Kyrgyzstan Travel Alert
Thomas recalled, “There are awkward situations which can arise from misunderstandings. For instance, when we bought our horses we thought we could bargain but what happened is this: the nomads showed us a horse and asked us what we thought of it. Not wanting to offend them, we said it looked good (it did at a glance). For them, you see, this was as if we were already agreeing to their price because after they told us how much they wanted, we could no longer say we wanted to pay less, because we'd already said we liked the horse.... Get it? This sort of thing happened many times. It was most annoying (and costly)!”
After six years away from Kyrgyzstan, Thomas returned to make a short ride with his new bride. He discovered that during his absence, the local equestrian culture had undergone a number of negative changes.
“Just wanted to update you both on our trip and the current ‘horse trek’ situation in Kyrgyzstan.
Firstly, we've been stuck in Karakul for a week now, still waiting for permits to go towards the Chinese border area. We found a guide, who was recommended by CBT and by the guesthouse we've been staying at (Turkistan Yurt Camp), but I am not sure he is completely trustworthy. He keeps trying to change his price and/or the length of our planned trek. He had originally told us we would be able to leave on Wednesday or Thursday, but now it looks like we won't be able to leave before Saturday. This is supposedly because of the permits, but (and this is my second point) ... it seems to me that a lot of these guides are not very keen to do longer/more demanding treks. They are now getting a steady flow of tourists coming in for easy 2/3 day horse treks into the surrounding valleys. Most of these tourists are more than willing to fork out a lot of money for these treks. And since they can get 5 or 6 tourists in a group, they make more money that way than by taking just us two far into the Tien Shan. So every time we speak to our guide he is rather lukewarm about the whole idea and - as I've said - we've been waiting a week so far.
Kyrgyzstan has changed a lot since I was last here, seven years ago. There are now tourists practically everywhere. Prices have quadrupled. Even the prices of the latest Lonely Planet, published less than a year ago, are now often doubled. Our guesthouse in Bishkek was supposed to cost about 600 som/double, it is now 1300 som/double!
And finally - and this is what makes me saddest - organizing horse treks here no longer seems economical, unless you're in a larger group. Whereas you used to be able to rent horses for about 10 dollars a day, it is now 20 dollars. Guides are between 20 and 30 dollars. And they insist you need extra horses for your baggage - which means that for the two of us, the cheapest option we could find is still only a little short of 100 USD per day.
As for buying horses, when I did that seven years ago, we felt cheated having paid around 500 dollars per horse. Now I've heard from other travellers that you're lucky to be able to find a horse for under 2,000 dollars! Which ironically enough - seeing that Central Asia is the homeland of the horse - would now make it cheaper to buy a horse in Eastern Europe and ride it to Central Asia, rather than the other way around (which always seemed more logical).
I don't think you should simply trust me on the situation, because I haven't personally tried to buy a horse here (this time). It could be quite different if you really try going out to the yurts and talking to the herders (like I did 7 years ago). But we have heard, all throughout our trip, that the price of livestock is now comparable to Europe and America ($200+/sheep, $1,200+/cow, $1600+/horse). The price of meat has sky rocketed and there is some sort of black market for horse meat with Kazakhstan. Also, perhaps Karakul is too touristy, and prices may be higher than elsewhere. Strangely enough, although there are loads of tourists here, there are very few horse guides: a couple of them run a sort of monopoly. They might thus also keep their prices artificially high. But this is just speculation.
Anyway, despite all of this, I'm sure our trek will still be wonderful. I'll update you on that when we get back. But I think other potential travellers should be warned that organizing horse treks in Kyrgyzstan is very different from what one might expect.”