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Into Kazakstan: Horse hunting, Kazak Sausage, Vodka and snow ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) I had no idea of what to expect of Kazakhstan. On the map it is a huge, mostly empty looking place bridging China with the Caspian Sea, the Siberian taiga forest with the Himalaya, Islam with Buddhism and Christianity. Almost two weeks ago I found myself on a rattly little Russian plane descending through the clouds into the country that will be my home for at least another six months. Beyond the Altai mountains the landscape descended into an ocean of yellow- brown steppe. It felt like I had just descended into one big fuzzy unknown. This was once a nomad domain, but what was the mentality like these days? Had the soviet union totally crushed their way of life and attitudes? Or did it still co-exist with their modern sedentary lives? Since arriving I have had a very difficult learning curve. First impression was the airport- comparatively like arrival in Australia. After almost of four months of struggling with Mongolian language I could use my Russian language and talk and understand freely. Immigration let me through with a big smile and a stamp….but then came customs, the first hurdle. They suggested that I had too much luggage and that each eatra kilogram over 50 would require me to pay a $1000 fine. This amount varied, they held me for an hour or so, and eventually out of desperation looked at me and asked: “So, will you pay us a fine?” “What for?” I replied again and shrugged my shoulders. Eventually they waved me through. After a week in the city I headed out with a Mongolian Kazak, ‘Meirim’ as my driver. Meirim, like many Mongolian Kazaks, moved to eastern Kazakhstan after the fall of the soviet union. Since then he has worked in a printing press, traded marmot furs between Mongolia and Siberia, and now drives a taxi. For me he was the ideal connection between these two worlds. The first shock about Kazakhstan for me was the sheer sense of civilization- a tarmac air- runway, real roads, trams, buses, and 24-hour electricity. After Mongolia it was also a shock to discover horse prices- the average price for meat per horse is around US$470. In Mongolia a good horse cost around $140. This is due to the Kazak love for horse meat sausage. Like most things here I discovered that the price had tripled in the last four years. The past three days have been exhausting and as I sit I am about to collapse into sleep. The horse hunt took us right into the Altai back towards the Mongolian border. Open steppe, mountains rising from dry plains, forested valleys, and raging rivers. It was strange not to see gers, but I found comfort and familiarity in the many herders out on the hills tending to sheep and cows. We picked up a young Kazak called ‘Ruslan’ from near the Irtush river and have been driving to villages in search of good horses. The routine is at least enjoyable. The village streets at the moment are covered in mud and snow, and we drive ten metres and once again stop outside the front gate of a house and ask if they know who wants to sell horses. If they do we have a ride, then a cup of tea and discuss prices. My search landed me in the remote village of Pugachevo, surrounded by snowy peaks and forest. Hunters here are proud of the bear and deer skins strung up on their walls. Only two generations ago there would have been only yurt tents here, but to me, superficially at least the villages tend to appear very Russian. Among themselves the Kazaks only speak Kazak, but also speak fluent Russian. Local knowledge is vitally important and in pugachevo our horse search team quickly grew to seven or eight squeezed into the car, picking up locals as we went. After spreading the word Kazak men would arrive with all kinds of horses and prices. Eventually I found two good strong, healthy horses for about $470 each. This is a huge financial whack for me since I budgeted for maximum $250 (the price of three years ago). A really quiet well behaved horse with a good back and legs costs $1000!!! The night after the agreement descended into chaos. We were treated to a large feast with the ubiquitos vodka, and even the blood from deer’s antlers. All went OK until my driver and guide began to have a few too many. Later that night we drove back, and too scared to let them drive, I went behind the wheel, and during my stint, one of the tyres blew out and the rim was instantly ruined on the terrible rocky road. Of course I would have to pay for the wheel…….further depleting my funds. We were supposed to return back to Ruslan’s home, but for some reason they made a detour to the café where his girlfriend works, and things just got worse. Vodka appeared and I refused. Ruslan and Meirim didn’t. When we returned to the car my videocamera and camera were gone. As it turned out Ruslan had taken the car for a drive, and meanwhile had an argument with his girlfriend…and somehow she had knocked my bag out of the door. They thought it was a shopping bag in their stupor. So hours ensued searching the steppe with torches for my bag. Meanwhile Meirim accused Ruslan of being a thief. Ruslan began to cry and then wanted to fight with Meirim. The night dragged on and on. Meirim kept on saying in his delirium: ‘What a great drama! What a great drama!” Then he would pull out his mobile (which had no reception) and pretend to speak on the phone with the police telling them to come and arrest Ruslan. I felt sick with tiredness and fear. Once the ball gets rolling with vodka here people transform into maniacs and all sense and safety goes out the window (probably the world over). I calmed them both eventually and stopped a few fights. I found the videocamera bag and finally at 7.30am in the morning I drove them home. They wanted to get back in the car and return for the horses. We were supposed to be back already by midday as per the agreement. That was not going to happen. To top it all off, the two of them disappeared for the whole day, driving about in a drunken stupor, apparently looking for wrestling matches, vodka, and his girlfriend (who by now was steaming mad). I couldn’t sleep and felt terribly vulnerable. Without horses I am not independent here and rely on locals to help. I felt terribly panicky at the thought that Kazakstan may well just be one long, trying experience. Vodka unfortunately lingers in the air permanently during village life, and I just hope that once I have the horses I can avoid most of it (on the bikes when Chris and I rode across Siberia we were able just to pedal away). I will soon begin the journey with ‘Ruslan’ from Pugachevo. I understand that he is a lovely guy, trustworthy, and very good with horses. Whats more he has unqiue experience with long riding journeys having help guide English traveller ‘Claire Burgess’ several thousand kilometres. However unless things improve I probably will not hire him for more than a few days. I get the feeling that he is pre-occupied with his girlfriend at the moment despite being interested in my journey. Then 8500 to Hungary will be before me…..and winter will be closing in. It is already very cold, snow on the ground, and a biting wind. There is still enough grass for the horses, but it will have to be supplemented with hay, corn and bran. I would like to get through as much as winter as possible on the horses, but do not know how realistic that is yet. For starters my toes (which were frostbitten several years ago on the bike trip) have to stay warm. I have great Baffin boots, but will probably have to walk and lead the horses in any case. Uncertainty is key to adventure, but at the moment everything seems to be oozing with it, and my money is quickly running out. Still, I keep some comfort from Jon Muir’s book about his trek across Australia: ‘The bigger the question mark, the better.”