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Akbakai to Zhuantobe: Starving Steppe, Snow Storm, Nomads, and the ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Finally I arrived back in Akbakai three weeks ago after my winter break and the side trip to London. I had prepared new equipment, Tigon was back to good health, and all the butterflies in my stomach pointed to a new start to the expedition. With another 11 months or so to go, I knew that I was launching into the unknown again, and had no clues as to where the trip would take me. Mixed luck plagued my departure. Ogonyok, my huge young horse received a flesh mashing bite from the Black horse- the boss of my herd and feeling full of Spring energy. My digital camera broke again, and the weather abruptly changed. Overnight the temperature dropped to -15 degrees, and the village was ambushed by a howling westerly and a snowstorm. The snow came in thick hurling clouds, lashing everything in sight. I had left all my winter gear in Almaty, and while tending to the horses one morning became almost hypothermic, and as a result caught a bad cold. The temperature had been plus 23 just days earlier! On the good side, bad weather in Russian and Kazak beliefs is always good luck at the beginning of a journey. For me it was particularly lucky- I would be able to make the 150km crossing of the Betpak Dala desert using melting snow and puddles to water the horses. I had time to adjust my equipment and say goodbye to Akbakai. All the locals were angry at me- it was of course my fault that the weather was so bad. 'Only that bloke up there in the sky knows what is best for you, and is keeping you here for the moment!' I learnt more things about Akbakai. For example, earlier this month 20 illegal miners were found 400m down an abandoned gold mine shaft. They had used only ropes to descend, and had basically built a dorm down there. There was reported to be a whole slaughtered cow in the depths, beds, and even a make do kitchen. A brigade of police arrived and arrested them all. One of the men fell to his death when he exited the mine to see the police. Anyway, they all paid hefty bribes, and by the time I was back in town they were all apparently working illegally in the mine again. Such is the profitability of being a policeman in Akbakai, that you have to pay $8000 to the police boss in Moinkom (the regional centre) if you want to get the Akbakai posting. The last meal was a horse head and yoghurt. Finally I packed, and loaded everything up. This was to be my fifth attempt to leave Akbakai. Baitak, Abdrakhman, and other locals led me out of town. They gave me some very vague directions, we downed some vodka, and with that I took off into the open nothingness into a howling wind. I wore an old holey woollen vest, and a buttonless coat- donations from Baitak who pitied the freezing Australian. It soon dawned on me that the directions I had been given were pretty useless. “Go left to the old well. Turn right to the red mountain. Take a right until you see an old grave, and then take the road to the old hut, and from there, there is one road to Ulanbel.” Problem was that this was 150km, and there were hundreds of red mountains, old graves, not to mention roads (fading wheel tracks). I decided to try to follow them, but eventually just trusted my compass. Rarely have I been immersed in such nothingness. These sleepy rolling hills, and salt flats. The shadows of clouds floating across the smooth curves of the land, distant features staying in view for 2-3 days at a time. Tigon was beside himself with excitement. He darted everywhere chasing, digging, and constantly returning to our caravan to give the lead horse a lick on the face. There were definite signs of spring. Little yellow rens jumping towards the tent door in the morning. The slightest sign of greenery beneath tough desert bushes. 'V's of geese cut the open sky, and from little hilltops I was repeatedly exposed to the very grand expanse of the steppe. On the fourth day things were starting to get a little desperate. The snow had by now melted into the sand, and I became stuck in a series of salt bogs. Willy winds hurled across the flats, often hitting us with a cloud of whirling dust and sand. The horses were thirsty, and the absence of wheel tracks and sturdy ground were slowing me down considerably. Late in the evening I gave up, and decided to follow a large bird of prey instead of the map. It took me up into red rocky ridges from where one could look down on never ending salt flats to the south, and rising steppe to the north where jagged little mountains cut the horizon. The bird landed once on the top of this ridge, and then when I reached it, it took off a little further. Not only did it take me straight to a set of old wheel tracks heading west, but he was now perched on one of two large round piles of rocks and earth. They were unmistakable- ancient nomad graves. Kurgans. The sun was now lowering and the wind cut out. I stood for some time by the graves. They were probably at least one thousand years old. Who had they been? How had they lived and come to an end? They knew so many more secrets about this puzzling land than I. Soon later I found some melting snow in a rocky gully. The following afternoon we reached the very edge of the Betpak Dala (the starving steppe). This steppe it appeared was just one huge plateau. To the south it suddenly gave way, dropping down to a sprawling plain. A myriad of lakes and marshes, and a river glinted in the sun, and beyond them the burning red sand of the Moinkum desert. We camped on the edge of this plateau with the water tower and homes of Ulanbel on the horizon. At dinnertime the horses all came around to try and pinch food out of my pot, and Tigon barked desperately at them to steer clear of what he thought was rightly his. He often pecks the horses on the nose if it comes to that. I couldn't help laughing. I also felt proud, inspired, and somehow relieved. If I could make it to Ulanbel, then maybe, just maybe Hungary is possible. Everyone without exception had told me that I would not only have my horses stolen in Ulanbel, but be left standing naked with nothing. I usually ignored this kind of advice, but the worst taxi driver I had ever come across -now living in Akbakai- told me that he was one of the 'good' people from Ulanbel. With some apprehension I approached the river Chu, on which the village is built, and crossed it into town. There was a huge hole in the middle of the bridge- big enough for a few cows, a motorbike, or a car to fall through. 'Don't cross bridges at night!' I told myself. Later I found out that two trucks had fallen through this bridge in the past two years. One of these was a truck full of apples. Locals had rushed to loot the apples rapidly floating downstream. The village itself struck me as a different world. There were stone huts and fences, and large mudbrick homes rising from wide sandy streets. An old man with a few token teeth remaining was leading his donkey and cart down to the river to collect water. Water! Real homes! Animals! A few trees! Even rowboats and fishermen! All of this was almost too much at once. The last time I had come across a place like a place even remotely as rich as this was 1500km earlier. At passing the first house, a man spotted me from the window and came bolting out in his silky green gown and fur hat. He probably looked out this window all his life, and on this morning spotted a pretty dirty, unshaven Australian with a string of horses. Soon my horses were tied in his backyard and I was drinking tea with his family. He had a huge head, Mongol cheeks, but a very distinctive Kazak moustache. He and his whole family worked at the local school and were happy to explain to me the history and reality of life in the region. The nomads live in the sands to the south of the River in winter, and in summer migrate 300km north into the Betpak Dala moving from well to well. As it happened, there was a family in the process of migrating the very next day. There came a huge cloud of dust and sand along with the commotion of a moving caravan. 500 sheep, 50 horses, and about twenty camels all came trotting down the main street. The herders came on all modes of transport. In the lead was an old Russian truck packed with all of the family's belongings. A motorbike with a sidecart full of little toddlers. An old grey bearded man with velvet purple laced fox fur hat on horseback, and several other men on foot and horses. The leaders put big planks down over the holes in the bridge, and after a quick drink at the rivers edge the animals crossed to the northern bank. Within half an hour the dust was settling and life in the village returned to normal. In the evening I took off on a motorbike with a young local herder. We spent a few hours with the family as they set up their Yurt tent. The kids played, and sang, a joy and life in their eyes that I have never seen in village Kazaks. This was the equivalent of summer holidays and moving down to the beach for summer. A lamb was slaughtered, yards were built for the sheep and cattle, and by sunset everyone was sitting back sipping fresh yoghurt. The knowledge of the Betpak Dala of these people was so far beyond my comprehension. As they told me, every little section of the steppe has its good time of year when there is fodder, and you can survive. But this is a very small window of opportunity and the nomad is forced to move and move. If you stay in one place too long then you might not make it back to the sands before winter hits. And if you leave the desert sands too late then there will not be enough grass left there to keep you going through the next winter. Even if there was grass all year round near the river dries up by August, sinking into the sands and will not return again until spring. I realised that my journey in contrary is not dictated by the seasons and grass as it probably should be- but by the limits of my Kazak visa and the need to head west. I just have to adjust and tackle, and get through. I envied this family and thought that if I had time I could easily spend a few months with them moving slowly north, then south again. Most of the people in the village were of the Tama and Naiman Kazak tribes, and their land stretched from the sands almost as far as the city of Zhezkazgan 300km north. Although none of these herders could ever point it out on a map, they all seemed to have inherited knowledge of routes north that travel as far as Russia and Siberia. Its terribly sad that 70-80 percent of livestock disappeared after the collapse of the soviet union. So many of the people who migrated under the soviet system have since been forced to survive by other means, left without animals. They dig up rocks and sell them as building materials, hunt and fish illegally, and generally live a very tough existence. The men's eyes lit up when they spoke of life on the steppe. It occurred to me that all here in Ulanbel and in much of rural Kazakhstan, the locals a re very much latent nomads, waiting for the day that there will be enough animals to support and require such a lifestyle again. 'Ulanbel' by the way is a Mongolian name meaning something like 'Red Hill' or as someone else explained 'red train.' This is due to the long ridge of red sand that follows parallel south of the river. After a school visit, and a decent rest I got on my way. I was looking forward to this stretch of riding. I would follow the Chu river which winds its way through the sands and steppe. For the first time in my journey I would have a couple of weeks when water was always readily available. The river itself has its headwaters in Kyrgyzstan and eventually peters out into sand west of the Betpak Dala. Spring is an incredible time to be here. White swans and ducks hoot and mill about in the reeds, and fish flap out everywhere. Meanwhile you are riding through some of the driest sandy desert you will every come across. On my first day out of Ulanbel I made it 45km as the crow flies and felt on top of the world. The horses love riding through this sand. I passed by the fringes of a small village the next morning, and by evening made camp by the lake not far from the old collective farm of Chiganak. At first glance it was the perfect site- out of view of the village, good grass, water, and a rich diversity of bird life. As I would discover though, there were a couple of hidden menaces- hordes of ticks, and a very aggressive stallion. The stallion came proudly prancing up to my horses as I unloaded. He was bristling with pride and soon began to attack. He kept me up until midnight attacking again and again, galloping from out of the desert bushes. I had a pile of rocks and sticks by the tent, and when they ran out I ended up chasing the stallion into the dark waving my toothpaste and toothbrush at the coward. The next morning though he caught me off guard. I was making breakfast and watching him warily when he charged Ogonyok, my largest but youngest horse. He was so quick that I didn't have time to even pick up a rock before he had leapt onto the back of Ogonyok baring his fangs. Ogonyok was hysterical and bolted forward to the end of his tethering rope. He came down heavily, somersaulting into the sand. The incredible power of the fall sent the iron stake rocketing out of the ground. The Stallion fell front of Ogonyok and dashed away. Ogonyok, who was only just recovering from the bite in Akbakai now had teeth marks stretching from his neck to his rump. Fortunately it seemed that the skin hadn't been broken though. The next two days landed me hot and dusty near the village of Tasti. The temperature was now reaching plus thirty degrees, and an easterly wind brough clouds of dust and sand. It clagged up my throat and eyes and nose. No wonder that the local herders wear masks with just their eyes showing. I had one major scare when Tigon took chase of a herd of sheep. To my horror he caught a lamb and began to thrash it madly about by the neck. By the time I arrived the Lamb lay still and Tigon was cowering. In a rage I caught tigon and smacked him on the nose. It was just so lucky that no herder had been watching with rifle in hand, or Tigon would now be dead. The Lamb soon got up and ran away. I left as quickly as possible. Spring it seemed, brought with it as many dangers as any season. Near Tasti I was met by a herder out tending to his camels. He invited me into the village for the night. I took the following day off as a rest for the horses and found myself at a lunch with a difference. The head of a camel was placed in front of me, and I was later served fermented camel's milk. The Kazaks spoke very little Russian, and appeared far closer tied to traditional Kazak life than the people of further north in Kazakhstan. Camels themselves wandered free about the village, calling in their deep, melancholy voices to one and other. I spent the afternoon lying in the grass digesting the camel meat and watching the horses graze. My host was particularly fascinated by my journey and over breakfast the next day pointed out. “Yes Tim, so you don't even know where you will be this evening, let alone in a week. You don't know what is ahead on the road.” If only he knew how true his words would be. I trotted down the road from Tasti in sweltering heat, tempted to swim in the spring lakes that teemed with fish. This water was so luscious, flowing from pool to pool. Between the pools were sandy hills, reminders that in a month or two there will be no water here at all, and by August the river itself will not be flowing. There came a section of water that was so expansive that I was forced onto the shoulder of the road. Just before my planned lunch break there appeared a car on the horizon. I viewed this car with a sense of curiosity and apprehension. This was afterall the first time since I set foot in Kazakhstan that I had been on a road, and the first time that I had met a car at close range. Then all of a sudden the car was a mere fifty metres away. It was roaring along at 100km or so. It crashed and banged over the bumps followed by a dust cloud. Tigon only noticed it too now, pricking up his ears. “Tigon!!!!!” It was too late. Tigon was on the middle of the road and didn't have a chance. I closed my eyes and hung my head. There came an ear splitting crash. Then the car was gone, rattling into the distance. The horses munched away on grass. The water ebbed an flowed. A crane flew overhead. Only now Tigon lay strangely silent. Flat, twitching, unconscious, dead. Blood dribbled slowly out of his mouth. I just couldn't believe it. It had happened without words or warning, and I had little words now, or any way of understanding this mess. You could almost see Tigon's thoughts: “What the hell is that! Its moving even faster than I can run!” The stupid little buggar. Why didn't he get off the road!!! I was at a loss. The horses were making the most of the break and taking off for grass on the roadside. Should I bury Tigon? No, he was destined for Australia! Eventually I took two horses 300m down the road and across a channel to a patch of sandy grass. Then I returned and just stared at this scene. He still lay on the middle of the road. I guess half an hour passed. Then the strangest thing happened. He opened his eyes, lifted his head, and ever so slightly rolled onto his back. The little buggar wanted me to scratch him on the belly! Then soon later he got up and hobbled ever so groggily off the road and sat in the shallows of a nearby pond. I was sure I was seeing things. Hadn't I just seen him hit by a car at 100km an hour? Eventually I picked him up and carried him on my saddle across to where the other horses were resting. I lay him down and he closed his eyes, panting heavily. Then another strange thing happened. A motorbike turned up with two men and came to a halt. I explained everything, and then asked them if there was a vet in the next village. “I am the vet!” Soon he was inspecting Tigon and concluded that he had no broken bones and would recover in a few days. At this very moment yet another vehicle turned up (amazing since I had virtually come across no other vehicles until now). Two men stepped out and invited me to stay with them in Zhuantobe- the next village. I put tigon in their car boot and agreed to meet them in the evening. I was rattled though. The Vet eventually said “go to the nomad's hut on the horizon and drink camels milk. Then go to the village.” I did just that, and found myself slurping down huge bowls of camel milk. This was no ordinary hut either. They tended to 140 head of Bactrian camels, in addition to horses, sheep and cows. After repeated requests I decided to spend the night at the ranch. The family was preparing to migrate to the Betpak Dala within a couple of weeks. As the sun descended, a cool breeze flowed in from the desert. On the horizon flashes of lightning lit up the sky and glinted off the myriad of ponds near the river. The young wife of the head herder cooked outside on a wood fire while the camels, no herded home, settled in for sleep. I had the amazing sense that everything was going to be just fine. Yesterday I arrived in Zhuantobe after meeting a few more nomads in the desert, already sweltering in make-do yurt tents. Believe it or not, the temperature in the day has now reached the thirties!!!! The change in weather is almost as unbelievable as Tigon's miracle survival. Anyway, the dog is alive. The horses have rested. I have met yet another I incredibly helpful and understanding family. And now I am preparing to head off again. From here I will say goodbye to the river and head through the desert for 120km to the next little village. Then it will be on to Qyzlorda. For now to be honest, I just have to sleep. I am exhausted- the last lines of my diary entry that appear almost without exception every day.