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Down from the Altai with three new horses- the Kazak leg begins ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Ruslan climbed into the back of the old 1960’s Moskvich and collapsed into a deep hangover-induced sleep. The smell of beer was worse than the cold and so we set off with the windows wide open, bumping and squeaking our way along the edge of the Irtush river. The locals in Pugachevo where I had made the horse deal would be beginning to wonder. Ruslan had basically disappeared for two days after the beginning of his vodka-stupor. When I asked his brother why he drank he just shrugged: “When it starts, you wake up in the morning with a terrible headache and you have to drink more.” I was worried if I didn’t break this chain of events another few days might just slip into the same black hole. We reached the village of Maralikha in darkness only to discover that the four-wheel drive that we were hoping would take us the last leg to Pugachevo was not available. The Moskvich looked as fragile as a plastic toy that has been left out in the sun for a few years, but the driver was willing to give it a go. How on earth we made it the next 20km I will never understand. We motored through waist deep icy puddles, over fallen rocks, down into thick muddy streams, and at times snow and ice, weaving our way alongside the Kurchum river. The rapids echoed up the valley in the pale moonlight. I felt slithers of excitement to be on the move and finally back on track- a feeling that had been well and truly grounded in the last few frustrating days. The locals were a bit angry on arrival- the owners of the horses which I planned to buy had lost a days work waiting for us. I gave animated storytelling sessions about Ruslan and Merim’s misadventures and their initial hostility gave way to laughter, a shot of vodka, and an evening in front of the TV watching a terrible western movie. Later on I was introduced to an elderly man who soon told me that the white horse that I planned to buy was in fact 15 years old and lazy. ‘You will be beating his arse all the way to Hungary if you take him!” I was not surprised to hear this. From the look of the horse’s teeth, his cheeks and general body he looked older 12- the age that all insisted he was. “I wanted to tell you at the time, but everyone had to keep to the owner’s words.” I had never had a really good feeling about the white horse and so my decision was made. The elderly man told me not to tell anyone that it had been him who informed me- or he would have some serious trouble. The morning was crisp and cold. Geese milled about on the edge of frozen puddles and streams. Haystacks dusted with snow looked like big icing-covered muffins. Pugachevo is a village of about 160 homes on the banks of the Kurchum river surrounded by the lower Altai mountains. Snow-capped peaks, forest, and steppe could all be seen from the window of the house where we had slept. The horse wheeling and dealing began. ‘Ogonyok’ was the name of the other horse I had agreed to buy. In the light of day without the euphoria induced by banquets and vodka it was clear that its was quite a firey five-year old that hadn’t be ridden in three or four months. His back legs were long and powerful, but his front legs looked more short and stocky like the Mongolian variety. I liked his character immediately though. If not smart, it was at least a very honest horse that would learn quickly. During my test ride a German hiker suddenly appeared, strutting down the street with his bright boots, poles, and backpack. He was in a bit of a delirium. ‘I wanted to move to Kazakhstan! But these streets! They are so terrible, why don’t they fix them! These people! I have had enough! I have been walking for 12 days on the tracks of wolves and bears. My watch is broken. The snow was deep. But these people! My driver is drunk- I paid him last night, but he used the money for vodka. I am so angry, when I walk the anger leaves me. True, my sleeping bag is wet, and I gave my food away but I have to go…..I have $40 remaining and my flight leaves on Sunday from Almaty!’ I tried to convince him that if he waited around a bit I could find him a taxi, but nothing was penetrating his rage. His eyes circled around like a chicken about to be put under the knife. The locals had absolutely no idea what he was doing here or is problem. “Yeah, he is just a lost tourist. We found him, we saved him, we fed him.” The tourist gone I made my decision to buy Ogonyok, despite his obvious tendency to be easily frightened. I had the feeling that the locals were telling the truth that he would calm down after a few days on the road. Over the rest of the day I was shown every sunken-backed nag in the village, each time being told that I would find no finer horse. Eventually an elderly man came trotting over on the back of a large, dark horse. Even from a distance I liked it immediately. “Take a look as you please. If you want it, but it now. If not I will release it back to the herd.” I took off on the horse bareback, and later put on my own saddle It was a well-trained horse with a calm nature despite being very ticklish. With half the village watching on I dismounted and asked the elderly owner how much he wanted. “70,000 Tengi, plus money for the horseshoes that I just put on him.” (about $520US). I had only budgeted for 65,000, since that was what I had agreed to for the white horse. “Would you agree to 65,000 including horseshoes?” I asked. His reaction was instantaneous. “Buggar you! What kind of person are you! Take your f****g saddle off my horse.” With that he raced over to my horse, threw my saddle into the mud and walked off in a stink. The crowd was deathly silent. “Well that’s at least 1000 tengi less for throwing my saddle in the dirt!!!” I was really quite angry, and did not understand why the man had been so abrupt. Ruslan said that he was an old, honoured man in the village with whom you could not bargain. It was a good horse, and he was selling it to pay for treatment of some health problems, and to support his youngest daughter who was studying in Ust Kamenogorsk. I was paranoid about being ripped off as a foreigner, but as I later understood, 70,000 was really a very decent price. At times I realise that my constant battle to not be treated as a rich tourist makes me overly suspicious. It is hard to know who to trust at times, and what people are really thinking. Eventually I wandered over to the elderly man’s house to make peace. His son delivered a message from the front gate that I would be prepared to pay 70,000 if it included the horseshoes. He came out with a grin and waved us in for tea. The sale was a big affair. Locals crowded into the kitchen to watch us make the deal over a cup of tea, jam, and of course a shot of vodka. I counted out the money onto the table, and this was then re-counted by two or three other people. Then we shook hands. I told him jokingly that I had not forgiven him for throwing my saddle in the dirt, so he apologised and wished me well. Then he told me with a grin that the horse was eleven years old and not ten as he had told me. It didn’t seem to matter any more. Out in the yard we took photos and I told him that I would send some pics from the coast of the Caspian Sea…if his horse was indeed as good as everyone said. With two horses, Ruslan and I were finally mobile. That evening we stayed with ‘Nurkhan,’ a stocky little Kazak with Mongol looking eyes and nose, but with the hair and skin of a Russian. He would make a good rugby player I thought. He continually laughed and joked, switching between Russian and Kazak language flippantly. Like most Kazak men he had spent a year in the army during the soviet years and spoke about his time in Tajikistan. Nurkhan worked at the deer farm 15km away up in the mountains. The antlers were harvested each spring for the blood inside which was sold for a fortune to buyers in China and Europe. His humour at times mingled with truisms. At one point I was quite shocked to see him strut into the backyard and start hacking away at a beautiful birch tree. “Why are you cutting it down?” I asked a little surprised. “I don’t need this birch tree. Kazaks must live in the desert! Birch trees in particular bring bad luck!” It is true that Kazaks prefer not to have birch trees near their homes because of a belief that they bring bad luck. Nurkhan invited us to ride up to the deer farm for the night where we could enjoy a sauna. My plan was then to continue up into the mountains to find the true starting point for the Kazak leg of this journey. I was startled by the landscape as we wound our way up a snowy path. The village shrank below until it was just another detail. We crested a high plain and continued towards some thinly forested mountains. To the north-east more mountains spread out like an Arctic landscape of ice-encased peaks, frozen white plains, and the odd larch tree. Above this rose the twin peaks of Belukha, (about 4500m) on the border with Russia. We rode briskly, and as the sun sank lower the sky seemed to be glowing like a painting with incandescent blues, oranges and pinks. The moon was just rising over the snowy ridges as we arrived and wandered about the deer farm. The deer’s melancholy cries rang out in the still, freezing air, I thought sounding much like camels. In the workers hut we were greeted by a friendly, familiar face. ‘Orolkhan’ was first introduced to me as the ‘Chechen’ due to the thick, dark stubble growth on his face. He had helped during the initial horse hunt and had kind, slightly sleepy eyes, a bushy moustache, and wore a huge fur cap. He shook our hands and invited us in for a cup of tea. Later that night Nurkhan arrived by horse and cart. He and Ruslan got on particularly and they stepped outside to share a cigarette. During spring, the wealthy owner of this farm, a Russian from Ust-Kamenogorsk, had built his own private sauna, house, toilet and pond not far from the worker’s hut. Nurkhan was entrusted with the key, and the arrival of Ruslan and myself was excuse enough to open it up. We lugged brand new Honda generator over the frozen earth and eventually everything was lit up like a Christmas tree. They were particularly proud of the toilet that was of ‘first class, hotel quality’ apparently. We enjoyed a sauna, stepping outside into the snow to cool off between turns in the searing heat. After carefully cleaning everything as not to leave a trace we returned to the hut to eat deer meat and potato and drink enough tea to last a lifetime. I fell to sleep in the hut feeling like I had arrived in paradise. It was hard to shake off the sensation of sleep, but soon the next morning Ruslan and I set off through the snow towards the mountains, eyeing the peaks above. Today would be the true start of the Kazak journey. After a couple of hours of weaving about the hills, avoiding gullies, and crossing frozen streams we arrived at the base of step mountain slopes and tied the horses up. For three hours we struggled up a spur through snow and over a myriad of rocks. Wolf and bear tracks criss-crossed the route while below us the land angled down to a hazey brown on the distant horizon- the steppe. I had the sensation that we were viewing this land from a plane. By 4pm we had almost reached the summit at about 2900m and were pushing through thigh deep snow. It would be dark by six however and so we decided to call it a day and spent half an hour gazing from the top of a rock and taking film and photos. Only 250km to the east I had sold my horses in Mongolia. From here I would leave the Altai, and the steppe would be my home until Hungary in distant Europe- what an imaginary place it seems to me from here. It was from these mountains that nomads first originated, spreading out over the steppe, taming horses, yaks and camels. Only a few generations ago people here would have been nomadic, much like Mongolia today. The soviet era did a good job of settling most in villages however. I missed the presence of gers from this high point in the mountains, and wondered what lay ahead. We descended fast and reached the horses within an hour. Desperate for a drink Ruslan broke a hole through the ice in a stream and we took turns at dipping our heads through to the freezing water. It was hard for Ruslan to really understand what this part of the journey meant to me, but he tried, and we were developing a far better bond now that we had the horses and were on the move. “We were like Alpinists! Extreme tourism! We saw great views today! Those bear tracks were huge!” he couldn’t help repeating as we rode. At dark we arrived back at the hut and showed an excited Nurkhan and Oralkhan some footage from the mountains. Orolkhan had shot a couple of wild pigs during the day, and the boiled heads were ready to be eaten. “Two wild pigs came as visitors to our home today. They left their heads and they themselves ran off!!” We all laughed and started cutting away at the flesh from the jaws, eyes, and ears. Ruslan spoke the words that were drifting into my own thoughts: ‘On the road, out in nature, all food tastes just so good!’ Descent into Pugachevo the next day was a bit of a circus. Nurkhan, who now referred to me as ‘Mister Cope!’ gathered some geese and a cat into a couple of potato sacks and loaded them onto his cart. One tire on the cart had blown and so it sat lopsided. Orolkhan was going back to the village as well and so we all set off, talking, and laughing as we went. The geese quacked, the cat meowed, and Nurkhan would swear at them in Russian telling them to shut up. Ruslan and I couldn’t help poke fun at him for that. By the time we reached the village I felt that these men had become friends. In fact they were quite serious in inviting me back for winter to help with the deer farm and film whatever I liked. I liked the idea. We had one more meal at Nurkhan’s home, treated to birch-sap wine, homemade jams, tea, and of course meat and potato. The hospitality culture here is such that I barely have a chance to speak. Just when I have swallowed everything down another demand will be made: Eat! Eat! Drink Tea! Finally we said goodbye and trotted off down the valley, Pugachevo soon eclipsed by the mountains and we rode until after dark and found refuge at the home of a family, whose eldest son had served in the army with Ruslan. In the morning word came that the brother of the father of this family had just died. We later saw him, his wife and children huddled on the tray of a back of a truck that was rattling out of town to the village where the funeral would be held. Our route wound along the Kurchum river valley ever deeper into a confusing maze of steppe hills Where the valley became a canyon we crossed over a peak and found a single farmhouse. It happened to be an old friend of Ruslan’s who he hadn’t seen for three years. The family lived up here on the steppe for six months of the year, and the rest of the time in the village below (winter). Like in Mongolia we were offered dried yoghurt, and sat around a low table to eat noodles and mutton. The elder came herding his sheep over the rise just on dark. He was seventy years old but had the build of a fit and healthy thirty-year old. His face was as wide and as weathered as the steppe. He had his own herd of sheep and cows to which he tended- something quite rare in Kazakhstan as far as I can understand. Collectivisation dismantled the nomad way of living, and after perestroika many animals perished, or were sold or stolen. Most herders out on the steppe today are just taking their turn at looking after all the animals owned by the people of the village. The Kazaks seem proud of their civilization, and yet complain, like Russians about the appalling village conditions- no work, no money. I can’t help thinking that life would surely be more healthy and spirited for these locals if they too spent more of their lives tending to animals, out in the air, moving with the weather. These sedentary people would have been easy targets for nomad warriors, and like them I can’t help feel that in some ways ‘civilization’ is inferior to the old ways of the steppe. This old herder seemed to have held onto much of what once was- after all ‘Kazak’ means ‘Free Steppe Rider’ or something like that. At 2.30am I was startled to hear him wake up and step outside and starting howling like a dog. In my half-sleep I thought perhaps he was calling to the moon. I later learnt that he had been woken by a wolf, and as usual went out to howl in an effort to scare it away from his herd. The last two days of travel have been long, and I began to feel relieved that this journey is underway. Ruslan has a great affinity with people, and horses, and as we trot along we talk about just about everything. He is the youngest in a family of four boys, and now works primarily as a fisherman with his brother. He is 28 years old but carries the wisdom of someone older. He is always excited to introduce me to a new friend. In the village of ‘Terektbuliak’ I picked up my third horse for 55,000. As the price reflects it is no where near as big, beautiful, or strong as the other horses but at $400US it is still not cheap and my funds are already much more depleted than I planned. A really good horse here costs about $900US and more. I decided that my third horse looks like a cross between a deer, rabbit, horse and donkey. Yesterday we rode 50km at a fast jog and arrived at the Irtush river just on dark. Ruslan was so desperate for cigarettes by this stage (that had run out early in the morning) that he waved down the first sign of traffic to ask for a smoke. Today the horses have rested, and tomorrow I will unfortunately have to make a return journey to the city for more money- things have just been far more expensive than I expected. Its getting cold and I don’t really know how I will go on, but in a way that is the beauty of this kind of travel. Ruslan has decided that he will not travel with me for more than a few days more. He can earn about $40-50 a day fishing at this time of year, and I can only afford to pay him a maximum of $15US. It suits me in reality because I only ever planned to have him help me out with buying and showing me the ropes of Kazak horse-care. The day after tomorrow we will cross the river on a ferry and I will probably be setting out alone.