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Into Western Kazakhstan: Disaster in Kulsari! (3/9/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Currently I am in Almaty facing a few problems: computer charger just fried so I have lost temporarily the story that I was writing about Kulsari. In the technical world have had some problems: video camera needs new heads and will have to travel for a month without it while things are repaired. Planning to head back to the horses ASAP but don’t know when that is exactly: So what happened during the ‘Disaster of Kulsari.’ To cut it as short as I can, we arrived in the city cut off from our link to the rural community. Kulsari is an oil/gas town, and its streets roaming with imperious American chevrolets were a real shock. The mentality of the people was somehwhat apart from the herders we had been with on the steppe, and the needs of horses were swept away. Tanbai, our contact from Murat at the farm met us and all seemed fine. Murat had promised that within a day or so the truck would arrive to pick up my horses and take them back to the farm to be looked after for a month of good grazing (while I went to Almaty for visas etc). The main issue in this region is finding good grass, and apart from murat’s farm things had been very very scarce. Anyway things went bad when Murat’s father arrived. His name ‘Guanshbai’ soon became associated simply with that of our nemisis. Although he knew that he was due to pick up the horses he loaded up a few tonnes of diesel when he saw us so that he had a reasonable excuse not to take the horses. Then he started saying that he would take them but only for $200 (twice what Murat had promised), plus he demanded two saddles, and another $100 for looking after them. This was the same man who had claimed to have found a client for our camel back in the village of Miyali (see part one of this story series). We soon understood that he had bought it for himself and had lied about another client to get the animal for himself and make it harder to bargain. In any case we would come to an agreement with Guanshbai, then all of a sudden he would change his mind. Then he started saying that he couldn’t fit horses in his truck anyway. In the end he told us that he would be back in two days, but that we should find our own truck. He stressed to us that: ‘No one will give you the truck for free (ie just for petrol money).’ Anyway, I spent two very frantic days, and eventually arranged a truck through the mayor of Kulsari. They agreeed to give me a truck and a driver from the council truck yard if I would pay for diesel. This came to a maximum of $100. I arranged for the truck to arrive early on the Thursday morning. It was to say the least a huge relief. Consider we had now been in the town for four days with the horses tied up in a corner of a yard in the city with 45 degrees days, expensive hay delivered from the market and generally outstaying hospitality of someone who had just been sent guests without choice. Getting the horses to grass was imperative: if they didn’t fatten now, how could they survive winter? At 11.30pm Wednesday night as we were preparing, Guansbai turned up again. This time he had a cow that he was delivering for sale. We were blown away by what came, delivered by Tanbai a little later: “Tim, I have something to say. Guanshbai says now that if you take the council truck to his farm, he will not accept your animals. He is saying that he came especially for your horses, and that he expects the 100 dollars for a one way delivery.” This was ripe to say the least. Later it was clear that he was furious that I had done what he said as impossible- find a truck with a driver willing to forgo profit. We had cut him out of the link and he didn’t like it. But then his true character started to come out. He said that it was actually wolf attacks that he was worried about, and when I offered him 10,000 for the return trip he said that again he couldn’t fit my horses on his truck anyway! He either wanted to profit insanely from us or not help at all. Having seen this side of him Cordell was sure it was better to forget about Guanshbai, but that buggar had the one thing that we needed: the only really good grass in the region! In a mad scramble I tried to find a new option that night including contacting the mullah of the underground mosque, but soon it became clear- I didn’t have any other option. Our links with the rural world were severed from here in the city. We had plane tickets back to Almaty from Atrau in four days time. It was needless to say too late to cancel the truck for morning. Morning was chaos. Guanshbai was setting the hook again, luring me into ideas but then not agreeing to anything. Whenver I agreed he would suddenly raise the cost again! Another saddle, 500 tengi per day etc etc. To keep things on the go I filled up the waiting truck with 200 litres of diesel and frantically made calls (I knew that the truck would only be given to me for one day). Eventually I spoke to the head of the agricultural department for Atrau oblast who said that the local vet clinic would be ordered to help. I already knew the men there (they had given immunisations to my horses) and quickly told them about my plight. The truck driver was getting irrate, tanbai our host by this stage was trying to bargain with cordell to buy his horse, the horses were getting very pent up in the corner, Guanshbai was a thorn being very unhelpful, and it was heating up to a sorcher. By now I had involved in this problem: the truck driver, the mayor, the mayors asistant, the director of the vet clinic, the boss of the truck yard, and Tanbai to mention a few. I could see it turning very messy. All day we waited for the vet to find a new place for the horses and Guanshbai watched with glee us being put in the pressure cooker. He would make comments like: go and sweep out the verandah! Pay Tanbai for more petrol in his car! Give tanbai your horse for $300 (Cordell had paid $700). Eventually the driver lost it and threatened to drive back to the council yards. The vet, ‘Dannier’ at first seemed very helpful but he too soon became a ‘promise’ man. Among all of these people I was beginning to realise that making a promise for them was 99 percent of the solution, actually carrying out the promise almost never happened as a rule! He promised to find a farm in half an hour, in an hour, in two hours. Then it was evening and the driver contacted his boss and he drove off in a stink...with my diesel inside! Guansbai laughed, Tanbai was loathed at the thought of dealing with our problems, and the vet ducked any responsibility. I was trapped. That same day by the way I had finally agreed to Tanbai buying my horse for 40,000 tengi ($400). This was the horse that Murat (Guanshbau’s son) had given me for the stallion earlier on. I was happy to sell it for meat as I had no connection with the animal. I agreed to a low price to help out Tanbai who had been a very kind and honourable host in a sticky situation. Tanbai also wanted to buy Cordell’s horse, but it was already clear that Tanbai wanted to chop it up for sausage in the winter. Cordell was understandably unwilling to sell it to anyone that wasn’t going to use it for riding. Anyway thank god for a little bit of understanding- I spoke with the boss of the truck station who after my pleading agreed to release the truck yet again the following day. Dannier (the vet) ‘promised’ under a lot of pressure from me to find a different place for the horses. If he didn’t find one he would join me in the truck and we would drive out to some farms on the river and make the deal on the spot. The following morning things didn’t go to plan. I had to go to the truck yard myself to speak with the boss in person. I waited four hours until midday when he turned up. Dannier had apparently found a herder willing to take the horses but he would be waiting at his home only until 1 pm. When it was time to leave the truck yard the driver protested because it was his lunch break! Things went into fast forward now. Cordell, Cara and I quickly coaxed the horses onto the truck from a make-do ramp. Dannier turned up looking very stressed. ‘C’mon, we are late!” Just at that moment he received a call from his boss in Atrau. The word now was that we should wait one more day for the boss to find a place himself because the place where Dannier was planning to send the horses had bad grass!! But what could I do now?!!! Tanbai would not look after the horses anymore, and the horses woudl lose too much condition, and this was just another promise! Our plane was due to leave in one and a half days from Atrau (a further 220km across the steppe by car). Our decision was to take the horses out to a little herder’s hamlet 12km away from Kulsari. It was just so ridiculous. Cara, Cordell, Tigon, Dannier, and the driver boarded the camel and we set off. “Take your f***ing sandals off my seat!” yelled the driver to cordell, “Get the dog away from me !” cried the vet, “What the bloody hell is going on!” you could hear the horses screaming as we set off rocketing over a river of pot-holes. So what was the sum total of what was happening now? I had spent seven days in hell and we were driving all of 12 kilometres to a place that had the worst grass I have ever seen- just a sea of dust, sand, and a few yellow weeds. I had paid just over $100 of fuel for the truck when I could have ridden the horses there myself in two hours! By arrival a great gulf had come between the driver and dannier, the vet. Each of them told me quietly that the other was a bad person. In the village itself Danier said that we would leave the animals here fore 3-4 days, and then have them moved to a real pasture. The herder in charge was happy to take them to his summer camp where his own horses were grazing. What I couldn’t understand was why we couldn’t drive the horses straight there now. No arguments would convince them though and the driver lost it. “I am bloody hungry! Its time for my lunch! I am bloody going! Just decide, its just as bad as yesterday!” With that we forced the horses off, 120 litres of diesel was siphoned out of the tank, and soon the truck was hurtling home. Now where the hell the diesel went I don’t know but a whole barrell then somehow vanished as if it had never been. The horses were set free onto some dubious grass patches, and we went to drink fermented camels milk. At least here we found a nice home for Tigon. An old man and his son promised to look after the dog day and night. I gave them 25 tins of meat and instructions on how to look after him. I agred to pay the herder $5 a day to look after the horses, and both the herder and the vet promised until they were blue in the face that the horses would not be in this bad-grass place for more than 3-4 days. At this point I was at least relieved. We were back in a village where people understood the welfare of horses, and the options for moving the horses looked very good. Whats more, the herder then promised to buy Cordell’s horse for his son as a riding, working horse! We rattled back into town, and the kid trotted back out on ‘Johnny,’ -Cordell’s little stallion pony pal- looking as if he were made for him. It was now seven days since we had arrived in Kulsari and not for a moment had I stopped agonizing, working hard to please everyone, keep the peace, and find solutions. I had lost weight, slept little, and if it weren’t for Cara and Cordell’s moral support would have gone plain mad. Is it really that complicated....I just have to find a place for the horses to eat!!!!! For the first time in a week I relaxed just a little and Cordell and I went into the town to have a meal in the cafe. This was perhaps our biggest mistake. We returned in high spirits to be shot down. Cara had been waiting at Tanbai’s and had some bad news. While she had been resting by all of my gear, Guansbai had leant over her and snatched my best halter, rein, and lead rope! He had then loaded the horse onto his truck- the horse which I had sold to Tanbai. My gear was tied to the horse despite Cara’s strong protest. Cara had screamed at Guansbai yet he had only laughed. Then, 15 minutes later he had driven out of Kulsari with a big grin. This was a massive blow and the lowest of the low. This was a halter and rope that I had had since the beginning, and a lot of my trip rested on this equipment. This man had stolen it plain and simple. I was also angry that Tanbai had let him take it. When Tanbai came home I fronted him straight away. “Tanbai, what’s this about Guanshbai taking the rope and halter!!” He was even more irrate. “And whats this that you sold Cordell’s horse to a stranger! I look after you for a whole week, I offer you the money, and you go and sell it to someone else! That kind of business doesn’t work here. We are deeply offended” “But what” I asked “You already bought one horse from me for a bargain, and I told you that cordell wouldn’t sell for meat!” Tanbai shook his head. “No Tim, I didn’t buy that horse from you, Guanshbai did.” Say no more. Guanshbai had tricked Tanbai. He had given Tanbai the money to give me knowing that I would never sell the horse to Guanshbai for 40,000 tengi ($400). Now it was plain and simple. Who had lost out in this past week? I had, cordell had, Cara had, then there was Tanbai, the vet, the driver, the driver’s boss, the mayor etc. And who had caused all of this- Guanshbai. And who was now driving happily home with a cheap horse, a beautiful halter/rope/rein, knowing that he hadn’t lifted a finger, and had a massive grin? It made us shudder in fury. The following morning before leaving Kulsari we paid a visit to the police and told them about the thievery. However it seemed that the police were friends with Tanbai who was a relative of Guanshbai. He was untouchable. Its important to take a minute now and point out what Guanshbai’s job was before the fall of the soviet union: he was the director of the collective farm of Miyali. It is well known that many directors used their power after the collapse of the soviet system to accumulate immense wealth. Then is it just a coincidence that Guanshbai owns 150 camels (at $1000 a head), 500 cattle (at 400-500 per head), 1200 sheep and goat, and 300 horses? Meanwhile most villagers are lucky to have two or three animals. But even worse, this was a man who was responsible for 10,000 horses, 3000 camels, 60,000 sheep and goats, and who knows how many cattle before perestroika! So you can only guess where all of that disappeared to. I know that almost all of Guanshbai’s children study and work in privelged positions in the city of Aktobe. I know that he has huge wealth in animals as well as farm machinery. And if he was so double-crossing in our dealings with us I can only begin to imagine how many people he has stepped on and rubbed into the dirt over the years. Suddenly the reality of what happened after the soviet collapse rings home. It has a direct effect on my life and I get an inkling of what it must have been like when all was thrown into chaos. Its not a reliable world. He told me something that says a lot about his character: “don’t trust people Tim. I don’t even trust the people closest to me.” So, what is the end story now? Well I have been in Almaty for three weeks. How the horses are going, I don’t know, but I can hazard a guess. One very bad piece of information has come through: Despite continued promises my horses are still in that village 12 km from Kulsari- where there was basically no grass. I spoke to the director on the phone but he was drunk and just told me to bring ‘big,big’ gifts to them. Apparently the $60 of feed I had bought for the horses had already run out and they were irritated about having to buy more feed. The head of agriculture for the provice of Atrau more recently told me on the phone that probably the herder was feeding his own animals with my feed. In regards to my halter and rope: I still don’t know. And after all of this, have I at least had a good rest and got my visas. In a word, No. I was lucky to get a visa for the Ukraine (policy changes from the new Ukranian Government mean that getting visas is much easier), but not so lucky with the Russian visa. A new rule just came in that you can’t apply for a Russian visa more than 45 days before your arrival in the country. Technically I can’t even apply until the 5th of September, and it takes a month to process along with the letter of invitation! So, now I am preparing to head back to Kulsari with things in doubt as much as they have ever been. I hope the horses are OK, and that Tigon has not given up waiting for me. I miss him more than anything. As for Cara and Cordell they are now planning to head off to Russia and get a motorbike for their own journey to Europe. After a bungle with their own visas however they have been delayed by two weeks at least and are still here with me in Almaty. And the Kulsari chapter is continued I hat to say.... Hate to sound a bit negative but it has been a trying month or so and I haven’t as much moved an inch forward. Thats what makes life out on the steppe just so rewarding. The problems there are very real, but very simple- water and grass! Will write again when I get back to Kulsari. Please view the wonderful photos in the ‘Summer In Kazakhstan’ that Cara and Cordell took during the great time we shared together along the Emba river. PS Sorry if this story doesn’t make great sense. Have had to rush this story out at an internet cafe due to the breakdown of my computer charger and loss of original story I was writing. Tim. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)