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 http://www.rideopenspaces.co.uk/ 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.