Before the Soviet invasion, the Kyrgyz people were nomads. They lived for thousands of years as pastoral shepherds in Central Asia, tending sheep, cows, horses, and camels. In the summers, the Kyrgyz people traveled up to the mountains with all their possessions, and set up a boz ui, or gray house, a large felt tent also known as a yurta. There they would stay for the warm summer months, letting their livestock get fat on the plentiful grasses of the mountain valleys. In autumn, they would make their way down to the broad plains and valleys of Central Asia, where the winter was less severe. Families would gather together in groups of 30 or so and spend the winter together, before they went to the mountains for the next summer.
Perhaps because of their nomadic ancestry, my students love camping. They think nothing of riding a horse into the mountains to visit a distant relative’s boz ui with nothing more than a few pieces of fruit in their pockets. They know that wherever they go, they will be a konok, or honored guest. Kyrgyz people are known for their friendliness and hospitality, and guests at a boz ui always get the most honored seat, the first cup of tea, and the biggest piece of meat in the food dish.
My best students encouraged me to go on an overnight camping trip with them to a local national park named Sari-Unkur, which means Yellow Cave. It was near our village, only 20 kilometers distant, and one of my students had a relative who was living nearby in a boz ui, grazing his sheep. We arrived in the early afternoon, had tea with the shepherd and his family, and set out for a hike. I was excited to visit the park, because I assumed there was an actual yellow cave there. My students had heard about it but had never seen it. About an hour into our hike, we hadn’t yet found the cave, so we stopped a little boy riding on a donkey to ask where it was.
“Where is the yellow cave?” we asked him.
he responded. He seemed puzzled.
“Yes, yellow cave,” we told him. “That’s the name of the park. We assumed there was a yellow cave somewhere around here.”
“Oh, no,” he said, laughing. “The park is called ‘Yellow Cave’ because it’s like a yellow cave. There’s not really a yellow cave here.”
This revelation was a bit disappointing to us. The Kyrgyz Republic is filled with towns and rivers named for the local geography. Near my village are villages called White Mountain Side, Island, Blue River Bed, and my personal favorite, Many Sheep. Looking around us, the soil that covered the hills was a deep yellow color, so it wasn’t difficult to see where the “yellow” in the name came from. Still, I embarked on the trip hoping to see a cave, and wished I had known that it really wasn’t a yellow cave; it was just like a yellow cave.
Later in our hike, we came upon a giant boulder that sat in the middle of our path. Someone had painted on its side, “Ajidar Tash,” (Dragon Rock). We boosted ourselves up on top of Dragon Rock, where we saw that the top of the boulder was flat, with a deep Y-shaped gash cut into the rock. The sun was going down behind the hills, and the mountain river was roaring beneath us as we sat.
It was then that my students told me about the legend of Ajidar Tash. Now, I’ll tell it to you as it was told to me.
Long, long ago a dragon lived in the valley. This dragon was as long as the valley was wide and all throughout the year it would feed on the shepherds’ sheep and horses.