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Kopa – Balkhash : where Kazak weddings meet lonely steppe and Asia’s ...

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) I set off from Kopa with a bag full of pig fat, intestines stuffed with salted meat, a loaf of bread, a bottle of vodka and a whopping 50kg of crushed wheat- all treats to be had out in the serenity of the steppe! I admit that a huge chunk of fat is just divine after a day in the saddle. I hoped that the wheat might even last the horses to the city of Balkhash itself another 350km west. With the horses refreshed I was itching to get back out there into that dreamy land where the sky seems to reach out and touch the land and nothing moves but the grass in the wind, and perhaps a fox, wolf, or hare. In the end I had spent an extra day in Kopa after I was invited to a Kazak wedding. It was the most extraordinary celebration I have ever experienced. Neon lights flashing in the village hall, babushkas dancing, songs alternating from Russian techno to traditional Kazak tunes accompanied by the Dombra- the two stringed national instrument. There were the Muslim formalities, yet vodka flowed like water, and the bride and groom were dressed in European/Christian style. 300 guests turned up and were all catered for- trestle tables lined up with luxurious meats, salads, fruits and nuts. I was intrigued by the mix of faces- partly Mongolian, partly Russian, partly Uzbek, Chinese and even Korean. Their faces tell a tale of an incredibly complex history- nomads that have roamed from east to west, north to south and back and forth for thousands of years….let alone the effect of the soviet union. And of course I was treated like family. I didn’t get home with Akim until 4am. To make the most of the sunlight hours I would have to be up by 6am which was unrealistic now. Another day passed in luxury as a result….perhaps too much. The body seems to adapt too quickly to a warm home. No wonder civilized populations were meat for the carving for Mongols! At the same time we ate like Mongols- feasting on a huge communal plate of cow pieces. The wedding seemed incongruent with the steppe as I rode on across the moonscape-like plains. The air seemed soft, yet as the sun lowered before my eyes the cold bite returned. The land was so flat that any kind of rise looked like a mountain hovering on the horizon in a strange kind of mirage. I crossed dry clay pans, a frozen pond, through tall ‘Shi’ grass, and through spikey desert-type scrub. As the moon rose behind me the sun set and for a while there was an eerie blue-orange light cast across the land. The second day from Kopa was a race to cover 36km before darkness. The problem with this part of the world is that there is no fresh water. Nowadays the steppe is basically abandoned and knowledge of wells and springs has pretty much dried up. The other big problem is that my maps are all 1:500,000 which doesn’t allow for very easy navigating when searching for tiny features like springs. Ironically it is much more difficult to travel across these regions than it would have been for Ghengis Khaan and the Mongols- they would have travelled from Ger to Ger. I am now reliant on the railway which has some little posts where people live permanently. Water is shipped in by train in these parts and emptied into concrete lined wells. Apart from a few frozen puddles these are my only option. It doesn’t sit very comfortable with me because following a railway line takes away from the remote feeling of the steppe but there just doesn’t seem to be a choice- horses need to drink, and a lot! Perhaps a camel would be better in these parts? They tell me they are bloody expensive though. Anyway I took a bearing and just after sunset after a heavy day arrived at Shaksibulak on the railway. I had a letter from Akim for a local who might be able to put me up and help feed and water the horses. Soon the horses were eating hay and I was again sitting down for a cup of tea. The next place with hay wouldn’t be for at least another 100km, so rather than do five days straight then two days rest I decided to start a routine of 2-3 days in a row then a day off. Furthermore Lake Balkhash had finally come into view and I was hoping to visit it on foot. The village of Shaksibulak had just 13 homes huddled around the one-line railway looking a little post-apocalyptic. Here the steppe is more desert- like, but grey and empty. The wind whipped up the dust and sand and mixed with a strange mist that meant visbility was no better than in the midst of a snowstorm. In the morning the railway workers headed off on a little motorised cart and I waved goodbye and headed off towards Lake Balkhash. After an hour it finally came into view through the haze looking more like an extension of the steppe- two huge, empty, open bodies meeting one another (just that one happens to be liquid). Lake Balkhash is one of the largest in Asia and must be at least 700km long from east to west and 100km wide. The eastern half where I had arrived is salty. As I descended from the village down some arid slopes and through some thick salt-bush it occurred to me that the air was warm. For years I had looked onto the map of Kazakhstan and wondered what it would be like to visit Balkhash. It intrigued me that such a huge lake could have so little population. It felt like I fell into step with the wind as I made my way across the flats to the shore. Waves lapped the sand and Tigon curled up in a ball out of the wind. I tried the water and amazingly it seemed remarkably fresh to me- very little salt compared what I had been told. So why on earth didn’t anyone live here?! Could I follow the lakeshore instead of the railway? The water was easily good enough for horses, but could I live off it for a few weeks? Couldn’t be sure. Anyway I got moving finally yesterday but not without a slightly distressing sight- on the wall of the railway workers hut there was a map of the world. I could hardly believe how little I have travelled in the scheme of things. Hungary just seems so far away. The warm homes of late provide false security. In reality I am on the cusp of either being stuck in serious winter conditions, or making it through to the western edge of the lake just on time. If I push too hard I will wreck the horses, yet if I go too slow I will be in big trouble. Once the lake starts to freeze it will no longer offer me the window of warm travelling conditions. Everything has to be done with care- balanced loads, blankets folded right, knots tied evenly, care not to be kicked, or bitten. One mistake and it could so easily be the end. Stranded out here is not worth thinking about. I will ride a fine line between the 1-2m of snow just to the north of here and the empty sand-dunes just to the south. Hopefully there will be just enough snow eventually so water is not a problem. By the time I reach Qzylorda about six weeks from here I will have a some big decisions to make- do I go through Uzbekistan? Travel to Aralsk? Will it be possible to travel through Turkmenistan and Iran? Is it worth the hassle? What about camels? Today is a little frustrating. I woke early to saddle the horses but soon later a heavy sleet began to fall accompanied by snow and rain- the worst sort of precipitation on earth! I decided to wait it out but it hasn’t improved. Wet horse blankets can be a real problem- take a whole day to dry out properly and could risk injury of the horses. So, here I am in the tent no closer to Hungary writing a little about the last few days. Words from Jon Muir’s book about his crossing of the Australian continent are at least comforting: ‘it takes as long as it takes.’ But tomorrow if this weather hasn’t cleared up I will have to go for it anyway. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)