka from the storekeeper’s hefty supply. Bags of rice, potatoes and peppers fill sacks on the floor.
We bring our haul to the yurt of homestay host Mirbek, who greets us with a gold-toothed grin and ushers us inside for a supper of dumplings and naan bread. Fed and watered, I settle onto a mattress laid on the floor beside the living room stove and sleep soundly. We rise early and, like the cows, leave Sary-Tash for new pastures. From the bus window, I spy cemeteries with yaks tails tied to the headstones — a combination of Islam and ancient Tengrism (a Central Asian religion) — and a herd of ebony horses galloping across the steppe.
Down in the valley, the city of Osh — reputed to be 3,000 years old — is alive with university students and leafy parks. It marks the midpoint on the Silk Road. Looming above us is Sulayman Mountain. Its middle hump conceals Solomon’s Throne. Built in 1496 by Babur, the first Mughal emperor this understated mosque is the third-holiest shrine for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. At the top, we meet three women who’ve travelled from Kazakhstan to seek a blessing for the youngest, who’s unable to conceive. She wears an infant’s cradle on a string around her neck. I watch her nervous hands slowly calm as the imam imparts his soothing words. Some journeys are longer than others.