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Into the heart of Western Kazakhstan: Abaya to Kulsari along the ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Below is the first of three parts to be written about the last three weeks of travel along the Emba river through the deserts of Western Kazakhstan as far as Kulsari near the Caspian Sea. For this section Tim travelled with friends, Cordell Scaife and Cara Poulton. My little stallion must have seen ‘green.’ Leaving the rest of our horses he made a flying leap towards the reeds well beyond the edge of the swamp. Then he was moving nowhere, nibbling at whatever grass he could reach from his concreted position. The mud that had been up to his fetlocks was now almost up to his shoulders. Only by standing dead still could he maintain composure. I yelled back to Cordell and Cara to tie the others up before they followed suit. If we couldn’t move him now this would be his final resting place. I scrambled in, the watery black mud reaching up over my own knees and making it hard to get any real traction. I pulled hard at the stallion’s lead rope but he could not so much as move one leg up. “Cordell! Run! Come and help.” Cordell was looking just as panicked as I felt and came bounding in behind the horse. While he encouraged the horse with a rope from behind I leant back and pulled. At one stage the horse managed to free the front legs, but then fell down on its side, its stomach rising and falling ever faster with it’s flared out nostrils. Now the black mud had caked ups its face, and as it lay, the watery soil was threatening to flood the poor animal’s ears. Perhaps this would be a drowning before anything? Eventually Cara went running to fetch our host who returned with a group of locals equipped with ropes. They seemed unfazed by it all and stripped off before joining us in the mud. The ropes were tied to its front and back legs. Then all available labour pulled and pulled. The horse made a couple of half-rolling movements, but then collapsed again, now looking like a monster from the swamp. Another tact was to have two men pulling it up by the tail while I tried to roll it up straight, and meanwhile about four men pulled hard on the rope. It was not looking good though. The horse seemed to be waning with the stress and almost resigned. It must have taken a good half hour of struggling when finally it made a miraculous leap. There came a great sucking sound as it escaped the jaws of mud and made it to sturdy ground. We retired to an un-muddied spring where the men who had helped us were already washing. I felt a little embarrassed and silly since it was probably my fault in letting the horse run so free into the swamp. The locals had every reason to make me feel bad. Their response however was far from it. “Ah, no problems! Don’t mention it! Let your horse get stuck again in the mud today. We will be more than happy to help!” A day and a half earlier we had arrived in ‘Szharkamis’ intending to stay for a tea break. It was becoming clear now however that the village had us well and truly in its clutches. Stopping in a village almost always involves accepting that your own control of the journey temporarily goes out the window. Admittedly the temperature had been particularly scorching, it was Cara’s birthday, and we were invited in by a man who thrust upon us the most glorious hospitality. From +45 degrees heat we were ushered into a large mud brick home with dark, cool rooms padded out with inviting mattresses and felt carpets. Then came the salads, meat, beer, wine, chocolate, and even fruit. “Eat, Eat! We Kazaks are happier the more guests indulge! Our grandfathers who taught us about the old nomad days warned us that you are not to let travellers go without offering them help and hospitality. My grandfather used to spend summer on the river here, and winter at Pig Mountain 300 km south from here in the desert.” This large man with droopy eyes and an unbreakable enthusiasm for talking was ecstatic that we had arrived on such a special day as Cara’s birthday. Cara in particular had the royal treatment with our host’s daughter in law personally unwrapping chocolates and presenting them one by one. This hospitality can sometimes be explained by the belief among Kazaks that when you invite a guest in through the front door, good luck and wealth simultaneously flies in through the window. There is also a belief that if you treat guests well, then your sheep will have twin lambs. Then again, Kazaks just love having guests full stop. The color of the event- the shiny hand made mattress coverings, the array of salads, fruit- left us bedazzled and quenched. We all collapsed after that first lunch clutching our heads and stomachs, and drifting into a snooze. One of the rules of riding in this heat is that either you get up and go before midnight, or you have to wait another 24 hours until he sun has again gone down and left the air with some coolish respite. It takes about three hours to pack, which means starting at 9pm at the very latest (but you can’t start much earlier because it is still too hot). But then in the villages you can’t get sleep during the day because you are interrupted for tea and questions continually, and then dinner always seems to come just when you are half way through packing up. By the time your hosts are preparing to go to bed you feel absolutely exhausted, and the prospect of riding all night is nauseating. If on the next day you fall into a village again you become so exhausted that you have to stay at least one or two days, but when you stop and sleep at night, then suddenly its really hard to sleep in the day and you lose the whole routine of night riding! And what’s more, villages present a minefield of possibilities- for gear being stolen, for horses not getting enough feed, the dog being attacked by local dogs or stolen. Yet when it is 45 degrees, the horses don’t eat grass anyway, and you can’t sleep in your tent because you roast (even with all the felt blankets on top). The main factor is heat. If you haven’t found a place to camp or rest by 9am you are in big trouble. Soon the heat is so intense that its hard to breath, it burns the sleeve of your shirt, and the horses begin to shrink, shrivel, sweat and become very stressed. Poor tigon ends up running from whatever scant shade there is to shade, and digging holes in vain. This heat also means that the best time for grazing and resting is at night- the same time when you are supposed to fit all your riding hours in! Anyway, this particular evening after lunch the prospect of rising our relaxed, treated bodies and packing to leave was just unrealistic. We went to sleep on the porch and promised that we would at least get up at 4am and get a couple of hours riding in- get the horses out to decent grass. However this didn’t happen either. It was already in the 30’s by about 7.30am and despite having saddled up we were resigned to waiting until evening and hopefully catching some sleep in the day. It was in this evening after some desperation to find fodder for the horses that my stallion had made the mighty leap into the swamp by the river. The stallion was now limping and shaking on its feet. So much so that the locals were telling us that we would have to wait for at least another 24 hours. It was a trap- we needed to get out of here and find grass before we became trapped in the village with skinny, weakened horses! As Cordell and Cara can probably attest by now, and as Cordell has told me again and again, this travel is all about a grand juggling act. The obligations of hospitality, the needs of the horses, the needs of you, and of course the ultimate aims of the journey have to be continually nurtured and given measured attention. We rode out of Zharkamis, a collection of about 200 mud homes, at dusk as the dust and heat of the day settled and children lolled about on the streets. The horses felt like dead weights, and the poor stallion had to be literally dragged along with a limp that threatened to make him totally lame. We were undoubtedly more exhausted than when we had arrived. Our clothes were mostly soiled and even though we had washed in the village, the sheer heat combined with filthy clothes made me feel again dirty and unkempt. I recalled with a grin what their impression of us in the village had originally been. “We thought Cordell was a Chechen and that you were an Afghan!” Riding out of the village and being lost in the haze of night was a calming feeling. We kept up a good pace following some vague sandy tracks and the GPS, and after covering 15km unpacked the baggage and collapsed onto the steppe for a snooze. Tigon woke us two hours later with a characteristic paw in the face and a lick. By 9am we had covered over 30km as the crow flies and stumbled into a herders summer hut by itself on the high part of the riverbank where the steppe spreads out endlessly to the NW. After watering the horses at a well we were invited in for a fresh meal of goats head. We took delight in peeling back the boiled scalp and scraping out the cheeks, eyes, and brains. This, washed down with onion, pasta, and a bowl of bullion was curiously satisfying. Even better in this heat is a drink that Kazaks make with rice, camel milk, boiled water, and cows milk. It is a watery mix that is heaven in the heat of the day. As we had been watering the animals we were sure that the young girl who had stepped out of the house was familiar. Over goats head it became clear that she was in fact the daughter of the neighbour of our former host 140km away in the village of Abaya. We had spent an evening at her family’s home and become good friends with her father. She had since come here to be with her sister who had married the herder’s son. Essentially it was all family and now it seemed that we were just being swept away in this unending connection along the Emba river. Ever since making our first contact the chain had not been broken- at every village, every herder’s hut there had been a connection of some kind. We were well and truly in the loop. As I was lying back after lunch in the little mud hut something happened to catch my eye in the ceiling. There was a hastily laid row of slats of timber, and one of them had a familiar curve and ornate patterns. It was undoubtedly a slat from the inside of a Yurt tent, and an old one at that, pre-dating the factory made soviet yurts. I mentioned this to the herder who looked at me in amazement. The sad fact is that in many cases after the soviet union broke up, herders hacked up their yurt tents and used the wooden frames for everything from firewood to building other frames in the belief that the end of the soviet era meant a leap into a new luxurious and modern world. This shortsightedness meant that many families resorted to old rusty wagons, and mud huts when the most practical solution is no doubt a yurt. As the livestock numbers rise again in Kazakhstan perhaps people will be forced to once again buy or make yurts- but this is a hard thing for Kazaks. For one they are not used to spending money on such things since in soviet times it was all for free, and whats more it is incredulous that one should spend money on such old technology, especially when you hacked your last one up for firewood! This mentality is fortunately not entirely spread across the country, but Aktubinksaya Oblast where we were now officially travelling seemed particularly afflicted. I even met villagers who had sold off all their animals believing that it was an inferior way of life, and that the primitivness of their past was being left behind with the coming of an independent democratic, capitalistic Kazakhstan. If there is one thing that Kazaks, like all steppe people should have learned by now, it is that the steppe dictates the way of life. Horsemanship, animal husbandry, the carefully designed Yurt have all evolved as the most harmonious way of living on this frigid and highly infertile country. Short of providing a means to abandon the steppe, not even the greatest technology and advanced economy will over come that. As the sun sank we again began to pack and set off under a three-quarter moon. Tigon had come to life again after taking a beating from the sun during the day, and the horses had regained a keen awareness and lost the irritated, pent up look. We passed over sand dunes, and at one stage navigated our way in darkness through a hamlet of four or five homes. A herder greeted us and asked whether we had seen a cow that had gone missing since dusk. Again we collapsed onto dunes for an hour or so while the horses rummaged about, and by 4.30am were riding. We passed through tall ‘Ak Shi’ grass growing in tussocks up and above the horses heads, and carried on along the edge of vegetated sand dunes. At sunrise we rejoined the river temporarily before rising to a white salty plain. From this in the distance rose a mountain like a castle of bleached white limestone and clay. What I thought were just two big white rocks turned out to be 200-300 year old graves. We were now in the most remote and desolate part of the Emba river region. From here it would be 70-80km before there would be any sign of people. At 9am the sun was again penetrating everything and leaving nowhere to hide. We had lost the track, and Cordell was leading the way over some deep yellow-red dunes. It was heavy and slow going, and the wobbling horizon offered no refuge. We were unable to find any tracks in the end and slowly cut our way back towards the river in the hope that we could at least find grass. Hidden between two sand dunes we were surprised a little later on to find a patch of green reeds and grass. All the signs were there of an old winter nomad camp- an old disused well, crumbled remains of a winter hut, a natural spring, and an old track. When you see the dispiritedness off many townsfolk in Kazakhstan, and the limited way of life in villages, it is sometimes astonishing to think that places which offer excellent grass and fresh water (the two most important things for me and for nomads) have been abandoned. Many of these were abandoned after the soviet union collapsed in line with the mentality as I have described earlier. For some reason people believed that there must have been a much easier way of life than sticking it out all year on the steppe. On the contrary, those who had the foresight to stick it out on the steppe are now extremely wealthy and much better off than most town and city folk. The demand in Kazakhstan for meat is enormous, and this means that a simple herder who herds free of taxes, and doesn’t pay a penny for his land, can sell his cows at about $400US a head, his horses at minimum $550US, and camels for up to a whopping $1300US! Even sheep in Kazakstan can fetch about $120US. So not only do herders with animals eat lots of meat and dairy, but they have a healthy outdoors lifestyle and have enough profit to send all their kids to universities and insititutes in the cities! This is something that many city-dwellers dream of. The heat had become unbearable by 10.30am as we inched over the last dunes and down the bank to the river. There we were lucky enough to find a low tree shading knee high grass. Much of the day was then spent with the horses just lying in the river water cooling down. We were enthused by the discovery that the river water still tasted very fresh, and that to the contrary to reports, the river was not showing signs of drying up or sinking into the sand. No doubt the wet spring and huge snowfall of winter had added to a particularly prosperous season for the Emba (Zhem- Kazak name). The good find of grass, the coming of Cordell’s birthday, and this lovely spot far from any sign of people was all ample to induce a favourable decision: to have a good night’s rest and take the day off. It’s so easy when you convince yourself that you are making the decision purely selflessly. Of course you only have the horses in mind! From this remote camp we made good progress in the dark by GPS, skirting around the edge of the river on a pancake-flat stretch of steppe. At 3am the moon rose from burly clouds and we took a refreshing nap. Sometimes during these naps we tie the horses, other times we hold the lead ropes in our hands when we sleep, and at other times we accidently fall into a deep sleep and wake to find the horses have strayed considerably. The most pleasant thing about sleeping on the steppe is the sense that the earth is cradling you, and unlike in most places on earth there is not even the faintest whispering of dew. With the gradual rising of the sun the shadows peeled away to reveal a yellow bleached steppe spreading out into an empty infinity. From this we heard the distinct cries of a herder. At once it was not clear where the sound was coming from however there eventually came a figure over a distant rise. It was the unmistakable shape of a herder on the back of a giant camel working back and forth with his herd of goat and sheep. We approached unrushed, the distance and space between herder and us giving plenty of time to prepare for the meeting. I often wonder what these herders think- from the plain in the direction of a place where no one lives there comes three riders, five horses, a camel and a dog. On close inspection they are not Kazak, nor Russian. It must be perplexing for a man that gets up most day of his life to herd his animals and sees no one, and then to suddenly come across two Australians and a New Zealander en-route to Hungary! We met with the usual first few moments of silence. The herder wore a cap with a scarf pinned to the back, and proudly showed a complete front row of gleaming silver teeth. He couldn’t stop smiling and suggested that we should visit the summer camp where he had just come from. There he assured us we would be offered tea. He sorely wanted to meet us again and we suspected that he was hoping we would be persuaded into staying for the day. The herder station itself was situated on the edge of the steppe where it drops down almost cliff-like to the emba river valley. It consisted of a few roughly built yards for keeping the animals at night, a rusty old wagon, and a big mound of dirt. From beyond the yards came a strong sour smell that told us of a large camel herd long before we came across it. In all there were about 150 animals, some standing, others lying down, all making some kind of gurgling, crying, or heavy breathing sounds. They were massive, like a herd of dinosaurs, the biggest camels I had ever seen. Their mass was almost repulsive, bodies wobbling, swimming in fat. Some of the humps on the Bactrian breeds looked like two yellow/brown fridges swaying from side to side. Babies frolicked among the herd, and there were two or three bulls sauntering about with front thighs the size of tree trunks. Our little camel looked no bigger than a pony compared to these giants. In the middle of the herd a young woman in a scarf and colourful gown was milking. She stood on one leg, her right leg bent up to support the milking bucket on her thigh. Feeling a little intimidated by these beasts I waited until a man came to greet us (it is taboo for a women to greet male strangers). He had a square face, thick stubble, short flat nose, and almond eyes. His wiry short hair and bushy eyebrows along with his other features made him look convincingly like an Arab, and nothing like a Kazak. His name was Murat. “Can I help you?” he asked, his forehead breaking into a stomach crunch. It took a while for him to come to grips with what we were up to, but when he did he was more than happy to invite us in for fresh ‘Shubat’ (fermented camels milk). First though they had to finish milking and herd the camels off to graze for the day. As we secured our horses we were astonished to see a toddler left alone in the midst of the towering camels. Although she could hardly stand on her feet she was totally unfazed by the movement around her. A couple of particularly gigantic specimens edged closer, surrounding the toddler and began to sniff her head. It would seem that there was a stronger understanding and connection between this child and the camels than that boasted by the most experienced farmer. Although it was only 8am the sun already sent a warning of fierce heat. Buckets brimming with milk were whisked off to the wagon and the camels were brought to their feet by whistling and calling. Two young boys saddled up horses and began to push the herd, rather like tiny little tugboats egging on an ocean liner. In a pall of dust 600 legs began to thud upon the earth. As a swarm they flowed towards the precipice of the high riverbank where the lead animals paused. The cloud of dust was not so quick to stop and shot out over the edge, choking the valley air with a burnt yellow look. Below them the river and the rich grass lay as a slither of green in this baked, cooked land of dust and dirt. Not until the animals were bunched up did the first camels take the plunge. It began as a trickle, a few camels clambering down to the water, but this soon became a torrent. Legs flew, saggy lips wobbled, the earth trembled, the sky filled with smoky dirt and dust, and one by one they leapt into the river. What had been a benign silent stream began to roar something akin to rapids of the upper Amazon. The boys continued after them, whistling and charging, urging on the lazier ones at the back. Camels never look rushed though, their movement characterized by a slow, controlled cadence. From back up on the bank this sound ebbed away as the herd shrunk and became swallowed up by the expanse of steppe on the far side. What had been a stampeding larger than life army was now nothing more than a few feint signs of movement in a land of empty horizons. Readjusting our focus we returned to the horses only to feel pained by the hot sun. The temperature was cranking up at a terrifying pace. We took little persuading to accept an invitation to rest in the family’s home- a precursor for staying a day or two. One thing had mystified me since arriving though. Just where did this family live? It seemed improbable that one could survive in a rusty metal wagon in temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius. A bit confused where we were supposed to rest I asked Murat who laughed and pointed towards the mound of dirt. As my eyes gained some traction I realised that this mound was merely a roof. On the far side some steps cut into the clay earth led down into an almost pitch dark room. Here, lavishly decorated with felt rugs and ornaments, equipped with a huge barrel of camels milk, and candles placed in cut out shelves in the clay, was their summer home. It made perfect sense of course. With no shade you have no option but to go underground if you are to survive the atrocious heat day after day. Later we saw countless homes like this, and more often than not a Yurt tent was set up nearby. The yurt was used for cooking, and for sleeping in at night, and the underground home used during the heat of the day. The taste of cold camels milk was enough to wash away the reality outside, and we lay, propped up on special cushions together with our hosts. I recalled that in the village of Szharkamis, we had been given the name of a rich herder named ‘Guanshbai.’ He was known to have in excess of 150 camels, and was ‘Kozha’ by clan. This is the clan of Kazaks that originate from Arab missionaries some 1000 years ago. It was indeed no coincidence as we soon discovered that Murat looked Arab- he was the son of Guanshbai. It may seem ridiculous and unlikely that one could still look like an Arab after 1000 years of his ancestors settling in Kazakhstan, yet there he was in front of us, with clean stereotypical features of a middle-eastern man. It soon occurred to me that this could be a good place to swap my stallion. His limp had all but gone, and he had recovered well from the swamp incident but he had not been holding his weight. As an ‘Akaltikinski’ breed (a Turkmeni racing variety) he was a magnificent horse to ride and never stopped. But he had the metabolism of a young frisky racehorse too and had been losing weight since day one. It was now clear that it was time to swap him for a tougher steppe Kazak breed. The following day as it turned out I was offered a fat little Mongol-type pony, and although it was technically a raw deal (Akaltikinski horses are very highly valued) I had little choice. I should have taken up offers earlier when the stallion had been in good condition. On one occasion I had been offered three horses for him! Admittedly I had only refused when I discovered that none of the three horses were ridable. I was now in the compromised position of being in need of getting rid of a skinny horse. Due to the many events during the day we had not slept a wink by the time evening came around and were well beyond being capable to pack up again. Staying the night would give us a chance to film and photograph this daily camel stampede too. Needless to say the sheep herder returned ecstatic to find us still at the farm and we dined on a lavish Bes Barmak with all you can drink Shubat. After sunset the herd of camels returned by moonlight and we all settled in for sleep. The following day before departing Murat made an offer that, unforseen to us, would cause incredible pain and trouble later on. He suggested that I could leave my horses at his farm to fatten up while I had my break in Almaty. We had been planning to travel a further 140km to the town of Kulsari, find a place for my horses to graze and leave them for a month. It was imperative that my horses fattened up enough to be able to make it through the coming winter months. On the one hand, this station had excellent surrounding grass, there were no villages close by, and I trusted their competence as herders. The only inconvenience would be transporting the horses 140km back here, and then back to Kulsari again later. To this end Murat –later in his home village of Miyali- insisted that he had found a truck, and a driver willing to accept money for petrol and a bit more to help me. This would come to $100 all together. I had this confirmed again and again, and when I offered more money per day for the horses to be looked after he refused. “Don’t be silly Tim! We would be happy to help you. Just promise you will send a letter, and some photos of us together later on.” I was sure that Murat had only good intentions, and by the time we would say goodbye I was sure that this farm was destined to be the horse’s summer break home. Murat even gave us a contact in Kulsari and suggested we could ride straight there. The truck would meet us within a day, and the horse and dog would be whisked back. We left the farm in the wake of a fierce storm that had sent torrents of dust and sand screaming across the steppe. Long after dark we rode on, at one stage passing a bogged medical truck. It was a team of specialists out to do tuberculosis testing on some of the more remote and afflicted communities in the region. Murat rode on ahead on a motorbike where he waited for us in his home village of Miyali. We arrived after dark and were treated to dinner and ample fermented camel milk. For some time we had been looking for a home for our camel, Harvette, and now with just 120km to Kulsari we could get by with just the packhorses. She was a terribly skinny and small animal in comparison to the camels of this region, and getting our paid price back of $700 was never going to be an option. In the morning Murat searched for a buyer but most baulked at the prospect of buying in case she was in fact a sick animal. Eventually though he suggested that he had found a man willing to pay $300. This was a ludicrous price for a camel, but we had once again lucked out. Camels are not allowed to be cut up in the summer due to government regulations and so it was not the season to sell or buy. What’s more animals were significantly cheaper in this region because their numbers were far greater. Between us and Kulsari it was unlikely we would have time to search out any other buyers. We discussed it all day and waited into the evening for the buyer to turn up. He didn’t. Two things happened that night before we left that I should never have taken so lightly. First of all one of my cruppers (the leather strap which goes under the horses tail to stop the saddle moving forward) disappeared. We searched for it in every nook and cranny and eventually had Guanshbai help us look for it. Guanshbai, Murat’s father, had a much larger face with a huge flat nose and beady, narrow eyes. He seemed to be quiet and very ambivalent towards us. In any case we were astounded when he lent over next to a tree and miraculously produced the crupper. We had searched that same spot only a minute earlier and we could have sworn there was nothing there. Later we had no doubt what had happened either, as our white camel rope disappeared for good, and both items had been requested by gifts by Guanshbai. The second event was more worrying. Guanshbai told me a story that the buyer would not go up on 30,000 and had left the money in his house before leaving the village for the day. It was obviously a thinly veiled story to hide the fact that he was buying the camel. So had Murat told others about this bargain camel after all? Or was this all just a plot to get a cheap camel? Or was there a buyer, but Guansbai had now decided to buy it for himself seeing the value in the camel? In any case I let my doubts fall in favour of Murat trusting in his actions. Hadn’t they just helped us and showered us with hospitality for two days? We rode out of Miyali at midnight and soon found a track heading in our direction. It was saddening not to have the camel with us anymore. Her character had pervaded our every waking moment for five weeks and it felt that part of the team was truly missing. But that was behind us now, we had dealt with reality, and could rest in the belief that she had been given a good home. Sure we had lost a lot of money, but we were also looking down the barrel of getting nothing at all for her. Finding villagers with cash at all is sometimes the biggest challenge. For now time to concentrate on the road. Once again the race was on to cover our daily distance before the sun reared into the sky… (Look out for part two for the rest of the journey to Kulsari). (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)