We were long gone, staring at the magnificent landscape passing by the windows of the roaring Kamaz truck we hitchhiked on that empty mountain road to Suusamyr. Our minds though often drifted somewhere else. It was impossible to forget the sad eyes of Gulsara, our donkey, who stood motionless staring at the door through which we left – seemingly knowing well that this time we won’t return. And we thought it has to be hard to develop mutual affection after just a week together. But what did we know about donkeys? The story how we got a donkey in Kyrgyzstan and walked together under the bright mountain sun for a week shall be told from its – stressful – beginning.
Where did all the donkeys go – The search
As there were no donkeys to be found on Karakol’s big animal bazaar a few weeks ago, we attributed it to us showing up quite late – they probably all sold out already! This time in Kochkor, we got up early to show up at the busy bazaar with real business in mind. After shuffling the idea forth and back the decision was finally made to get a donkey there and then! Kyrgyzstan is just made for walking – while it is a country of horsemen, we saw no reason why donkeys should play second fiddle, like always, to their more graceful relatives.
Having no riding skills anyways, we pictured it absolutely idyllic to walk slowly with a grey, jolly companion carrying our packs in exchange for carrots and genius affection. While hitchhiking, we always tried to inquire for prices of donkeys in this area – we were optimistic of acquiring one for less than 100$. A friend, whom we had met in Bishkek agreed on taking the donkey over from us after some time for a fair price, so we had some additional security to take that gamble.
On the bazaar we watched all the usual scenes around us, of bleating fat tailed sheep being dragged into the load of rusty Ladas, huge bulls being thoroughly inspected before large sums of Kyrgyz som changed hands and proud horses receiving new horseshoes before riding away with a new owner on their back. But once more, we couldn’t see any donkey anywhere! “Eshek?” – “Eshek gde?” we started to ask some horse and sheep dealers in Russian and Kyrgyz: “Donkey where??” No donkeys at this bazaar, was the consentaneous reply. Why the hell are there no donkeys around?
In China they eat dogs…and donkeys
Finally somebody could confirm in English what we thought to understand in Russian: The population of donkeys in this area drastically reduced over the last years. The many Chinese, constructing roads around Kochkor, seem to make additional business by buying up all the donkeys and exporting them to China. Should the world’s new superpower really still rely that heavily on donkeys to work? No – but they seem to taste well enough! They are exported to end up on plates of some Chinese delicacy restaurants.
So it is the Chinese’s fault we can’t find any donkey here! The thought of saving a donkey from Chinese chopsticks created additional motivation, we went home with at least a few phone numbers of donkey owners in our notebook.
Additionally we decided to inquire at the local tourist tour operators if they have maybe any donkey owners among their contacts. While CBT let us wait a whole afternoon for nothing, Shepherd’s Life was more helpful and promised to assist us.
The search continues and finds an end
The next morning a guy from Shepherd’s Life put us into a taxi explaining in Russian that the driver is from a nearby village and owns a donkey. Off we went, slightly excited to finally see a donkey instead of just talking about it. In the small village it became quickly obvious that the driver does not own a donkey – but came to search for one! Slowly we patrolled along the dusty village roads. The driver screamed every now and then to some surprised people in their mud bricked dwellings, if they might have a donkey for sale. At the village’s end we finally detected our first living donkey. A rather small and for this area typically furry being was showed to us by a rough Kyrgyz farmer. To demonstrate how easy the animal is to handle, he threw the metal mouthpiece used for riding into the timorous donkeys muzzle violently. The poor creature started to bleed slightly and became more jittery than already before.
It was quickly clear to us that this donkey neither associates humans with kindness nor hands with gentleness – while we would have liked to free the animal from its slavery, we knew it would be incredibly tough to tame it.
The search continued for 20 more minutes without result, before we asked the driver in despair and frustration to just drop us on the main road and let it be. He demanded 300 Som for his ‘work’, we haggled down to 200 Som and walked off, heads hanging low. Just a few seconds had passed when the driver yelled in excited Russian something like “have donkey”, “big and strong”, “not fearful” – alright…last chance, we thought.
When the old farmer led her out of his yard, we knew: That is our donkey! A pretty lady, beautiful and healthy grey fur, calm eyes and demeanor, we had a good feeling from the beginning. Testing to lead her on the leash around felt good. We could pat her head without much resistance, we felt she must have been treated rather well by her old owner. The previous frustration and our good feeling convinced us to pay 6000 Som for her and to finally have our chance! A handshake sealed the deal, the backpacks were tied together and put onto the donkeys back and suddenly we walked down the village road with our own donkey!
Lesson 1: Donkeys run faster than humans and have a sense for home
She clearly was not too happy with her new situation. Why should she? Two weird humans speaking a strange tongue and putting odd things on her back while dragging her towards the familiar villages exit – why cooperate? We decided to have a break together on a meadow, so we all could recover from the excitement, relax a bit and get used to each other. A Kyrgyz donkey should have a Kyrgyz name, as she didn’t have one before we chose Gulsara (“Yellow flower”). Not knowing if she didn’t like the name, the situation, us or all of that, we suddenly gazed at a cloud of dust: The donkey galloped at full speed back to the village! We had tied her to a tree, but obviously the knot hadn’t been the best. Like a madman Ben ran after here, gesticulating and shouting to the amused villagers while running. Finally an old man took heart and grabbed the donkeys string to stop it – his advice in Kyrgyz about how to tie the donkey better was not fully understood by an exhausted Ben.
Four hours later, back in the local town of Kochkor, it started to rain and we settled in a broken down house close to a river, already a few meters out of town. Gulsara was tied properly this time, but she was still pretty nervous, despite our best attempts to create friendship, using carrots as a bribe. Maria ate, Ben snoozed in the ruin out of exhaustion – when we suddenly realized: The donkey is gone! Again! This time she was nowhere in sight. So we guessed she is just backtracking the way homewards again and started running – again – towards the main road of the town. While sprinting to follow the animal, a car stopped, Ben jumped in and tried to explain in broken Kyrgyz: “Donkey! Gone! Running!”, pointing to the driver in the potential direction. The old Lada sped down towards the center, the driver shouting to everybody: “Donkey??” Amused people pointed down the main road. After about 2km a wild donkey appeared ahead of us, galloping out of town. Ben jumped out of the car and blocked the way – Gulsara stopped and looked like nothing ever happened.
This time she had managed to rip the rope through – naturally we slept not exactly calm in our tent with Gulsara tied to the next tree. Fortunately, she was still there the next morning – the adventure should begin!
Step by step along empty paths
During our breakfast we discovered Gulsara’s passion for sweetbreads, an excellent bribe to get her going! To our surprise she was pretty calm that morning and hope started to appear, that she might have decided to cope with us and this new situation.
During the whole day she should do nothing but prove our hopes true! Walking leisurely but steadily behind us, we didn’t even need to put tension on the rope – she just walked with us, no complaints and a rather satisfied look on her face, especially as she was allowed to stop for a snack every few minutes. After about 10km we reached a downhill part and suddenly the donkey pulled ahead, overtaking us – sensing the chance to make some distance, we also pulled on a bit and suddenly had a pretty impressive average speed. It felt fantastic to walk without any luggage! More than ever before we realized how much our heavy packs dragged us down. For a strong donkey like Gulsara our backpacks didn’t pose much of a burden at all, though. A grown up donkey is able to comfortably carry up to roughly 1/3 of its own body weight – a value our stuff didn’t nearly reach.
On our way we got invited to tea in villages and surely were a cause for joy, especially among local kids. In this area of Kyrgyzstan most adults prefer to ride horses, leaving donkeys to kids – they seemed happy to greet us like-minded, foreign donkey friends. Taking a break, Gulsara got rewarded with carrots and sweetbread and rewarded us with complete cooperation while loading or unloading the luggage and a steady walking speed. Towards the evening we had already walked around 25km. The sun had accompanied us most of the time, but now late in the day the sky turned very dark and in the distance we observed lightnings flash and rain pouring down. The next few kilometers were an empty, wind swept plain – Gulsara seemed to sense that it is no good idea to proceed, so we headed back into the last village, hoping for something good to happen. We explained an old man that we were seeking a safe spot for our tent and were immediately guided to a pretty decent house. A kind looking man with Muslim skullcap and fitting beard opened the gates and welcomed us with a warm smile. “Bucharest, da?” It turned out we had met him already on the last animal bazaar! The bigger surprise though: Next to the man’s wife, a tall, clearly western looking guy approached us from the house and started to talk in flawless American English. An American? In this random Kyrgyz village? Paul turned out to be one of many Peacecorps volunteers in Kyrgyzstan and was the only foreigner in this small village, working as an English teacher and living with his host family for over a year already.
Gulsara was safely tied under a big tree and we got lucky enough to watch the rain from the windows of a warm kitchen, surrounded by great people and even the language barrier disabled, thanks to Paul.
The soul of a donkey – a stubborn beauty
It was tough to believe, that after just a few days such a strong bond was created between us and Gulsara. We were completely surprised by how emotional donkeys are, how tender and affectionate those grey horses can be. Whenever one of us approached her, she reacted by snuffing excitedly, pursing her lips and nodding her head up and down. With all possible pleasure we returned the affection, massaging her neck and forehead, rubbing our heads against hers or just patting the whole back for a while.
On the empty country road from Kum Debe back to Kochkor, a heavily packed figure appeared far ahead. We knew it has to be our Latvian friend Rihards, who agreed to meet us somewhere on the road in order to spend some time together with us and Gulsara. Afterwards, our lovely lady would be his. Even though we knew there’d be hardly somebody better to give her to, our hearts slowly got heavier.
It was a good idea to have some time with all of us together. Gulsara quickly found a liking in Rihards and we could enjoy her company for some more time before bidding farewell.
Epilogue – one week with a donkey
Ben traveled for nearly two months with a rooster in the Philippines before, over 2000km Maria and Ben covered by bicycle. Countless times of hitching rides, the great Asian railways and many kilometers of just walking with the heavy backpacks. But traveling with a donkey is a completely different experience – it alters the whole philosophy and compared to most others ways of traveling, one doesn’t decide some things himself anymore. In the end it is up to the donkey how fast and how far one will walk. The donkey decides mostly when it’s time for a break. With a donkey hitchhiking or making bigger jumps is very tough, consequently one is exposed to whatever is around constantly: people, landscape, weather. It is traveling right in the moment – and it doesn’t leave much choice than to go with the flow. A donkey’s flow!
We were quite surprised how much distance can be covered just by walking and how easy it feels, if no luggage has to be carried. What Ben already experienced while traveling with a rooster is that an animal is a full travelmate. It provides company, acts and reacts and has an own will. Still, the logic of animals works completely different than the one of humans. And it is a beautiful feeling when one starts to understand that strange being.
Despite all the effort and the problems, especially in the beginning and the toughness of the separation afterwards, we are entirely happy having tried to travel with a donkey. Both of us are hoping for another chance to do so – but then doubtless with much more time. And in best case without the pain of a separation in the end.