In the last month, having arrived in the mountains near Uzhgorod and the Hungarian border, it has been some what of a bureaucratic nightmare. At first it seemed that the regulations and procedures for getting horses into Hungary were simple…..but the further I traveled into that forest, the thicker, darker, and confusing it became!
In short, I arranged for a month of quarantine for the horses, took blood samples to kiev for testing in a EU laboratory, and then began the paper trail. This involved a permit from Kiev, permit from immigration for me to ride (usually it is forbidden to travel by foot), the green light from customs, and of course a veterinary permit from the local, regional, and border veterinary departments…..on both sides of the border. Everything was very confusing because the origins of my horses are Kazakh, but they travel on Ukrainian passports. They arrived as transit animals, but leave Ukraine as export.
The problem is that every document has an expiry period: the blood tests 21 days, the regional certificate and permission ‘to the border’ just three days, the certificate ‘for’ the border just 12 hours, the Hungarian certificates 10 days. By the time I had basically everything under my belt I had just one day left before my blood test results expired! So if I didn’t make it on the 2nd of august, then essentially all my permits and stamps would be meaningless and I would have to start the whole process all over again!
To make matters worse was that my horses were a good three days ride from the border….and since the certificate ‘to the border’ was only valid for three days, I had to arrange for Oksana Khlobas (director of the small stables where my horses had been in quarantine) to process the certificate in my absence. Up until now I had been to Hungary and met with vets there, had meeting with the Hungarian consulate to gain permission and support into Hungary, been to Kiev, met with border control, state control, local control, and had a letter of support from the Ministry of culture in Uzgorod and the Long Riders guild in the US. From Hungary, Janos Loskas, founder of the Equine Tourism Association of Hungary and horseman extraordinaire, had been helping me a great deal too.
I left the mountains at 5am on the 30th of August, and all did not look good. Only one day earlier I had been forced to take off the old horse shoes from my horses. I had wanted to re shoe them but the only farrier in the region had electrocuted himself a week earlier and subsequently died. Ogonyok’s hooves looked terrible- in my absence the horse shoes had mysteriously broken apart, and taken half his hooves with them! Only later I understood what had happened: in my absence, and in Oksana’s absence presumably, the workers at the stables had been riding my horses, and renting them out to tourists for rides, and taking money for it! I found evidence of this in the form of lumps on their backs that they passed off as ‘insect bites’ and definite sores from girth straps…and this was supposedly after a month of resting!
So now I had horses in worse condition than they had arrived, and 100km ahead of me, much of it rock and mountains, without horse shoes!!!
I traveled gradually, on the second day going through my last Carpathian mountain saddle. The road was an old forest track of stones and rock, and so I walked all day to keep as much weight off the horses as possible. On the far side of the pass my spirits lifted. Before me, beyond the edge of forested hills lay hazy plains that merged indefinably with the horizon. Scattered like herds of sheep were homes huddled together in little villages. The plains were dry, yellow, and open, not unlike the steppe anywhere in Eurasia. I had an incredible urge to laugh. Here below me was Hungary!!!! It had taken so long to get here, and I knew now that this was a view I would never forget. Of course modern day Hungary was on the distant horizon, but even in recent 20th century times, Hungary began at the bottom of these hills where the steppe began.
Hungarians themselves have their origins in nomadic pastoralists who came from the Siberian steppes. Like many a steppe people, their heritage is one based on horsemanship and in the steppe environment.
After this experience I was overcome with a sense of calm and made my way slowly down into a village called ‘antalovtsi,’ where I was taken in for a glass of milk and soup with a Ukrainian family. I knew that this was the last Ukrainian family home I would set foot in.
Beyond this I said goodbye to the mountains and forest and the next day was astonished that no one in the villages spoke Ukrainian or Russian. They spoke only Hungarian, and I even found it difficult to explain that my horses needed to drink water. There is a huge Hungarian population in this region of Ukraine because it is essentially Hungarian territory. The homes themselves in the villages were draped in shady grape vines, and every home had a concrete drinking trough near the front gate- presumably left over from the days when everyone had horses.
I arrived hot and dusty at a wildlife reserve come café/hotel just 6km from the border with Hungary where I was to stay before making my border crossing.
I let the horses go to graze, had a shot of vodka with the workers who welcomed me…and that’s when things started to get interesting. Oksana it appeared had not called to the head of border control after processing the state and regional papers in Uzgorod. The directors phone was now off, and it wasn’t until 4pm that he finally answered. He told me that I needed to exchange my papers for a border certificate before I could cross…and it was impossible to be done on the Hungarian border. It would have to be done on the Slovakian border, and since the man in charge there was on holidays, we had to find one of his workers. Oksana finally called to the border but incorrectly explained my situation, and the border post now refused to give me a certificate. I called again to border control for Hungary, who now said there was a new shift worker going to Slovakia who had blank forms for certificates.
It was 10pm when I called Oksana, who was on the Slovakian border. She had some bad news. The vet official on duty said that I had no permit number from Kiev, and therefore my horses could not cross!
I spent half the night packing, and trying to work out a course of action. I was due to be on the border in Hungary by10am the next day, but this was now clearly not going to happen!
By 9am, I was at the city vet clinic, and by 10am I was at the state laboratory where I discovered that they had indeed made a mistake with papers…no one had actually called Kiev for a permit at all, event though they promised they had, and even put an official stamp on the papers! A flurry of phonecalls, and I walked out with these papers ready.
Next port of call, I hired a taxi, and woke up the border vet official who was at home after a night shift. We drove to the Slovakian border where we began the gradual process of exchanging local and state papers for a border certificate. By Midday these were done….but it was then that I received a phone call from Hungary. My Hungarian papers were now apparently incorrect!
Another hour and a half of frantic calls, refilling of certificates… and most hilariously trying to copy by hand Hungarian translations of the certificate. ‘Bloody hell, I have even learnt Hungarian in this nightmare process!’ said Oleg at one stage between a cigarette, translating ‘Ministry of Agriculture’ into Hungarian, and laying a fat stamp on another page. The vet in Hungary was still not happy apparently, but by this stage neither I, Janos in Hungary, or the Ukrainian vets knew what else we could do. I would just have to go.
Racing in a taxi, a souvlaki gulped down, and by 3pm I was back at the horses, at 4pm filing back the horses hooves with a local Hungarian/Ukrainian who smelt like a Vodka distillation plant. I fed, groomed, saddled the horses, packed, and by 6.45pm was finally on the road with the staff of ‘Wildlife reserve ‘bear’’ saying goodbye.
By this stage Janos had already driven four hours from his property near Budapest to meet me on the Hungarian side. The Hungarian vet would only be there until 9pm, so I had to hurry.
The last hour to the border was surreal: a perfectly smooth bitumen freeway, clean, neat petrol stations, bright big signs pointing the way to ‘Budapest,’ and the general façade of a country in good, tight control. For the first time visitor to Ukraine this impression probably wears off within the first 20km of course.
The last kilometer I traveled between banked up cars and trucks where people yelled out ‘hey how come you can travel without a queue!’ Now was the big test. Would it go smoothly, or would someone throw a spanner in the works?
As I arrived it became clear that everyone was expecting me. Border guards smiled, and I was led by veterinarians to the customs station where I tied up the horses and Tigon. Within 10 minutes they had cleared me, I walked past customs –who didn’t even want to know me!- through immigration, and was back on my horse!!! It was all over in 20 minutes, and there had only been well wishes.
I now could not control my smile as I traveled onto the bridge which spans the Tisa river. I had traveled once here before by car, but now I was really seeing the river in its beauty. I kept on waiting for someone to stop me, but no one did. I passed another queue, some border guards, past a boom gate and straight into customs. Here I came to a halt, and still in the saddle handed down my passport to a very confused and embarrassed immigration official.
He pointed at me and said ‘Yes,’ then at my horses and said ‘no.’
It was some time before a more senior official with a stern glare and large round face approached.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
“Tim.” …his face totally changed expression now… ‘Congratulations! Welcome to Hungary!’
I was led away to a quiet and empty veterinary compound where I tied up the animals and Tigon peed over everything he could along the way.
Janos Laskos sooned walked in looking strong, and determined. We shook hands and he said to me in a deep voice.
“Tim, you are in Hungary! Nothing can stop us now. Nothing!”
From here I began to cave in to jubilation and exhaustion. The vets took blood from the horses, checked the microchip in Tigon with a scanner, and began a new wad of documents. Janos took over now though, and I just remember feeling a huge relief and smile. Marti, janos’ son, brought me a beer and a hot dog, and a sat on a bench outside the vet clinic in an almost delirious euphoria. The moon was rising up, the air was cool, I could feel the stress of the last month peeling away, evaporating into the cool night air.
Of course there were issues, but it didn’t matter now. Janos was right, nothing would stop me now.
At midnight I walked past customs, and into freedom. I packed my gear from the horses into the boot of Janos’ BMW, and he told me to ride along a grassy track 9km to a village where he would meet me.
Without gear now I rode fast and quick, the horses eager to move in the cool air. I watched my shadow from the moonlight race along the bottom of a line of trees. I was in Hungary, I had made it, and I still had my horses, two of whom I reflected had taken me bravely for almost three years and endured more than me.
We left the horses in the village at 2am. Feeling like a mere shell of a human in my exhaustion I held onto Tigon in the back of Janos’s BMW, and arrived at his property at the break of day. Here I was led to a soft bed. Tigon was allowed into my room. It was all like a dream.
So now having recovered for two days, I am finally setting my sights on the finish.
Read the details below for the most recent update on finish events, and keep an eye on developments. Everyone and anyone is invited!
The end of an Odyssey on the Hungarian plains
The finish of the journey, greeting, and celebration will take place at:
On 22nd September 2007 at 1pm.
Tim will arrive three years and three months since he stepped into the saddle. His caravan of three horses – two of wich have been with him from the Altai since October 2004- will be accompanied by Tigon, his traveling dog who has weathered just as much of an adventure as Tim.
Since the Hungarian people are also former nomads with origins in the steppes of Siberia and central Asia, it is a symbolic arrival, in honour of the steppe nomad spirit, to whom Hungarians strongly identify,
Opusztaszer is a national heritage park on the edge of the Eurasian steppe near the Danube river. Here there is a 1800sqm oil painting depicting the journey and origins of the Hungarian people from Asia to Hungary. Living in and near the park are Hungarians with felt Yurt tents and herds of horses. At this visually stunning and historical site, Tim will be met by the Kazakh, Mongolian, and Australian ambassadors, a group of school children, many, many Hungarian people from across the country, and most visually capturing a display of 100 horses with a traditional Hungarian horsemanship on show- including archery, breathtaking tricks, and outfits dating back to the time of Ghengis khan and earlier.