Last summer, Abu Dhabi was scorching hot and immersed in thick, stifling humidity when I started having dreams of fishing along the stony shore of a cold river flanked by tall mountains. I had some time set aside for a week-long getaway, and wanted to do something different. I found little allure in the typical destinations most travellers head to when they want to escape the Gulf summer. It was a desire for unscripted travel.
Being a lackadaisical planner, there was always a risk of things going south with such a notion, but from this state of mind, the idea came about to travel east to Kyrgyzstan. I wanted to assess whether a fishing trip there in late summer was feasible. Did this Kyrgyz river, supposedly teeming with glistening trout, even exist? What about the prerequisite mountains? Was it even angling season, and would the fish be biting? Up until this point, I didn’t even own a fishing rod.
The thought of travelling to the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan had never crossed my mind before now, yet the answers to each of those questions eventually brought me there. Apart from knowing that the country has a history that reaches back to the height of ancient Rome, I knew precious little about this former member of the Soviet bloc and, it appears, neither does much of the world.
Kyrgyzstan has the distinction of being farther away from the Earth’s oceans than any other country on the planet. In 2015, about 1.2 million tourists visited the country, while in the same year, more than triple that number checked into hotels in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Intrigued by its relative isolation, I took to YouTube to learn more, and found an unvarnished video, set to 1990s-style punk-rock, of Russian fishermen reeling in big trout from a river supposedly in Kyrgyzstan. A couple of dated message boards in the deep recesses of the internet then led me to the Kyrgyz Community Based Tourism Association – a local group organising eco-tourism and cultural activities for visitors. I wrote to them, and the next day, I received an itinerary from a man named Suimonkol Zhooshbaev, a coordinator with the organisation.
With the Kyrgyz autumn in full swing, he said fishing was still possible. I would even have my own personal fishing guide, while warning me that he spoke no English. Minor details, I thought, as long as he could take me to the river. After a little tweaking, we agreed to an itinerary which included a homestay with a Kyrgyz family in a small village in the mountains.
Less than a month later, on a steamy October morning, I land before sunrise in the capital city, Bishkek, which to my astonishment, is being pummelled with an atypical, early-season blizzard. Looking out of the plane window, there’s zero visibility through the thick falling snow. I’m greeted at arrivals by Zhooshbaev. After some quick salutations, we’re in his Land Cruiser, driving in pale pre-dawn light towards the village of Kyzyl-Oi – my home for the next few days.
A few hours into the journey, we’re at an altitude of more than 3,000 metres, driving through a barely lit 2.7-kilometre-long tunnel through the Tien Shan mountains. On the other side, we’re greeted by spectacular views of the Suusamyr Valley, which we descend into as we pass red-cheeked vendors selling kurut – small, salty balls of dried sour milk.
We cross the valley, by now bare and brown after being stripped of its produce by roving livestock, finally reaching the mighty Kökömeren River. For the next several days, the sound emanated from this river’s thunderous, ferocious flow would never be out of earshot.
We arrive in Kyzyl-Oi under the midday sun, entering the village on a heavily potholed, mostly gravel road that’s shared by elderly pedestrians, women carrying jugs of water and young boys on horses.
The village’s name in Kyrgyz means “red bowl”, reflecting the steep clay slopes of its valley. I’m told that most of its inhabitants made a living by raising livestock and much of their existence is still handcrafted. Having been established well before the Russian Revolution, it’s noted as having retained much of its pre-Communist heritage.
Zhooshbaev introduces me to a man named Artyk Kulubaev, my host, who provides me with a bed and generous helpings of soul food, including hot bowls of borscht, beshbarmak (noodles with chopped horsemeat), plov and oromo (a large tube of pasta stuffed with cabbage and potatoes, served with a mildly spicy sauce).
I’m taken to my room in a single-storey house, adorned with photos of Kulubaev and his family. There’s no central heating, so I’m given a small electric heater and several heavy wool blankets to keep me warm during the cold nights. The shower and toilet are in a separate (unheated) building in the back of the lot.
I have just finished a lunch of crispy fried river fish when a smiling man in leather boots enters the room and introduces himself as Birdeke Torkoglu – my fishing guide. After several hand-gesture-heavy exchanges, I make out that he wants to see the fishing equipment I have brought from Abu Dhabi. I have my brand-new rod and a fishing reel loaded with 15-pound test line. I’m confident that I’m well outfitted to fish the mighty Kökömeren. Torkoglu isn’t so sure.
He cuts a piece of my fishing line, roughly a metre in length, looping one end several times around one forearm before doing the same with the other. Then with some force, he jerks his arms apart, easily snapping the line.
“Problyema,” he says.
“Excellent,” I think to myself, remembering the Russians and their catches from the YouTube video.
He replaces the line in my reel with a heavy-duty alternative, and we make plans to head out to the river the following morning. For several days, we traverse the rugged shores of the Kökömeren, climbing over boulders the size of small cars, stopping at one fishing spot after the other to toss a hook and worm into the frigid water.
As the Sun crosses over the valley, Torkoglu catches several trout, and within minutes, they’re gutted and tossed skin-side down onto the hot coals of a fire we start with wood scavenged from the riverside. With the temperature dropping, we throw a kettle on the fire to prepare our afternoon tea, which I sip as I huddle between two big boulders, eyeing the tip of my fishing rod, shrouded by jagged, snow-capped mountains that look just like the ones I saw in my dreams of Kyrgyzstan.