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Cordell and Cara's Impressions: A Strangely Familiar Journey (4/9/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Cara and Cordell (friends from New Zealand and Australia) joined Tim for six weeks along the Emba river through some of the harshest weather and conditions of Western Kazakhstan. Here is their point of view from the saddle.... Beep beep beep beep... The watch alarm rang in the tent. 2.00AM. " Tim to get up guys." " Eh, mmm ten more minutes eh..." " Ok." " Mmm. " ... " Eh shit, its 5 o'clock guys." " Ahhh, I can feel the sun already." " Yeah, it's gonna be a hot one. We've got eight hours of riding again today. What d' ya think we should do? " " Well, it'll take two hours to pack and saddle up, so if we get up now we won't leave til 7 am. That'll give us one hour of riding before its too hot. We can't ride for more than two hours between 8 am and 7 pm or the horses will get those blisters from their sweat under the saddles." " Ok, so should we start at 4 pm and ride until 1 am ? " " Nah, cos the horses need good grass where we stop to camp and its too hard to find good grass in the dark round here. Plus, we need more grain from the next village and we can only arrive in a village in the hourse 6 am - 9 am or 7 pm to midnight, otherwise everyone is alseep." " Mmm, right. Well, how about we ride from midnight to 8 am? " " Nah, because after we finish riding we've gotta wait three hoiurs fro the horses' backs to cool before we can safely take off their saddles, and by then it'll be 11 am and too hot for us to sleep. Plus, the horses won't eat properly during the heat of an afternoon." "Well, why don't we ride from 10 pm to 6 am, because then it's light when we arrive it's light when we arrive so we can find grass and grain in the village, then sleep from 9 am until it's too hot at about 3 pm, then get up and pack and saddle til 5 pm, then get some more sleep and make dinner before we leave at 10 pm again. That works, eh? " " Sort of, except Grey and Ogonyok will probably roll on their saddles while we're asleep, and look like they're wearing nappies when we wake up. Then it'll take another two hours to re-saddle and pack, so we won't leave til midnight. " Yeah, well why can't we leave at midnight? " Cos we'll arrive at 8 am, and it'll be too hot for us to sleep or the horses to eat well." " I know. We get up at midnight. We pack and leave by 2 am. We ride more quickly but for only six hours instead of eight. We find grain and the saddles come off by by 11 am. Then we sleep in a village house during the heat. The horses will eat well in the evening and we can get up at midnight and leave by 2 am again. Surely that'll work? " " Na, cos we might not be offered a house to sleep in, and even if we are, we'll be woken three times for tea, once for lunch, once for dinner, and who knows how many times for people who've come to look at the foreigners with the five horses and a camel. We'll have only had twenty minutes sleep before we have to get up and step around everybody sleeping and the dogs will go bananas again." " Well let's try getting up at 2 am again like last..." " What time did the alarm go off? " " Mmm, but we'll get up straight away this time." " Yeah, right. I'm going back to sleep...they're gonna be six long weeks to the Caspian...." And they were six long, hot, dry, dusty weeks in a strange place. Strange but kind of familiar. The country we had crossed really wasn't that different to the desert or scrub in Australia. There were flies and big skies and sheep walked in mobs on the horizon. But then it becomes strange to find a guy with a mouth full of silver teeth herding the sheep on a huge camel. He sends us back to his dugout for a pile of fried mutton and a bowl of fresh camel milk and within half an hour we're asleep around the low table beside the whole sleeping family. And despite how strange it seemed, everything feels familiar again. Moonlight nights have watched us steal micro sleeps in the saddles as our caravan cuts across the dead-flat steppe on autopilot. Our course strays until one of us is woken by Tigon hassling a family of marmots in their hole or one of us wakes on the neck of our horse as he falls into a crack in the dry clay. The camel sprays my shoulder as she snorts and the sour yoghurt ball snacks singe the side of my tongue. Everything feels so strange. We lie down to stack some Zs on the big hard slabs of steppe. The horses tug on the lead ropes coiled in our sleeping hands. But the dog's bark and the sun scorching our back as it rises reminds us of running down the beach at home on a stinker in January. It doesn't feel as strange as it should. As the morning dawns we are relieved to be at the river Emba (Gem) and we're rapt to find how much water was in there - enough for swimming - but we're still a bit concerned though about what could be floating around in the form of pesticides or worse, especially since we've just filtered seven litres of it for our consumption. The river also brings a plethora of grasses and plants here for the animals, but bloody camel still remains fairly tight lipped when faced with traditional camel fodder. She is a real worry as she puffs along with her load and sits down next to us whenever we stop, staring at the horizon instead of refueling like the horses who greedily munch away at any given opportunity. In fact she sits down whenever she can get a bit of slack in the lead rope - to the mortification of whoever of us is leading her. Screams of mispronounced Russian obscenities ring out across the steppe as a leg or an arm are ripped backwards with the lead rope. Scoffing an evening meal of canned beef and pasta, both Tigon and camel lean over us sniffing at the bowl. We jokingly offer her some, and to Tigon's dismay, she hastily nails the entire bowl, sucking the bowl clean in seconds, only lifting her head to look for more. Hoping to put her off we off our remaining meals we offer her some watermelon. She immediately devours it along with a whole quarter of the melon she held in the air and appreciatively sucked on for a few minutes before it also disappeared down the void. We push some old fermented yoghurt under Tigon's nose, and he gingerly gives it a few short licks before turning away. Camel, sitting down now, positions her head and dives straight into the middle of the bowl. She sucks and slurps that yoghurt down in seconds. Amid this strange smorgasbord, we've forgotten whether we're eating breakfast, lunch or dinner. But as if to bring us down to ground, camel lifts her head at the end of her bowl of yoghurt and sneezes, effectively dispersing the leftovers on the lot of us. We close in on the animals' exhaustion limit as they slow to plodding in the sand. The hottest of days takes over from the cool clear night and we feel the baking dry air hit the back of our throat. The nozzles on the empty water bags dig into my back. One of us spots two small lumps on a hill that look like a mud-brick house and a sheep pen made of dry reeds. The river which is too far away for all of us. As we approach the lumps become a small farm, a young man in checkered shorts and plastic jandals directs us down to a well. His bucket hauls up copious clouds of cold tainted water that fill the boney hips of the horses and soaks the front of our shirts as we drink. An hour later, a search in this strange endless paddock finds an oasis of desert grasses fit for our caravan of kings and one queen. And again we can be found familiarly slumped on pillows snoring with a farmer, every one of us full of mutton, fried dough and fermented milk... And on and on, our trip across this small section of West Kazakhstan felt strange one hour and familiar the next. Our photos say more than our words. We'd like to thank Tim for his generous offer to join him on this amazing 'pony ride' (sorry mate, gotta love em). May his sleeps on the steppe be long and horse-thief free and Tigon always be first out of the tent. We look forward to seeing you and your caravan in Hungary. To all those who helped the three of us through the desert and hung out with us in their choice little villages, a big Rahkmet; we hope you get the photos via the post. Endless thank yous to Tigon, Harvette, Stallion, Black, Johnnie, and Ogonyok queen of the Kazakh desert. Your hard yards made our journey. Cordell and Cara, 2005 (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)