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Eastern Crimea- misbehaving stallion, Tatar from Samarkand, Dolphins, ...

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES) I first met Giorgi as I entered the city of Kerch. He was driving a carriage with a stallion which near veered into traffic at the sight of my three equine companions. His client passengers became so scared by the stallion’s behaviour that they jumped out of the carriage at the first opportunity. Now Giorgi arrived with his stallion to accompany me for three days on the journey west through the Crimea. Giorgi is a man in his late fifties with a tough wiry figure, curly grey hair and a well trimmed moustache. With an old army rucksack, threadbare trainers and wide brimmed hat he looked very much like an Australian bushman. He had decided himself to join me, and I was more than happy to have him come along. “I am coming for the company, for the travel, and because its probably the kind of thing that I would have liked to do when I was a bit younger” he said. Thanks to the Kerch City administration, Nadezhda Christian camp for the homeless children and orphans, and Mechta Sanatorium, I had stayed for almost a week in Kerch orientating myself and resting the horses in preparation for this new chapter of the journey. The Crimea is a place where nomad culture mixed freely with sedentary society. Traditionally nomads lived in the centre of the Crimea, while on the coast were Greek and Genoese trading ports and cities. Some of these ports, including the current day port of Feodossia played important roles during the Mongolian empire. Some historians believe that it was through this port that the black death was spread to Europe. On the first real hot day of the year, around 30 degrees, we loaded up with the help of locals Natasha and Sascha but for poor Giorgi it did not begin well. First he was thrown off onto the asphalt, then Buran, his horse, fell into a manhole, and continually threatened to attack my animals. On the edge of town a foal decided that he was also set for Hungary and gave chase. No amount of discouragement could persuade him to go home and so he followed us all day through lush fields of poppy flowers, camomile and rich green grass. Below small villages lined the coast, whilst beyond container ships lay anchored in wait for passage through the Kerch strait to the Azov Sea. It wasn’t until evening that a furious man came to a halt behind us, accusing Giorgi of stealing his foal. The owner of the foal tied a noose around the foal’s neck, but then things started to get out of hand. The foal made a dash for Buran who was now on the middle of the street. A couple of cars were banked up, and it was at this moment that Buran lost it. With Giorgi holding on with a white knuckle grip, Buran began jumping and bucking, and finally landed square on top of the foal, and in his Spring fever decided to make the most of things. The owner of the foal had now dashed to the cover of some trees and looked on in horror. Gregori held on for his life, and the foal looked just as terrified as his owner. Meanwhile I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Eventually Buran gave up, and we continued on with Giorgi looking rather rattled. So wound up was Buran in fact that a little later he began dancing and jumping at the sight of a cow. Before the day was done, we were stopped by Ukranian Border patrol who demanded details such as where Giorgi and I had met, the names of my horses, and how old the dog was- all was written meticulously into a report sheet. How they could have believed that we could have come across the black sea by horse I am not sure, but they were deadly serious in their work. It was almost dark when we finally made camp by a well. In the morning though we were approached by an old man who was looking quite distressed: “What are you doing, camping in my hay plot!” It was time to get out onto the steppe! Following some feint wheel tracks we set off in morning as a cool sea-breeze tempered the glare of the sun. The tracks wound out into the open. To the north lay soft curves of land and some rocky outcrops. To the south this soft sea green merged with the sea. The horses, Tigon, and Giorgi and I now began moving with a rythym that was without the many distractions of civilization. I always feel that horses are much calmer and at home out here, and that their aggressive behaviour is muted. At midday we arrived in a sea-side hamlet when riding towards us came a sight straight out Central Asia. He was a short, tough looking man sitting straight, yet agile on a black mare. His whip, shredded horse blanket and home-made saddle were familiar to me from Kazakhstan and Mongolia. His horse, probably a bashkir breed, was short and stocky much like the steppe breeds of Mongolia. In earlier days, Crimea was in fact home to a tough breed of steppe horse called the Tarpan, but it has long since been wiped out. Rinat, as this man was called soon began to tell his story. He was a Crimean Tatar, born in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and had returned to the Crimea in the early 1990’s. Nearby in a closed Russian military zone was the birthplace of his parents. The Crimean Tatars, deported to Central Asia in 1944 under Stalin’s orders, were the only people not given permission to return to their homeland in the 1950s-60’s. Their return home came only in the midst of Perestroika in a time of great confusion and upheaval as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Their story as a people is often misunderstood. Most Russians believe that the Crimean Tatars are in fact the descendants of Ghengis Khan’s Mongol invaders. In Russia the Mongolian empire is treated as a black period of Slavic history, and so it is only natural that to this day there exists a great deal of prejudice. In fact the Crimean Tatars area turkic steppe people, with origins from the many steppe peoples who have washed across the shores of the Crimean steppe for thousands of years. One of the reasons for not allowing the Crimean Tatars return was the ridiculous assertion that their real homeland lay in far Asia. Rinat had felt very much persecuted upon return to Crimea as a man in his early thirties. “I was attacked many times by locals, particularly three men who bashed me severely. When finally I could take no more, I decided to take a knife, and during the fight – one against three- I stabbed a man. I aimed for his bum, but I got him in the stomach and he fell down badly injured. I came out of the fight with four broken ribs, a broken thumb, and with head injuries, but they reported me to police, and I served 14 years. Actually I regret of course knifing the man, but I was in a desperate state of mind. Now I live a simple good life, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I have my flock of sheep, and I have my horse and cattle, three children, and I enjoy working for myself. Those three men, they still live here in the village, and let them live, because God watches everything from above anyway.” With that he swang his whip from side to side and galloped off in a cloud of dust. From here we headed across an open plain to the sea where we stopped for a swim on a largely deserted sandy beach. The rangers at a national park nearby gave us permission to press on ahead around Apukh mountain. To the clop of hooves on soft, sandy earth, we moved on towards this emerald green hill with rocky cliffs and drops that gave on the impression that it was a real mountain. To our left gulls drifted on the breeze, small waves lapped at the shore, while to the right this open green steppe bustled with bird life and a ceaseless tweeting and chirping. It was getting towards late afternoon as we rose over the back of Apukh National park, and gazed down over more hills, lakes, and the narrow spit of land separating the black sea from this inland water system. Ahead we knew lay a border post and a closed Russian military zone, but just where we were not sure. We decided to press ahead along the shore as far as we could before being stopped. By the time we reached the spit between sea and lake, the sun was losing heat and gaining colour. The water was now glass with mirror images of pyramid shaped hills. These sleepy rolling folds of land with slight rocky outcrops reminded me strongly of Mongolia. Everything here it seemed suited nomads. In such a landscape you only have to rise a couple of metres and everything can be seen with the naked eye for miles around. The higher hills would have been refuge from Mosquitoes and other bugs and provided lusher pasture in the summer months. Something that I hadn’t come across though in the steppe was the sea. Gregory was first to notice some locals trailing our path: “Look, a pod of dolphins!” Sure enough there came, splitting and slicing the surface, a pod travelling parallel to us. As I panned across from the shore, to Gregory and the backdrop of the lake and steppe, I felt more alive than I have for some time, and suddenly so many miles away from the bureaucracy involved with horse and dog documents. Gregory was now walking on foot as his backside wasn’t yet quite up to this kind of travel. I decided to move on foot as well, and just as the sun was glaring madly from the horizon, we arrived a remote little block of buildings with strange domes, antennas, and military vehicles. Ahead were iron gates and a razor wire fence- we had reached the Russian Military zone. A couple of men, one of them an officer called Volodya came out to greet us. We were told that travel along the shore was not possible further, but he welcomed us to stay the night and invited us in for dinner. In the morning we took the horses inside the zone to let them drink, and then together with Volodya we went for a swim, and even took Kok and Buran for a paddle as well. The weather was so good that Giorgi and I decided to call it a day and set the tent up on the beach. The horses meanwhile munched on the longest thickest green grass I have ever seen. This long sandy beach, the odd dolphin and the feeling of salt water on the skin was the stuff of dreams a year earlier when crossing Central Kazakhstan. As we relaxed Volodya and some soldiers tinkered with some pretty sophisticated gear, and in the evening as they finished up work we took the horses for a gallop. Despite sharing another dinner with them inside the military zone none of the men there ever said a word about their work or what exactly they were doing there. It is interesting to note that it was from inside this military zone that a Ukranian missile was misfired and collided with an Israeli passenger aircraft not all that long ago. In fact the building on this remote beach was where the original press conference was held when the Ukranian Military admitted that it was them who had shot down the plane. The following day Giorgi and I set off by compass to the village of Vulkanovka where we said goodbye. He had decided to head for home, perhaps via the Azov sea, and so we shook hands and wished each other the best. That evening I pulled onto a lush green hill overlooking the sea with almost nothing adulterating the horizon besides a few military radio towers. The horses grazed, I lay down to watch the sunset, and felt the same relief that I always did out on the open steppe of Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Everything here from the plant varieties, landscape and weather must have made any nomad pastoralist feel at home. Moving again, the horses on full stomachs, Tigon chasing hares and rabbits at every opportunity. After lunch as I neared the cluster of sea towns near Feodossiya I stopped over at a farm hut for directions, and was surprised to meet a family of Nogais. Nogais are another steppe nomad nationality originating on the steppe between the Crimea and the Volga. Their language is very close to Kazakh. This particularly family had moved to the Crimea to farm sheep from Chechnya in 1993 just before the war. Biyakaev and his wife had five children – three boys and two girls- all of whom still lived here at home on the steppe. As I arrived the youngest daughter and mother arrived on horse and cart, and one of the sons stepped outside cuddling lambs in his arms. They invited me in for tea and fried eggs, and as I spoke with them I again felt transported back to Kazakhstan and the wonderful hospitality and communal family life that I began to miss on the Kuban steppe of Russia. The Nogais once lived right across Southern Russia and Crimea, but were eventually forced to the mountains in the northern Caucasus where today they still preside. The daughter from here guided me the next kilometre towards a horse farm called Argamak. Right now I sit at the horse farm and am preparing my journey forward. Argamak is run by a very kind woman named Irina. In a post soviet society where rural way of life is viewed as the worst scenario and inferior, Irina has done a remarkable job at setting up such a sophisticated and respected horse farm. Anyway, I had better go. Once again a huge and growing list of people to thank. I hope Giorgi got home alright. The night after we said goodbye it rained heavily and the air was thick with Mosquitoes in the morning- he only had a plastic sheet to get by with at night. (CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES)