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From the Kuban to Crimea: Cossack Suriya, Vet checks, to the Black ...

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR RELATED PHOTOS) “Tim do you know what a Suriya is?” asked the Cossack Ataman, Viktor before me. Like all Cossacks he had meaty features, broad shoulders and a heavy gut. “Well Tim, it is a big bottle of homemade vodka, and to become a Cossack you have to skull the lot and then jump a fence. So I invite you tomorrow to the well christening where you will understand Suriya.” And so, the next day, between getting blood tests for horses, vaccinations for the dog, training a horse, and preparing documents for the Ukraine I found myself by a well in the town of Starovilochavskaya…. This was just one of many events of the past month, during which time I travelled about 3000km by car on a paper chase for the horses. Last Wednesday evening though it all became worth it- I arrived by horse at the port of Kerch on the Crimea, Ukraine, to be met by the local administration and TV news crew. With that I arrived on the Black Sea, crossed a very troublesome border, and all five of us (the three horses and dog included) are just that little bit closer to Hungary. By the well gathered a troop of Kuban Cossacks in their traditional costumes that reflect a people that were always ready to fight and defend. The Cossack men ritually served 25 years in their army. Some say that when Cossack men never even walked closely with their children and wife in public- because children of Cossacks, and Cossack’s wives had to be eternally ready to live without father and husband. The odds were that he would either be away at war or killed. A choir of local woman backed up the priest as he sang prayer and a crowd gathered. The well before us had been first dug in 1806 by kuban Cossacks who originally arrived from current day Ukraine. In 1806 it was christened by a Cossack priest, but during the postwar Stalin years the well was filled in, abandoned and forbidden. As a symbol of a return and rediscovery of Cossack culture – that was mostly wiped out in the early soviet period- Viktor, the local Ataman (Elected elder/leader of Cossacks) had found the orginal well, re-dug it, and opened it anew. Eventually the well was blessed with holy water by a rather exhausted looking priest and the villagers lined up to each drink a cup of the blessed water. Once the ceremony was over, the Cossack men and I moved down by the river where a picnic table was laiden with Sala (pig fat), cucumbers, salted fish, tomatoes, and of course a giant four litre glass bottle of home-made vodka (Suriya). For Cossacks sala is the staple, and many say that this salted pig fat provides vitamins. Vodka on the other hand apparently helps during Cossack gatherings to solve problems. Now grand toasts were told under a warm blue sky, some toasts to the Cossack men who had laboured to settle this steppe, others to the reopening to the well, and some to my journey. One man in a fever of excitement ripped a badge from his uniform, and after asking permission from the head Ataman put the badge in a vodka glass. I was then asked to drink from the glass before the badge was then presented to me and screwed onto my shirt. “Its for your trip, and your luck, and so that you will remember the Kuban Cossacks on your journey home.” There was something endearing about these men who didn’t so much beat their chests, but honoured the heritage of their forefathers, and kept their culture alive in an era when free horse riding masters of war are a thing of the distant past. Back in Timashevsk, there were other celebrations brewing, in fact with the 1st of May celebrations, 9th of may public holiday, and parents day, I found myself invited along to a never ending series of feasts. The feasts always seemed to culminate with a very loud, bad record player and the kind of dancing that makes an entire apartment building shake. As I mentioned in the earlier story, Nikolai Vladimirovich Luuti, a big crop farmer of the region had given me incredible local support. Two of his workers, Lokha, and Edik, were commissioned to be my drivers. Six times I drove to Krasnodar for blood test results from the horses, juggling an array of problematic papers. During one visit I was lucky to meet Gromovo, who is the Ataman (leader) of all the Kuban Cossacks and the Cossack army. He was a short plump man with a gruff voice and thick white beard. He told me that Cossacks were so tough that they could live in the reeds or the open steppe for a year or two no problems. Eventually came the day to pack up and move out from Timashevsk, and make the trek to the black sea port of Kavkaz. Maluti, the pigeon/horse lover who ran a metal recycling plant and had looked after my animals arrived in his 4wd, as did Lokha, Edik, and Nikolai Bandirinka from a local horse farm. After some barbecued steak, and a shot of Vodka they all said goodbye, and Edik and his wife in particular said with tears that it seemed as if I had become part of their family. It was a feeling that I shared with the Timashevsk community that I had lived in for almost five weeks. There just isn’t enough time or space to write here how many people I got to know well, the intricacies of their lives, and how in many ways I wouldn’t be on Ukranian soil with the animals without their support. So began a complex ride, 200km to the sea, during which twice I had to abandon the horses, and travel again to Timashevsk and Krasnodar (a round trip of 500km) for extra papers, signatures, stamps and veterinary results. Only in the very nick of time did I get the stamp of approval from the head director of veterinary inspection in Krasnodar, and then only because I was lucky to have a personal meeting with him, and he had been to Australia in the past. In actual fact, the legislation and demands technically made my journey impossible, and I always relied on common sense and understanding on the behalf of many chiefs, from Moscow, to the laboratory in Krasnodar, the vets in Timashevsk, and the department authorities to somehow work my way through the paper trail. I must really thank Nikolai Luuti, Lokha, and Edik in particular who spent days and days, and nights and untold money, doing everything they could to get our little caravan back on the move. It was a very sweet moment when I, mounted on Blackie rounded a crest near the village of Golubitskaya, and there below suddenly panned out a different kind of open steppe- the sea. It was the Azov Sea, and below little waves lapped sandy shores. We rushed down, and having never seen such vast water, the animals all stood staring in a daze. Tigon was very unsure of the waves, and repeatedly tried to drink the salty water, before throwing up. The horses also tried to drink, roll in the sand, and generally stood very uneasily. It was the first time that we had seen the sea since starting off in June 2004, and it was a moment that I had dreamed about whilst in the deserts of central Kazakhstan. Two days later I rose early and very nervously packed. The first border post was not a good sign- the police eventually came out from a computer scan and told me that I was not legally registered. In actual fact I was, or at least the OVIR office in Kalmikia had told me so, but now they said that the problem was that my registration had expired. “What will we do with this law breaker” said the chief police man. Eventually he just said: “Tim, take a pen, and write today’s date in there on the registration. That way you won’t have any trouble. Those six digits would usually cost you three hundred roubles, but off you go, on your horse traveller!” At the real border post we weaved our way, all three horses and dog through a queue of cars to police and border guards struggling to balance looks of humour and steely professionalism. The Vet department soon met me, I bought tickets for the horses equivalent to those for motorbikes on the ferry, and with that we were waved through to customs. Here I arrived before some tall, emaculately dressed customs officials, and only had I stopped to introduce myself, had Kok dropped an enormous patch of manure at their feet. One of them looked horrified, one laughed, and the third was a little angry. “Ah well, its something I will leave you in memory of me!” I joked. The head customs man was not humoured though. “I am not letting you go before you clean that up!” Leaving these men twiddling their thumbs and trying to work out what to do with the rather fresh and large patch of digested grass, I made my way into customs where in fact no on was manned. I was waved through to passport control and with a quick stamp I was officially out of Russia- amazing! So many things it seemed could have gone wrong, so many papers, a mine field of regulations that customs could always find a reason to fine you if they wanted, and I had walked through without a scratch. Back outside customs approached the horses but were too scared to get a close look. Soon I found myself bordering the ferry, the horses stumbling nervously onto the steel deck. The passengers crowded around, unsure of what to make of this rather dirty traveller and three horses. I was soon given a shovel and put to work before the crowd, picking up each dollop of manure from the nervous animals. Tigon put his nose up into the wind, and as usual looked as if he was actually commanding this journey, not me. Twenty minutes passed before we crossed the narrow strait to the port of Kerch in Eastern Crimea. Open steppe, green bare hills, and a hazey blue sky were reflected in a glassy sea. To my surprise, as the gate of the ferry opened, there waiting for me was a representative from the mayor of the city of Kerch, and a television crew. While I took an interview, customs officials and guards came to shake my hand and process my papers. There would apparently be another reception in the city, and they all assured me that I would pass the border freely. In fact the border post and customs had long been awaiting my arrival, and with no fuss at all, I was handed my vet documents back by a very happy vet inspector, and was soon on my way. All too surreal we were let out of the gates and we raced up a green hill from where I gazed back down over the water and Taman peninsula in Russia. We had made it! I could breathe easily! The jubilation wore off over the next hard 18 kilometres into the city where we arrived exhausted and heavy to the bus station to waiting journalists, and Sergei from the Administration. Sergei guided me another 8 or nine kilometres through the city during which we met, almost disasterously, with a horse and coach. The horse on the coach was a stallion and near veered into heavy traffic in his pursuit of us. As it turns out, the very man who was driving the coach, Gregory, will now be travelling with me for three days out of Kerch! Sergei had arranged for me to stay free of charge at a sanitorium on the seaside, and we arranged for the horses to graze inside the grounds of a Christian children’s camp for oprhans nearby. Leaving Tigon to sleep on the marble floor of the sanitorium lobby, I made my way to bed and barely made it into the covers before passing into sleep. Since then I have been very privileged to have been shown around the city by the museum administration, and treated by the city itself. In particular Sergei, Sascha, and Natasha have been of great help in getting myself orientated and ready for the next leg through the Crimea. On Saturday we took the horses swimming at the beach. Kok dived in and rolled around in the shallows, Blackie went for a swim with me in the deep, and soon Ogonyok feeling lonely on the beach came galloping in. This blue, salt, water, and the feeling of the animals playing about was a moment I will never forget. They all then rolled about twenty times in the sand before finally calming down and returning to grazing. Unfortunately though Blackie either as a bad allergy, or parasites and has been ripping himself apart on trees since our arrival. He has managed to tear off the hair, and make himself scores of sores, and I have had to since order a vet. As a result his beautiful mane has been cut off, and I am treating him regularly and keeping him clear of anything on which he can rub and cause more damage. Kerch is a fascinating seaside town with a heritage that has always involved a mixing of steppe nomad cultures with sedentary populations. Scythians and Greeks co-existed here for centuries, and the impressive Csar’s Kurgan is a symbol of the pairing of the two cultures. I visited this kurgan which is built in a way typical of the Scythian Nomads, but which inside was designed by Greek Architects and was probably the grave of a great Bosporian leader. Tomorrow if all goes well I will be back on the road, heading west towards the south coast and Simferopol. Sorry about the rushed writing. Feeling a bit out of it after a very sleepless and stressful period getting here, and the moment I relaxed I realised how tired I am. Looking forward to open steppe again for re-energisation! Tim. Tim is now situated at: Latitude: 45° 20 Min. 00 Sec. Longitude: 36° 20 Min. 00 Sec. Go to WWW.MAPQUEST.COM/MAPS/LATLONG.ADP and type in the above coordinates to see where Tim is now. (CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR RELATED PHOTOS)