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To Qyzlorda (9/5/05)

I lie in the back of an old truck, my gear sprawled among the bits and pieces of a Yurt tent. The horses outside graze on lush grass, and Tigon is curled up with a grin on his face- he has just had two big servings of tinned meat. Nearby, just 12km distant is the city of Qyzlorda- the destination I have been aiming for for the last five weeks. It's a bit of celebration for us. I am eating cherries, dining on oranges and bananas, and am enjoying the benefits of a decent nights sleep. Even have a cold bottle of beer just waiting to be opened. Have covered 700km since leaving Akbakai, and it feels as if a major chapter of the journey has just come to end. Yesterday in an exhausted delirium I was making my way to the city in the pouring rain on the horses when a car stopped and a large man stepped out and demanded of me: “Hey! Your horses look tired. Why don't you put your horses in my four hectare property. There is tonnes of grass, and I will give you the keys to my truck wagon. From there you can go into the city- I will drive you.” It couldn't really have been more along the lines of what I was hoping for. I rang the mayor of the city on my satellite phone - who was organizing a barn at the hippodrome for me- to let him know I had found a more ideal option. I collapsed into sleep last night, and woke today to a new day, shopping at the market in the city. Such a shock to see so many people and cars after five weeks out on the steppe. This latest chapter since I last wrote began in the village of Zhuantobe. It was there that Tigon had been recovering from his run in with the Lada. I spent two days there getting to know the locals and recovering a little myself. One of the things I really enjoy about resting in the villages is that everyone is so keen to be involved and help. With little kids tagging along I would take the horses out onto the steppe in the morning and leave them there in hobbles to graze until evening. The children all day climbed up onto the rooves of their houses and check on my animals through binoculars. In the evening it would be a family project to feed the dog, water the horses and eventually provide hay for the night. After sunset the heat of day cools, young people play about on the street, old babushkas sit on benches and chat. Camels wander aimlessly crying out, looking for their friends. In each back yard the outdoor stove comes to life- usually a dung-powered fireplace. The samovar is heated with coals, and freshly made drinking yoghurt is served. Eventually I convinced two young men to help guide me across the next section of my journey. Between Zhuantobe and the Karatau mountains (actually the very beginnings of the Tien Shan) lies a section of the Moin Kum desert. 120km of sand dunes and salt lakes without water would be suicide for the horses in the heat that we had been experiencing of late. There were apparently enough artesian springs to water the horses, but without help I would never find them myself. Daulet was to be my principal guide. He was the oldest in a family of seven. His father had died at the age of 29, and his mother had struggled ever since with her children. Like many in the village he made his living by illegally fishing with nets in the Chu river and selling them for 50 tengi (fifty cents) a kilogram on the roadside to truck drivers commuting to a uranium mine on the steppe. His face was blackened by the sun, and he walked with the wiry toughness of a man used to physical work. Eventually he and his friend set out ahead of me on their motorbike in search of the springs. A day of riding through a seas of Saksaool bushes, by salt lakes glinting in the sun, over baron steppe, and finally among a sea of sand dunes. Red and orange little flowers bringing light and colour to the sand. Tortoises crawling around here and there, many times almost becoming victims beneath the hooves of the horses. I followed the tracks of the motorbike, and surely every 10 km we watered at an artesian bore ringed with an oasis of greenery. We passed several abandoned winter huts from the soviet era, and others from which nomads had only recently migrated to the north onto the Betpak Dala steppe. I rode late into the evening. A full moon rose. The air cooled, and the horses fell into a slow walking rythym on the soft sands. We had actually covered more than 50km as the crow flies when Daulet came storming back on the motorbike. “Bad news. The springs ahead have all been closed. We have to make camp soon.” At midnight we all collapsed exhausted into my tent, and all woke at 5.30am to saddle up. In the golden light of morning we passed salt lakes shining like ice, and jogged over sand carpeted with Saksaool bushes and other flowers. We found a spring nearby and the horses drank greedily. This however was to be the last artesian bore to be found. The rest had been closed, apparently due to poisoning from uranium mines in the region. They guided me for a further 30km before tailing for home. I set my compass and headed off in the heat (about 33 degrees) towards the mountains on the skyline. In a hidden gorge I eventually found the village of Karatau, and arrived just on sunset. I spoke to the herder on the outskirts of the village who was quick to invite me in to his home for the night. By the time I reached his home we had covered over 120km in just two days. The last five hours I had even gone without water, and now all of us- tigon included- drank somewhat desperately. The Karatau mountains were somewhat of a relief to see after months of steppe and desert. Rising abruptly from the empty desert, they cut jagged olive green shapes into the sky, running in a long ridge from east to west. Tiny streams trickled down from narrow valleys. At the foot of the mountains were peculiar gorges running parallel with the ridge. They almost seemed like giant moats separating the desert steppe from the peaks. I spent a day with the herder's large family. He was one of nine children, many of whom sill lived at home. As usual I really appreciated the hospitality but in my tiredness I found it hard to live up to their expectations as somewhat of an entertainer. I find it very hard to really recover sometimes in villages. The Kazaks tend to eat very late at night and not sleep until midnight Since I have to get up at 5.30am at the latest (or if possible) to saddle and pack the horses I always leave villages feeling a bit tired and grumpy. The Karatau mountains reminded me of Mongolia once I was riding among them. On the higher slopes herders worked flocks of sheep and camels. Several summer camps were being set up by nomad families who had only just migrated from the desert sands. In the end I had left late from the village, and could not help but to take up the offer for lunch and a few bowls of fermented camels milk with one of these families. The next days passed slowly with little progress. The heat was paralysing for me and the horses. By 9 am it was already almost too hot to keep moving, and so I began the routine of unsaddling during the day and continuing on late in the evening. Four days finally brought me through the mountains and down into the sprawling valley of the Syr Darya river. The Syr Darya was once a might river, one of two main tributaries feeding the Aral Sea. However during the Stalin years the river was exploited for irrigating cotton and rice crops. Nowadays at the river mouth a bare trickle flows into the ever shrinking Aral Sea. For me this valley was a shock. The village streets were lined with trees, and everywhere there seemed to be little canals and ditches flowing with water. Huge low lying fields would soon be planted with rice and flooded with the canal waters. I found travelling here extremely difficult and frustrating. Canals criss-crossing the countryside forced me to follow roads. Usually I would just take a compass bearing and head off. Now I covered 24km by road, but just 12km as the crow flies. The people had a distinctly different mentality than those of the steppe. Many didn't even know how to get to the next village, even though it may have been only 15km away. People here it seemed rarely travelled. The irrigation guaranteed a sedentary life. Rather than be interested in my travels, most people either just asked me for a cigarette, or that I give them my saddle, or some kind of gift. One man actually stole a pair of hobbles from off my horse as I stopped to talk to him. Three difficult days finally brought me to the river itself. The horses were in a terrible mood after eating poorly- very hard to find good grass. My plan was to cross the river to the far less populated southern side of the river and follow some sandy tracks a further 100km to Qyzylorda. By midday, hot and irritated we arrived at the bridge only to be told that it was impossible to cross. Sure enough I inspected the bridge and they were right. The bridge itself was a set of pontoons lashed together with wire and tree branches. The last 15m were like a ramp made of pipes and concrete reinforcement wire. It was in two sections for the wheels of a car. The huge holes in the grid like structure would mean the horses hooves would slip through and they would topple into the river. Apparently people usually loaded animals into trucks to get them across here. In any case I was exhausted, and so were the horses. It was time for a break. The family living near the bridge invited me in and the following day while the horses grazed I waited for a truck- which never came. In the morning we came up with a different solution- to lay down all of my horse blankets, and a few sheets of felt from a yurt on the bridge, and run the horses across. Miraculously it worked! By the time we got across though it was already hot again, and I was more than pleased to let the horses graze for another day. I lay back in nearby mud hut, built by a tubby little Kazak who had only recently been released from prison. He had spent 25 years inside for stealing horses and running some kind of local racket. Now he planned to live out his retirement here on the banks of the Syr Darya. At 4am I rose and was gone by 6.30am. The cool breeze, an orange sky, the glassy surface of a canal. I passed through a village nestled among sand dunes with several Yurt tents set up n back yards, and continued along a deserted sand track. Only once was I startled by a stallion who came running, looking for a fight with my horses. To the south of here the Kyzylkum desert spreads out into Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. Very few people inhabit its burning sands, especially at this time of year. According to locals, there are still to be found a few wild camels and horses in this desert- very much a rarity anywhere in steppe country. In the village of Ayrdarlia later on I was told about a few lost wandering Karakalpaks who had mistakenly entered Kazakkhstan through the desert and turned up in the village. The were fed and looked after for a few days before being taken back to Uzbekistan. If the morning had been characterized by lushness and a cool breeze, by midday things couldn't have been any more different. It was in the thirties, there was no water or grass, and I was forced to unsaddle in the only form of shade I could find- a few saksaool bushes. Tigon dug a hole and sank into it looking depressed and hot. I didn't dare sleep due to the number of ticks crawling about. At 5.30 I saddled up again and travelled until 10pm, collapsing again into sleep. By 3am I was up again and feeling only pale glimmers of consciousness. Sometimes I have to say that Hungary just seems so impossibly far. Yet by the end of the day my mood may have swung entirely around and it will seem that the trip is slipping by too quickly and I don't want it to end. Anyway, another day finally brought me to the outskirts of Qyzlorda where I have already related I am relaxing in the back of an old truck. The weather has actually cooled a little bit and yesterday we had rain- the first rain of spring I have seen, albeit brief. Ahead lies the next stage to the Aral Sea and the town of Aralsk. I am hoping to get there before the real summer heat hits. One thing really concerning me is the state of the horses. I bought some special pads to go under the blankets of my horses to help drain away the sweat and keep the blankets dry. However I discovered that in the intense heat they only sufficed to rub away hair and leave raw skin. I stopped using these blankets, but it is very hard for these patches to heal now that the weather is so hot and I still have to put ordinary blankets on them. Horse care is probably the thing which amounts to most of the stress and worry during my days. Without those horses I am very much stuck up s**t creek without a paddle.