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Land of fire, water, and sand: Travelling the Emba river (14/7/05)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) “Come back here Grey you bastard! You’re gonna get it!” I shifted my gaze in my tent to see our grey horse legging it for the river in hobbles. He raced along, chain rattling, a look of freedom in his eyes. Through the reeds he crashed, then he was gone. Following close behind came a sight to be seen. Flip flops flying, face swelling red, bolting, chasing, hemmed by a pair of flaring red Aussie jocks. There came Cordell. “I’ll teach that buggar a lesson” he cried as he leapt superhumanly through the head high greenery and splashed into the river. Now he is flogging along like a Lifeguard through the shallows. Grey has a smirk on his face, back among his buddies eating grass on the far bank. ‘The escape was definitely worth it’ he reflects. It’s just another evening on the banks of the Emba river. In one day there are so many little adventures. Like a runaway camel, getting stuck in the sand, rescuing the grain bags from thieving horses, or dinner from the dog….a few days ago we even watched on as the camel raided our camp and sucked away on the tomato sauce bottle. The animals are conniving, doing everything you don’t want them to do. They all have striking human-like characters by now and it makes me feel better to see Cara and Cordell getting caught up in it all. Unlike a bike or boat trip, this is a living organism with all the variables you can imagine. We all go through emotions from the dog up. About nine days ago I set my GPS and compass bearing and we headed off through some empty desert for the Emba river- a frail blue line on my 1:500,000 chart. With luck this would flow most of the way 600km to the Caspian. After a rough day in the heat we were all relieved to find that indeed there was water flowing. The river cut a narrow gorge into the steppe choked by breathless greenery- little willows, grass, and Zhusan. Under a bush we made camp on some white sand and sat in the shallows watching colourful pebbles shift beneath the current. Little minnows bit our toes and the horses waded through to islands of green escaping the flies and eating heartily. In the evening Cordell and I rode bareback to a hilltop and gazed south-west along the river. The sun cast a golden coat over the land and rendering the split channels of the Emba rivulets of lava. Beyond some open, cleanly curved land lay the lines and ripples of sand dunes. From somewhere within them flames licked the sky skirted by pulsating orange halos. They are like suns that never set. Silent fires like sinister lands from a Tolkein novel- they are of course the many oil wells of Western Kazakhstan. It occurred to me that this view in front of us had everything that the next month would include. A place where desert meets an environment that cradles agriculture and nomadism, which in turn awkwardly intersects with foreign investors boring in with their landcruisers and unreal wealth. Getting going has got to be one of the best times of the day. The sun is still far from the horizon, but the sky is still casting dull blue light onto the big baby eyes of the camel. ‘Choch Choch’ says Cara and gives a tug of the camel’s nose peg. ‘Harvette’ goes down onto her stomach while Cordell and I pack the saddle and tie her up. All done the caravan moves. First up the sandy bank, and then onto an open plain where you can find animal tracks and wheel tracks in the same way that you may feel the grain of a piece of wood with your hand, eyes closed. The horses tap into these tracks in the dark and as long as it’s the right direction we move. Brisk in the cold. We are tired after a 2am start but we are rewarded by this freshness. Cordell notes that the light of day is stale in comparison. We make a few crossings of the river, cutting a V through to the far bank, Tigon forced to swim for a good ten metres. In the night he often runs off to chase marmots and other burrowing animals. He comes back at intervals and like a true trooper does the rounds of each horse as if checking up on everyone. By midday we are all a bit out of it and ready to make camp. 30km as the crow flies are covered and once again we come to rest on the smooth meandering curves of the river. After two hours of being stuck in a maze of shrubbery near the village of Kozhasai we emerge defeated. We can’t get to the river bank. We have been in the saddle for 12 hours and have covered 2km in the last three. We have been on the move for three days straight and this is testing our patience. Cara leans over and hangs on to the neck of her horse. The steppe seems to offer nothing at times but heat in your face and wide big brown. With little option we continue for another hour or so and roll into the village- a collection of mud huts and barns on a slight rise. A silver-haired man named ‘Saltan Bai’ greets us and invites us in for tea. His grandsons walk around a little uncomfortably in shirts down to their ankles. We notice the dried blood around the legs. As suspected they have recently been through the ritual of circumcision. Celebrations will soon follow. We fill up on fermented milk, strong tea and fresh bread and butter. I really like all the connections among Kazaks. They really are like one big family with a culture that gives them a sense of what their duty and role is in life. As nomads part of their culture gives them a sense of duty to help travellers and strangers- something that makes this trip possible in situations that are almost impossible. In the next village we meet the mayor, who turns out to be the man who undertook the circumcisions in Kozhasai. His daughter has married Saltan Bai’s son. We later share tea with a local on a tractor and we by chance wind up in his fathers house in the next village. He is a relative of the man we met on the road three days earlier, and this man we by chance meet two days later in the village of Abaya- which is where we are now. Its like a game of join the dots, and usually the locals have joined the dots long before you have. That probably explains why you can arrive in a village with the mysterious feeling that everyone has been waiting for you. That’s going a bit quickly though, I almost forgot to mention Tigon’s first successful hunt. We were riding along under metallic morning clouds when a hare darted out of the grass. Tigon was quick to take chase. He took off, head stretched forward like a grey-hound, tongue hanging out, eyes popping, legs a blurr. He ran back and forward for a good few minutes until finally the hare faltered. “Got him!” cried Cordell. I rushed over with excitement and cracked the hare over the head with the handle of my knife. Tigon was desperate to have the hare back, a little angered that I had stolen his catch. This was after all the first time to my knowledge that he has actually caught a hare. He is a hunting dog and trained to catch hares and foxes. Usually I am repulsed and put off by hunting but something unfamiliar had come over me in the heat of this chase. Now I proudly strung the limp body to the back of my saddle. We were going to eat fresh meat for dinner! A nice change from the stale tinned Russian beef that lubricates most evening meals. That night Cordell cooked up a storm on our stove and we ate like pigs in mud and slept faultlessly. Abaya is a large village of 300 homes that buzzes at peak hour in the evening. Lines of camels peel off to homes where women in scarves and long working gowns wait with milking bucket in hand. The men are out watering their cucumbers and tomatoes, while others sit on benches in the fading light. To the north yellow dunes cast a clean line onto the horizon, whilst to the south beyond the river the steppe rises in steep pinches. We arrived here yesterday morning having covered just two or three kilometres. It wasn’t long before all five horses and camels were lined up on the rickety fence and we were ushered in for tea and a meal. This then became an invitation to stay for the night and feast on Bes Barmak (the ‘five finger’ national meal of the Kazaks). Nasirulas, our host is a tractor driver who works 15 day shifts for a Chinese run oil field fifty kilometres from here. It was just as we were sinking back on cushions on the floor to digest our massive meal of Bes Barmak that things started to get interesting. Nasirulas suggested that as guests, we were obliged to sing a song. First a local would sing for us. Eventually one of the neighbours sat and sang ‘a Capella’ with a voice that shushed everyone in the house. Already the room was filling up, toddlers, neighbours, old men, all rolling in. The word had long got around that Australians had arrived by horses, or camel, or foot, or motorbikes, or something. Nasirulas was bent on convincing them that we were long lost relatives. It was just as we were feeling the heat and Cordell was getting on the satellite phone to his mum to remind him of the words to ‘Waltzing Matilda’ that a rush of life bubbled through the door. They came as a bundle of laughter, dazzling scarves, and colourful dresses and gowns. These were the local house wives/musicians of Abaya. One of these plucked a dombra (the two stringed guitar) from the clothes she swam in and together they sat across the table. Things were starting to feel cramped. Even the toddlers sensed the occasion now shuffling to the front for the best seats in the house. One by one more locals adored by all came in. A particular ancient Babushka rocked in on her stiff legs in a long purple robe-type velvet dress. A cheer goes up as she thrusts forward, clutches a handful of chocolates from the table and flings them into the air. They come showering down. Now eyes and golden teetch flash back and forth across the room until the music begins. Hands slap on thighs. Tears are almost rolling down some faces there is so much laughter. You can feel the very mud brick walls of the house come shaking and humming to life. For a few glorious minutes they sing and play the dombra. Then just as things seem to be snowballing it finishes. The room empties in a flash and we are left with a small rather sombre audience. It is, after all, time for the women to go and milk the animals. In any case Cordell saved both Cara and I with his very successful rendition of Waltzing Matilda which had Nasurila singing along with the chorus by the end. The evening was topped off with a visit to the neighbours for Vodka and fresh salad. We were only stopped in our tracks a little when we discovered that one of my new hobbles from Australia had been stolen during the day right off a horse. But with nothing to do about it we refused to let it spoil things. Now I lie in the house with Cordell resting up one end of the room, and Nasirula snoring on the other. This evening we will saddle up and push further on. It is exciting to be here so far from any major road, railway, or regional centre. The communites here have an independence, remoteness and vitality that makes them pleasant places to be. Cordell and Cara have adapted to the trip magnificently and we seem to be working very well as a team. Really enjoying their company but aware that they will be leaving me in a little more than two weeks. Had better run, Tim. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)