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Thieves, so close to disaster, back onto the steppe (3/12/04)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) I stepped outside just to check the horses again. I wasn’t really worried- I had been checking them every half hour since sunset and felt comfortable around the railway workers with whom I was staying. There was something strange though. In the darkness a loud whacking sound. Was that a horse trying to run for it? It sounded like a rope going taught or something falling. I made my way quickly until my eyes adjusted- all horses still there. But then something ran, scurried, something moved- rather like a person pretending to be a wombat. I pretended not to see and walked quickly to the tiny mound behind which he or she had scurried. One glimpse was enough: there was someone hiding. I ran back to the station hut and came back with some workers and torches. Just as I was approaching my horses I tripped over something- my backpack!!!! I cottoned on. Whoever it was had just stolen my bag and tried to ride off with one of my horses! Either he didn’t know that my horses were tied or I had walked out not a minute too late. Fuelled with adrenalin now I ran with the torch and chased the hiding thief. “What the hell are you up to!!!” I screamed as I grabbed his arm. The man in my grasp shivered. “What? I was just on my way to the toilet.” It was seconds before the workers arrived and began to rough him up. It was the man colloquially known as the ‘Mongol.’ He had immigrated from Mongolia as a young child. Only half an hour before I had been sitting around the table with this man and he had even suggested that I be careful- there were many thieves in the nearby village. The brazen attempt of this theft left me astonished. He not only worked here, but had stolen the bag right out from under my nose- from the room where I slept while I was in the kitchen. What he probably didn’t know was that in that bag was my diary, camera, video camera, passport, leatherman, torch etc…basically it’s the bag with my valuables that I always sleep next to at night. With that and a horse gone…..bloody hell, that would have almost been the end of this trip. The night was far from over though. My torch, leatherman and watch were still missing. Despite feigning complete drunkenness it took a couple of hours of being roughed up and threats of police for him to produce them from inner pockets of his coat- a very calculated theft. This shocked me. There were no excuses. He was just driven to steal, it was too tempting. I just couldn’t comprehend it. I was rattled. I had been waiting at this tiny station for a day while a local went to the village 25km away to buy me some food and wheat for the horses. I had been told that the police were waiting for me in that village (Sayak) and that I was better to avoid it. They were a little corrupt, and from what I had been told the village had a lot of problems…..and a lot of Mongols. Only a week earlier there had been some murders between mafia groups in the town of Aktogai 250km in the other direction. It was dawning on me that the railway was not a good place for me to be, and yet until now I had relied on it for water for the horses. Now I just had to hang on for one night and then head out onto the steppe and savour the security of wilderness and wolves. I would find water, even if it meant drinking salt water for a week. The guys who had helped me now sat around the table and began to drink. “This is the way we do it. This is how we solve all problems. Don’t be offended. You aren’t offended are you” they all began to repeat. I was angered. They also saw me as entertainment and didn’t have any real care for me or the trip. I refused to drink and thickened the shell around me. “Don’t you guys understand that the problem is not over. The mentality of that Mongol is familiar. In Mongolia drunks would return again and again no matter what.” I have to admit that Mongol Kazaks do have a different mentality to kazaks born here. I can’t put my finger on it, but they do seem a little more wild, abrasive, and very abrupt. And when they drink they become extremely aggressive and violent. There had only been two other times in Kazakstan when I had encountered such problems- with the Kazak Mongol driver from Ust Kamenogorsk, and a Mongol just 50km up the road who had told me to ‘buggar off home, pay for the water, and give him a horse.’ It is a generalisation I know but there is something about the Mongols, and it reminded me of the problems we had encountered daily in Mongolia itself. I can’t help thinking that they would have truly been merciless and intimidating warriors. I packed my things well and checked he horses every ten minutes. Then I stepped outside to check again. Just one more time before I hit the hay- it was after all, 2am and I had to get up at 6am. My heart stopped. I had no air in my lungs. I ran back to the hut. “Guys, stop your f**king drinking! A horse has been stolen!!!!!!!!” Within moments, there we were, eight of us, seven drunk, and running all over the shop with torches tripping over wire, falling onto the train tracks, yelling, “Wake the Mongol!” “Run over to the other side of the railway!” “Don’t worry Tim, don’t be offended, we will find it!” I had been relatively calm until now. “F**k you! I told you not to drink! Do you know how much the horse costs? I picked up a rock from the railway and hurled it into the air. “How the hell are you going to find the horse in this darkness!!!” I returned in a panic to where I had staked the horse. The tethering rope had been untied. End of story. Perhaps even more astonishing than the theft was that five minutes later the men came wandering casually back with my horse. “Found your horse. He was over the other side of the tracks.” How the hell had they found him? Now all that was missing were his hobbles. I was taking no chances now. I tied the poor horses outside the door of the hut (they should have been eating grass) and harassed the men. No one was admitting to this theft and apparently the Mongol had been sleeping. Everyone seemed to accept this as if it were just everyday business. I was confused and furious. I think sometimes I have a false sense of understanding of these people. I speak fluent Russian with them, but forget that they are not Russian- their culture is actually far removed and I do not yet grasp it. Until now Kazaks have been some of the most friendly and hospitable people I have ever met. I didn’t sleep a wink and at 6am began to pack. By 8.30am I was ready to leave and most of he guys were still sleeping. When I roused a couple they just repeated the same phrase. “I hope you are not offended by last night. You are not offended are you.” My hobbles were still missing and I could not find them anywhere out where I had staked the horses. I called for the Mongol and he appeared looking innocent. “Where the hell are my hobbles? Whoever stole my horse took my hobbles. Go and look for them.” He looked confused. “LOOK for them!” As the sting in the tail he then just went behind the hut and produced my hobbles. Had he stolen the horse then? Maybe. Had others been part of this grand theft? Maybe. I had everything now and the horizon was beckoning. “Have a good trip!” Cheered the men as I trotted away. Wide open nothingness. Rolling hills. Distant peaks hovering in the mirage. Wind in the grass. The sun angling towards streaky clouds. The horses moving fast, the last packhorse’s bell jingling. The railway out of sight, my compass tied to my saddle. Nothing better to ease the strain of last night. Thoughts wander. “Has this damaged your trust in fellow man?” says my friend Devo on the satellite phone. “No, not really, but I think I will steer clear of people for a while.” And so the last three days I have been travelling not unlike a wild animal, keeping my distance from even any scent of people and the railway. Lake Balkhash is stunning. A blue sea that is just as soft and soothing as the steppe. I have passed through fascinating flats of little trees that look a but like Sheoak and stony plains with a collection of colourful rocks- red, green, yellow and purple. The weather seems to be turning well and truly to winter. The lake has begun to freeze and last night was at least minus fifteen or so. I made my way through a snowstorm and some beautiful clear sky weather- such is the daily change on the steppe. One day it feels like I am riding through central Australia, the next through the Arctic. I have been drinking the salty water from the lake which leaves me slightly thirsty but actually tastes very good. Apparently at this time of year you can drink it- in summer the salt content at least on the surface is much higher. If only I had known that earlier! Its also been a tough few days. The snow turned the steppe to mud, slowing progress, but then thankfully froze. But soon the ice on the lake will be too thick for the horses to break through and drink the water. To be honest I wish there was more snow- I could avoid the daily search for water. Where I am now, the shore of the lake is actually hidden behind a kilometre of swamp and head-high reeds- almost impossible to get the horses through to there. This trip has well and truly begun and I am wondering if my body, mind, and equipment can really take this strain for another 12 months. Every night I just feel knackered. Today was thankfully a rest day for the horses, and a day of work for me. On the list to repair: -Trousers falling apart – Hat needs sewing up –Tent has another few holes (it seems to be falling apart) – Buckles broken on my saddle – Gloves need sewing up – Hobbles need to be fixed –Stirrup leathers almost knackered – Zip had the gong on my jacket – Tripod leg partly broken – Stakes need seriously straightening. Nothing is new and shiny anymore. For me this is the moment that the trip truly begins- without the aid of freshness and new that I started with. Somehow I really like this feeling. Starting to get closer to the dirt…and as my clothes wear away I literally become closer to the weather! And Winter has not even technically begun! Tigon, my dog is in high spirits. He just loves running around each day and seems a bit depressed when we have a day off. He just sleeps. Helps motivate me get moving. Aiming for the somewhere near the town of Balkhash by my 26th birthday which is in just four days! Tim. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)