Thursday, 29 July 2010

Kazakhstan, Here We Come!

You have probably realised by now that not only have my blog posts been rather erratic in April and May, but the post dates for the last couple of months bear no relation to the dates they were actually posted. This was due to the block on the internet in Xinjiang. Rowena carried some posts out on a flashdrive from Hami, and I managed to e-mail some from Urumqi when internet connection was restored at the beginning of June. We decided it was better to ration them out rather than publishing them all at the same time.
My plans to meet up with Rowena in Almaty on Monday June 24th went by the board as not only did I discover the entry date on my visa did not allow me to enter Kazakhstan until the day after, but it transpired that the Chinese/Kazakhstan border was closed for three days due to a Chinese holiday. I had to wait until Thursday, while Rowena was booked to fly home on the Wednesday night. So no little celebration over a bottle of wine, not to mention the opportunity to thrash out plans for tackling Kazakhstan.
I had been confidently assured that the border crossing would be easy and there would be plenty of large trolleys for me to move all my considerable luggage. Not so, and it turned out to be one of the most stressful days of my life. The truck which was supposed to carry my stuff to the border did not turn up, and when it did after frantic phone calls, the driver just crammed me and my over twenty items of baggage including three saddles onto a crowded local bus . This took over two hours instead of one to reach the border, so I arrived just in time for lunch break and had to wait a further two hours in the sun. The actual crossing involved three porters and two minibuses, all trying to rip me off, with long waits in between. As for negotiating the customs buildings, I had to personally lug all the luggage through by hand - I still don‘t quite know how I managed it. There was a complete scrum for the single security machine on the Kazakhstan side with people trampling like a herd of wild cattle over my mountain of belongings, so I was reduced to screaming and pushing to keep it together and get it through. I have never been so close to punching anyone in my life! I think it was at this point that my rucksack, containing my expensive North Face jacket among other things, went astray - no doubt there is some happy Kazakh customs officer prancing around in the jacket at this moment. I had told Konstantin, who was picking me up, that I would be through by midday, but I did not reach him until about 7.30pm in the evening. In the meantime he had been arrested and fined by the police for waiting too close to the border, and had even been threatened with gaol. It would have been the last straw to arrive and find my transport to Almaty incarcerated in a cell!

I still had a few days in Almaty to meet up with people, including Sergey Buikevich, Vice President of the Kazakhstan Equestrian Federation, though I did not have a chance to see THE HORSE that Rowena has bought. Then it was back for a short break in Wales to regroup for the next stage. This included arranging a three month Kazakhstan visa, and sorting out a pack saddle as I intend to use a packhorse for the first month or so. I am extremely grateful to my wonderful vet Lisa Durham, not forgetting her husband Harry, for all the help they have given me both with advice and equipment for horse packing. In 2004 they set off with their three horses on an unsupported eighteen month ride ending at the Red Sea, so they are old hands at the game. See for Harry’s exceptionally amusing account of their journey (when are you writing the book of the diary, Harry?). In particular I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for generously lending me their pack saddle (and accessories) as the one I ordered has still not arrived from America. And in addition they gave up a whole evening quite literally 'showing me the ropes' - in other words how to secure baggage on a pack horse with a diamond hitch rope system. To load a packhorse is essentially a joint effort. As it was some time since they had done it, it necessitated a certain amount of memory dredging and a lot of patience, but thankfully against all the odds they eventually won through without a hint of divorce proceedings. Whether I will be able to replicate it ‘in real life’ remains to be seen, but I will certainly not attempt it with my husband.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

We Arrive at the Border!

Friday 11th June.
Today we arrived at Khorgas on the Chinese/Kazakhstan border, successfully completing the crossing of China, and covering about a third of the total distance between Beijing and London!
Below is a photo of myself with Bajiu and Zorbee at the border post, the empty saddle a sad reminder of the absent Peng Wenchao, who has been such a stalwart companion for almost the entire distance. But I phoned him on my mobile immediately we arrived, so he was with us in spirit. His father is still desperately ill.
We were inundated by Kazakhs offering cash for the horses, and it was a relief when the truck Mr Ma sent to collect them arrived and we were able to make our escape to his stables in Yining. Valerie and Niyaz are leaving for Urumqi, and I will soon be meeting Rowena in Almaty to start planning the next stage of the journey - she has already bought one horse. After a week there making arrangements, I will return home to have a break and sort out a three month Kazakhstan visa and other things.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Foiling the Horse Thieves

Wednesday June 9th
It was inevitable that the once picturesque valley running down from Lake Sayram to the south would not escape the creeping tentacles of the modern Chinese transport system. Not only is the old main road being torn up to be replaced with a brand new expressway, but the construction of an ambitious new railway link to the Yili valley has resulted in engineering work on a futuristic scale.

The Kazakhs are beginning to move their livestock up to graze on the high summer pastures, and we regularly passed flocks of sheep, and occasional herds of cows and horses being driven by mounted herdsmen.
These desperadoes have a bit of a reputation as horse thieves - when we stopped overnight at the little town of Guozi gu we were even warned by a Kazakh Policewoman against the dangers of Kazakhs pilfering our horses. The local police, although friendly, were very uncomfortable with our presence, and several delegations did their utmost to persuade us to move on to the delights of a comfortable foreigners hotel 20kms further along the road. They appeared to be convinced that hordes of marauding Kazakh horse thieves from miles around were at that very moment congregating with the sole intent of abducting our horses, and were only mollified by the construction of a sort of equine Fort Knox out of commandeered trucks.

And we were pressured into paying a night watchman to keep an eye on them, although Valerie opted to sleep in the truck, and I pity any potential horse thief who might unwisely have attempted to sneak past her.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Lake Sayram

Monday June 8th
After the hot tiring haul from Urumqi, it was a relief to climb up to the cooler temperatures of Lake Sayram, or Salimu hu as it is called in Chinese. On Monday we arrived at Santai, a tiny village on the lake shore, and found an idyllic spot to stay with a Kazakh family, overlooking the unbelievably blue expanse of water. The horses were able to relax and graze on the rocky hillside behind.
Here is the lady of the house making fresh nan bread for our delectation. One the right is one that she made earlier, and which we consumed later. The brown lumps of fuel are the usual dried cow dung - but they sometimes mixed it with coal dust. There is a nan cooking in the receptacle to the front of her.

Sitting on the kang to tuck into a midday meal of spicy lamb stew and noodles.
The next day we rode on along the shore of the lake to Zhagan Modun, where we met up with Wutzala of the Chinese Equestrian Association.

He was accompanying a group of equestrians on a long weekend riding trip to the Tian Shan. This involved a certain amount of partying in a yurt on the lake shore - below is an earnest Wutzala and jovial Singaporean setting the world to rights with the aid of a bottle of wine.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

An Unexpected Meeting

Sunday June 6th
An unexpected encounter yesterday when two foreign cyclists suddenly appeared on the quiet side road we were riding along - Darren from Gloucester and Tati from from Denmark who are cycling round the world. The first laowai (apart from Rowena and Valerie) I have seen since Dunhuang, and the first Brit I have met 'on the road' while in China, so it was a welcome opportunity for a chat.

In spite of the hot weather, we have been making good progress, partly by setting off at daybreak to beat the worst of the heat. Today we must have covered about 60kms again, a very tiring long plod, but it has got us across a waterless desert area and within striking distance of Lake Sayram. But we were set up for the day when we were waylaid in the morning by friendly Uighurs celebrating a Muslim festival, which necessitated their pressing a huge plate of pilaff on us.
The long uphill track to Sitai - Valerie is still striding ahead.

But this was the welcome sight that greeted us when we eventually plodded into Sitai, an old stop on the northern Silk route, now semi abandoned due to the new expressway which siphons traffic past within sight of the restaurant.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Beating the Heat

Friday June 4th
If you can just see the the speck in the irrigation canal below, it is a local youth who has come up with an novel new sport for the sweltering weather .....
..... surfing the chilly water rushing from the snowy peaks above.
We have been sleeping out of doors on more than one occasion, once by another Uighur restaurant. Here is the chef giving a manicure to a dead chicken - apparently chicken claws are one of the few animal body parts not on the local menu. Just about everything else is.

I was able to comandeer a bit of child labour to pump up my air bed.

We have covered quite a bit of ground, yesterday riding sixty kilometres from the rather dismal backwater of Tuotuo across the desert to the pleasant market town of Jinghe. Here I am beneath a tamarisk mound .......

....whileValerie sticks to Shank's pony. She is a trmendous walker and I sometimes wonder if she is taking part in the Long Horse Lead! Note the barriers to keep the track clear of drifting sand. Jinghe is over the hills on the horizon.

Niyaz found us a very comfortable hotel here in Jinghe - a good excuse for a day off, especially in view of the fact that the horses already need re-shoeing again, and there is a farrier in town. The traditional shoes that were put on in Jimsar a couple of weeks ago (which should have lasted until the border) have not lasted the course, and Zorbee lost a shoe shortly after leaving Kuytun. He has to travel on the truck while we searched vainly for a farrier - a worry when there is no Peng Wenchao with his rubber shoeing kit to fall back on.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A Change of Plan

Monday 31st May
The weather has been sweltering, and so we have been starting at dawn to try and avoid the worst of the heat. We are following the main 'Silk Route' transport arteries lying to the north of the Tian Shan, but have managed to ride off-road for some of the time - and the stunning white peaks of the mountains have come back into view.

We have had a last minute change of route. I had hoped to ride across the Tian Shan from Kuytun, so we could then ride along wilder and more unspoilt valleys to the south, but the police in Manas advised Peng that it was very doubtful that we would be allowed to take that route as the high passes were still under snow. Even the Kazakh herdsmen would not be starting to move their animals up to the high summer pastures for a couple of weeks. So we have decided to continue along the main routeway to the north of the Tian Shan, which should get us to the border at Korgas in about two weeks, and save a week's riding.

Another emotional farewell as Peng has now left to return to his elderly father in Beijing - and I suspect I will not see him again before I leave China. Two months on the road and the lack of a proper rest in Urumqi is beginning to tell on me, and I am feeling quite drained of energy at the moment. However the capable Valerie has taken over most of the work with the horses which has enabled us to crack on regardless.

A final photo of Peng and me.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Hutubi Hassles

Friday 28th May
The last few days have been quite eventful, but not in a way I would choose. At least the riding has more pleasant than I had feared as we have sometimes been able to ride along field edges.

The accident prone Shandan managed to get himself tangled in the tethering ropes while we were having supper on the first evening in Changji, and although he seemed none the worse at the time, a couple of days later it was evident he must have sustained a rope burn at the pack of his pastern as he was a bit lame after resting. The local vet treated and bandaged it, and we have instructions to carry on walking him. Valerie has swapped to Zorbee.
Put your right foot in! The Invisible Man marches in step with a newly bandaged Shandan.
On the next day's ride to Hutubi I discovered I had left my camera behind in our lodgings, and Valerie lost her expensive North Face jacket. Poor Peng was kept busy driving around to recover our belongings as Niyaz went helpless on us. The camera was recovered, but the jacket not. Then it took an age to find a hotel in Hutubi that would take us all - again the hapless Peng ended up sorting it out.
But before we had even managed to settle in, the Hutubi police descended on us and insisted that Valerie and I remove ourselves to a foreigners hotel. For the first time since we left Beijing, the ever diplomatic Peng brandishing our official certificate failed to dissuade them. Under different circumstances I might have been quite glad of a bit of luxury at police-negotiated cut rates, but it was very late, I still needed to go to hospital to have my stitches out, and due to my head washing ban that was still in force, I could not take full advantage of the wonderful power shower in the four star hotel we were marched off to.
However they did help out by taking me under police escort to Hutubi hospital - accompanied by the delightful Uighur police interpreter Mohamed, who visibly relaxed when we went quietly to our alternative accomodation. Perhaps a little too relaxed, as when I emerged from the surgery with another silly head bandage, he was a bit too quick to comment that I looked like a mushroom.
I thought the unflappable Peng seemed more distracted that he would normally be by all these frustrations, and it transpired that his father has taken a turn for the worse again, and he will have to return to Beijing, though he intends to stay with us until Kuytun if he can.
We are now staying in this Uighur restaurant somewhere beyond Manas. The Chinese characters advertise the culinary delights on offer such as sheep's head.

What on earth are we doing? Any ideas? Answer in future post.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

A Rest Urumqi Style

Sunday May 23rd
We have been having a few days so called rest at Wujiaqu near Urumqi, but I would not really call it a restful rest due to the relentless hospitality we have been receiving from the local horsey community.

The horses are being hosted in style by the 'circle of wise and wealthy friends' at the newly developed Qingcun Equestrian Club, while we are being put up at a very comfortable nearby hotel. The only downside is the ear splitting disco across the street which pounds out music into the early hours so my beauty sleep is even more severely eroded.
The irrepressible Mr Yu (looking strangely serious on the left of the photo below) drags us out for breakfast every morning, and makes sure we are royally entertained in the evening.

Someone has been at the baijiu again - Peng sleeps off the effects of the evening's toasting.
At the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, where the Uighur shopkeepers' eyes lit up at my arrival. Peng and I look rather dowdy next to these fashion conscious members of the Urumqi horsey set.

...but one of them soon tries to smarten us up (a losing battle I fear) by buying us colourful Uighur neck scarves carefully matched to our attire. Here I am with Niyaz's very decorative daughter who works in Urumqi and came to meet us.

Then it was a mediafest back at the ranch. Peng faces up to the reporters ........

..... while Bajiu and I are unexpectedly made to lead a parade around the racecourse - hence no chaps or jodhpurs, and sporting Peng's spare boots.

.... and then the assembled company pose for the cameras.

Today we visited a horse market, not a very salutary experience, before driving to the airport to collect Welsh endurance rider Valerie Price-West, who will be accompanying us to the border.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Little Bo Peep

Wednesday May 19th
If you are counting sheep all day, you might as well be comfortable and make the most of the view.
The white drifts on the ground as Peng rides out of Fukang are clumps of the poplar seeds which have been blowing through the air like a snowstorm for the last couple of days - shades of Fellini's Amarcord.

Bajiu and Zorbee share their grazing with some unusual companions - happily they did not appear to be too fazed by the passing crowd of camels, though Shandan was not too sure.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Cow's Feet

An idyllic spot for a midday picnic on a hot day, with the ever present cuckoos calling in the trees above...
Bajiu has a good roll ...
... while Peng and Niyaz tuck in to a feast of cow's feet ...

The foreigner gives it a miss.

Niyaz risks a ducking to fill the water containers at a pumping station ....

I think we have arrived at Ziniquanzi ..

Friday, 2 July 2010

In Stitches

Tuesday May 18th.
......which is what I was after gashing my head on a low branch during an evening spin to Lake Tianchi. Peng and I opted for the scenic walk up to this 'Heavenly Lake' which is a major Xinjiang tourist attraction in the Tian Shan to the east of Urumqi.

... though Niyaz dropped out early on

The signs on the way did not exactly inspire me with confidence ........

As if it had crossed my mind ........................

............but unfortunately for someone such as myself with no head for heights, the walk turned out to be not so heavenly as we neared the top
I was so busy keepiing my head down while tacking the ghastly precipitous zigzag bit that I did not see the overhanging tree.
However the views at the top were worth it...

Then it was a trip to Fukang hospital to have my head stitched, though Peng and Niyaz were also in stitches when I emerged from the surgery with this unflattering bandage on my head. In a misguided attempt to cheer me up, Peng helpfully suggested I would fit in better locally now I look like a Muslim.

To my utter horror I have been told I cannot wash my hair for ten days, just when I was looking forward to a complete scrub down at Urumqi.