As we drive over Kalmak Ashuu pass, shards of brilliant sunshine penetrate the low, heavy clouds that sit above Son Kul lake. As the sun descends, the breaking of the storm is imminent and I feel an overwhelming urge to step out of the car to smell the rain and feel it on my skin.

Son Kul, Kalmak Ashuu Pass, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

I am travelling with my wife and son, visiting Son Kul for the last two days of our journey across Kyrgyzstan. In a country where all superlatives seem inadequate, we are left speechless one last time by Kyrgyzstan’s spectacular landscape. Son Kul lake sits at just over 3,000 metres in the shadows of the Tien Shan mountains, alongside a vast steppe, the edges of which are imperceptible. We stand in silence which seems fitting for such an unfathomable place but our driver breaks the spell, a sense of urgency in his voice.

“The rain is coming and it will soon be dark. We must move.”

The track we follow runs parallel to the lake, a couple of kilometres from the shore. We drive for the next 30 minutes, as the clouds build increasingly dark and ominous above Son Kul. We are on the outside of the storm looking in and as the rain falls, it is difficult to tell where the clouds end and the lake begins. Like a charcoal painting, the scene is one of subtle shades of light and dark on a giant canvass with no horizon.

We arrive at our yurt camp for the night, where the rain has yet to dampen the ground. As we stand talking to our hosts who greet us with a glass of vodka, small-talk is quickly sidelined as the sun drops beneath the rainclouds. Whereas the horizon was indiscernible before, it now seems like we can touch it, such is the intensity of the light, but as the sun descends further the elements merge once again. For a moment the sun is blinding, as if making up for being temporarily eclipsed by the Stygian thunder clouds, but as it disappears beneath the horizon, it radiates a light that is benevolent and warm; a final hurrah that leaves us all spellbound.

Son Kul Yurt Camp, Sunset, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Early next morning, I quietly sit and look out across the steppe, down to the lakeside. I write in my journal for a while but can’t resist the temptation to look up every minute to see what is happening. Each time, there is the same thing. Nothing. Nothing at all. Son Kul is special not because of what is here but because of what is not here. The space. The nothingness. The silence. The perfectly formed clouds first thing in the morning. Simplicity and ordinariness that has sadly become extraordinary in our busy, cluttered lives. Jane, my wife, rests her hand on my shoulder and breaks my train of thought. She looks pensive, smiles and says “I feel sad today…but that’s ok.” The paradox is not lost on me. There is a melancholy about Son Kul. It’s as if you feel the need to fill the void with thoughts, and the thoughts have to be big to fill such an intangibly vast space.

Son Kul Steppes, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

We walk slowly to the edge of the lake, a 30 minute amble from our yurt camp. We sit in silence, admiring The Simpsons’ style cumulus that reflect on to the icy-blue, still waters of Son Kul. Through my binoculars, I can spot a pair of crested grebes on the lake and the odd redshank flies by. A large herd of horses appear by the lakeside having stealthily made their way to the water for an early morning drink. Forming an orderly line along the lake shore, they slurp noisily but a young shepherd boy prematurely interrupts their morning ritual, pushing the herd back onto the steppe for grazing. We follow them, leaving the lake behind us to go back to our camp for lunch.

Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Over lunch our driver tells us there are petroglyphs in the hills that overlook our camp and the lake beyond. He helps us make arrangements with a nearby nomad camp, and later in the day, cash is exchanged in return for horses and a guide. “Dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle” was my father-in law’s mantra on horses. I am equally as wary, but in Kyrgyzstan, children learn to ride before they can walk so I replace my fears with childlike self-belief and ride off into the hills with a local horseman, my wife and son tentatively alongside.

Son Kul, Horsemen playing Kok Boru, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

“How far is it to the petroglyphs?” I ask

Our guide says nothing but points to the top of a hill on the horizon. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a smart-phone. For a horrible moment, I think he is going to show me the route we are going to take on Google maps, but instead he starts up a playlist of Kyrgyz folk-music on his phone to which he sings along mournfully for five minutes until the battery dies. Undeterred, he continues singing without the phone accompaniment and canters ahead of us while I try to remember the Kyrgyz for ‘slow’. The sky is getting dark with rain-filled clouds and the low murmur of thunder soon begins to drown out the dreadful sound of our guide singing.

We start our ascent up a gradual incline onto a small plateau no more than 100 metres above us which looks out across the enormous steppe. My horse makes slow progress, no doubt in protest against my clumsy attempts to manoeuvre him. As the ground flattens out there is a collection of boulders that create a natural barrier against the elements, and it is clear from the shiny surfaces on the sides of the rocks that this has long been a favourite place to sit. We jump off our horses, and our guide points to a particularly large boulder. The shape of two large horned ibex have been clearly daubed onto the rock face that sits like a perfect canvas on top of the hill. We sit against the rocks, look out across the rolling steppe as another storm gathers, and try to imagine why and when the ibex were added to the rock, and by whom? In such a vast place, this relatively small inscription resonates far beyond its diminutive stature. This simple act of communication speaks of the human story of Son Kul and of all humankind. It is a symbol of our desire to reach out into the void to make a connection. To seek safety in numbers and find companionship.

Son Kul Petroglyphs, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

We have become so preoccupied with the petroglyphs, we haven’t noticed the magnitude of the storm that has built around us. The rain is falling heavily on the lake and as we mount our horses and begin our descent, brilliant bolts of lightning strike the ground in the distance. As the thunder growls and the rain suddenly breaks above us, it feels like all the elements are coming together in fearsome harmony. Son Kul feels like a frontier, at the edge of the world, a place in waiting, challenging our capacity to harness space and nature. It is a reminder of a time when the world was wild and survival was the primary objective and anything else was just baggage. We ride nervously back to camp, and arrive cold and wet, elated but grateful for the sanctuary of a warm yurt and a steaming bowl of noodle soup.

Son Kul Lanscape with yurts, Kyrgyzstan
Son Kul, Kyrgyzstan

Thanks for reading

Jarrod Kyte

Author: Jarrod Kyte