It was almost exactly two years to the day that I had set off from Eastern Kazakhstan and been given Tigon, my dog, as a gift. At that stage I was going into the first cold winter of the journey with horses that were as green as I to this travel. Hungary was so far away that it wasn’t worth even teasing myself with predictions of what lay ahead.
Although I had always imagined being back in Australia by January 2006, it was now October 27 2006, I was in Southern Ukraine, and for the third time packed and ready with my winter boots, wide Mongolian riding stirrups and down jacket. A lot of time had passed, and yet I marvelled that really not much had changed. Hungary may have been closer, but still so much lay ahead that I could only deal with things from day to day and try my best to get myself, three horses and Tigon over the horizon in good health. The prospect excited me too. I was always fond of winter riding when the horses move with an energy and freedom that doesn’t exist in the sapping heat of summer. The Mongols always travelled, hunted, and fought in the colder months and it is not hard to understand why- in winter water is not necessary because of the presence of snow, horses do not sweat and have more energy, it is possible to cross frozen rivers without bridges, and of course the winter time was the most vulnerable period for the pale sedentary dwellers in villages and cities who were housebound for much of the coldest months.
Ogonyok, Dark horse, and Kok now wore their thick winter coats of hair, and after a month and a half of rest in the Nilolaiv horse stables they were raring to go. Stables might be a luxury for thoroughbred horses that have been bred in human conditions, but I felt that for my steppe horses, life in stables was akin to jail without the freedom to mingle, move, and graze all day long. I am sure they all understood that preparations meant another long stint on the road, as did Tigon who was leaping about at the sight of my freshly packed saddle bags. Among this excitement of course there was some nagging nervousness and fear that I always felt on the eve of setting forth into the unknown. Ahead lay a thousand and one villages, the Carpathian Mountains, an uncertain crossing into Hungary, and all of this in the darkest and coldest months of the year….
All the people who I had come to know well at the horse stables in Nilolaiv (where the horses had been during my trip back to Australia for the Adventure of the Year Award) as well as Dima and his father from the nearby metal works shed came to say goodbye. Dima and his father had helped me make new metal stakes for tethering the horses, welded buckles for new hobbles, fixed my axe, made and repaired winter studs for horse shoes, and on the last evening glued my own shoes back into shape. Natasha and Vladimir had looked after my horses and dog during my trip back to Oz, and Gena had shod the front hooves of my horses in recent days. Nika who worked at the laboratory had helped me get blood samples from Tigon sent off to Kiev for rabies tests, and Nadja who came every day to ride had brought me some fresh smoked pork fat from her grandmother for the road. There were many others including Tatyana and Sascha, and a local veterinarian who had given the horses an extra Anthrax immunisation boost in my absence. Then last, but by no means least there was my girlfriend Anya, who had travelled with me from Kiev to see me off and supported me greatly in the last days of hectic planning and preparations.
A shot of vodka down the hatch, a group photo, and then I was in the saddle feeling the movement of Dark horse’s smooth trot. The air was crisp, the sun was marred by dirty looking clouds, and all around the autumn leaves were in their prime, glowing yellows and reds. We made our way out of the city but by 4pm and having travelled just 12km I was already falling asleep in the saddle. In the last night I hadn’t slept at all just making sure that all my gear was in place, and that the horses ate all night. A local stable worker had swiped some hay and grain for me from his employer to help fill the tummies of my horses. It is usual practice for these stable workers to sell grain and hay on the sly to substitute for low wages.
I pulled into a wind break and drifted off to sleep next to a ploughed Kurgan (grave/markers from the Scythian nomads) to the sound of aggressively munching horses.
Over the next few days familiar teething problems emerged. While I was filming Dark Horse got into my grain bags and spilt 20 kilograms of oats across the ground which I then spent an hour meticulously collecting back into a sack. Although I had hidden the grain under a duffle bag and inside a saddle bag this was no obstacle to Dark Horse who even knew how to lift a bag up from the open end, run beyond my reach and then sling the grain out on the earth by lifting up the sack from the opposite end. Ogonyok went around the opposite side of a tree while tied to Kok and in the process ripped to pieces the leather crupper that was attached to Kok’s saddle. I broke a tent pole, ripped the tent floor with my axe, and on the third day temporarily lost Kok and Ogonyok who bolted off while I was taking a photo of a local fisher boy. I knew we would hit a rhythm and things would calm down soon though.
At first I travelled across cultivated flats, but soon these became riddled with deep gullies and valleys and it became clear that the flats were actually high plains where the wind never died. Steering further away from roads I began to cross more undulating steppe, and as the moon became fuller and fuller found myself falling asleep in landscape that was even comparable to Mongolia. When the sun shone at a low angle in the evening the wheat fields, and wild grasses of the gullies glowed an emerald green and the horizon was slick and far.
Many of the villages out here are either abandoned or dying. The homes that were built in the 1930’s and 1940’s are made from tree branches, mud, and reeds and are slowly sinking into the ground at odd angles. Old Babushkas wrapped in scarves, sheepskin vests and felt boots often emerge from these and stare with fascination at the moving caravan. As locals bluntly tell me, the villages are dying just as fast as the elderly. In many small villages you can ride down avenues of empty homes, in some places just one or two people left. The young move to cities, and no one wants to buy such old homes.
A week passed and something very odd struck me- in all of this time I had only been invited in for a cup of tea once. In the mornings and evenings I drifted into villages to find water for the horses, and many people refused to even tell me where the wells or drinking troughs were. Looks of fascination soon turned to fear and suspicion and more often than not I was waved on or to hold my dog back. Of course this was partly to do with the fact that very few, if anyone had the hay and facilities to look after three horses for the night. As I later understood though, many people believed that I was either a horse thief, a gypsy, or a lost cow herder. The fact that I could speak Russian, and understand a lot of Ukrainian led them further into confusion. Near the village of Vasilivka I was reaching the limits. Ten days had passed and the horses had barely rested. I need to find a place to graze for a day or two, and somewhere to stock up on food and charge batteries. It was raining sleet and near on dark as I trawled through the muddy, icy puddled streets. The dogs house by house perked up like wildfire and a steely cold bit into my numbing feet. I was able to water my horses but the locals all told me that I was better to graze my horses in the next valley. As the green of the valley floor turned from green to black I rushed with the horses to find pasture. There was an old village a further six kilometres on called ‘malaya dvoryanka’ and apparently there was one family left there who could tell me where to graze. It was pitch black by the time I felt my way through the wreckage of abandoned homes to the only sound of barking dogs at the far end of the old village. At the gate of this house I was first welcomed by dogs, then an old man with a torch came out swearing aggressively.
I tried to explain who I was and that I would camp somewhere in the valley.
“No you bloody well will not! Turn around! Get out of here! I will shoot your dog just like that! Should I call the police! Yes I will call the police!”
Eventually I said thankyou and rode off to the far side of the valley, wandered up a gully until the man’s torch could not be seen until we waded into knee-deep grass. Tired and a little angry I unpacked and camped. My first reaction was to get up early and go, but previous experience suggested that morning light would tell a different story.
By chance at seven in the morning I was out searching for water when the old man appeared in an old lada car. He was just as abusive, and when I asked where to find water he pointed to a yellow oak a kilometre back down the valley, but after much walking and searching I discovered that he had lied. The grass was good though, free, and like anywhere on the steppe, communal land. I decided to stay put and work on a few repairs and let the horses graze. At lunchtime I was sitting in the tent when a man greeted me in Ukrainian asking whether I had cigarettes. I should point out that since leaving the Crimea, the language in the villages has been strongly Ukrainian, or a mixed dialect of Russian and Ukrainian. Only in the cities is clean Russian spoken, which reminds me very much of the situation in Kazakhstan where the city language is Russian, but rural language Kazakh. I can usually understand about seventy percent of spoken Ukrainian, especially if they try to locate some Russian words. To my ears it is a very song-like language, much softer and smoother than Russian.
I opened the tent to be met with a man with large blue eyes and a face that hid nothing out of honesty. His name was Kolya, and he and his wife were on their ‘one in seventy days’ herding roster, grazing the village cattle. He was left a little speechless when he discovered where I was from.
He helped me to take the horses back towards the old man’s house where there was an open well. The old man happened to be there, and in Ukrainian Kolya explained to him that I was a traveller, and not a thief. In any case the old man wouldn’t look me in the eye and just swore down at his feet. He had lived in this village since 1953, and told me, through Kolya, that at one stage there had been 150 homes, a school, and a collective farm. His home was the last one left now and was without power or telegraph lines.
Kolya and his wife later came over to my tent at lunchtime and on dark unexpectedly invited me home back to Vasilivka six kilometres down the valley. After herding the cows home Kolya returned in the late evening and we walked to his home with the horses. We tied them up next to a haystack in Kolya’s yard, I washed in a small tub of hot water, and slipped into clean bed sheets for the soundest sleep I had had for as long as I could remember. On morning the village, waking to the sound of roosters and dogs, was blanketed in snow. The mud had frozen into hard waves and puddles were frozen to the bottom. It was the fourth of November, the exact day two years earlier that the first winter snows had fallen in Kazakhstan.
Kolya and his wife Olya were from Western Ukraine and had come here to be with Olya’s father in his last years. Kolya made honey and showed med his 1000 litre stash in the garage. It was the first time they had ever spoken with a foreigner and during my day with them the questions were unending. Kolya analysed my photos from home asking about every detail from the type of wood and bricks used in building houses, to the price of cows, the plants in mum’s garden and whether or not we too had potatoes and honey. They lived in a very simple house with two rooms and tiny kitchen all cramped around a furnace. My horses ate themselves silly on hay and Tigon took the time to sleep and rest. By morning I felt like a new being, and with this first connection felt more adjusted to riding through this country. Departure went well until a man arrived to ask if he could buy a horse from me. His dog attacked Tigon and by the time we had separated the thick globules of blood were dripping from Tigon’s mouth onto the snow.
I took off back up the valley, passed the old man’s house at a distance and was up in open plains with their deceiving and abrupt gullies. By evening it was so cold that I was forced to get off the horses and walk for an hour to bring life back into my toes and face. The wind was the worst of all coming from the North West and blowing without end. It may have been only minus two or three but the effect was astonishing- even dressed in most of my winter gear I was left freezing! The next day promised to be warmer but soon grey clouds again drifted in and snow came blasting in my face. My ropes turned stiff and hard due to the moisture that they had soaked in, and I struggled to find anywhere protected for lunch. Don’t get me wrong- its not as if it was that cold, or that hard. I was surprised though as I had never expected such cold in early November here in the Ukraine. It was pleasing on the other hand though- it was a sign after all that I was still on the Eurasian steppe, a place where nomads lived until very recently historically speaking. I had come here to understand the life of the former nomads and how the land had moulded their culture and way of life.
After lunch the wind increased and after crossing the Odessa-Kiev freeway I found my way into the village of Demidivka. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and would be dark in an hour and a half. I entered the village looking for water and at the first house a middle-aged woman in a scarf and coat came out and greeted me. She went back inside and with her husband came out with great looks of fascination. The man, named Vasya, wore a lop-sided fur hat and came stumbling, laughing, and swearing.
“Tie up the horses! **** your ***** and ******! By jo, this kind of traveller comes once in a hundred years! We will feed them beets, hay, straw, Nina (his wife) prepare some porridge for the dog! Do you eat Borsche soup! Tim, listen to me, we will tie up the horses and you will stay. I don’t drink, well today I am because its thirty years since my father died…tomorrow I will also drink and then I will stop. But come in, come in, you must be cold!”
It turned out that they had only just raised a toast to his father when I had arrived and he had seen it as a sign not to be missed- this was something that he wanted his grand children, and great grandchildren to know about.
Inside samagon (home made vodka) was poured, chunks of bread, butter, and salami thrown onto the table, and toasts were raised to everything and anyone. Vasya was actually a former army chemical inspector who had been sent to Chernobyl directly after the disaster. As a result he has problems with his joints, heart, lungs and other organs and lives off his invalid pension. His youngest son is mute and has problems with his heart- also problems attributed to Vasya’s work at Chernobyl.
“ But you know Tim, the doctors said that I had to go to hospital or I would die. Then I started to drink Vodka, and I got better! Yes I drink once a week,……. By the way Tim, you don’t have to worry about thieves here, for I am a gun lover! The special forces came to take away my guns, but everyone in the village suspects rightly that they didn’t find them all. One ‘puck!’ (he draws an imaginary trigger) and they (thieves) will all be gone in a second!”
Later as his drunken riot rolled on and the soft drink bottle of samogon ran dry, his three year old son found a gun under the bed and started running around with it. Vasya took it and showed it to me with pleasure. He had a loud and rough voice and said nothing without vigour and demand. He was actually a pleasant drunk, and although he kept me awake all night with snoring and then spontaneous drunk conversation from the far bed, he never became aggressive.
His wife, Nina, was from Moldavia and had a kind but hard face. She had clearly had a difficult life, leaving her family in Moldavia and marrying Vasya. The difficulty in her life though had brought out her kindness and not drawn the bitterness that can be found in many. Their home was a two room squalor with nothing but a tiny table, a couple of beds and a furnace. It was better not to take your shoes off for the dirt and grime on the floor mats. They had pigs, and a horse, and Vasya told me how he travelled to town and back 50km by horse and cart. In the eveing when we had been outside he pointed to the lights of a tractor ploughing a field, and told me that the driver was a ‘real goat.’ The story was that his children had opened a bag of sugar and eaten the sugar with bread. Upon finding this out, the man put the hands of all his children onto a red-hot stove plate, and they now all walk with terribly scarred hands.
Although it was wonderful to be indoors and to have this company, by morning I had barely slept a wink and the smell of stale samagon and Vasya’s hangover was nauseating. Again a fresh blanket of snow had fallen and I felt intimidated and in a bad mood at the thought of travelling on. Lack of sleep always seems to do that to me. I started brushing and saddling the horses at 6.30am but didn’t get moving until ten. It was another cold day, and this time my patience was a little worn. I became lost in a tangle of hills and gullies and couldn’t for the life of me find the village of ‘Shlikaryova’ which to my ears was a funny sounding name, similar to a translation from Russian meaning ‘by went cow.’ In the afternoon the temperature rose and the horses slipped about in thawing mud. I passed some more partly abandoned villages and joined a train line for some pleasant riding through oak tree plantations. Yesterday I arrived in the village of Szherebkovo and was met by relations of Vasya. They are actually a couple who normally live in the northern Russian town of Vorkuta. I decided to take a break today and re-energize us all with a day of grazing and being generally sedentary. It is warm today and the snow has melted. They say that it will be warm until Monday when the real big winter snowfalls will come, and that will be it until the sun of Spring. The autumn leaves that were glowing two weeks ago are now dull and lifeless, being blown about in the wind. The trees are mere skeletons.
Best wishes to you all! By the way, I have got the iridium Satellite internet connection back working again, so I will be able to now provide more regular updates.
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