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Road to Russia! (17/12/05)

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES) As the taxi rolled down off the road to the familiar collection of Kazak mud huts that is the village of Kugen I caught sight of Tigon. He was gnawing on a pair of thrown-away goats legs and looking rather bored. Kugen had no telephone so I had not been able to call to anyone in the village and explain the delay. Now I was arriving with two days left on my visa and on a mission to get the horses, dog, and myself to Russia. While waiting on the horse permits from Moscow I hadn’t seen any of them for more than a month. Myftagali stumbled out of his house looking pale and surprised, even to the point of shocked. Perhaps he had not expected me to return and had eaten my horses? As we shook hands he told me quietly that his daughter had just broken her leg. Then he simply said ‘you will not stay with me. Here, take your things to our neighbours.’ I was quite taken aback because I had earlier always stayed in his home and I was paying him good money to look after my animals- plus all my gear was in his house! At that moment Tigon came running and quickly dirtied my city-clean pants and shirt. Myftagali later told me that recently Tigon had disappeared for two days and eventually came wandering back himself, from a hut out on the steppe. Perhaps Tigon had finally given up hope on me returning? Who knows. But now he was hysteric, as I was I to see him. I hate having to leave him all the time. We are all happiest I think when we are out on the steppe as a team and family. The neighbour took my things and led me into his hut. “Don’t be offended by Myftagali,” he began to recount. “Their family is in the process of a Kazak tradition called ‘Shart.’” I later understood that ‘Shart’ is always observed when someone is seriously ill or injured in the family. A ‘Bakse’ – traditional Kazak doctor – had ordered in this case that Myftagali’s daughter must lie down for seven days of Shart. No guests, even relatives, or neighbours are to be let into the home. Nothing is to be given to anyone outside the immediate family - even a cup of tea, water, matches or help of any kind is forbidden. Equally the family is not to accept any gifts during this period or any offers of help. Stapled to every gate around Muftagali’s house I later saw signs saying ‘Shart,’ which were obviously orders not to enter. As I snuggled into the mud hut to drink tea and eat freshly fried fish I felt real relief to return to a style and pace of life that is modelled around the sun, weather, and needs of animals. It really is so removed from the monotony of city life where the nine-to-five rigmarole is observed. In the morning I crossed the frosty steppe with Myftagali and his son. Feed bags of wheat soon had Ogonyok, Kok, and the ‘Dark horse’ galloping towards us. They looked frisky, shaking their heads, snorting and sporting thick winter coats. They had now rested for almost 60 days, and most of it roaming free with the treat of wheat once a day. ‘You won’t even know these horses now! They are in a really good mood’ Muftagali pointed out. Ogonyok in particular had filled out. The dark horse however still looked a little thin, but that was to be expected after the terrible summer they had had in Kulsari. I spent the day preparing my equipment, and cleaning the horses manes of an infestation of prickly burrs. It was very late by the time I finally put my head to rest on a mattress close to the burning coals of the dung-fire stove. Rain, snow, sun, with or without the horses one thing was for sure- tomorrow I had to exit the country. I woke at seven o’clock and in the pitch dark began the process. First I led Darkie and Kok out of the barn and tied them to the fence outside Muftagali’s home. Ogonyok became too stressed alone though and jumped the fence before bolting past me to be back with his mates. Nerves calmed as I fed them all more wheat. Tigon meanwhile was in a frenzy, running circles, jumping all over me and even licking the faces of the horses. He knew what all of this meant. In the end I should point out, all of my gear was delivered from the house by Muftagali and his wife- I was not even allowed past the front gate to get it! The sun began to rise at about 9 am, by which time a light rain was turning to snow. I packed fast, but in the end I wasn’t ready to leave until 10 am. Its always hard to gather so much equipment and get things moving when I am a little out of practice and much of it has to be done by torchlight. Finally, I was saying goodbye. These people who had shared the road temporarily with me would soon pass into my memories. I always find it hard to accept that most, if not all of those who you meet on the road, you will never see again. Muftagali’s son agreed to travel with me on his horse the last 8km to the border. The border guards looked on incredulously as we came winding our way through mud, sand, and a shower of snow to the iron gates that are the end of the road in Kazakstan. “So you are returning again!” exclaimed the young, fur-capped, radio-equipped guard. Soon he opened the gates and I tied the horses up outside the vet-check area. All went smoothly here, my certificates, permits, passports and other documents making the job easy. Everyone here either knew me or knew of me. The all important stamp was brought out from a cabinet and with a few nice hard ‘thwacks’ my horses and dog had passed the test. Next was customs. On my way back to Kazakstan after my failed attempt a month ago, Customs had at first refused to let me pass. They believed that I had illegally exported the horses. Still, I had since been to see the head of customs control in Atrau, and he explained I had his support. If there were to be any problems, best just to call him. The first customs looked down on me with a look of contempt. “Who are you! Stand there! Don’t move there! What!” I was asked for documents and soon a look of dissasatisfaction came over the official. ‘but where are your customs documents! Why are you taking horses out of the country as export!” I asked to see his superior and eventually the boss came out looking a bit surprised. He quickly explained to his officers that I was to be processed on orders from Atrau, but this did not help. I was then told that as official goods export I needed to pay 50 euro for each animal, plus another couple of hundred dollars. The boss in Atrau had promised that I would not be levied because clearly my horse were not commercial export! I walked outside and called direct to their superiors in Atrau and within a minute he called back and had the local chief on the phone. All of their attitudes changed. They began to kindly ask me about my travel and promised to do everything they could to reduce the costs. Even so I was then stuck in customs for another five hours while they argued over how to process the horses.”Why the hell are you on horses! You have made our job so difficult! Are you sure the horses are not pure breeds! It’s the first time I have ever done this.” It was clear that I was just a nuisance. No one of course ever saw the horses or took care to look out the window where my poor animals were standing. The issue was that officially they considered the horses wild animals and to export wild animals I needed a license from Astana. Eventually with just six hours before my Kazakhstan visa expired they found a way around the problem and considered the horses as ‘house pets.’ I had to pay 100 dollars or so, but it was no longer an issue- at least I could leave! With that finally I passed through immigration. Then just as I was preparing to gather the horses three woman appeared on the Russian side of the fence. It was Liudmilla from Astrakhan who had been helping so much from her end, and an Astrakhan journalist named ‘Inna.’ As I was led through they took photos much to the horror of the Kazakhstan guards. Then it was all celebrations. I crossed a section of the volga on a barge and then said goodbye to my new friends. T was already dark by now so I decided to camp in between Russian and Kazakhstan customs, much like my original return from Russian customs. I spent the night sleeping well with Tigon curled up at my feet, and in the morning prepared for the next test. It was now the 13th of December, and my Kazakhstan visa had well and truly expired- there was no turning back. I approached the Russian border with knots in my stomach and a sense of adrenaline. Everything had to work now. Eventually I was led in through the iron gates and tiued my horses up outside the immigration booth. At first I was very worried. All the guards huddled around the computer and were bickling about something. I was then ordered inside. As it turned out, their computer would not recognize Australian passports! There I was offered tea and biscuits, and when finally I was passed through I was even able to take photos with the guards. Next was the vet check, the place where my last crossing attempt was crushed. This time I sailed into the vet station with confidence and whacked a great wad of all kinds of documents and stamps down. The lady was ecstatic and gone was the panic of last time: “Well done boy! You have done so well. You have all the right documents. I don’t know how you did it but I received your permits from Moscow yesterday.” With that she stamped over the already heavily stamped documents and I was waved through to customs. At customs I was met with familiar faces who had long been waiting my return. I filled out a couple of forms and offered my passport. He replied: “Why do you offer your passport? You are a traveller, not a terrorist!” And there was the common sense that I felt should have always prevailed through this process- I was a traveller on horseback, not a meat dealer, or a businessman, or a contrabandist, or a terrorist, but a traveller on horses. Problem is that no one had ever processed some one going through that border on horse, and as they say in Russian: ‘The first pancake never works out well.’ Finally I handed my video camera to a Belorussian truck driver, and with that the boom gate was opened and the driver caught a few seconds of film as I actually rode into Russia!!!!!! Just unbelievable. The dog, the horses, all still together, and finally after so many sleepless nights were moving and free. The air fresh, problems now would be more to do with water, grass, and a place to sleep, and not trying to second guess the thought process of bureaucrats. 17/12/05 Now in Astrakhan. What a different place, a real shock to the system. A feeling of Europe. Grass, trees, water, and more water. On my second night in Russia I had a scare when my horses escaped in the middle of the night. After three ours of searching by torchlight I found them with the help of a local. Am now planning to travel through the city of Astrakhan on Wednesday with the help of Liudmilla Kiseleva, and Inna the journalist who have been of invaluable help already. Thanks to all who have helped. I don’t have time now to list all the names. Have to run, Tim. (CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES)