Genghis’ Camp.

This didn’t feel like Central Asia.
The road was smooth, the ride quiet, the old Mercedes van that did the honours as our marshrutka, or collective taxi, wasn’t packed to the gunwales. Our driver, a faded Denver Broncos hat planted on his head, hadn’t put on the stereo any hammering Russian hardbass music. In fact, but for a few squeaks and the sound of the wind, we could only hear chatting and laughing on board.
It didn’t feel like the Central Asia I was used to. I sang my own earworms inside my head whilst the road took us through a sequence of small but lively villages, dotted along the Issyk-Kul coastline like pearls. Not even the odd statue of Lenin could dispel this feeling. You thought you had the region figured out, and then this.
Jailoo. In Kyrgyz, as well as in other Turkic languages, a jailoo is a summer pasture. A place where to take your herds in the good season, somewhere high up, where the grass is fat and green and water plentiful, whilst down below – in the flatland – the heat has dried the wells and the vegetation is golden-brown. Transhumance was a concept familiar to me: after all, how many times have I been woken up, in May and October, by the sound of cows parading to and from the mountains? But jailoo isn’t just a place where to plop your yurt and caravan. Jailoo is also a place to party, for isolated families to come together: kok boru is played here, food is eaten and kumiss, fermented mare’s milk, drank.
We were en route to the largest jailoo in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrchyn – pronounced K’rrch’n – is full. Cars are parked on the near side of this valley created by the confluence of three gorges, on the right of a torrent. A metal bridge, of the kind that is usually plonked over a gully by a tank, connected our shore to what lied beyond. And what lied beyond was, for us, almost hard to believe.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The novelty of seeing a yurt, alone in a vast meadow or in somebody’s back garden, hadn’t quite worn off for me by the time we arrived at Kyrchyn Jailoo. To see dozens, hundreds of them, all together in a dusty plain, was truly something else.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Yet here they were. As far as the eye could see, on the left side of the valley, were outlandish ogive-shaped tents, not too dissimilar from gigantic missile heads poking out of the ground. Banners and flags flew in the wind: some big and some small, some bearing signs we could recognise – the Kazakh sun and eagle, or the yurt laths depicted at the centre of the Kyrgyz one – whilst others showed symbols whose meaning we could only guess. Strange palisades and watch towers had been erected at random intervals, and the pendulum movement of the giant swings (planks of wood large enough for two people) gave my overexcited mind the idea that this could be siege weapons testing time at Genghis’ camp.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
This place was real, not some construct engineered by an entertainment company, a Central Asian Disneyland peddling an idealised version of some imaginary world. This was first and foremost an encampment of herders, with added crowds of city folks and a few foreigners. The herders had brought in their yurts, and were there for a reason: that reason wasn’t giving spectacle to us, it was having a good time. Of all the aspects of Kyrchyn, this was my favourite.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Lucid, lean horses roamed everywhere, with or without youngsters perched on their backs. Not stepping on their droppings, pulverised as they were by hundreds of hoofs and feet, soon became impossible, and even sooner we stopped caring. Food cooked everywhere, in cauldrons and barbecues and on fires, its smells – goat skewers, horse stews, vegetables – mixing with the smoke of wood fires or stoves running on dried cow dung. Gigantic cast iron cauldrons bubbled on top of fires dug into the ground, the cooker leaning on the margins of the pit and the fire burning down below. I’d always wondered how did nomads cooked in the steppe, without rocks to form a platform for their pots. Now I had an answer.
Smoke and dust waved up and down the valley with the wind. One moment they’d both be choking us, the next we’d be in crystal-clear air. In those latter instances we’d emerge, spluttering, to hear the unworldly sounds carried by the wind: the guttural beauty of throat singing, or the delicate melodies of string instruments that generations of refinement and travel along the Silk Road would’ve turned in our violins and cellos.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
At sundown we’d leave the competition grounds and returned to what we’d called “the village”. Those moments – long shadows, amber lights, the crowds thinning down as everyone headed down – were my favourites. At those times, the fleeting village of Kyrchyn Jailoo looked the most poetic. Old women in traditional garbs would play on stages and rehears in the background, tickling their version of the Jew’s harp. Children, instead, would be engrossed in board games that looked as if they’d changed little since medieval times. And, around them, lone spectators sat on the short grass, taking it all in, witnesses of an ancient tradition that, there and then, looked very much alive.

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19 Responses to Genghis’ Camp.

  1. Bama says:

    “That reason wasn’t giving spectacle to us, it was having a good time.” This is probably the case in many places across the globe, until some greedy businessmen see this as an opportunity for them to get even richer. You’re so lucky to be able to see this incredible jailoo! Speaking of throat singing, it only caught my attention three years ago when a Mongolian band auditioned for the Asia’s Got Talent. They were so amazing and unique they ended up being the runners up at the end of the season. Here’s a link in case you want to relive your experience in the steppes of Asia:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an amazing post. I would so love to go to this. When does it happen? How did you find out about it? I was almost there from you beautiful words and fabulous pictures, but now I want to go for real. Did you find out anything about the amazing headdresses the women are wearing? Why haven’t I been following you for ages???

    Liked by 2 people

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Alison, thanks for following me! This is part of the World Nomad Games ( They take place every 2 year, and the next session will be in 2020; normally they take place in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrchyn Jailoo, north of Semerovka, still Kyrgyzstan, near Lake Issyk Kul. How did I hear about it? Well, I’ve been waiting since 2016! The headgear is sort of typical for Kyrgyz ladies, and used to be worn until the forced collectivisations of the Soviets. Anyhow, welcome, more to come soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, what an incredible experience!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lexklein says:

    This again brings back wonderful Danshig Naadam memories – all the people coming in from afar on their horses, setting up their gers/yurts for the week or so of competition. I’d love to do the Kyrgyzstan version someday, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Well Lexi, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but there were rumours, there and online, that the 2020 edition might be ‘hijacked’ by Turkey. Erdogan was in town, the whole country was awash with Turks, and undoubtedly they want to play the ethnic card heavily. It won’t be as fake as the football World Cup in Qatar, which makes me queasy with disgust, but I’m sure that it’ll lose in authenticity. However, they still do festivals aplenty over in the region!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. J.D. Riso says:

    I can just imagine how surreal it was to wander through that city of yurts. One of those timeless experiences that are so mesmerizing. Always so good to see that such authentic cultural richness still exists. A jailoo sounds like my kinda place.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dave Ply says:

    This kind of reminds me of the concept of open-air museums; showing life and living of times past. Except the museum is for real, it’s the tourists that are out of context. Nicely described.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. twobrownfeet says:

    Kyrgyzstan is on our list after we saw some incredible landscapes online. Wonderful captures! I hope we make it there someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Extraordinary. As if they’d built all this especially for you.

    Liked by 1 person

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