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To Balkhash - pressing on across the steppe and a birthday to ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) All night the tent flapped furiously and snow came burrowing into everything with the wind. I slept little and checked the horses every hour or so. Every time Tigon -my dog- barked or growled I lit another Chinese firecracker and threw it out the tent door. So far this technique has worked keeping the wolves at bay. This proved to be dangerous a few nights later though when I lit the firecracker but forgot to open the tent door. I threw it out just in time but dropped the burning match inside- another hole to fix in my tent! At 6.30 there was still no hint of a let up in the storm, or the darkness but it was time to move. I dressed, rolled up the mat and began the whole process of preparing for the day which takes a minimum of three hours. Cleaning the horses with brushes, fitting the blankets, saddles, cooking breakfast (semolina with crushed sesami-seed), packing up, loading and tying equipment, removing hobbles, and finally getting moving. This morning was testing my patience. The wind was so strong that the moment I took my hand away from the fitted blankets they blew away. I can tell you that it is pretty tricky to hold a misbehaving horse in one hand while holding on a blanket, lifting a saddle, and all in minus ten during a snowstorm. I had a few verbal arguments with the horses and later Tigon who refused to get out of the tent and wake up. At last though I was on the move- a relieving feeling to be that touch higher up looking out over the steppe and Lake Balkhash. A day passed of shrinking into my gear like a tortoise into its shell. The wind did not stop and it whipped the lake, sending waves crashing onto the frozen shore. In parts the lake is already frozen over and it is a strange sight to see the greeny-blue waves crashing onto these sparkling veneers of ice. There were rocky peninsulas, sandy beaches, and waves that rival anything in Port Phillip bay. Balkhash honestly appears more like a sea than a lake. At times I even passed little sea shacks with fishing nets hung up outside, reminding me of the wind-lashed coast of north Scotland, or perhaps parts of Southern Australia. Some live permanently in these shacks fishing for a living. I only met one of these men- a shrivelled old Russian who came out and asked for vodka, and if I was a nomad. By evening things had calmed down and I pitched camp in some rolling hills to a pink and orange sky. Cold fell quickly and soon there was nothing but darkness and the hearty sound of three horses munching away on grass. Another day on the steppe had passed. The next morning I was taken aback by the ice on the lake and the sun rising into a clear sky. In the frost, silhouetted against this backdrop I stumbled across my first herd of Bactrian camels since leaving Mongolia. Camels move at a different pace than the rest of the world, their every movement as if in slow motion. I thought about taking my camera out but was soon glad that didn’t. My horses were from Eastern Kazakhstan and had never sat eyes on such beasts. My horse reared up and began panting- I could even feel his heart begin to beat. Then he was off. Horses move just so quickly. I soon found myself holding on for dear life with one hand and trying to control the two packhorses with the other. The horses ran into each other, ran backwards, jumped, and generally were close to being totally out of control. “Tim, be super careful here. Or things could get serious” I found myself saying. Eventually I calmed the horses and they came to a halt. It was obvious though that the horses thought that these camels were seriously out to eat them. It took me half an hour to get the horses around this herd, and eventually I did so on foot. To make matters worse Tigon continually chased the camels that would then come clambering over towards us. The horses were so irked by this event that they were even petrified by some cattle later in the day. By morning the next day I knew it was time for me to find a place to rest. The horses were generally tired from the last three weeks. For the first time during the Kazak leg I am noticing that they are losing weight. No wonder since there has been so little grass and no hay for 350km. My food supplies had basically run out as well, and I hoped I could get a lift into the small city of Balkhash to stock up. It would also be my 26th birthday the following day. As if it had just dropped out of heaven I happened to stumble across an old farm that was on the route that I had plotted and was navigating by compass. It was a bit of a surprise since I had barely seen any agriculture for 350km. Since the events a week earlier on the railway I had kept my distance from people but it was time to become social again. I met Kyat, the owner of the farm repairing an old motorcycle. Soon he and the farm workers were asking the usual questions and I found myself in their home sipping some tea and munching away on some duck meat. This farm used to be part of the larger collective of ‘Ortaderisin’ not far from Balkhash. Kyat now owned it and ran a herd of cattle, sheep and horses. For me this farm was a blessing: hay, plenty of tools to repair gear, and far enough away from any villages and the railway for any real problems to occur. Soon, for the first time in three weeks I was in the warmth of a real home. It is a bizarre feeling when suddenly the intensity of the journey pauses abruptly. My body seems to crumple and I become a zombie. All I want to do is sleep and yet my adrenalin is still pumping. Funnily enough I missed being out there the moment I entered the home. The treats for me of staying in a home like this are always the same: the luxury of being able to sleep in a bed with just my thermals (usually I wear my trousers with knife and all because I have to be ready to jump out of the tent and face all manner of problems), the knowledge that the horses are in a barn, and the possibility for a little sleep in. Basically it is paradise. The workers of this farm all lived in one long building that was more of a dorm really. It is the kind of home where its better not to take your boots off when you enter because the floor is so dirty anyway. The workers live in conditions much like they prepare for the animals. Their real homes are in the village of Ortaderisin. All the men were over the moon at the idea of me staying for a day to rest and celebrate my birthday. Kyat even offered to drive me into town to stock up on food and have a sauna. The worries and stress of the last leg of this journey were slipping away. Rather than sleep in the next morning I woke early and wandered over to the barn with my video camera to where the herders were preparing to take the animals out onto the steppe for the day. Bazibek, a 60-year old herder came limping ever so gradually with a gun slung over his shoulder and the traditional fox-fur hat. He looked as slim as a rake and his face appeared eroded by the wind- just two cheeks rising from the criss-cross of lines. For 40 years he had been tending to sheep by camel, and today was just another day. He led his camel out of the barn and saddled up. When the sheep had been let out he mounted and rose up towards the clouds on his animal. He worked the sheep as one with this camel. The camel the legs of the herder, the herder the eyes. Soon he was off in the distance calling rhythmically to the sheep, directing them with a long pole and whip. There was something in his eyes that had captured me. A certain open, blankness that to me says everything about the simpleness of the steppe. Being out there all day you become consumed by it and this guy was just carrying on the motion of life, he knew his place on this earth. Herders understand far more about the reality of my trip than any others, and it is from them that I am able to learn about how to look after my own animals better. My birthday had begun well. Later in the morning I set off with Kuat to Balkhash which in itself was a treat. I had been aiming for this small city of 100,000 for about a month. It was a far off destination, and I knew that if I could make it to Balkhash, I could probably make it to Hungary. I lived it up for a day: we ate in a café, I had a sauna (first wash for three weeks!), a bottle of beer, and then went shopping for food. I bought a whole range of foods for a feast to be had that evening with the workers: fruit (for the first time in a month or more for me!), salted fish, cake, salami, salad, pelmeni, orange juice and of course a drop or two of Vodka. The city itself is relatively rich due to the copper smelting plants and mines in the region. From the exterior however it appeared a little post-apocalyptic: abandoned factories, car and bus wrecks sprawled across the steppe, few paved footpaths, crumbling apartment blocks and a terrible smog in the sky from the huge smoke-stacks nearby. As with all soviet cities however the centre had tree-lined avenues, beautiful paving, and inside the homes life is colourful and warm. We returned to the farm to discover a military police van outside the home. Any worries soon dissipated however when the local army inspectors beckoned me over to the table. “So how can we understand your trip? Are you really Australian?” like many visitors to come, they had heard about an Australian on horses and had come to see me with their own eyes. Not only that but they bought me a 25 kg bag of oats for my horses as a birthday gift as well! Later the feast was on. The workers cleaned the house and prepared the feast with the care of family. The herders joined in and we celebrated late into the night raising toasts and gorging ourselves on this delicious food. I went to sleep convinced that as far as birthdays go, it was one to remember. Despite planning to leave in the morning I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I hadn’t sat still since arriving at the farm but there was still a lot of equipment to repair, and the horses probably deserved another day off. Since then I have covered just 50km to Balkhash where I arrived last night. A man in ortaderisin rang his brother here and said that he had agreed to put me and the horses up for the night. However when I arrived his brother was confused. As it turned out he had believed that Serik in Ortaderisin was just drunk and speaking rubbish! Anyway they welcomed me to their home and soon we were off to a special celebration: the 40 day feast. This is the day that a baby turns 40 days. 40 spoonfuls of water are ladled onto the baby, and his hair and nails are trimmed. A sheep is slaughtered and family and friends visit for the national meal: ‘Bes karmak’ Basically it is a hell of a lot of meat mixed with some flour and onion followed by a cup of bullion mixed with ‘kort’ (dried yogurt). The neck bones of the sheep are picked clean and then these bones are then hung up in the corner of the parents home. This is for good health and luck. The bones will remain hanging as long as the child grows or he or she marries. Anyway I am in Balkhash now beginning to plan the next main leg: another 900km or so to the city of Qyzylorda. There are many unanswered questions about the terrain onwards from here and how I will go. I think it will take me a month and a half- right into the heart of winter. Yesterday’s riding was just so inspirational. Sand dunes with long ‘Ak Shi’ grass, old Moslem tombs and following animal tracks in the morning sun. Some days it seems that Kazaks have totally abandoned their nomad way of life, but in the main the spirit lives on. On the surface they live lives much like settled Russians. However their culture, mentality, food, and traditions is sometimes I feel straight from the yurt and reminds me of Mongolian kazaks. Anyway I am exhausted. Need to sleep. PS Bad news. My digital still camera is temporarily stuffed. No new photos at least for a while. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)