Riding through the sand dunes, we came across this unusual track, and found the culprit soon after. Who or what dunnit? Answer in June when I am back in the UK.
Thursday, 28 April 2011
Friday 15th April
We have been struggling through sandy desert riddled with ground squirrel burrows which the horses flounder through. The air is filled with dust, and today we fought against a gritty headwind. With our water reserves being a very precious commodity, basin baths are a norm and hair washing a distant memory, so our hair has achieved a sort of specialised desert lacquering from being stiff with dust. It does not do much for one’s skin either. Roll on Aralsk and a proper shower!
Rowena rides across the desert
A pointless sign.
Yesterday we rode past the Russian space launch station at Baikonur, by amazing coincidence on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, which took off from the launch pad there at nine o’clock on the morning of April 12th 1961! There were official celebrations at Baikonur, but as it costs about $800 to visit the cosmodrome not to mention the 40 days to organise the relevant documentation, they sadly had to miss out on our presence.
The area is now leased by Russia from Kazakhstan, but as the main G3 road artery cuts through between the town and the space launch facilities, it is easy to see from the road. So here we are at nine o’clock on April 12th 2011, exactly fifty years to the minute after the historic launch, symbolically toasting Yuri in ‘Heaven’ vodka, with the Baikonur cosmodrome behind us! Incredible to think that Vostok 1 was streaking into the sky across the same background fifty years ago, although of course we would never have been allowed within a hundred miles then!
Riding over the brow of a hill today I was rather taken aback to see what appeared to be a group of semi naked men in their underpants milling about on the road beside a battered coach. It was with some trepidation that I continued plodding towards them, sizing up my rather limited chances of a speedy escape on Zorbee as three of these strange creatures approached excitedly. However their intentions proved to be nothing more sinister than a request for a photo.
And it turned out that they were a group of Russian marathon runners from Karaganda running a Super Marathon Relay from Baikonur to Moscow in celebration of the Gagarin launch! The mutual delight when we discovered we were all involved in our own marathons resulted in a general photofest.!
They are expecting to take about three months to reach Moscow, and our best wishes go with this friendly and enthusiastic bunch!
Sunday 10th April
Just to the north of Dzhusaly is a monument and museum complex dedicated to Korkut Ata, a legendary figure credited with inventing the kobyz, a traditional bowl-shaped Kazakh stringed musical instrument played with a bow. The complex is sited near the spot on the banks of the Syr Darya where Korkut Ata is said to have been buried – yet another local figure to expire after being bitten by the dreaded Kazakh snake. As it was on our route it necessitated a visit – the photo below shows Rowena and John by the monument which is sculpted in the form of four kobyzes surrounding an aeolian harp (a series of tubes which sound naturally in the wind) at its centre. Behind is the wide valley of the Syr Darya. The little pimple in the distance is a monument to the sole survivor of 40 maidens who tried to cross the desert steppe to hear Korkut Ata play. Rowena rather caustically observed that if you are dull enough to try and tramp across the desert just to hear an old man play on a fiddle, you probably got was what was coming to you. The maiden who made it had shown enough foresight to equip herself with a goat to provide milk en route.
The speckled top to the walls is apparently to represent the snake that delivered the fatal bite. As borne out by the apparently high death rate from snake bite among local figures, snakes are quite common in Kazakhstan – below is one which I nearly rode over as it looked just like a twig –
The other creatures one has to watch out for in the desert steppe are scorpions. For two mornings running, Rowena found one under her tent, and John found four of them under his one morning. I am now taking a bit more care about bringing my boots right into my tent at night.
Wednesday, 27 April 2011
We have reached Dzusaly on the Syr Darya after four days riding. The horses have chummed up very well, although the downside is that Zorbee is sometimes a little too attached to Bolashak. We had a bit of drama at the start of the second day when I started leading him away from camp - he evidently panicked that he was being removed from his new found friend and managed to break away from me and gallop off across the steppe. However one of our friendly Kazakh hosts soon rounded him up on his horse.
Our first night’s camp with curious Kazakh hosts who let us put the horses in their corral overnight.
Zorbee and I provided yet more entertainment the following day when we had an impromptu ducking in a pond we were watering the horses at – Zorbee misjudged the depth and marched in before I could stop him – any excuse to cool down on a hot day!. Luckily my camera and mobile phone were in the front saddle bags which escaped a soaking.
A word about Bolashak, as he is not the little Kazakh pony Rowena originally bought, but a large lean black (well, dark brown) stallion that she acquired to replace the pony when he become ill. He may sound very dashing, but in fact he is so laid back he is almost horizontal, even carrying on eating in a totally unconcerned fashion when his rug blew off over his head. Rowena describes him as an equine Tim Nice But Dim.
We have heard wolves every night so far!