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New Horse, Hospitality, Terrorism and Syr Darya tales…(17/5/05)

My break began well in Qyzlorda: a paddock of grass, an old van to stay in, and seemingly a good time to rest and recuperate. However it soon became clear that the offer of hospitality had its costs. Bazarbay, ( the man who had invited me in and owned the property), was a character adjusted, developed, even evolved it seemed to sitting back at the wheel of his car. He was a mountain- beginning at the pointy summit of his head and spreading out to the huge circumference around his waist. This should have told me immediately: years of driving a taxi had let him polish the art of talking his way into anything. The way he saw the world, was apparently, the way it was. This included all fairness of paying for 70 litres of fuel (for about 50km or driving), buying all the food that he desired including café mega meals of pork kebabs, and of course a not too small ‘tip’ at the end of the day (about three times my own budget each day). Peace was just a notion- his son decided to stay in the van with me, and of course this involved paying for his vodka, and then paying for his hangovers. They were people who called and took the shots as soon as they saw it. One morning a beautiful magpie flew into the property. “Ah the f**n bird! He is going to nest in my cherry tree! Get the bastard!!!” Bazarbay boomed this with the roar of a bear. His son raced for the gun from the front seat of the car, and within a few minutes the remains of the bird were hanging from that very cherry tree. The next day a snake happened to slither its way over a track- albeit a good 70 metres from the van. A barrage of rocks and shovels soon solved that problem. They were undeniably nice as well though, and genuinely interested in my journey. On the third day we took Tigon into the city to see the vet. This is the first of what I think will be a long paper trail to get him home to Australia, fingers crossed. The vet injected the dog on the street with the necessary vaccinations and signed papers to say that I had bought the dog from Bazarbay- since he was from a different province and technically couldn’t be registered here. On the fourth day I decided that it was time to make a decision about horses. Zhamba, my old 15 year old had probably been due for retirement even before I bought him last October. He had been a cart-hauling animal all his life and suffered terribly with old scars all over his back. He lost weight quicker than the others and was always the first to be injured. He had however been a very tough horse and very reliable. But it was time to change horses and give him the retirement he deserved. At 6am last Wednesday morning I found myself at the livestock market on the edge of the city. Inside people were leading cattle, sheep, goats, and horses all over the place. About 50 horses were all tied up, their owners standing nearby. A quick check made me feel a little pale- they were all stallions! Apparently in this region they do not castrate their horses. In recent times I was haunted by having to chase away aggressive stallions with rocks on a daily basis. Being spring, having a stallion could pose a real danger. But then there was no choice. Even before I had begun inspecting a few different animals there was a small crowd following me about, testing my ‘greenness’ (as a horseman and a foreigner in Kazakhstan). “So you are just a tourist? Either that, or a spy?” one man prodded. “For all I know, you could be the spy! I am riding to Hungary!” “Yeah he is a spy from Africa!” someone taunted the man. “So who are you then? Naiman or what?” One man asked. This was a joke, as Naiman is a group of the middle Kazak family (or tribe). “No, I am Buzshban!” The crowd again roared with laughter. Buzshban is a lesser group of Kazaks known to inhabit mountain regions. “He is half kazak!” someone said. Things it seemed were going well. I had a look at a few horses but they were either too wild, had sores on their backs, or were too old and skinny. The horses were being sold quickly- mainly by men from abbatoirs eyeing up the weight and fattiness of the animals. I had to move fast. Eventually an old herder who was selling horses to pay for his son’s wedding showed me a young horse that appeared remarkably calm. It was all over pretty soon. He was athletic looking, 4-5 years old, and had a clean, untarnished back. For a stallion he was extremely quiet. The price was bankrupting, but on par with the prices of the day. It cost about $770 (Australian dollars), plus 10 dollars to have him loaded onto the back of the truck and taken back to my other horses. So by 9am I had a new horse, no cash left, and a new problem…Bazarbay it seemed had been scheming to wrest the old horse from me at a ‘kind price.’ He began suggesting that he had been extremely kind in not charging me rent of his van and for grazing, and that it would be only polite if I were to give him the horse at a bargain price. He became quite aggressive, suggesting that if I didn’t agree then I would have to pay large sums anyway. This simmered for a day or two as I trained the new horse. On the one hand the idea of selling the horse to live on this property was quite appealing: Bazarbay promised that it would be kept for riding by his grandsons on holidays. If this were true it would be a fitting end to Zhamba’s time with me. On the other hand, who was to say they wouldn’t just feed him up and sell him for twice the price on the meat market in Winter? Eventually I agreed to sell the horse to him, but only if I could take the horse a further 100km while a sore on one of my other horses healed up. There in the village of Akkum Bazarbay had already promised that I could stay with his relatives. As part of the deal Bazarbay then promised to deliver free of charge fresh food, and sacks of grain for the horses, and meet me in Akkum in three days. I agreed to sell the old horse for $320 (had bought him for $550). It was with some relief that I set off from Qyzylorda, back in charge of my own journey. It wasn’t without worries though. This was the first time I had ever handled four horses on my own, and also the first time I had been near a main road. To top it off I was riding the Stallion who was still quite jumpy. Three days however did bring me to Akkum, albeit difficult and lacking in the inspiration I find out on the steppe. The Syr Darya river flood plains in this region are a network of canals and fenced off rice paddies. Riding involves being trapped to the shoulder of the road. Many locals work in these old collective farm rice fields, receiving just two sacks of rice a month as salary. The very concept of growing rice here seems insane. The weather in summer is extremely dry with little or no rain, and the winters are appalling. In such a dry continental climate the series of irrigation canals are inefficient to say the least. How much water in total is lost to evaporation must be astronomical. The need to flood the rice paddies for 90 days straight in summer conditions must also contribute terribly to salinity. This is just the tip of the iceburg, the overall result being the death of the Aral Sea, and terribly health problems among the people of the Aral Sea region. Anyway, in the village of Akkum I was quite happy to rest in the luxury of a home set amongst tall aspen trees giving shade and a sense of life that cannot be found on the steppe. Bazarbay arrived and seemed to be doing his best to rid any sense of offence he may have caused me. He was genuine in his help for me, but he had for some time mistaken me for one of the wealthy oil businessmen who he picked regularly up from the airport. To him a foreigner meant money- and it seemed to him only natural that I had a two storey cottage at home, and a landcruiser, and enough money to swim in. He brought bags of fruit and vegetables, some sacks or grain as agreed, and some spare rope and straps for me. Keen to get back to his own ‘two storey house’ in the city, he gave me the money and suggested that he would love to stay, but had to get back to see the dentist. There was a fear in his eyes when he was in the village, and he told me quietly several times how terrible and impoverished these people lived. It was a relief when he was gone- I felt much more at home with these village people who had a far better understanding of the reality of my journey. The gulf between city and village life in Kazakhstan is really quite astounding. There are two economies and two countries within this one state. Anyway a rest day passed in Akkum. In the evening, the cry of donkeys, the smell of burning dung, the air cooling, and samovars on the boil. During the day we took the horses to the fields for grazing and at lunch swum in one of the canals. This was all topped off with a meal of Bes Barmak (five fingers) late last night. At 4am thismorning I rose wearily, and by 2 o oclock under the burning sun made camp. Feeling exhausted as I type. Horse health again causing me to lose hair, and stress. The damage done by the synthetic ‘anti sweat pads’ a while back is proving difficult to manage. Uncertain about my route ahead. Is it possible to cross the sands of the old Aral Sea, and take camels straight to Atrau 900km to the west on the Caspian? Or will I have to go north and follow roads and water to Aralsk, and then further on? Time to sleep. Until next time! Tim.