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Kulsari- Russian Border: Last leg of Kazakhstan (28/10/05)

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES) From Atrau where Tim is preparing things for the border crossing into Russia (where another winter is awaiting him!) he reflects on the last leg of Kazakhstan from Kulsari to the border on the Volga river delta: It was with great trepidation that I arrived at the Kulsari Bus station and swung my bags onto a sand-drift. The town was just how I remembered it- a harsh light, people dressed in heavy cloth to keep the sun an sand out, and a lot of opportunistic taxi drivers. Only the oppressive heat had gone, replaced by a more comfortable 30 degrees or so. What was my plan of attack? I felt nauseated by dealing with the problems that I had left behind. Had Guanshbai returned the stolen halter and rope? Had the police investigated? Were the horses still alive, and if so in what condition? And Tigon? Then how would I negotiate with the local department of agriculture who had promised so much, done very little and were expecting payment? Then all my equipment? Was it still OK in the garage of the neighbour of Tanbai (this last minute storing place was found after things fell out with Tanbai)? The whole state of the journey hung in the balance. Deciding to tackle the prickliest subject of them all I took a taxi ride to the police. It was probably a mistake, because the driver was aggressive, and I had my big backpacks with me. Rather than walk into the police station, we were both hauled in and treated as potential terrorists after the driver had insisted on driving right to the entrance (and the police saw the huge bags). He was whisked away somewhere by the scruff of his collar while I managed to talk things over with the officers on duty. The captain of the department ordered me to his desk where I sat and explained things. Despite having made an official complaint and been promised that there would be an investigation, there was now not even any record of the stolen rope/halter (if you are not aware of the background to this story read this diary entry: disaster in Kulsari. He seemed genuinely interested in the journey though and keen to help. The problem he explained however was that we would have to make an official charge, and I would have to wait for a month while they arrested Guanshbai and the whole thing went to court. What made it further difficult was that he lived in a separate jurisdiction, and my only witness (Cara) was now somewhere in Russia with Cordell. Guanshbai had probably used the inaccessibility of his farm to his advantage on many occasions. Not only did he live far away in a place without phone lines or police, but he was just over the provincial border in ‘Aktobinskoye Oblast.’. Apart from going there myself and demanding the halter back, the cause seemed lost. Later I discovered that he had certainly not returned the halter as Tanbai had insisted he would, and I met a man in a village who told me that I was lucky that Guanshbai didn’t steal my saddle, horses and dog to boot. Although furious, and still trying to scheme up ways to put Guanshbai under pressure I understood it was better to let the whole thing go. With nowhere to go immediately, the captain invited me home for lunch. As we drove along the mess of bitumen, gravel, dirt and sand he pointed out the state of affairs. “That region there has waged wars on that region” he says referring to two micro-suburbs that are known to be rife with gangs. We dodge a few stray camels. “That huge castle there is owned by the former head of road police” he says with a wry grin. “We are up to the armpits in murders, and other violent crime.” Kulsari –with a population of just 60,000- is and was a hotspot for trouble. It probably has something to do with the reliance on the oil industry and the great divide it creates in living conditions between those it makes rich, and those who envy the rich and have to cope with poor but expensive living conditions. It creates a ready source of cash for those in power and apathy when it comes to corruption. The captain’s home was a simple mud brick house lived in the shadow of two story mansions ringed by ugly fences. His wife was a school teacher earning 100 dollars a month. He and his family were in fact from Shymkent but had had been living in Kulsari for about eight years. He told a story that must be familiar for many police across the country. In 1996 in a response to organized crime and corruption, the President, Nazarbaev, split the nation’s police department into two bodies. One carried on with regular police work, whilst the other group were given extraordinary powers. They had the right to interrogate and arrest even someone as high as the head of police and the national security agency and to storm any home without warrant. Within one and a half years thousands of police were sacked and charged, and a huge dent was made into the mafia network. However under growing pressure by the public, officials, and the police themselves, this elite force was disbanded. This created a problem because they could no longer safely work among the very police force that they had been investigating. Many lost their jobs all together, but most were sent to posts in another corner of the country where they could work and live more anonymously. This was actually a great advantage for the government because it helped to overcome the problems caused by clan-loyalty in local policing. So this captain from Shymkent found himself issued with work in the far-flung west in a place called Kulsari. He and his wife spoke longingly of their city where trees grew, water flowed, and you could buy watermelons at 15 cents a piece. The tea, food and talk helped settle me down and prepare for the next target: the department of agriculture. Dannier, the head vet was sitting in his huge leather chair with the seat back far above his head. This little five-foot bratish looking man was screaming into a phone as if to make to make up for his lack of stature. Then he saw me. Those gleaming white chompers of his flashed from ear to ear. “Tim!!! Tim!! The great traveler!! You are finally here!” With as little delay as possible I handed over two bottles of vodka, some chococlates, and a couple of large signed photographs. Where his unreliability left off, his charm and enthusiasm now took over. It wasn’t long before we had collected all my gear (which was safe and in one piece), been to the market for supplies, and were hurtling out through the city encirclement of trash to the village of Karagai. Here in the blazing heat with not a blade of grass in sight I had left the poor horses and dog more than a month earlier. Tigon spotted me before anyone in the village. He had dug himself into the sand under a platform near the house that was used as a bed, lounge, and table during summer. His dusty ears sprang to life, and as if he were trying to believe what he was seeing he lay staring, tail flopping about uncertainly. As I approached though he ran and jumped up with his paws. He could hardly believe it!! He had put on a bit of weight and his black coat was as shiny as tar. The next local to appear was the old man charged with looking after Tigon. He was a seventy-something year old with a slight frame wrapped in worn out, wrinkled skin. He came stumbling out the front door with arms stretched forward, and eyes as round as saucers. He missed the step and fell flat on his face in the dirt. Then sitting cross-legged he stroked his balding scalp with one hand and offered the other shaking one to us. He was so drunk that he could not even see us, or even as much as mutter a word. Dannier and his driver bundled him back inside the house. This man’s son who was supposed to be looking after my horses was nowhere to be seen. We found blackie looking tired and unhappy, tied up near the barn. His hair looked shiny, and his winter coat was starting to grow, but it was obvious that he had lost a little bit of weight. This grassless desert must have been a place of despair for a horse from the lush Altai mountains. I had all the right in the world to be furious since our agreement was to have the horses moved away from here within three days to good pasture (instead they had spent 40 days here, and half of my grain had no doubt been shared among animals other than my own). Getting angry was pointless now though and I just had to deal with the reality. Ogonyok and Kok (formerly known as grey), were nowhere to be found. In a dry creek bed I was a little perturbed to stumble across two horses being hacked up by axe. (Anything was possible in this country where people thrived on opportunism!) We were about to give up the search when Dannier spotted something. With fire in his eyes, he put the Russian 4wd van to full throttle and we motored toward a herd of camels on the horizon. As we neared you could see two horsemen beyond the camels slow from a canter to a walk. Their faces paled. It took me a moment to realize what was going on. They were riding Ogonyok and Kok! Worse, the horses were covered from head to tail in huge felt blankets that looked like armor. These were used to make the horses sweat as much as possible. It could only mean one thing- they were being prepared for a race! Although Dannier gave them a good ear-slapping I knew now from experience what would happen. Within an hour we would all be friends, I would be expected to pay the herders, and as if it were not enough they would be asking if I could give them my saddle as a gift. Worse was still to come. On later inspection it appeared that the horses had been ridden regularly as evidenced by new patches of rubbed-off hair, healing sores, and on Ogonyok a huge bare patch the size of a dinner plate!!!!! For me even the slightest little scratch was something that I lost sleep over. I later found evidence too to show that my grain had run out long ago since it had been shared among animals other than my own. This to me amounted to the worst crime and nightmare imaginable besides having the horses stolen all together. In this shape, how on earth would I get the horses through another winter and to Hungary? More than that, these were my pride, and it made me sick to think that after all my care they had been so poorly handled. I wanted to scream at the herders for this and tell them that this was my life and blood, that I had been planning and dreaming to take these Central Asian horses to Hungary just as the Mongols and the nomads before them would have. But it was all lost on them like most villagers who rarely travel more than 20km from their home to graze the herds. When I showed the herder the bald patches on my horses back and insisted that it was from his saddle he just stood unresponsive. His old mother walked over with a grin: “Those patches can be in memory of us!” They were not a bad family, to the contrary they were willing to offer me everything they had, and their utmost support. The old man when sober was proud to show me that on his singlet he still wore the kangaroo pin given to him. In his shirt pocket he carried with him an article about us that was published in the local paper. He brought it out 3-4 times a day point at it with pride. He told me over and over again how he had hand fed tigon every day and kept him protected from thieves. Tigon apparently had a girlfriend in the village and he was let off the leash every evening to go and visit her. He told me how so many people had asked him to give them the kangaroo pin and newspaper article but he had refused. He believed in my trip, and he believed in the importance of looking after my animals. He was eccentric to the point of not being with it at all, but somehow he understood my journey and my needs better than anyone in the village. His son who had looked after my horses was genuine, but young and simple. He had not done anything with a hint of cunning, he just had no way of grasping how important the health of my horses was. Probably he thought that I was wealthy and that was the only reason I had offered them good money. (Sorry am running out of time and this story is becoming an epic. Will have to skip now over the next two weeks of riding. Details will come in the book later on!) Fittingly I ended up being invited as a special guest to the horse race event the following day (the same race that my horses had been prepared for). It was just part of a huge gathering to celebrate the opening of a new mosque destroyed by the communists in about 1931. Hundreds of people from the ‘Taz’ clan arrived all dressed in the shiny silk array of vests, cloaks, hats and scarves typical of any Kazak event. Four luxuriously padded out yurts were set up and eight enormous pots of boiling meat were being prepared on outdoor fires. The official ceremony got underway with the local religious leaders and clan elders giving speeches. Everyone sat down on this desert clay under a pale blue sky in a scene that could have been plucked from any time in the last 500 years of life on the Kazak steppe. As usual I felt rather embarrassed that I was a guest at a function that must have held such great importance for these people, and which I could hardly appreciate- especially as a non-muslim. So it was with great surprise that I was then asked to say a few words as the guest of honour! How could I possibly do justice to an event like this to which I was a stranger?! Eventually my turn came in between the local Mullahs speech and a perfoormance by a musician on the two-stringed dombra. I decided to make this my opportunity to thank Kazaks in general for their wonderful hospitality over almost a year of riding through the country. I told them of my love for fermented camels milk, and how I had come to appreciate horse sausage and ‘bes barmak.’ I had become part Kazak and a part of Kazakhstan would remain with me. Lastly I told them that I hoped the new mosque would bring luck and fortune for all in the name of Allah. I had said all of this in Russian and only wished that I had the skills to say it in Kazak. Perhaps the greatest thing that I lament is that I never studied Kazak language as much as I should have and instead focused on improving my Russian (which is the inter-cultural and international languae in Kazakhstan). With that a large cloak called a ‘Chapan’ was thrown over me from behind, and a high hat called a ‘Malakai’ was put on my head. I admit that I couldn’t help grinning. Afterwards I was surprised to be approached by several familiar looking people. It turned out that many of the people in the crowd had traveled far to come here, including some of those who had looked after myself, Cordell and Cara during the last month of riding in summer! The event rolled on with the 12km horse race- the crowd whistling and cheering as young boys galloped up a storm in the sand and dust. When that was over attention turned to a traditional wrestling match, then a feast. For a precious hour or so I sat in one of the Yurts with the elders and chomped away on meat, gulped down bullion and drank tea with the best of them. Again I was astonished at how they could let a stranger, a non-muslim into such a special occasion. Such is however the heritage of the steppe nomad. Ghengis Khaan better than most exemplified this when he spoke of all people living under one sky but with different beliefs. In his empire he never tried to force his culture or religion onto those in his dominions. Kazaks are nomads, people, and then muslims, and as a rule they do not judge a person by their religion, society-status, or origins. The door is always open. On a warm breezy Sunday afternoon I finally loaded the horses and said goodbye. The last thing to be done was untie Tigon. Then, just as if we had never stopped we walked out onto that huge steppe until the village had vanished over the horizon. Tigon was ecstatic running circles around the horses, chasing everything in sight. The horses too had no qualms with leaving Karagai and seemed to be happy to be on the move. We camped on the sandy banks of the Emba- the river that had been the source of life for us in Summer and I watched as Tigon danced about hysterically. He was over the moon that we were on the way. I pegged out the horses and lay down aware more than ever of the great calming effect of the steppe. Even the village was noisy, rushed and claustraphobic compared to this. Its funny how people become so stuck and consumed by the smallest space- from an apartment to the confines of a village, or the regularly trodden route from home to work and back. Our family was back together again, and the steppe was as big and alluring as ever! It would have been too easy to believe that exit from Kulsari could run so smoothly though. The following afternoon I found myself feeling faint, weak, and without any motivation. My head banged and throbbed, and the steppe seemed to pulsate in time. Having covered just 13km I made for a camel herding station and doused my head in cold water from the well. An invitation for tea became an overnight stay, and this then became six days. I was overcome by a terrible fever, body aches, diarhorrhea and gastro for what seemed like eternity. For the first three days I barely had the energy to even introduce myself to the herders who had let me in. I lay on a mat tossing and turning in deliria. On the fourth day it began to ebb away and I got to know the herders. A young couple and another young man were actually from Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, whilst the head herder was a local with a huge long face and kind eyes. They looked after me with care and helped to feed and look after my horses. In contrary to Karagai there was some decent ‘Zhusan plant’ (a desert plant that horses love) and even some grass. If only I could have found this place a month ago I thought to myself. Anyway the time on this farm proved to be a good chance to get back in tune with the steppe and give the horses some relief from Karagai before really steaming ahead. I also had the chance to read Bjarke Rink’s book, ‘Centaur Legacy.’ A lot of things started to make sense. Of course one of the reasons that nomads were such experts with horses despite no scientific knowledge was that they modeled their lives around that of the horse and lived with them 24 hours a day. They understood that horses were nomadic and why and could think like a horse. In the western world we have tended to fit horses into our lives and so have historically been less understanding. The use of stables for example was probably one of the cruelest inventions for the horse, which is a herd animal with a constant need to move and eat among his fellow equine pals. The stable just made it more convenient for humans. On the steppe a trust has to be developed at a very earlier stage between horse and rider because there are no fences, no barriers. If a horse wants to it can bolt over the horizon and you will never catch it. The working relationship has to be based on symbiosis- of helping each other. The very term ‘breaking in a horse’ simply does not work on the steppe. ‘Breaking’ comes literally from the ancient western tradition of ‘breaking the spirit of the horse until it submits.’ The steppe nomads always knew that to harness the strength and speed of a horse, let alone to use its milk and meat, one had to learn to be like a horse and be respected by the horse, and not create a fearful or submissive animal. When the Mongols came roaring onto the scene in Europe in the 13th century they were harnessing a speed, agility and strength not known by the cumbersome sedentary armies. The Mongols were using thousands of years of horse knowledge and a toughness derived from the rigours of life on the steppe. Anyway to make it short, I recovered and spent nine days riding along salt pans, and finally the railway into the city of Atrau, arriving on October 1st. There, met by Kasibek Yerzegalev and others from the provincial ministry of agriculture I was escorted across the Ural river into geographical Europe! It was a relief to say the least to think that the toughest terrain of desert-steppe and sharp continental climate was finally behind me. My horses spent two days in the cattle sale yards while I organized things including the sending of my passport to the Russian embassy in Helsinki. Technically as a foreigner you should have your passport with you at all times in Kazakhstan but it was a risk I had to take. I would now travel 220km to the Russian border, then return to Atrau to pick up the passport which would be sent back by express post. All I can say is that it was a long last 220km or so. I was traveling near the shore of the Caspian Sea on ground made of a fine greasy feeling dust. Grass was almost non-existent and on the way out of Atrau my stove broke. Water was scarce, in many places shipped in by truck. As a result most people were reluctant to offer water. I also began to suffer a kind of allergy, among which the symptoms included coughing and asthma. I slept terribly and had about two cooked meals in 11 days (I managed to make two meals when there were some little woody plants fit for fire wood). Between the town of Akkistay and Narin the unbelievable happened- it rained! Not just a shower, but two days of heavy downpour, winds, thunder and lightning. The dust turned to sticky mud that balled up under the horses hooves and sent them slipping and sliding. It was too dangerous to ride and so I also walked, struggling to get a footing in this horrific mud. The horses went hungry and I failed to find a place with grass, or a local willing to take me in for the night. Finally we hit the ‘Narin kum,’ the great sandy desert wich straddles the western Kazakhstan/Russia border. Here the water drained away, there was no mud, and most importantly a variety of grass and plants grew. We rested for a day near a train maintenance stop where the workers let my horses drink from the drum of water set aside for fire safety. Just two days from the Russian border I was taken in by a lovely family who gave my horses a night of feasting on ‘all you can eat’ hay. All three stumbled out in the morning almost too fat to walk and looking exhausted by a night of aggressive eating. The man who had invited me in showed me something that I had only heard about- a horse blanket made purely of horse hair. The nomads of earlier times he said all used this hair blanket. The water drained quickly away from it, it breathed and was not abrasive. The perfect solution to both summer and winter riding! Just 35 kilometres from the border I met with Serek, the head of the local government vet clinic in the village of Ganushkino. He had arranged a place for my horses to rest near the border. I gave him some money and he promised to deliver 200kg of grain, and 15 cans of meat (for Tigon) and would meet me the following day. Just as he pulled away and I headed off out of town to find camp a road police car stopped. Despite a letter, stamp from the ministry of agriculture, and copies of passport and visas the police were not convinced. I was summoned to the local police boss at the main station in town. There began a terribly evening trying to wade through traffic, over bridges and among pedestrians. It was almost dark, and I was furious by the time I reached the police station. The horses were exhausted and I generally felt in a bad mood. No matter what I said, the police boss reiterated his statement. “By law you must have your passport! Chechnya is near here, you could be anyone!” I tried to tell him that to get a visa you had to hand in your passport, and without that visa I would be stuck in kazakhstan…that I had been to the migration police in Atrau who had said I had the right to send my passport away. But this was all lost. In the end I was saved by Serek who turned up with a calming smile. He told the police boss my story and in an ingenious fabrication that I was on a diplomatic passport. I later found out that Serek had been the local member for parliament and was highly respected in the community. Luck had fallen my way. Eventually ‘Sultanov’ (the police boss) let me go with a handshake. I spent the night in a house on the edge of town and grazed the horses within the fences of a local fish factory. Finally I set off on my last big day ride in Kazakhstan. I left the desert and salt plans and rode into rounded plains of green. I must have crossed ten bridges, and seen more green grass than in the last 2000km! I had reached the edge of the Volga Delta. There were reeds being cut for hay, and countless herder homes and herds of animals. I even came across some fences that seemed to be reminiscent of the European style of sedentary farming. In the village of Kugen 8km from Russia just as the sun was reaching that golden angle of late afternoon I came to a slow. Met by a man called ‘Muftagali’ I took a moment to reflect. I had done it! I had crossed Kazakhstan! 28/10/05 That all transpired on the 14th of October. I left my horses in a paradise of grass, a good herder, and plenty of grain. I am now in Atrau preparing to head back to the border. Its been a frustrating two weeks since with delays and problems with post, documents, my computer, video camera and other things. My Russian visa started on the 18th so I have already lost time. Again and again though I am reminded that this trip requires patience. Trying to move faster through the maze of bureaucracy, weather, and variety of landscapes and problems is like trying to make the seasons change faster. You just have to sit back and accept it all like water under the bridge. It is a tiny gesture but I would like to thank the more than 70 families that have put me up in the past year in Kazakhstan, and the many more who have helped and supported me in a variety of ways. In short, I am richer for the experience and indebted. Without the steppe hospitality my trip would have come to a halt a long time ago. PS Nervous about the border crossing. Tim is now situated at: Latitude: 46° 34 Min. 00 Sec. Longitude: 48° 49 Min. 00 Sec. Go to WWW.MAPQUEST.COM/MAPS/LATLONG.ADP and type in the above coordinates to see where Tim is now. (CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES)