Thursday, 28 July 2011

Yolanda Leaves

Our new motorbiking friend Assam turned up trumps when we reached Bayganin, sorting out accomodation for both us and the horses. Kazakh friends took the horses in to their secure farm yard, and then invited us in for a traditional Kazakh spread washed down with umpteen cups of Chai from a samovar. Yolanda and I are stting on either side of the elderly babushka or grandmother - she was actually only a year older than me!After our repast, Bauzhan got busy refilling all our water containers from the well in the yard. The well is the circular lined hole in the photo down which buckets were lowered. This was the family water supply. Then we drove over to our accomodation at a restaurant on the brow of a hill opposite, on the road out of Bayganin........

It turned out to be a restaurant where Rowena and I had stopped to eat when we drove back to Atyrau in October last year. Amazingly the proprietors remembered me from then - although I suppose they do not get many elderly foreigners in clapped out Ladas dropping by! I must have been immortalised by returning on a horse.

They had a couple of guest rooms in an building next door. From the outside it may not have looked very prepossessing ......

... but on the inside it was sumptuous, with clean and comfortable beds - the reason I am looking rather pleased with myself!

A big treat was going to the Bayganin public banya. This one had a communal steam room which men and women took turns to use. No large cold water container to fill the sploshing bowls, but a cold tap near the floor which took me some time to find. Yolanda and I went in together and I was able to have a good scrub and hairwash which should set me up for the final stretch to Atyrau.

Late that evening Bauzhan and I took Yolanda to catch the train home from the station. Assam warned us about ruffians who hang around there, so we were quite glad he turned up as well to see Yolanda off. And to help her board the train, as there was no platform and we only had a few minutes to dash along the tracks with her bags in the dark to her carriage!

I was sorry to see her go, as she took the rough with the smooth and we had a tremendous laugh together.

Hell's Angels?

Wednesday May 11th

A Kazakh Hell's Angel and his moll? No - Yolanda and one of two guys who turned up on a motorbike while we were having a rest on the way to Bayganin. This prompted a photo session with the bike.
The owner of the bike, Assam, turned up again at our campsite in the evening, and we were prevailed upon to hand over 5000 tenge so he could fetch provisions from Bayganin. Just when I was beginning to get concerned that it would be the last we saw of him and our money, he roared back laden with essential supplies of vodka and a Kazakh style takeaway of roast chicken and salads. Cue for a highly convivial and vodka fuelled evening with much recourse to the English/Russian dictionary - the photo shows Assam assiduously studying it, while Bauzhan tucks into the chicken.
We even had a late night visitor on a small horse.....

However the evening turned out to be a little too convivial, as in the vodka fuelled jollity, Bauzhan omitted to stake down the horses, and we discovered they had disappeared into the dark - I just hoped they had not been stolen. Assam roared off on his bike and we could see his headlamp in ever increasing circles on the steppe around us, closely followed by Bauzhan in the truck. As there was nothing we could do, Yolanda and I gave up and retired to our tents.

Morning dawned to reveal no horses, but Bauzhan and Assam snoring in the truck.
Bauzhan was none too happy to be prodded awake from his slumbers, but happily with his eagle eyes he almost immediately saw the horses far away on the horizon and tramped off to fetch them.
It was then that I realised to my horror that when he had driven the truck off to find the horses the previous evening in his rather inebriated state, he had managed to run over one of our precious Free and Easy saddles. Although it showed surprisingly little damage on the face of it, it was definitely flatter than before, and thus unusable. What to do? This meant only one of us could ride. However, Yolanda found out that her daughter had taken ill, and decided to return home on the train from Bayganin, which was only about 10 kms away.

So here I am riding Bolashak and leading Zorbee, while Yolanda opted to walk with me rather than travelling in the truck.

More Photos

Yolanda and me with a friendly Kazakh lady.
Zorbee and Bolashak grazing in the evening.

A herdsman comes to visit.


Yolanda and Bolashak

Monday, 25 July 2011

Choices, choices

Monday May 9th
On a ride of this nature through largely 'uncharted' territory as far as horse travellers are concerned, it is very difficult to anticipate what we will face on a day by day basis, and I am continually changing plans and routes.
I had hoped to follow a road along the Emba valley towards Kulsari, but when we reached Shubarshi, Bauzhan said that it had been reported to him that the road was badly cut up by heavy lorries and essentially impassable for the back up truck. With great disappointment we started heading north for the 'main' road between Aktobe and Atyrau. However, 1 km further on Bauzhan met us to say he had been told there was a good track along an oil pipeline (it turned out to be the same pipeliine we had followed to Shalkar) running straight across the steppe in the right direction for about 80 kms. So yet another change of plan, and after about an hour scouting around to find the start of the track, we set off across the rolling grassy steppe to a gloriously remote camp spot.
The next morning we were accompanied in silence for several kilometres by an enigmatic local Kazakh on his grey horse, until he lost interest and galloped off over the hill.

As before we were welcomed by the friendly pipeline security guards, who kept an eye on us and promised help if we needed it, although they derived a lot of pleasure teasing Yolanda about the many slavering wolves which they told her abound in this part of the steppe. As I have still not seen a wolf I am beginning wonder if they are a Kazakh invention!
We carried on over the endless steppe for another two days ....

..... until we reached a metalled road (but more potholes than metal as usual!) leading north to Bayganin on the Aktobe - Atyrau road.
Here we had another dilemna - whether to continue along the remote and scenic oil track which purportedly led all the way to Atyrau, or play safe and head for Bayganin on the A340 and railway line. In the end we chose the latter option. Although the oil track was by far the most attractive alternative, I was worried about the availibility of water and supplies en route, and also still had a concern about Bolashak, who was progressing very slowly. If we travelled on the 'main' road, it would be easier to truck him back to Atyrau if there was a problem, and Yolanda would soon be heading home and would need to get to a train station.

Mud, Mud, Not So Glorious Mud.

Sunday May 7th.
I was a bit annoyed on Thursday evening when Bauzhan had seemingly chosen a camp spot right off the road but had not driven down to guide us in - luckily Yolanda spotted him. However the reason become evident when we rode up -- the truck had a puncture and when Bauzhan tried to change the tyre, the jack had sunk into the soft ground so he was completely stuck. But the Kazakhs are nothing if not ingenious, and it was not long before he had constructed a firm base out of sticks ...

...and the new tyre was in place.
In the meantime we set up camp. But unfortunately the truck had chosen to have a puncture by the only tree for miles - slightly worrying when the sky darkened and a huge thunderstorm appeared - very atmospheric, particularly as an eagle had nested in the tree and was swooping around us.

It was not long before we were engulfed by rain, wind, thunder and lightning. Yolanda's tent was swamped and she had to retire to the leaking truck for a sodden night on a camp bed.

The following morning dawned cold and damp and we set off wetly through cloying mud. A cuckoo was optimistically calling in the tree behind us - surely it was not going to try its luck with the eagle's nest?

The frst ten miles clodhopping through clinging mud were very unpleasant and slow going. But at least we could move, unlike a couple of abandoned oil tankers we came across whose drivers had chanced their arm on the earth tracks beside the potholed gravel road we were following at the time. Not a problem in dry weather, but distinctly unwise after heavy rain.

Photo near Embi

Zorbee and me on the second day out from Embi riding towards Shubarsi.

Yolanda Joins Us

Wednesday May 4th
I have been joined by South African mother of two Yolanda for the next couple of weeks. She is riding Bolashak, who seems perkier, although hardly raring to go. Here they are crossing the railway line on the way out of Embi ..
..and setting out across the steppe.

The first night we camped at an idyllic spot by a little lake thronged with birds who kept up a beautiful cacaphony of sound as the sun went down. I am not an expert on the birds of Kazakhstan, but I thought I could hear curlews, larks and hoopoe, as well as the first cuckoo of spring. Unlike China, the Kazakhstan steppe teems with birdlife, including eagles and a funny little plump clockwork like bird which hovers and clicks and has a wide repertoire of calls - Rowena swore she heard it imitating a horse whinnying.

Yolanda has a quick snooze.

A Kazakh Kermit eyeballs Zorbee. Frogs are common along the rivers and can make quite a noise croaking both day and night.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Shalkar to Embi

Monday May 2nd

After seeing Rowena off on the train on Wednesday evening, we set off the following morning for Embi, leaving Bolashak at Bazargul's to rest. Zorbee and I made faster progress over the next five days, following a (relatively) good road across the steppe and over a low ridge of hills to Embi.

More Pointless signs!

Now Rowena has left us, Bauzhan has taken over the role of camp cook. Here he is concocting a tasty evening meal on the day of the Royal wedding, with Zorbee grazing happily in the background. We toasted the happy couple in vodka and orange in the middle of the empty steppe as the sun set over the horizon

The next morning I came across this cheerful truckload of children on a school outing. They were very excited to meet up with a foreign traveller on horseback!

Bauzhan trying to emulate the Statue of Liberty? No - trying to get reception on his mobile phoone, no doubt to chat to one of his stable of girlfriends

Riding down the other side of the hill ridge towards Embi....

Embi is a small railway town with traditional housing centred round an open square surrounded by little shops and a bazaar. I am staying in a government workers hostel which passes for the local hotel, and have a room with two squeaky beds and an electric point so I can charge up my laptop. My eagerly anticipated shower proved to be another interesting experience. The shower room consisted of a compartment with grubby tiles and two taps/showers which gave off little electric shocks - rather disconcerting when one is naked and wet. I was virtually on hands and knees to get full benefit of the meagre trickle of hot water, and my ablutions were regularly interrupted by the lady janitor who kept popping in to check the water temperature!

However, clean and refreshed, Bauzhan and I strolled over to the chaikhana opposite (door on right with propietoresses in photo) where we had an excellent laghman.

If you are ever in Embi, you could no better than to eat at this little eating house .

Tomorrow Bauzhan is driving back to Shalkar to fetch Bolashak, hopefully suitably refreshed after his little holiday.

Come Camp With Me

Travelling with Rowena and Bauzhan means that instead of the stale nan bread and elderly sausage I survived on in last autumn, life on the road has been a culinary delight. Once we have foraged for dry sticks, Bauzhan has a camp fire going within minutes while Rowena conjures up delicious feasts in a pan from a few cans and jars.

They would be hot contestants for a camping version of 'Come Dine with me', which of course would necessitate riding or yomping 20 miles before producing a meal.

Tiptoe through ...

..the tulips are changing as I ride further north, with longer stems and a wider variety of colours, though still smaller and more flared (and prettier) than the ones I am used to at home. Of course the excitement of finding different colours in the monotony of the steppe calls for a proliferation of tulip photos!

These lovely blood red tulips appeared to the north of Shalkar.

Rowena and Bolashak praying to Mecca? No - taking yet more photos of tulips.

Steppe camp among the tulips.