The Last Wild Horses - In Przewalski’s Footsteps on the Silk Road
We awake early and the fire in the stove has gone out. Dressing quickly in the total darkness of the yurt, we emerge with anticipation into a bright, frosty world of incredible beauty and scope. The wind that blows across the grassland scatters ice crystals into the air and the lake’s surface is choppy with waves. There are no trees, the distant mountains seem bewilderingly close, and everywhere in the valley there are horses.
Horses are central to the traditional Kyrgyz way of life and even today most important sports activities take place on horseback. Jailoo yurts, our lodging during our stay Lake Song Köl (3016 m), are the summer retreats of herders who graze their horses on the open plains. Today, at this alpine lake in the heart of Kyrgyzstan, a combination of horseback riding and yurt stays for tourists sustain a small number of farmers in this valley even into late September. The horses that speckle the landscape here are mostly Kyrgyz, a stout breed of mountain horse whose ancestors go back many generations. Though they seem to graze freely on the wide valley floor with no fences in sight, these horses are in fact domesticated. And while there are populations of feral horses living in many countries, I know that there is actually only one truly wild horse left in the world.
The story of this special horse’s ‘discovery’ in 1878 by Russian Geographer Nikolai Przewalski reflects the western world’s lack of understanding about the great spaces of Central Asia and our view of this place as Marco Polo might have seen it, and as Przewalski is known to have travelled here: As an outsider. Centuries before receiving a Latin name, Przewalski’s namesake lived throughout present-day Central Asia, China, Russia and Mongolia. According to Smithsonian Magazine, all Przewalski’s horses living in the wild are descended from just 12 captured animals. Nikolai Przewalski himself died on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, Issyk Köl, less than 150 km away from the yurts at Song Köl. In Pristan Przhevalsk, near the horse-trading city of Karakol, there is a museum and memorial park dedicated to Przewalski’s geographical expeditions and military espionage for the Russian crown.
Leaving Lake Song Köl after several days, we follow in Przewalski’s footsteps, heading northeast via Lake Issyk Köl through Karakol and over the border into Kazakhstan where today, a population of Przewalski’s horses from the Munich zoo has been reintroduced into Altyn Emel National Park. The park’s landscape is as vast as it is dry. Flat open spaces of low brown grasses and shrubs spread out towards the tan, dry hills for which the park was named by Genghis Khan as his army travelled through in 1219. Altyn Emel means “golden saddle,” a fittingly ironic name for a place where the last species of untamed horse has been reintroduced.
There are many reasons that Przewalski’s horse became extinct in the wild. One of them was certainly hunting, but the chief reason was the decline of its natural habitat, dry feather-grass steppe, which is also preferred by farmers and their livestock (like the domesticated horses and donkeys we saw grazing at Lake Song Köl). As a consequence, Przewalski’s horse was increasingly forced to make due in the desert, where many didn’t survive the harsh winters, becoming ever fewer during the 20th century until they all but disappeared.
Driving through this expanse, much of which is off limits to tourists, we try to spot a Przewalski’s horse in the distance, though I know the chances of actually seeing one are slim. After all, there are just 10 Przewalski’s horses in this 4600-km2 reserve. Several times I spot an a mammal of similar size and colour, but this can be tricky to the untrained eye as the horse shares many features in common with Kulan, a species of Central-Asian wild ass. Goitered gazelles can also be seen loping through the brush. Overhead, a golden eagle soars above far-away hills.
From the roadside, my colleagues and I scan the horizon and we stand in awe of the size of this open space.
Then we hear our guide’s voice.
He repeats a single word in Russian, pointing excitedly far into the distance. Hoping it’s not another wild donkey or gazelle, I spy the characteristic black leg stripes and raised mane of a Przewalski’s. Could it really be?
A male usually has a harem of females but the group is scattered and the distance is extreme. Nikolai Przewalski’s first contact with his namesake was the gift of a skull he received on the Russian border to China. On subsequent expeditions to look for the horses, he was reportedly frustrated by the animal’s keen senses and extreme wariness. These horses too are keeping their distance from the road.
Sharing my binoculars with the group, I turn away to look back down the road towards the sand dunes on the horizon. I wonder about the prospects of similar reintroduction projects in Mongolia and in China and of the future of these last wild horses, which number so few, in the Golden Saddle and beyond.
About Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan:
Altyn Emel National park is located northwest and several hours drive from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. The park’s most popular tourist attraction is the Singing Dunes. Because of its elevation, Lake Song Köl is best visited from May to late September. Yurt stays and horseback riding are easy to organise through Kyrgyzstan’s extensive communitybased tourism network. Karakol, which is home to some of the country’s liveliest horse markets and the Przewalski museum and memorial, is located on the south side of Lake Issyk Köl, not far from the country’s capital, Bishkek. The 7,000-metre peaks of the nearby Tian Shan Mountains tower in the distance.