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Frozen Steppe,Boiled Pigeon,camel in the loungeroom,merry ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) The few strands of hair that dangle from my balaclava are now icicles. There is a huge one coming out of my nose as well. After crawling out of the tent I shake the ice out of the shopping bags that I wear on my feet as vapour barriers, put on my boots and begin the process of packing. Three hours later I put on my cheap Russian ski goggles, swing up onto the horse and am finally off, Tigon leaping with joy to be moving. The air is so crisp and cold that it is filled with shimmering ice particles all day despite a blue sky. The snow squeaks, the horses breath freezes, and I head towards a white, ice and snow encrusted valley. There is no one, no sounds. My toes are warming up. It is about –27 degrees or so and the night had hit about minus thirty or more. Ahead lies 110 kilometres of open steppe to the next pin head on the TPC map. A village called ‘Akbakai. Some tell me that it is an abandoned village, others say that it is big and rich. Who knows in reality. This steppe spreads out like a sea, rising in pearl-white waves to rocky hills and mountains. This dry valley I am following is choked with chest high Ak-Shi grass, and tiny little forests of bushes called ‘Saksauul.’ It is only comparable to the Arctic in its openness, the exposure, and the startling cloud-like appearance. I am on the edge of a huge wild chunk of steppe called the ‘Betpak Dala’ which means the ‘Hungry Steppe.’ In the evening the sun somehow gets squeezed and rises as a long golden column like a severely squashed orange- I presume it is from the ice particles in the air. The last week has been a microcosm of this trip so far all bundled into a pretty intense experience. For three long days I rode through day temperatures well into the twenties and camped out in colder. I later found out that at that time the schools were all closing in nearby Karaganda because of temperatures lower than minus forty. Unfortunately I don’t have a temperature gauge so I could only estimate. I followed this winding dry river bed for two days, ever rising towards a high plateau that panned out like tundra. There were a couple of old nomad graves but apart from that no real signs of life. My aim was to reach Akbakai by Christmas, and this became more urgent on the third day of travel because my sleeping bag was frozen and I was afraid that a storm my blow in and splinter my tent. The extreme cold has left it even more damaged- the clear plastic windows have now totally shattered. Luckily I had the moon to guide me after dark, and using its light I finally arrived in Akbakai on the third evening feeling exhausted and a little frozen. After three days without seeing a soul it was a shock to see the factory smoke-stacks pumping out smoke. Akbakai is a gold mining village up on some low mountains, exposed to permanent winds that blast in from the east. In summer it can be forty degrees, in winter minus forty. It must have been a little bit of a bizarre sight. I made my way to the first person I saw: a man breaking firewood over a rock outside a solitary apartment building. He froze in fright at first. I was too tired and cold to really do much more than stare blankly. Eventually the questions began as usual. “Where have you come from?” “Mongolia on horses.” “Are you Russian?” “No, Australian.” “And where are you going?” “Hungary.” I say these answers without the slightest emotion and this poor guy just about faints on the spot. I haven’t spoken for a few days and realise that my mouth and face is frozen stiff. Anyway, my dream of a welcoming family, music, warm, good food, and some chatting to family on the satellite phone failed to crystallize. Instead I ended up bunking with a couple of Russian alcoholics in a partly built shack. On the first night I just appreciated the warmth, but in the light of day I was a little repulsed. The floor of the shack was smeared with grease, dog faeces, dirt, and litter. Grisha and Sasha, the two Russians both had bare scalps of skin that looked just as putrid and bushy moustaches that looked more like some kind of bad fungi. For Christmas lunch they caught a few street pigeons in a net and boiled them up. Meanwhile my horses were next door in the other main room of this partly built shack. With all seriousness they referred to the room where my horses were as ‘The Bar and Billard Room.’ The dream was to make this shack into part bar, part hotel, and part café. They bought two bottles of Vodka apparently cleanly in honour of my Christmas but drank them while I was out tending to the horses. The next night they stumbled, fell, argued, snored, and fought, and I didn’t sleep a wink. “Fire up the bloody furnace you idiot!!” Grisha would scream. “No, f’ off, I did it last time!” “You’re an idiot” “And you are an idiot all of the time!” They collapsed together onto a single bed and every few minutes would rise and fight and argue. Eventually I told them to shut up but they just began to explain to me the Russian laws of drinking. Meanwhile it was a battle to look after the horses. The only hay in the village was owned by the hunting inspector who had it shipped in from 100km away. Eventually he agreed to sell me one round bale. “You can keep your horses here for two days but no longer. And you will have to clean up the horse manure twice a day!” I agreed, he slammed the door and I was left out in a wind that was building up to storm of some kind. When it is minus twenty and the wind is so strong that it almost knocks you off your feet you have to be very careful not to freeze. Collecting water for the horses alone was an indicator of how tough life is here. It involved climbing up onto an ice encrusted steel tank and lowering a bucket down through a hole in the ice. The wind threatened to send you toppling. I was amazed to see old babushkas doing this for themselves later on, clambering on this slippery ice risking life and limb just to get the daily water. The drinking water in Akbakai is trucked in from far, just like the hay. What a place to live! On Boxing day I managed to call my family- Mum and Dad, my brother cousins, Aunt and Aunty kicking back in plus 26 degrees sipping red wine. Jeez I missed home in that moment. What really worried me apart from all of this was that one of the horses had begun to limp and I wasn’t sure if it could go on. What would I do? Serik, the hunting inspector wouldn’t sell me any more hay, a storm was building, and there was 125km as the crow flies through rocky little mountains to the next village without any roads. I crossed my fingers and Kathrin reassured me on the phone from Germany: “You will be right and smiling in a few days!” Somehow I began to get a degree of traction in this icy, windy slippery town. A short little guy with a neat moustache and large sunglasses took me in for fried eggs. He lived in an underground hut and told me about his 30 horses that roamed nearby. Six kilometres away was a herders hut! Baidak was this man’s name. He had a little empire- tonnes of rusty machinery that he hired out, animals, and a café and bar for the mine workers. He even offered me a sack of grain for my horses. The Russians sad he was a local ‘Millionaire.’ Compared to them he was. Evening of the 26th and I was getting ready to leave in the morning. My jacket was fixed (zip had broken), my hammer replaced, food stocked up, horses full, but me exhausted. Unfortunately the horses were being kept at the opposite end of town as the Russian alcoholics. I spent the evening carting horse manure only to be yelled at by Serik later on: “What the hell are you doing! You have to move that shit further away from our home!” “But the lady in your home told me to dump it near your rubbish pile near your front gate!” “She is not my bloody wife!!!! I have not done you wrong, move that shit!” And so until 11.pm I was carting manure in the darkness, in the wind. At least I was grinning though. Every person in this village seems to be a living caricature!! And so it was back to grisha and Sasha who were frying up potatoes and popping the top on another beautiful bottle of ‘Parliament’ vodka. There was nothing left to do but laugh. 90 percent of their language I cannot repeat without offending most- such is the culture of swearing in Russian. I just couldn’t help laughing at their morbid tales. I was going a bit nutty myself. Grisha: “Yeah, my wife she is honest. She knifed a bloke, right through the chest. It was my carving knife, right through to his back. She did a bloody good job! She did it it my kitchen. Blood all over the floor there was when I came home. My daughter called the police and my wife didn’t even try to run. Yeah, she is sitting it out in gaol now, just another 5 years to go, then she’ll be right. Last I heard my daughter sold my motorbike to pay for her education. I have a great home back there!” Sasha: “Yeah, we don’t have many deaths here at the mine. Only eight people have died so far this year. We don’t know what the f’ is safety. But you know its pretty good, they pay good compensation. I wouldn’t mind that kind of money! Yeah – drags in a cigarette, downs a shot of vodka- that’s the way we live Tim. We are still pretty far from civilization. Don’t you go telling those Aussies about us….I guess you will say, yep, there were these two vodka drinking Russians…..Go and get some coal grisha you f’n idiot! And buy some bread!” “F’ off. I have to work tomorrow. I am already a week lake in delivering the firewood to the police chief.” And so on. In the end I found an empty apartment room in the building nearby and slept cold under an old rug. Its still an odd concept for me that in an apartment building there is no heating apart from self-made coal furnaces. In the basement in the old pool, Max, the guy who had originally helped me had his own little workshop. He showed me his furniture that he was making- all at the bottom of an old cracking up pool/spa! It was time to get out of this town. I just couldn’t survive this much longer. Morning. The wind is blasting so hard that all the windows in the apartment block are layered in thick ice and snow. Outside I have butterflies in the stomach. The wind is roaring, sending clouds of snow flying. Even in the dawn light I can see grey clouds being whipped across the sky. Is this the storm coming now? Eventually I wound up having fried eggs again with Baidak and shovelling manure until 10am. I was going not far. Baidak agreed that I could stay with the herder in his hut 6km away. There I could catch some good sleep and sort my plans out, gauge the weather. Thank god for that. Leaving the town was a relief, back to the calming storm and the land- so much more simple than the town! I arrived at the hut to find that “Madagol” the 55-year old herder and his wife were waiting for me. Inside I took off my coat and hat to have tea but soon found myself shivering. It was about zero in their hut!!! I quickly bundled up again. Something was definitely wrong with one of my horses. He had struggled just to make 6 km and was now standing on three legs. In the morning I called Sheila the vet in Perth who as usual was very calming. It appeared that it was probably and abscess which would pop out within five or six days. There was hay here at madagol’s hut, he had a barn, and he had instructions from Baidak to look after me. Life couldn’t really have been better. Since then things have been a bit of a circus. I spent a day carting hay, manure, and pumping the well Every time I sat down to write something on my computer Madagol would come sauntering in. “Aren’t we going to feed the cows now!!” He is a great old guy who has worked as a herder most of his life. I think he believes I am sitting on my butt playing games when I start to write this update. Just as I was settling into this quiet life though a car came roaring down to the hut the next night. “Grab your slippers and come!!!” Demanded three guys. One of them was apparently the owner of the hut. Soon I was back in Akbakai!!! Only this time I was in a loungeroom staring at 500kg of freshly chopped camel meat. This mass oozing mess was plonked on the carpet just below the line of sight of a little boy watching television. These men proudly showed me the two huge Bactrian camel humps- white pyramid lumps of fat. And then the next thing I was in another home being told to drink vodka and being told that they would chain me to their home until New year. I compulsorily had to stay here to celebrate this guy’s daughter’s birthday, and then new year. What the hell could I do? Anyway, I managed to escape back to the hut for a day until the car came roaring back. I spent last night as the guest of honour at the birthday party and was presented with a lump of meat as big as a football to take home. Today, well a bit of quiet time, writing, washing, preparing for another big celebration tonight- new year. Tomorrow it will be back to the hut to check the horses and with luck I will head off by Jan 2nd. How life just spins around, tosses you about, and just surprises. Merry Christmas and new year to all! Tim. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)