Searching the Mountains of Heaven

It was high summer, and we were in the Mountains of Heaven, drinking cups of fermented mare's milk. That's what people drink in Kyrgyzstan, the tiny new nation near Afghanistan, bordering China. The two-lane road to China lay a hundred miles behind us. It's called ''Mother-in-law's Tongue Road'' because it's so snake-like, full of terrible curves that crawl through steep, snowy peaks.

I wanted to explore those mountains, so I looked around and found Ishen, a long-haired Kyrgyz guide. For six days now, Ishen's horses have been carrying us through a land few foreigners have ever seen. There are no roads here, just mountain trails winding up and over narrow passes and into valleys of heart-stopping greenery streaked with roaring snowmelt rivers. We pitch our tents each night alongside the yurts of migrating Kyrgyz shepherds, feasting with them atop sherdak carpets, sharing mare's milk and stories in the orange flicker of kerosene lamps.

These scattered mountain people have oriental features and gentle-spirited manners. And they all ask the same question when they see us:

''What are you looking for?''

''We're just travelers,'' we tell them. ''We just want to see the mountains.''

They don't believe us. ''What are you looking for?'' they ask again. ''Gold? Horses? Wives? No one has ever come to these mountains for no reason at all.''

After a while, I begin to wonder if maybe they're right. Maybe we are looking for something; a search we never stopped to frame as a question. If so, Ishen is surely the man to help us find our way. He's an odd sort of person, the grandson of a Kyrgyz traditional healer. His father hunts with falcons and restores himself with long fasts that are supposed to purify body and soul.

Ishen himself is the only Kyrgyz man I've ever met with hair down to his shoulders. He has a face that's almost Yaqui Indian, inviting yet inscrutable, with eyes implying something very deep.

At the start of our trip, Ishen gave me only one instruction: ''Don't loose the whip for your horse,'' he said. ''It's very bad luck to loose your whip.''

I learned everything else simply by watching Ishen. I watched how he rode his horse skillfully through violently swollen rivers, how he gave sweets to the children in isolated mountain camps, how he took off his boots before entering the shepherds' yurts. ''What are you looking for?'' the shepherds asked us each time we entered their yurts.

After a few days, Ishen began telling me stories. He said he had the power to leave his body. He could become that fir tree over there, he said, and watch himself as he passed by on his horse. He could become a smooth stone at the bottom of a mountain stream, looking up through the cold, clear water at the blue mountain sky, gazing at the clouds.

One afternoon we led our horses down a very steep, forested slope, sliding and falling several times atop a thick carpet of slippery pine needles. When I reached the bottom, I discovered I didn't have my riding whip. I'd lost it.

Ishen told me not to go back up the slope searching for it. Ten thousand men could comb that mountainside in vain for something so small. I was still upset the next morning when Ishen disappeared for his morning bath. He was gone a long time. When he came back we had breakfast. After breakfast, he pulled out my whip and put it in my hand. A pine needle was caught in his long, black hair.

One morning near the end of our trip, we rode through a valley more striking than anything I've ever seen in my life. More beautiful than the Andes, the Alps, the best mountains of my most perfect dreams. At the far end of the valley, far from where we were, barely visible, a lone horse was sprinting toward us. It was a small blur of a vision. On either side of the horse were jagged peaks rising up like the saw-toothed edges of ancient tools, like the sides of chipped arrowheads turned into giant mountains. The snow on those peaks was a blinding white. It floated above the green, cloth-like meadows of the open valley below.

The horse grew closer, galloping hard through a downpour of morning sunlight, galloping toward us, dust rising in its wake. Finally, we could make out another figure. A man was on the horse's back, leaning forward, whipping either side. We stopped our own horses to watch. We stopped next to a river and heard the rush and gurgle of the water. The river was full of smooth stones, and for a moment I looked down, wondering what it would be like to be down there, below the surface, looking up through the water at the sky.

I looked at Ishen. He was still staring at the oncoming horse. He was smiling now, and when I turned I saw why. There were children on that speeding horse, two young girls, one in front and one in back, daughters of the man in between. Everyone clung tightly to the sheepskin saddle, and behind each girl I could see long, braided pigtails bouncing like swirls of wind, bouncing with each stride the horse made.

At last the horse arrived. The man pulled in the reins, stopping on the opposite riverbank. The water was flowing between us. He was a poor, strongly built shepherd with a round Mongol face. He wore a wool cap and cracked leather boots. Across the rushing water we all stared, back and forth. The horse was breathing hard from the sprint, and the riders themselves were out of breath. With narrow, squinting eyes, the girls cocked their heads and looked at us. They wore wool leggings and coarse skirts. Their braided pigtails were very long, framing faces with cheeks burned red by sun and wind, as if they'd been raked with hot coals.

''What are you looking for?'' the shepherd said finally, his voice heavy.

I shifted my weight in my saddle. The girls' pigtails were so long that the ends touched the horse's back, brushing against the beast's skin, which glistened from the hard run. I wished then that Ishen did have wings and I could use them to cross the river and capture the faraway essence of this place, rough and untamed, the wildness that was hidden in these mountain slopes, never to be found.

''What are you looking for?'' the shepherd asked.

Ishen shrugged his shoulders, and I said nothing. I struggled against the glare of the white snow above, blinking my eyes.

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