Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Border Crossing

Friday was a great night out following the opening of new offices by one of our sponsors Kaztroy - reception and rooftop party with the unexpected sight of the Kazakh staff performing the conga round the open air pool - happily none of them fell in and I managed to resist attempts to include me.

My hopes of setting off on Saturday were once again dashed by delays in Astana with the paperwork for the horses. However yesterday we were able to collect it all, duly stamped and signed thanks to Gadik the vet, who has worked very hard to sort everything out. Below are the movers and shakers who made it all happen - l to r - Gadik the Kazakh vet, Rowena, and our long suffering interpreter Alia, who tramped round all the various offices with us.

Then it was out to the stables to load the horses, and away by about 6pm - Bauyrzhan has the knack of riding the uneven Kazakhstan roads and managed to drive halfway to the border before we stopped for the night.

Today we reached the Kazakstan-Russia border. Bauyrzhan and the horses sailed through with no problems, but unfortunately it transpired I did not have the required 5 day registration which is done automatically at the airport if you arrive by plane. Rowena had thought that if I said I was moving around it would be OK, but apparently not, so I spent over an hour sitting in a stuffy office while various officials perused my documents at length and slowly produced and filled in umpteen pieces of paper which I then had to sign, not to mention the £80 fine. Heigh Ho, that is old Soviet countries for you. However, being Kazakhstan, everyone was very friendly and I was soon on my way and setting out across Russia!

I had a beautiful ride on a hot but breezy afternoon through mowed hay fields and along a river bank - below is my first photo on the back of the little 'zhaba' horse - you can just see that his left ear is ear marked so it looks quite torn.

We have crossed back over the pontoon bridge - I was not allowed to ride over, so the horses went in the lorry, and I walked over. We have stopped overnight only about 30kms from Astrakhan.

Toad Horse

Friday August 27th

I arrived in Atyrau to the sad news that Zorbee, my horse that I saved from a sausage fate, and who carried me faithfully right across Kazakhstan, died two days earlier from colic. Rowena thinks it may have been something he ate, as another horse he was kept with also died. Very upsetting as he was a character and a good horse well up to the job and I had intended to ride him all the way to London, but these things happen with horses.

At least I still have two horses to carry on with - Big Bolashak the laid back Anglo-Trakener stallion who came with us from Kyzlorda, and also the original Bolashak ('little' Bolashak) who was ill in the spring and unable to come. He is hardly a beauty, but handsome is as handsome does, and he is a tough little Kazakh steppe stallion of the 'Zhaba' breed with an excellent temperament. Rowena could not understand why the Russian translator rolled about laughing when his breed was mentioned - it turns out 'zhaba' means toad in Russian - so apparently we are now the proud possesors of a genuine pure-bred Kazakh toad horse. Hopefully he will not behave like one. Here he is with Anthony.

The rest of the week has been spent sorting out border crossing documents for the horses, ownership documents for me, registration documents for Bauyrzhan to drive the lorry, insurance for the lorry, contacts in Astrakhan and Rostov etc etc. This has involved an inordinate amount of time in lawyers offices getting the necessary important looking official stamps on anything that rustled.

Anthony flew home on Wednesday - I think he had a lovely time enjoying Matt and Rowena's hospitality ...(below having breakfast outside their house on the banks of the Ural river)...

.....riding on the steppe with Rowena, talking to baby camels (see ) and sampling Atyrau nightlife (do you think he actually got in? - surprisingly yes).
...and of course the obligatory visit to the Atyrau Indoor Hovercraft Club. As you can see, the hovercraft has come on by leaps and bounds over the last year with the help of several containers full of beer, and the fan has been tested successfully. Whether it is a death trap or not remains to be seen - I will not be around to find out.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

To Asia by truck

Saturday August 20th

Rather a jump in time, as I have been in the UK for two months organising the next leg of the ride. One of the main excitements has been the acquisition of a back up lorry with a basic living area, partly sponsored by Gwyn Williams of local company Tristar trucks. It is an old Mercedes, as I need something which is reliable and can be mended easily in the middle of nowhere - there are no electrics to worry about. Gwyn made sure the lorry mechanics were gone over with a fine tooth comb, and has provided assorted spares including 4 spare wheels. It was a bit of a rush getting everything ready for my eventual departure for Kazakhstan on Sunday August 14th, but the basics are sorted, even though I did not have time to paint the walls of the living area.

At the last minute, old friend Anthony Frost decided to come along for the ride and share the driving, which I was most grateful for. We had an great six days drive out, particularly as Anthony is not one for roughing it, and we stayed in hotels all the way including a marvellously bling Ukrainian one - all that was missing was the gold taps - Anthony was in his element.

For Anthony it was all only marred by the night in the lorry outside an all night shop in Russia patronised by local drunks. We managed to cross all the borders without too much hassle, stay 'illegally' in a hotel in Astrakhan, and negotiate the pontoon bridge on the way to the Kazakhstan border.

As you can see below, Anthony enjoys his food, and I made sure we stopped at a roadside chaikhana in Kazakhstan so he could sample the local cuisine before we hit the expat world of Atyrau - here he is tucking in to a bowl of laghman.

And of course it had to happen - although the lorry flew like a bird for 3000 miles across Europe, we ran out of diesel only 12 miles from Atyrau - I blame Anthony.

We phoned Matt and Rowena for help, but in the meantime, a couple of good Samaritan Kazakh truck drivers stopped and sucked some diesel out of their tank to send us on our way!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The Mosquito coast

Monday May 30th
After a day's rest in Atyrau, on May 23rd Zorbee and I set off for the Kazakhstan - Russia border, which took us a week to reach. I had been dreading this short leg, as it skirted the northern coast of the Caspian Sea and I feared it would be stiflingly hot and we would be plagued by mosquitoes. However no mosquitoes materialised, and the weather was generally very pleasant, as it has been since leaving Kyzlorda.

The main worry was the occasional camel herd, as Zorbee is still very suspicious of them. One night he was completely freaked by the most horrendous strangulated camel groans in the dark - when I asked Baurzhan in the morning what had been going on, I managed to understand with my limited Russian that it involved two camels, but whether they were fighting or mating I am still uncertain. However as a result Zorbee yomped across through the sand dunes for two days. Baurzhan cheerfully suggested if I tied a camel to his tail I would get to London in double quick time.

This morning I reached my aim - the Kazakh/Russian border - and just in time as I fly back to the UK the day after tomorrow! Unfortunately my camera battery ran out as I was riding out of Atyrau, so I was unable to immortalise the moment.

I forgot to say that while we were resting by the side of the road en route, Baurzhan called out that a cyclist was passing, but I was too late to flag down the determined figure that whizzed past.  As I suspected, it turned out to be the intrepid British woman Sarah Outen, who is cycling and rowing around the world (in the opposite direction) and who was headed to stay with Rowena and Matt in Atyrau.   She is still resting over with them so we have now had the chance to meet up and swap notes.

Into Europe!

Sunday May 22nd
Last night we camped on the outskirts of Atyrau, tethering the horses in what seemed like an ideal grassy dip, but I was woken in the middle of the night by them galloping around on the ends of their tethers. The reason became clear when I got up to investigate, as when I reached the brow of the dip I could hear the roar of millions of mosquitoes - the poor animals were being bitten to death. I quickly moved them to a more breezy and mosquito free spot, sticking their Lansdowne rugs on for good measure, but Zorbee was already covered with little lumps. Thankfully they went down fairly quickly the next day, which was the BIG day when we rode into Europe!
Rowena came out early to ride Bolashak into to Atyrau. Here are Zorbee and I reaching the city limits.

On the Asian side of the river Ural which is the official boundary between Asia and Europe.Rowena and daughter Gwenny ride Bolashak over the bridge. Not sure why Rowena has a golf club growing out of her head. Husband Matt on the right, son John on the left.

Mission accomplished! Rowena and I on the European side with band of small fans.

And then we rode along the Ural to Rowena and Matt's lovely house overlooking the river. Bolashak and Zorbee are tethered on scrubland outside, and we are psyching up for a celebratory barbeque this evening.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Bolashak at Bolashak

Friday May 20th
I think I have died and gone to heaven.
Bolashak the horse is named for our sponsor Bolashak, a company providing support services to the Kazakhstan oil and gas industry, including the Italian oil company AgipKCO. So en route we have been hosted at the Bolashak- Agip Samal site near Atyrau. Here is Assambek the general manager welcoming a travel weary, louse ridden and distinctly grubby visitor who is severely in need of a thorough clean.

I was treated to tea and a dainty plate of sandwiches in a small spotless air-conditioned suite in their accomodation block. It has a bedroom, living room, and joy of joys a proper shower which was soon put to good use while my honking laundry was whisked away. It may seem odd to include a photo of what would be a perfectly normal bathroom at home, but after 6 weeks in the sticks this was a real highlight of my trip!

In the photo below our quarters are on the left, with the horses happily tethered outside near a large patch of rushes to munch on.
After drinks at the bar with Rowena and Matt who turned up to join us, photo session with Bolashak outside the main building and a good meal in the canteen, it was back to my room for a dose of English language TV and a sound sleep between crisp white sheets.

Drive carefully

One often sees shrines at the side of the road in memory of the many fatalities of vehicle accidents. This one rather poignantly included the steering wheel of the victim's wrecked car.

Mukier and muckier

Wednesday May 18th

A dubious alternative spelling for Muqir - I would not have said it was any muckier than any other small Kazakh town on the steppe.
This was the chaikhana where I had a plate of zharkie, a meat and potato dish. An ominous looking gang of Muqir youths in balaclavas - but in fact most friendly and eager to
be photographed. One often sees men in balaclavas - not due to evil intent, but because of the dust.
Is that a chaikhana I see before me? Always a welcome sight when one is plodding across the steppe for hours, and as I am following the A340, we encounter them more regularly than before.

With the little horse on the sign, this one seemed to be prepared for horse travellers - or perhaps it was an indication that the not particularly good pelmeni (small meat dumplings) on the menu contained horse meat.
As you can see from the photo, thunderstormy weather started to close in. This turns the tracks to slippery glutinous mud which is heavy going for the horses. When we camped on a hillside near Makat, we were hit by a tremendous thunderstorm which completely washed out my tent. The following morning Bauzhan only just managed to get the truck down to the main road by taking a run through the mud and then digging his way out for the last few yards.
The horses were not impressed by this statue of a trader with his camels near Makat!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Along the A340

Monday May 16th 2011

For the last few days I have been following the A340 which is the major artery between Aktobe and Atyrau, over the route that Rowena and I drove last autumn. The grand title belies the real experience, as it must be one of the worst roads I have driven on - see the December 2010 blogpost 'Braving the Potholes'. The photo below shows us on the brow of the same hill shown in the 2010 blogpost - this time with a horse not a Lada.

But the appalling state of the road makes it excellent for horseriders, as the traffic is minimal with about one vehicle an hour, if that! In dry weather most people drive on the earth tracks at the side of the 'metalled' road, which is more potholes than metal, and the tracks make excellent paths for horses as well.

Bolly had been plodding so slowly up to Bayganin that I had been dreading having to ride him and lead Zorbee, that being a better option than riding Zorbee and dragging Bolly. He was genuinely off colour up to Shalkar, but it is evident that recently he was taking advantage of Yolanda's kind nature, as with a firmer attitude he soon picked up the pace and has been striding out confidently.

The main concern has been the frequent small herds of horses guarded by feisty stallions who always come to investigate intruders on their territory. They are not a problem when riding one gelding, but more worrying when one is riding a stallion and trying to lead an occasionally recalcitrant Zorbee. We are easily visible for miles on the treeless steppe, but I usually manage to duck behind the road embankment out of sight, and sometimes Bauzhan waits in the truck to fend off hormonal males. The little grey stallion with his mares in the photo below persisted in hanging around our camp near Zhamansor one evening until we chased him away over the road.