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Dodging the furnace (18/6/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) At first the evening glow disappears, then the moon sets, and for a couple of hours there is just the starlight. I seem to be floating over the steppe. Fighting off sleep. At times stopping and sleeping in the sand with the lead ropes of the horses in my hand- a fifteen minute ‘powernap’ seems to do the trick. Consciousness picks up with the western sky turning from blue to crimson. By 8.30am it is already sickly hot. I have covered 37 km as the crow flies. In the night I have ridden into some parched plains that angle up onto sun scorched plateaux. Mirages licking the horizon make hilltops float over the land. Camels amble about like ghosts casting the only feeble signs of shadows. I stumble into the next village a little dazed. It is a collection of small mud huts with camel yards made of scrap metal, reeds, straw and mud. I catch some locals just in time before they all retire to their homes for the good part of the day. The first man I speak to, a young strongly built herder, suggests that I can sleep in his home. I unpack, haul my stuff into his home, and his younger brother takes my horses to drink before setting them free onto the steppe. The horses by now are so adjusted to the routine that I very rarely tie them up. They usually return to the village themselves and hang about the door of the home where I am sleeping waiting for me to emerge and feed them. Today is a hot one. The street is deserted by 10.30am. These tiny homes like holes into which you can crawl for some relief. I want to sleep but something tells me that the local kids mean trouble. After just an hour or two of slumber I emerge to discover that two cruppers from the saddles are missing, and one lead rope. It takes an hour of threatening to call the police before everything turns up. I try to sleep again but locals turn up to chat, and by evening it is time to water the horses and start preparing my gear again. At 2am I saddle up and am gone, once again fighting off sleep, but inspired by the wide open shapes and shadows in the land under the moon. That is pretty much the routine that has endured over the past week or two. I haven’t set the tent up for about two weeks, retreating to villages on the railway line where you can find the only water and shelter. In reality I am at the mercy of the kindness of the locals- without their hospitality life at the moment for me would be near impossible. Each time I arrive in a village I consider the possibility that maybe this time I won’t meet people who are willing to invite me in. Yet every time the overwhelming reality is that the locals understand my predicament immediately. Generally my gear is safe, and touch wood no one has taken an interest in nicking my horses. From Aralkum where I last wrote I have covered about 230km, passing from sand to clay plateaus, through enormous sand dunes, and yesterday reached some rich steppe with knee high ‘Zhusan.’ Zhusan is a sweet smelling steppe plant that is particularly good for horses. I seemed to pass at the same time into the land of the living. Birds of prey circling about, nearly stepping on several snakes, Tigon chasing marmots into their homes. I have reached the traditional territory of the ‘Younger Tribe’ of Kazaks. Immediately the difference is noticeable. The Kazaks here are taller, and generally have more southern and European features than those of the ‘Middle tribe’ that tended to be more Mongolian in appearance. I have now made it to the village of Kopmula where I am awaiting a big change in the expedition. Tomorrow my good friend Cordell and his girlfriend Cara are due to arrive. I must admit that I am really looking forward to the company. To the chance of sharing the experience with someone. To talk English and gain a fresh perspective on this journey. Together we will buy a camel, two more horses and carry on together for a month as a genuine caravan. I am exhausted. So much has happened but just don’t have the energy to describe everything now. I happened to land in a wedding when I arrived among loud music, drinking, and just too much attention for a sleep deprived traveller. Raising toasts among a crowd of 100 guests when you haven’t even met the bride and groom and barely slept in two days is a bit testing. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)