Be Careful What You Wish For in Kyrgyzstan
By Dina Bennett
I was on a quest to try mare’s milk. My thirst for this liquid took hold five years ago when we drove from Beijing to Paris via Mongolia.
But once we were in the Gobi, finding our way through the bland sand tracks took all my attention, leaving none for spying out yurts with mares. Recently, when I found myself in Kyrgyzstan, it dawned on me I’d been granted a second chance.
The Kyrgyz are semi-nomadic, conquered eight hundred years ago by that famed Mongol-on-horseback, Genghis Khan. Ever since their culture has been entwined with the horse. Driving across Kyrgyzstan, I was in mare’s milk mecca, assuming, that is, someone did the milking for me.
It’s not easy to milk a mare. Unless you’re an experienced nomad, the job takes two, plus a handy foal. The foal is a teaser, four legs with a set of lips to get the milk flowing. After that, one of you has to pull him off and hold him, squirming and wriggling, next to his mother’s shoulder, so she doesn’t panic and neither does he.
The other has the riskier job: kneel on one knee by the mare’s haunch, as if proposing, while balancing a bucket on the raised knee to catch what you’re about to squirt out of the mare’s teats.
Remember though: horses are adept at kicking things. Your position leaves you vulnerable. And that arm you’ve wrapped around the mare’s hind leg to steady yourself?
That arm could be flung away like limp spaghetti if she chooses to shake you off. But the risk is worth it if you’re a nomadic horse herder because, in the four months of the milking season, you can extract 300 gallons of milk (2,650 pounds), only half of which has to go to keep your pump primer, that frisky foal, well-fed. The rest can be sold.
The Suusamyr Valley
The best place in Kyrgyzstan to get mare’s milk is the narrow, verdant Suusamyr valley, near the border with Kazakstan, where nomads have summered their horses for centuries. Day one of my quest was as cold and gloomy as my husband, Bernard, and I drove through Suusamyr on our way from Osh to Bishkek.
The slashing rain at the lower altitudes turned to sleet at 7,200 feet. Fingers of fog drift over the valley floor, camouflaging the nomad yurts, whose white canvas was soaked to a soiled-looking grey. Yurt stove pipes, like so many landlocked periscopes, released curls of pale smoke into the wetness.
By the roadside were small tables displaying each nomad’s milk offerings in recycled Pepsi bottles and cooking oil jugs. Each yurt also has equine advertising: a group of small mares with heads drooping and backs humped against the rain. Their foals were nearby, but not close enough to suck.
Today should have been my chance to fulfill the quest, yet there were obstacles. For one, there’s the 385-mile drive to Bishkek. It should take 12-14 hours.
We’d like to complete it in ten, despite two 11,000-foot passes and winding mountain roads iced with the year’s first snow. Then there were those soda bottles filled with an opaque white liquid akin to bleached Pepto Bismol.
Who knows how long the milk’s been there, its temperature rising and falling with the sun. The rain didn’t do much to stoke my enthusiasm either. Despite it being early afternoon, the low blanket of storm clouds made it as dark as dusk.
When I take my first sips of equine dairy, I want to savor it, not huddle in a downpour. Besides, if no nomad is milking his mare in the rain, that tells me something. We drove on.
Day two found me in a Bishkek hotel talking with the concierge. “Where can I get a glass of mare’s milk?” I asked, expecting to have a choice of places within walking distance.
“Oh, this is not possible in Bishkek.”
“But the nomads are just over the pass. Don’t they bring it to the city for sale?”
“Never. It doesn’t transport. You have to drink it fresh.”
“Really? So the only place to get mare’s milk is back three hours toward Osh?” We’re heading the opposite direction, toward Kyrgyzstan’s border with China.
“Suusamyr is the main place for mare’s milk.” She pauses to consider. “Here in Bishkek, though, there is one cafe, a very special place, that sells kumis, but…” her voice trails off.
“Mare’s milk that is…how you say… fermented. I will show you how to get there.” She unfurled a city map with a smart snap, drew a blob to denote our hotel, and skipped her pen several blocks up and over. “Here it is,” she exclaimed, scribbling a wild circle of happiness around the location of the kumis cafe.
I found the cafe midway down a quiet, tree-lined side street. It’s patronized that Sunday by Kyrgyz families, a couple of men indulging a table-side snooze and a crone, swaddled in layers of clothing, doing some timid begging.
Settling in at a well-shaded iron table by the sidewalk, I barely had time to look around before a harried waiter slapped a menu on the table. “Kumis, please,” I said.
“Kumis?” he echoed, in a tone that should have filled me with doubt.
“Kumis,” I repeated, trying to mimic the confidence with which the concierge said it that morning.
Here it Is: Kumis
He whisked the menu away, turned on his heels and departed, swiveling his hips through the crowded tables like a retreating rumba dancer.
Five minutes later he was back, carrying a tray with one glass and a clear carafe filled with a viscous white liquid. Taking a filthy rag from his back pocket he swished it around and inside the glass, which he placed in front of me with a flourish, heavy pitcher alongside.
He lingered, raised his eyebrows in expectation, perhaps hoping I would pour and gulp in his presence. For reasons I couldn’t then explain, I sense it’s important to take my first taste of kumis in private, so I waited him out till he was called to another table. Only then do I scoot my chair in, lean over the pitcher and inhale deeply. My nostrils filled with a scent reminiscent of vomit.
There is only one thing to do in these circumstances: rely on my taste buds. I poured a drip, sufficient to taste, but little enough to pass for the dregs of a once-full glass. To bypass my nose I exhale while I sipped. Smell aside, I saw no reason why milk from a mare shouldn’t produce something similar to the deliciousness of other fermented milk drinks, like kefir or lassi.
I was wrong. Horribly, gag-worthy, wrong. But I’m in a public place, a guest of a foreign country, so I swallowed the thick, sour, carbonated stuff. It did not go down easy. Abandoning my afternoon of kumis-sipping, I hand the waiter appropriate bills and left. On the next corner I bought a bottle of water, which I quickly drained.
The Real Thing
Now that it’s clear kumis will not satisfy my mare’s milk quest, there’s only one thing for it. I must find the real thing.
Day three and we are driving west to Naryn, our last stop before reaching China. The Naryn oblast is the most definitively Kyrgyz of all Kyrgyzstan, with plenty of livestock of the sort that produce wool and meat, but not milk.
Through 125 miles, I see no lush pastures, no yurts. No mares. The countryside alternates flat and dry with hilly and dry, neither conducive to horse nomads. Until, that is, we crest the pass above Naryn and discover we’ll be descending through a rumpled landscape of grassy gullies and meadows.
Immediately I see horses, but they’re geldings, only useful for travel and transport. I go on high alert for staked mares, the nomad’s movable signage for milk. We round a hairpin curve and there, snugged in a narrow gulch of green grass, I see a square black tent.
A woman stands in front, toddler wobbling at her feet. An old woman sits under a net awning rolling balls of white cheese which she tosses onto the netting to dry in the sun. Grazing behind them, foals nearby, are mares.
“Mares!” I shout to Bernard. “Stop, stop stop. Pull over.” Though there are no roadside tables sporting soda bottles filled with white liquid, I have no doubt I can get what I’m after. Where there are mares and where there is cash, a transaction can be made.
Jumping a small stream I walk up the short grassy slope to where the woman now holds opens the tent flap so I can enter. She seems prepared to receive me, as if I’d called in advance. Inside, the one-room summer living quarters of her family are crammed with a wood stove, table, chairs, a pile of sleeping quilts, horse tack and the accoutrements of daily living.
Light filters through a plastic window onto a stack of small enamel bowls on the table. She picks one painted with faded flowers, removes the lid from a slender wood churn and ladles out the white liquid. Her outstretched hand offers me the full bowl. “Mare’s milk at last,” I think, stepping forward to take it. Then she says, “Kumis?”
I parlay with myself. “Try it! This is homemade. It’s probably completely different from the city stuff.” “Leave it! Kumis is kumis.” I look down at the contents of my bowl, taking a discreet sniff. There it is, that odor of things one should not be drinking.
Smiling apologetically, I hand the bowl back to the woman and shake my head. Without hesitation, she pours the contents back into the churn.
“Milk?” I ask, hoping other travelers have used the same word. She looks at me blankly, then ushers me over to another churn, this time removing the lid for me to check the contents before ladling anything out. I bend low for a whiff. I detect the beginnings of the same sour smells. Adolescent kumis, not yet fully ripe.
“Milk?” I ask again, at a loss for what to say. She gives me the same apologetic head shake I gave her and opens the tent flap for me to go out. But when it comes to food experiences, I am not a quitter. Where there are mares and where there is kumis there must be mare’s milk.
The two of us stand in the sunshine, woman to woman, wanting to understand each other. And then it hits me. I go on one knee as if proposing, curling my fingers into two gentle fists which I raise and lower. Though I have only milked a cow once in my life, even a clumsy milker is an understood milker.
Nodding vigorously, my hostess goes to a large black bucket at the corner of the tent, which I’d walked by without noticing. Wiping her own bowl on her apron, she pours in a full ladle and offers it to me. I stare at it. I squint at the sun. I take a deep breath.
Raising the bowl, I pick up a clean, faintly grassy smell. For a second, worrisome thoughts intrude, about unsanitary conditions, about the bucket sitting outside uncovered day and night, about what else her apron may have been used for. Then I open my mouth to let the liquid spill in. It’s light, fresh, cool, not watery, but not heavily creamy either.
The woman’s eyes are on me. I swallow, tasting a mild sweetness. I want to savor each drop, and I want to gulp it down and ask for more.
Handing her back the drained bowl, I turn to admire the mares. The foals are suckling.
Dina Bennett rides horses on her Colorado ranch when she’s not traveling the world.