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Into the cold- stepping into the beginning of Winter on the Kazak ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) “It’s got to be somewhere here!!!” screamed Aset. “What!?” I screamed back- half because I didn’t catch him the first time in the howling wind, and half due to my frustration. I was losing my patience. “The winter farmhouse, we have to make it!!!” It was 10.30pm and we were wading up to another mountain pass through snow and waist deep ice-encrusted grass. I had given up trying to figure out the landscape that glowed a feint slivery-blue in the darkness much like the moon. My eyes stang from the relentless wind that carried a barrage of ice particles. The poor horses were exhausted. Not that it had been easy before sunset anyway- fog and snowstorms meant that we had been following compass and GPS all day. I was beginning to think that Aset was crazy- he was so frightened of sleeping overnight on the steppe that he was desperately searching for any sign of life- horse crap, a track, an old road, abandoned wells. ‘Closer to people the better’ he repeated. The snow storms and wild feeling evoked a sense of calm in me, but it was beginning to dawn on me that Hungary was a bloody long way ahead….and winter seemed to be setting in. I must admit that I have been a bit taken aback by the emptiness of the Kazakhstan steppe and the extremity of the weather- there are no gers out here like Mongolia. I now understand that if I don’t head south quick enough I will be stuck here until March- in this part of Kazakstan they have about 1-2m of snow on average. Every day seems to be a fine balance- can I make it the next 30km, or will I make a mistake, or will there be another storm, or another kind of unforseen challenge? By 11pm there was nothing but cold, wind, snow, and ice. Either my GPS coordinates were wrong, or more likely the Russian map was inaccurate. Somehow we stumbled into an abandoned pump shed with a floor of frozen animal manure. The four walls were enough for me to convince Aset to stop before we injured ourselves or the horses. Aset didn’t have a sleeping bag and the temperature must have been about minus 15 or so. He bundled up in my down jacket, boot liners, and horse blankets while I cooked dinner and tied and hobbled the horses. Our arguments had been simmering all day. He just didn’t trust my tent and was ill-accustomed to sleeping out. Still we managed to laugh. “First night in a well shed hey Aset!’ I said before finally collapsing into the tent at about 1.30am. In just two days we seemed to have slipped into winter. A week earlier I finally set off with the Ruslan from his village of Slavyanka. We crossed the Irtysh river on a car ferry and a couple of days had taken us to the tiny village of Szhana Shol. I had met a man called Aset a few days earlier who suggested we drop by on our way through. As it turned out we arrived in Szhana szhol in need of someone to help me for the next week. Ruslan needed to head back to his village and return to his work as a fisherman. We arrived at Aset’s home as he was shovelling crap out of his barn. He soon suggested that he could travel with me for a week. Aset is a 40 year old from a village near Semi-palatinsk where the Russians infamously tested nuclear weapons during the Soviet union. At 42 Aset looks more like a 60 year old and believes his grey hair is a result of the pollution. After some time Aset suggested that I would have to ask permission from his wife for him to leave.. “But tell her that I will only be gone for four days – we will call her on route and tell her that the weather has set us a back a few days.” His wife joked when I asked: ‘You can take him all the way to Hungary if you like!’ The next morning over breakfast we were interrupted by a school teacher and students at the door. A few hours ensued at the small school of 70 children where I spent time in various classes….and had to prove to the school principal that I was not indeed a spy or terrorist! The village was full of characters. Aset’s neighbour would call out to me every time I stepped outside. “Guten Morgen! Komme Hausen! Komme Hausen!” Mr ‘Komme Hausen’ had apparently lobbed some poor sod to death with an axe in his youth. His father had been a reknowned horse thief. The next morning half of the assembled to say goodbye. We set off down the muddy street with is dog in tow and soon made our way out onto the open steppe. Two days of riding across open steppe brought us to an old collective farm near the village of Azunbulak. In its prime this collective farm had employed around 250 people. The wreckage of abandoned wheat processors, tractors, and trucks were spread out in the back yard slowly being strangled by grass. Nowadays just 30 people were involved with the farm, and the village had shrunk from 300 families to just 70. It was that night that there came a howling wind and a snow-storm. By morning there was 20cm and I was going nowhere. The storm continued to rage and the brown open steppe was now more- one big ‘white’ had enveloped everything. This suited the young man with whom we were staying. He had been living here on his own while his wife was in hospital with a newborn baby. In fact he was keen for me to stay for the whole winter. We spent the day feeding hay to animals and in the evening rode into the village to visit his family. He was due to pick up his wife from hospital in the morning and later that day the celebrating would begin. If I stayed there was no doubt that things would soon fall into a haze of vodka and moving on would become harder and harder. And so a day of riding through white had brought us to this horrible cold and empty pump shed out on the steppe. Early on I woke to survey the land that we had trudged into during the night. All around was ice. Somehow everything in sight was entombed. The grass looked more like icicles sticking up from the ground, and even the pump shed was encased. All around the crusty white panned out and offered no clues as to which direction we should head. I gathered ice for breakfast by breaking the tubular frost from the grass and carrying them back to the shed in a shopping bag. The poor horses were also a frosty white, and hungry. We fed them the remainder of the corn we had picked up in Uzunbulak and eventually set off. The winter farmhouse that we had been searching for was just four kilometres away over some hills. I must admit that it was with relief that we were ushered inside to the warmth for a hot meal. So quickly the land had been overcome by cold, and I was seriously worried about whether I could really make it far enough south in time- and whether I could continue from there anyway. What the hell had I got myself into here? The young couple who lived in the house reminded me of Mongolians- they owned their own herd and their life revolved around them. In summer time they even lived in a yurt a few kilometres away. It was hell to extricate ourselves and again set off in the cold. So quickly it seems the body weakens and relaxes when one goes into the warm from the cold. Into yet another snowstorm we headed, arguing about directions. Just on dark we joined a couple of herders returning to the village of Kindikti with a couple of hundred horses and cows. The snow howling in our faces. The sound of 400 hooves on ice and snow. Moving slowly like a community on a pilgrimage. Eventually we arrived in Kinditki, a tiny village on the open steppe with a backdrop of mountains. One of the herders invited us in and so again we were ushered out of the cold. This time it was necessary though- we had run out of food for the horses…and whats more a real snow storm was setting in. I woke thismorning to 40cm of snow and a world of white and cold. I have no idea if I can get far enough south before everything closes in and shuts up shop for winter. The storm continued until this evening. On the positive side it has been another day with an amazing family. The father was born in China and moved here after his brothers and nephews were murdered by Chinese in Urumqi in the 1960’s. Today we managed to call his remaining niece near Urumqi- it was in fact the first time he had ever spoken with her in his life. To celebrate they decided to slaughter a sheep and as I speak we are preparing for the feast. Lets see how things go. I really hope that I can get moving before it is too late. PS Since I wrote the above we have moved another two days ahead. Minus 20 during the day and colder at night. Life in the tent is life in the freezer. Its getting increasingly hard for Aset without a sleeping bag. Lets see how things go. The frost in the air, mountains, and steppe, like clouds seen from an aeroplane. The feeling of cantering through the snow, the icicles building up on the horses and our own faces. It makes it worthwhile.