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Searching the Mountains of Heaven

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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.''

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