Horse Trekking a Country Under a Trump Travel Ban
You might remember in the month after Donald Trump was inaugurated back in January 2017 the thousands of protesters who turned out at airports across America to protest Trumps so-called “travel ban” — more commonly (and rightly) known as the Muslim Ban.
This original ban barred entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Refugees fleeing from war, persecution and state-sponsored violence, some who had waited years to have their applications accepted, were forced to return to the danger they thought they had escaped. Families and holiday-makers who had dreamed of standing in Times Square or swimming in the beaches of California were turned away because of the badge on their passport and the god in whom they believed.
This ban was touted as an effort to prevent terrorism. In reality, Trump enforced this ban because his Republican supporters believe Muslims are more prone to violence and not truly part of American society. A 2017 poll showed that 56% of Republicans surveyed agreed there is a “great deal or fair amount of extremism among US Muslims”, whilst an incredible 68% agreed that “Islam is not part of mainstream American society”. These numbers are even higher in Trump’s core base of white evangelicals.
For people who have travelled past their own borders and experienced Islamic culture firsthand, these views can be staggering. When walking through the busy streets of Istanbul and hearing the call to prayer, we do not hear something to fear: we hear the expression of a culture that intrigues us. When sitting in a Mosque in Uzbekistan and an Imam begins to sing, we do not experience unwelcome stares, but a joining embrace.
Amidst the noise emanating from America over the past weeks — from a potential war with Iran to the impeachment trial — it would have been easy to miss the news that came out of the White House on the last day of January. Trump added an additional six countries to his Muslim ban: Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania and Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is not exactly a country that features high on many traveller’s bucket lists. It, along with the rest of central Asia, however, has always fascinated me, and I was lucky enough to spend a month in the region towards the end of last year. Of the 14 countries I visited on that trip, Kyrgyzstan stood out as my favourite. That is why seeing it included on Trump’s expanded travel ban list made me feel such a sense of injustice for its perversity.
The people I met there, the experiences I had, have shaped how I feel about the country, its place in the world and its place on this list. As with all travellers, there are certain countries that we feel connected with. This sense of connectedness is such an ephemeral aspect of travelling. It makes us realise that we cannot hold a population responsible for the actions of its corrupt leaders, nor can we judge nearly two billion worshippers by the violent actions of a few.
Travelling in Kyrgyzstan is by no means difficult. The borders are open and easy to pass through, especially coming from Kazakhstan, and you can find marshrutkas (minibuses) that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go.
In a country where the nomadic traditions of generations past still thrive, taking a horse trek was on the top of my itinerary. A couple in Almaty told me about a local company called Kyrgyz Riders and after a few emails with the owner, Aman, I was set to meet him in a small village called Kochkor for a three-day trek to lake Song-Kul.
The four-hour marshrutka journey from Kyrgyzstan’s bustling capital Bishkek to Kochkor was stunning. Jagged rocky outcrops and statues of the elusive snow leopards that roam the mountainous terrain were plentiful. The driver pulled into Kochkor and I was the only one to disembark. Greeting me was a tiny village with a single street consisting of around 100 metres of dingy shops, restaurants and guest houses.
Walking down to the guest house I booked, no less than three locals asked me where I was from and if I needed help finding my way – this friendliness was common throughout central Asia. As it was towards the end of the season, I was the only person at the guesthouse, and the owner, a kind woman of around 60 with a ruddy face and a large frame, introduced me to her family and made me tea and bread with homemade jam while we chatted through Google translate.
The next morning, I was picked up by my guide for the next three days, Ermek. On the way out of town, he took me to his house so I could meet his wife and parents and drink tea with them. Such is the hospitality and generosity of Kyrgyz people.
When we arrived at an even smaller village to begin the trek, I was plonked on a horse, handed a whip and, feeling very confused as to what I was going to do with this whip (I can barely sit on a horse at a trot, whipping it to make it go faster seemed out of the question), away we went.
The next three days were some of the most breathtaking I have experienced. Snow-capped mountains pierced the unblemished blue sky. In the distance, shepherds headed their flock on horseback whilst eagles roamed overhead. On the first evening, we stayed with a shepherd’s family in one of the many yurts that have housed the nomads for millennia.
After eight hours of riding through untouched mountainous landscapes, Ermek and I spent the second night on the shores of Lake Song-Kul, where local fisherman joined us in the yurt to share their catch. Though I spoke none of their language, one could speak a bit of English, and they made me feel welcome, as though I was part of their community.
Arriving back in Kochkor after lunch again with Ermek’s family, I made my way to the same guesthouse I stayed in three days earlier. The owner told me through a translation app that she was cooking plov for dinner and insisted I eat with her family. That night, a Sunday, we all shared a meal together and with some technological help discussed everything from religion to livestock to the old Soviet Union.
Experiences such as these are common to many travellers. Hospitable locals who treat you like a part of their family, who bring you into their homes and welcome you with unbridled sincerity and love.
This experience in Kyrgyzstan belies the fear-mongering that policies like travel bans try to instil in people. It is important for fellow travellers who have experienced the true generosity of people that some would like us to think of as the “other” to share these experiences and ensure that cultural and religious differences are not exploited for political purposes, but embraced for the learning and growth that can be discovered from them.
Photos by the author