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Kindikti to Kopa: snow, frost, mud, alone, horse bite (19/11/04)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) Waking up in the tent, daring not to make any abrupt moves. The whole inside of the tent lined with frost that falls down with the slightest shake. Aset (the local travelling with me for a few days) already up, and cold- another night of minus twenty or so without a sleeping bag for him. Outside the wind blows and the horses stand immobile. I look a little despairingly at the tent entrance- there is a 40cm rip, and the transparent windows have cracked up in the extreme cold. More repairs ahead, and I wonder if my gear can really last the distance to Hungary. The dog, Tigon, (means ‘wind’ in Kazak language) doesn’t want to rear his head from the blankets in the tent- he has been warming Aset’s feet all night. Eventually we crawl out and bundle up. First we brush the horses, then begin the tedium of saddling- always an inherent risk in that. The young horse ‘Ogonyok’ still threatens to kick when we try to put the crupper on (the piece of equipment which goes under the tail and keeps the saddle from slipping forward.) Untying tether ropes, bashing the stakes out of the frozen ground, chipping ice out of the horses hooves with a hammer. The fingers inevitably freeze even with mits. Finally we cook breakfast – a bowl of semolina, and after three hours of preparing get up on the horses and move. It’s always a relief to sit up and view the world again from up there, the feeling of movement- it makes it all worthwhile. The landscape much like the Arctic tundra- spreading out like a sea, the mountains like frozen waves. The sky so big, the clouds rushing above, whipped into intriguing shapes. Every day has its different moods. Around the camp yet again there are wolf tracks- but as yet haven’t seen any wolves. There must be some truth in the constant warnings I get from locals though. In the saddle all day and a piece of dried yoghurt (Kort) in the mouth is somehow pleasing. It dissolves gradually and once piece can last up to an hour. Moving, and Aset and I joke and talk, every now and then trotting. The powder snow beneath being kicked up into the air by the horses, falling back down as glittering particles. Today the sun is out and the white is glarey- I wish I had brought my ski goggles. Aset tells me seriously that we had a visitor during the night. We had camped nearby an old Muslim grave and the elder who lay there had apparently come to check us out. Aset had been careful to wash himself in the snow the night before according to Muslim custom. The GPS proved accurate again and we passed through the village of Chubartas- about 20 homes ambushed by snow and ice. No one on the street. As usual in Kazakhstan the roofs laiden with hay for winter. The village dogs come out to harass the horses and poor little Tigon tries to hide between Aset and I. All of these villages are mere shadows of what they once were during the Soviet era. Most of the animals and industry collapsed and most moved to the cities and the Russians moved back to their homeland. After another night in the tent and a day in the saddle and we made it to the village of Karagash where we had long been planning to rest for two days. A man named ‘Kazibek’ was out looking for firewood on his horse and knew Aset’s relatives in the village with whom we hoped to stay. Unfortunately however he told us that Aset’s relative had just died. We followed Kazibek through narrow alleys to his home and tied up the horses. The feeling of coming into a warm home after days out in the cold is always a shock. The skin tingles, blood seems to rush to the face and the body feels like it is crumpling, and I just want to sleep. In the typical Kazak culture of hospitality we were invited to stay the night without question. Soon the horses were happily in the barn eating hay, Tigon had been fed, and we were sitting inside over a cup of hot tea. “Eat! Drink! Don’t be shy!” Kazibek’s wife managed to sew up my tent on her machine, and soon even our boots were dried above their furnace. A heartening evening of toasts, food, and conversation ensued and we left in the morning feeling as if we were leaving old friends. That seems to be the feeling I have when I leave most Kazak homes. They are genuine when they say: ‘Meet once and you are a friend, meet twice and you are family.’ Their culture in that sense is definitely that of the steppe nomad, and yet they have inherited the Russian sedentary style of life. Another day brought us within sight of the small city of Ayaguz. From here Aset would leave by bus and I would continue alone. Eventually we befriended the security guards at one of the city’s dachas (collection of summer cottages and vegetable plots) who agreed to let us stay for two days while the horses rested and I went into the city to stock up on food and other gear. The guard was a keen hunter and when we returned from the city the next day in the taxi he grabbed his gun and we went chasing some chicken-like birds that had just flown into the dacha. From the passenger seat he fired a few shots and soon we were taking the poor birds home for dinner. Aset had become a good friend over the 11 days that I had spent with him. He had gone to lengths to understand my journey and despite fearing camping on the steppe to begin with, he was proud to stake out the tent each night by the end. His knowledge of the people of Kazakhstan and kazakhstan’s history had helped me get a grasp, and understand the country better- invaluable knowledge with the prospect of the next few thousand kilometres alone. Aset had brought along his dog. ‘Tigon’ and had planned all along to give it to me when he left. We had to lock it indoors when finally Aset said goodbye and hitched a lift back into town to the bus station. And so I am still not really alone- I have a one year old little black hunting dog. From Ayaguz, the route looked quite confusing. If I went too far south I would hit pure sand and desert- not great for horses. If I don’t go further south I will be ambushed by snow. The best route for me seemed to be to the city of Balkhash on the western end of Balkhash lake. Between Ayaguz and there however is a huge open stretch of steppe with very few people and almost no water. If there was snow on the ground then water wouldn’t be a problem, but by all reports the land near Balkhash was very dry and very rarely saw snow or rain. I met with the local hunting license inspector in Ayaguz, a man called ‘Daman.’ We looked at the map together and he suggested a route south to the lake, then along the edge of the lake near the railway all the way to Balkhash. He had a good friend in the tiny village of Kopa 150km to the south west where I could rest and feed the horses and so my plan was made. After a day of fruitless hare hunting with the security guard from the dacha I finally saddled up three horses, set my compass to the approximate bearing of Kopa and set off. All went well until lunch when I was trying to tighten a saddle. As I walked away I suddenly felt some jaws on the right side of my back. In a flash it felt as if my skin and muscles were torn away from my body before falling back into place. I spun around in shock and screamed abuse. My skin went numb on my back and I was worried that some serious damage had been done. A few checks however revealed that the skin had not really been broken, and I would just have a pretty sore back for a week or so. The feeling came back quickly with the pain I was expecting. Luckily I was wearing several thick layers of clothing- if not for that I am sure I would have a more serious injury. Its true that you can never be too careful around horses. I spent the afternoon heading into a confusing maze of hills with deep snow and wasted time searching for a better route. By 5pm the sun was dipping over the horizon and the air was regaining the familiar vicious bite. It was difficult to find good grass as a fire had swept through the alpine-like vegetation during summer and everything was hidden by snow. Of course Tigon couldn’t wait to get into the tent the very moment it was set up. Morning brought with it ice crystals over everything. Even the moisture in the air seemed to be frozen, glinting like quartz in the morning sun. Getting everything moving alone was a choking task. After four hours I finally got moving feeling as if this journey was impossible. After just half an hour one of the pack saddles had loosened and the gear was falling away. Another half hour was lost before I really got going. With two horses behind me it is harder to move fast but I managed to move at a jog-trot all day, trying to meet my minimal average daily distance of 30km. By GPS I had only travelled 24km by the time I finally made camp yet again and went through the routine of setting up camp. One of my favourite moments in the day is when the horses are all staked out, the stove is turned off, I have eaten dinner, and I can feed the horses with a bit of crushed wheat. In the darkness they come running to me the moment they hear the rustle of the wheat bag. On this night the sky was clear and I sank for some time onto my canvas bag outside and watched the crescent moon slip over the horizon. The steppe about me glowed an ethereal blue-white under the stars. Not a breath of wind blew. I retired to the tent feeling well and truly tired, and to be honest not looking forward to saddling up in the morning, and yet impatiently wanting to be on the move again. Another day and the sun slowly moved towards the west, and as usual was right in front of me for the last few hours of riding. The clouds were like cotton wool that has been ripped apart by wind, cloaking the sky with thin streaks. At times its hard to tell the difference between distant mountains and clouds as they appear so similar. Over every hill yet another view that instilled in me a smile and the urge to ride on. By evening I was amazed to crest a hill and discover that there was barely any snow on the ground. At first I couldn’t work out what was so different about the sounds around me- then I realised that I could actually hear the wind in the grass! Had I really beaten winter and travelled that far south? After passing an ancient grave I made camp on some hills that considered mountains in this region. By sunset clouds were moving in and I had the sense that a storm was brewing. It was hard to find motivation in the morning. Wind was howling and wet snow was pounding the tent. Tigon refused to move from his bed next to my sleeping bag and when I tried to crawl out he stole the place in my sleeping bag. Getting saddled up was hell. The snow came thick and hard and instantly melted on the horses and all my gear. Soon everything was soaking wet and visibility was down to about fifty metres. I took a bearing from the GPS and finally got moving. The landscape was confusing- another maze of hills, then a swamp, then a plain. Snow had gotten into my boots and down the back of my neck, and the snow was so thick in the air it was even hard to read my compass. My compass proved better than my sense of direction again, and finally by midday I had found a track that I was sure would lead me towards the village of Tansyk- one days ride from Kopa. A couple of miserable hours ensued. The road ahead wound into the foggy blizzard offering no sign of relief. The thought of Spring in Australia was appealing to say the least, and the idea that there was another 14 months to Hungary plagued my motivation. At some point I thought I was dreaming when I looked down to see a snake in the snow. I stopped and stared blankly for a few minutes. The poor little snake moved feebly in the cold looking about as frozen as I felt. Another hour passed as I fell into a muse, and when I looked again properly I couldn’t believe it. The road was turning to mud, and there was no sign of snow. How could it be possible? Only 150-200km to the north east we had been experiencing minus 20 on a daily basis! For the first time in four days I soon later saw signs of life- a herder tending to the village sheep. Tigon went running and I had to call him back. I spoke at length with the herder who was from Sayak. He explained that heavy rain had been falling all day. He could barely believe that I had been in a snowstorm. Apparently snow had not even fallen in this region yet! Feeling somewhat comforted by the thought of warmer weather I made my way past Sayak and camped in some marshy land not far from another huge old Muslim grave on a hilltop. Everything was absolutely drenched and rain was falling. I had baulked the idea of finding a place in the village of Sayak. It was a big village and I think it is important not to rely on village comforts after such a difficult day- that option will not always be possible. Nevertheless I shivered all night in a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent and woke to discover that everything had frozen solid. The sun came beaming over the horizon offering some positive energy however and soon I was up and moving. Only 25 km to Kopa where the horses could finally rest and I could dry everything properly!! And another 25km south! It must be summer down there still! I packed for the first time in three weeks without mits. The horses unfortunately didn’t share my enthusiasm to move. They felt heavy and tired. Five days straight for horses in these conditions is very hard, and I couldn’t wait to give them the rest that they deserved. Soon I was waved over to a couple of men wandering along the track that led to Kopa. It was a little embarrassing to discover that they were walking faster than my poor tired horses! I moved the gear from the third horse onto the usual pack saddle, and the two men took turns riding- they were walking to Kopa. One of the men, a man named ‘Bereg’ happened to be working for and going to stay with the very man that I had been told to stay with in Kopa. We wandered along leisurely for the next few hours, chatting under a warm sun and makingour way beyond view of any snow of any kind. It was also a sad feeling for me- I had expected that this white wilderness would continue and I had adjusted quite well. Snow on the ground gave me a certain freedom and comfort- I didn’t have to worry about finding water or getting wet. The cigarettes that I always carried in my pockets for the right moment made welcome gifts for these men (although they couldn’t understand why I carried cigarettes when I don’t smoke). Kopa finally came into sight in the late afternoon. An island of forty homes on some very flat open steppe. A herder was out driving the animals back home for the night. In a fashion I am getting used to, we simply rode straight into Akim’s home, tied the horses up, and went inside to be served tea and food- without explaining anything. When finally I talked about myself they simply wanted to know how many days I would stay- such is the custom of hospitality here. It is very humbling to see these people offering me a place in their private homes so openly. I always leave gifts, promise to send photos and let them use my phone, but I wonder if I would be so open in my own country. Our attitude is generally so different in the west. By evening Akim arrived- I had mistaken his personal cook for Akim himself! Akim had heard about me and asked why I hadn’t already arrived a couple of days earlier! I fell into a sense of warmth and comfort. The horses were in a barn, there was some hot soup on the table, my boots were drying, and the Banya was being heated up. Later I washed in the Banya (much like a sauna) and took pleasure in the steam cleaning out my skin. The evening was topped off with a couple of shots of Vodka, some tea, and a screening of my cycling film on the laptop. I fell asleep half way through. Later I collapsed into sleep on the couch-bed into the deepest sleep I have had in weeks. Kopa is a tiny community where time moves no faster than a slow horse-walk pace. It was once a thriving farm, but now the locals tend to their own stock and survive on very little. Akim is the mayor of the local region and a very well known man. He is a big meaty fellow with kazak eyes and a Russian nose. He has promised to take me to a wedding tomorrow. Interestingly they have many Australian sheep in this district! During the soviet era they imported many live sheep from Australia and New Zealand. I am again grateful for family-like hospitality. The snowstorm seems miles away, and yet I know that the day after tomorrow it all starts again. Today have been repairing gear, drying everything and just taking time to catch up on diary. Ahead lies a difficult few weeks- more and more remote, and with little prospect of water or snow. There are some patches of sandy desert, and generally a very empty landscape. I have bought some Chinese fire crackers which I let off each night to keep the wolves at bay- hope they work! I have been wondering what is really out there on the empty steppe for years, and am interested to know more about Lake Balkhash. Lets see how it goes. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)