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A rough return to Akbakai: dog eaters, wild winter, horse ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries. And don’t forget to check the photo gallery which is updated weekly as well. 7/3/05 I write in a little bit of a state of exhaustion and shock. It has been a rough re-introduction to Akbakai. The last 350km were with a taxi driver bent on having my watch and horses as a gift because ‘he liked them.’ This was after ripping me off blind in the first place, and almost boiling over into violence when I walked mud into his pride and joy taxi. I was already in a bad mood and equal to his bickering. “For 4000 tengi (almost the price for thee passengers!) I can do what I like in your bloody taxi!” Perhaps it was due to our bad feelings but he drove so erratically over the steppe that by the time we arrived in Akbakai I had thrown up a good ten times. The fatty boiled mutton we had eaten at a roadside ‘yurt’ café had not helped. Through this nausea I peered out over the empty land, shocked to discover that there was no snow to be seen. Apparently, despite an extremely cold winter no snow had fallen since I departed on January 20, and the snow that hadn’t been cleaned away by the wind had melted within the first few days of plus degrees temperatures. This was all fine and good apart from the fact that I was relying on snow to make it to the next village with the horses. Without snow, where would I find water in this steppe desert? I was glad to get rid of the driver and find myself at Baitak’s home in Akbakai. Baitak was the man who had come to my rescue upon arrival in Akbakai around new-years eve when the temperature had dropped to –30, my horse had an abscess, and I had caught the flu. He had become a good friend, and without his help I would have been in more serious trouble. Even so, Akbakai did not appear particularly welcoming. Baitak’s home was more of an underground bunker, ringed by a fence made of flattened chemical steel drums with the words ‘Sodium – Cyanide’ plastered all over them. Huge chunks of discarded rocks lay where they had fallen during past mining operations, and twisted metal and litter of all description clothed the steppe. I had one of those fleeting objective thoughts that come before you immerse yourself in a situation and adjust: “what the hell have these people done to this place?!! Why have they created such a hell on earth…and what’s more decided to live in the middle of it!” Soon I was sitting in their underground hut spilling stories of my month winter break. I sensed that Baitak and his wife Rosa were not at ease, and when I told them of my strong feelings of missing my dog Tigon, all became clear. “Tim, Tigon is not well” they said gravely. They began to tell the story of a very tough winter that had finally passed like a storm. Since my departure the cold had seized Akabakai. For one month the temperature had not risen much above –30, and the wind had been relentless. Several horses and cattle had died. One evening the herder who I had employed to look after my animals was putting hay onto the barn roof when he fell and broke his leg and hip in three places. Since then, the herder’s son, ‘Yeszhan’ had been battling to run the winter station alone. Sometimes he had been unable to find and feed my horses due to being overworked, and at one stage lost my horses for an entire week. Baitak had covered hundreds of kilometres by motorbike and eventually found them happily resting in a grass filled gully. A week or two prior to my return, Yeszhan had travelled to the village shop by horse and whilst he was inside buying bread, Tigon had disappeared. At first he was not concerned and believed that the dog had run back to Baitak’s familiar home, but two days later he still hadn’t been seen. Roza and Baitak began doing rounds of the village asking everyone if they had seen my dog with no success. During this same week, Baitak’s two pet dogs were shot and eaten after straying a little bit from home. Baitak went to the police who said that they had shot 18 dogs in recent days, but could not remember a dog of Tigon’s description. Baitak then went down to a bankrupt mine six kilometres out of the village where the penniless workers were known to eat local dogs and pigeons to survive. Baitak recounted how he had gone to the most notorious of all ‘dog eaters,’ ‘Petrovich’ (a Russian) and sternly told him: “Don’t you bloody eat that Australian’s dog! If I find out that he was eaten I will know it was you!!!” In a strange twist, someone later tipped Baitak off that my dog was rumoured to be living out on the steppe near the bankrupt mine. Several days later he was found locked inside the mineshaft, living on solid ice without food or water. Baitak went into action feeding him raw eggs and vodka, then putting him in a banya for a few hours. Two days had passed since this discovery, and when they brought me to the dog, I have to say that I felt like the crummiest pet owner alive. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone away for a month. Tigon lay in a heap, covered in grease and dirt looking dazed and confused. He didn’t have the strength to stand and would only eat if hand fed. He was also suffering from an injury on his lower spine area. Baitak agreed that probably someone had tried to steal him, and at some point beaten the poor dog, after which he had escaped. I sensed that this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what had been going on during winter, but did not have the energy or want to ask for more details. My plan had been to move the horses 150km to the village of Ulanbel, and then return to Almaty for my visit to London. It was obvious however that Tigon was in no shape to move. The poor animal was a shadow of his former self, and I just felt terrible. The next morning a young Russian, named ‘Dennis’ turned up on his motorbike to take me down to the winter hut to see my horses. We found Yeszhan (the son’s herder who had been looking after my animals) taking blood samples from the cattle to test for tuberculosis. I had never really liked Yeszhan, and when I asked him where my horses were, there was something about his foolish grin that made me go cold. Eventually we siphoned a litre of fuel into the tank of his motorbike, a Russian ‘Ural’ with the customary sidecart. One of his friends sat on the cart and we shot off at a terribly fast pace along a rutted, muddy track. “Slow down you idiot!!!” screamed his friend. It was too late though. We hit the muddy puddle at full throttle and the passenger bounced out of the cart, and rolled and bounced like an object thrown out of a car window on the highway. I now turned to see the lifeless lump of a body about sixty metres behind. Yeszhan was laughing as I got off and ran back, ‘another bloody hospital case!’ I thought. Just before reaching the man he suddenly moved, sat up, shook his head and dusted off the mud and dust. With a dazed grin he stumbled towards me. “No problems. It’s not my first time!” It took over an hour to locate my horses following all manner of hoof tracks, but finally there they were, standing on a hillside, gazing calmly over the steppe. I was surprised that they allowed me to approach and pat them without showing the slightest signs of wanting to flight. Their slow, graceful movements, the wind in their shiny manes, the way they chewed caressingly on the grass helped calm me down. The signs of a tough winter were evident in their thick, woolly coats of hair. Perhaps it was due to the winter out on the steppe (these horses until now were used to staying in a barn over winter) but their eyes appeared wiser than I remembered, and it occurred to me that they had sunk well into the natural, and wild rythyms of the environment. Ogonyok, my youngest horse took pleasure in munching away on my tiny remaining patch of snow. This winter break had done them well and I was pleased to see that they had put on a bit off weight, and were looking generally very healthy. After half an hour or so with them I felt at ease, and the nausea that had been plaguing me ever since the taxi ride disappeared. I felt confident at least that my horses would be ready to continue without problems. A day passed, and Tigon showed some vague signs of improvement, but even the idea of putting him in a box on top of the horses seemed out of the question. His injury on his spine was obviously pretty painful, and he was too weak to be putting him at risk. Probably it would take him a good two or three weeks to recover. Over an enormous meal of horse meat (with the horse head planted on the middle of the table for nibbling) I decided with Baitak that my only real option was to leave the horses and dog here until I returned from London. The thought of returning on the same road to Almaty made me feel nauseous, but somehow I understood that this trip at times is all about a combination of persistence and patience. Over this meal, a village elder arrived to meet me. He was a wiry little man with a traditional skull cap and a fine moustache. As is customary he said the Muslim prayers before we dug into the colossal mass of horse meat. In Akbakai I had become well known for inventing nicknames for locals, and Baitak presently asked me for an appropriate name for the elder. I gave it some thought and grinned. “Don’t be shy, say as you like!” urged Baitak. “Ok then. ‘The Old Cunning Fox!’” I said. The table of guests roared with laughter, and didn’t stop for a good minute. “You have made Baitak happy for the rest of the day. You have said what none of us would dare, and none of us are allowed to say!” said Rosa, just about rolling around on the floor. For those few minutes I forgot about my problems and hacked into the horse head with the knife with the tenacity of the best of them. All of this stress, this break from the simple reality of riding across the steppe had taken its toll. I felt pale, unfit, and very disconnected from the horses and the land. Since I had some time up my sleeve before London I decided to spend three days out on the steppe alone. Yeszhan brought the horses into Akbakai and Baitak led the way on his motorbike to a hidden gorge about 30km from the village. For these three days I have basked in the warming rays of the sun, ridden Ogonyok in search of the evasive Argali sheep, and generally become human again. Although the snow has gone, the gorge was still choked with ice, and I took pleasure in chipping it away with my axe and boiling it over my stove. There were mountains of grass, eagles above, dramatic cliffs, and not a sign of human made stress. From one of the highpoints of the area I looked out over the Betpak Dala (Starving Steppe) and realised that no matter whether winter, or summer, this was an extreme environment. The land appeared parched and intimidating. I wondered how on earth I will cross it on return from London. There is no snow, and no signs of water! But that is for another time. Now I am in Akbakai preparing to leave in the morning to Almaty. London, here we come! (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries. And don’t forget to check the photo gallery which is updated weekly as well.