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Pushing towards the Caspian Sea (5/7/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) The expedition cuts a broken line into the grey. The steppe is waking. During the night a phantom stallion has attacked. I have woken myself up a few times. Cordell has sworn that he has seen a few kangaroos under moonlight. And now we plod on, trying to beat the rising sun and get the ride out of the way before the heat begins. Behind me are two horses, and beyond that Cara tugs on a reluctant camel, and Cordell brings up the rear. His little four year old horse by the way has been affectionately named ‘the donkey’ for its rather puny size. Our first few pack up sessions took us about five hours by which time we were all ready to sleep. We seem to have come into a routine of sorts now with packing up down to about three hours. The camel has become more accustomed and is now brave enough to take stealing grabs at our bread and even food straight from the cooking pot. Of course she has competition with the dog and the other horses. The camel is an incredibly sensitive and inquisitive animal, in many ways far better behaved and easier to handle than horses. Her every move seems to be calculated to reduce energy output. She is an animal in slow motion working on an utterly different metabolism clock. For the last week we have been following the railway which connects Moscow with Tashkent. The villages have old elegant water towers, leafy trees, and brick cottages- all relics from the time of Tsar Nicholas when the railway was built. They are oases in a land that seems to literally burn in the heat of day. From sand dunes we passed into seeping clay pans and hills that appear more like crests and swells on the steppe. At times the landscape seems desperate, yet hiding in crevices we have found pools of water, trickling springs, or deep wells in tiny railway villages. Sleep has been the hardest aspect of the journey together so far. There is always something to do, and after a full night of riding, sleeping in a stinking hot tent in 35-40 degrees is hard. Next thing you know its time to pack up again. As a result we have binged on ‘night snoozes.’ We stop at the point that we are all hugging the necks of our animals and no longer with it. We lie down on a canvas mat and just snooze in the grass, or on the rocks, or whatever it may be. The ground cradles you when you are that tired no matter the conditions. Several half hour naps have turned into two hour naps, but they have been necessary in the end to keep us sane and awake. Yesterday we crossed some rolling hills south of the town of Emba. The view from the northern tip put a little bit of fear in my gut. This brown, dusty, wind-whipped nothingness revealing no signs of life at a distance. I felt thirsty and a little uneasy. This is the landscape I know that we can expect for the next 600km as we make our way to the Caspian. My aim is to follow the Emba river, however the river tends to dry up in many patches during the summer. No one can tell you just whether there will be enough water to get us to the Caspian or not. It has been a good spring so with luck there will be enough water holes and things to pull us through. We are all looking forward to leaving the train line and experiencing villages based on agriculture and semi-nomadsim. The communities on the steppe do not have the connection to the landscape that allows you to understand the country. They have a connection to the railway and rely on it for survival. Everyone keeps saying that things will just get hotter and more remote. We are now near Emba and will turn off from the railway tomorrow. Cordell has taken the first fall of the entire expedition (from day one in Mongolia). His little horse threw him off magnificently one early morning. The horses are a real herd now, and there has been a bit of bullying going on while the pecking order is sorted out. The Camel has been a steep learning curve but is going well. Finally I took the advice of the Kazaks: “Why on earth are you packing horses! You should have a camel. Camels eat anything, they can take big loads, don’t ask for much water and food, and are easier to manage than horses!” I am not sure that these words are entirely true, but it feels right that we are travelling now in a way more related to traditional nomads. Had better go, time to start packing again, Tim. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)