Thursday, 28 April 2011

Who Dunnit?

Saturday 16th April

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.

Bad Hair Day Steppe Style

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.

Tulips from Amsterdam?

Thursday 14th AprilOr Kazakhstan? Which is where In fact tulips originated from. Spring is the season when they dot the steppe for a short time, though here in the desert steppe they are very different from cultivated tulips, being small, close to the ground and predominantly bright yellow with a black centre.They provide a welcome splash of colour and interest in the otherwise featureless, colourless and endless steppe, as do the wild irises which grow in splendid blue bunches.Spotting tulips has sadly become one of the few highlights of our days, and a pastime which seems to engender an inordinate amount of excitement. One of the only other attractions breaking up the endless monotony of the steppe is the very occasional chaikhana or eating house –they are so rare that Baurzhan is under pain of death to stop any time he comes across one, unless it is under 5kms from our camp site! Here are a tired John and I in a typical example with a couple of Shymkent beers while we wait for our laghmans. John is actually following or more often preceding us on his bike, which accounts for the garish outfit in Kazakhstan colours.

Cheers to Gagarin

Wednesday 13th April
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!

Korkut Ata the Kobyz King

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.

To one side is the Pyramid of Wishes – one must make one’s wish in the central chamber after walking round the pyramid three times. Here is Rowena emerging, claiming she wished for a shower!

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

On the Move

Saturday 9th April

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!

Crosssing the Kara Uzek river

Rowena and Bolashak near Dzhusaly

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Tomorrow is another day.

As this is Kazakhstan it was almost inevitable that there would be some unforseen delay, and this morning our driver Baurzhan failed to turn up for the planned 9 a.m meeting with Zhanar, a wonderful Kazakh interpreter lent to us by Sandy Moir to help thrash out some last minute hassles re pay and conditions. Together with the farrier Sandy had sourced for us, we were all kept waiting around until he eventually rolled up after a couple of hours to face a firm maternal ticking off from Zhanar. As by now time was running on we decided to leave our departure until tomorrow. Below is Baurzhan's truck which will be carrying hay, feed and water for the horses as well as all our kit. From left to right: the farrier, John, Zhanar, and a rather sheepish Baurzhan. The truck can also transport horses, and Baurzhan drove Bolashak out to Terenozek to meet up with his new travelling companion Zorbee. This was an occasion punctured by much squealing and rearing, but as they are in neighbouring pens overnight, hopefully they will have reached an amicable agreement by morning. The two horses have also had their feet trimmed and shoes put on the front. As I had asked for Zorbee's shoes to be pulled off when I reached Terenozek five months ago , it was slightly to my surprise that he still had them on, but he is in good nick if in desperate need of a thorough grooming.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Clothesless in Kyzlorda

We are now safely in Kyzlorda but unsurprisingly not without incident. Rowena in fact beat us to it and arrived on Sunday afternoon - but it took her several hours to negotiate getting Bolashak off the train as extra unplanned charges (for carriage cleaning, staying in siding etc) kept appearing out of nowhere. Our driver Baurzhan has sorted out a stable in Kyzlorda for Bolashak until we leave for Terenozek tomorrow. John and I arrived a few hours later in the evening after a pleasant train journey in spite of the tropical heating in the carriage - though this made the consumption of a number of bottles of beer almost a neccessity. However in the scramble to unload all our baggage off the train at Kyzlorda amid a scrum of people and carry it across a dark car park to our waiting truck, somehow the bag containing all my clothes went missing presumed stolen. This left me with just the clothes I was standing up in, and necessitated an emergency shopping campaign today. Kyzlorda is hardly the retail capital of the world, but a trawl around the depths of the Old Bazaar resulted in a somewhat eclectic new wardrobe. So instead of jodphurs and hi tech fleece, I am equipped to saunter across the steppe wearing such items as the glittery little spiderwoman outfit below. At least my riding helmet and boots are still with me, though I was bit miffed to lose the box of chocolates my children had given me for Mother's Day.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Arrival in Atyrau

I have arrived in Atyrau and am currently staying in Rowena and Matt's lovely house on the European bankside of the river Ural.

Yesterday we loaded Rowena and Bolashak the horse, together with most of our kit, into a cattle truck to make the three day journey by personal train across the frozen steppes to Kyzlorda. Bolashak and and his supply of hay and feed is at one end of the carriage, Rowena is camping at the other end with the baggage. Before anyone asks, she has taken a generous supply of plastic bags. Here are the intrepid rail travellers settling into their rather spartan quarters prior to departure. Rowena phoned in on her mobile this morning to confirm she had survived the first night alone in the wagon (apart from the horse) in sub zero temperatures - but at least she has our entire stock of sleeping bags to fall back on. I am following on this evening in considerably more style in a first class train compartment, accompanied by American photographer John Smallwood who will be joining us for a couple of weeks.

I am hoping we can make a start on Tuesday, but it depends on a number of factors including when Rowena arrives in Kyzlorda. As we have not yet tracked down a reliable farrier, and Rowena has not been able to get hold of horseshoes for Bolashak, we may ride the next leg without horseshoes. In any case last year I found that Zorbee's shoes had minimal if any wear once I was riding across the steppe. But both Bolashak and Zorbee will have a hoof trim before we set off.