Wednesday, 14 September 2011

To Elista

Me on little Zorbee the toad horse by one of the steppe lakes

Apparently belabouring offending motorists on the backside with their stripey batons is recognised practice for traffic police in this part of Russia?

This floating police car is seemingly another effective means of traffic control. It is actually made out of plywood, and is surprisingly realistic from a distance - it fooled me though I was hardly breaking the speed limit on my horse.

Mischa was the first mounted herdsman I have encountered in Russia, compared with Kazakhstan where many herdsman are on horses. He is showing off some form of steppe dressage in response to a request to pose for a photo.

The first real grass that the horses have probably ever encountered as they were both born and bred in Atyrau.

Bolashan arrives at the Elistinka river, which apparently lives up to its name. A local warned us
not to let the horses drink from it as it carries a lot of effluent from the town of Elista where we are currently staying.

Dropping Anchor

Of all the roadside shrines I have encountered in this part of the world, this must be one of the most unusual. Obviously a nautical chap, and one who liked a tipple, judging by the vodka bottles neatly stacked at the side.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

Hurray - we have come unstuck, in the best meaning of the phrase. We woke this morning to unwelcome overcast skies, but a welcome drying wind. Salawat turned up as promised, not with a tractor as they apparently do not exist in Khulhuta, but with a spade, and Bauzhan and he set to. Within minutes the lorry was free, but it was not an occasion for rejoicing as it was soon stuck again on the muddy track to the main road. After about 2 hours of digging, and reversing and revving the lorry forwards, it finally heaved itself out of the morass and we were free!
The next problem was water supply as ironically in all the heavy rain, the water containers for the horses had run dangerously low. Bauzhan drove into Khulhurta to replenish the containers but with no success. The village, as with many others in semi-desert areas, has its water delivered in tankers. Bauzhan found he was even unable to buy this precious water supply. So he resorted to filling up the containers from the muddy puddles which abounded after the storm.

A water tanker - and a tractor - why isn't there one around when you need it?

Later in the day even more huge rain clouds appeared and I got soaked.

But what an impressive sunset afterwards.

Stuck on the Steppe!

Sunday 4th September
Whenever I cross desert and semi-desert areas that have seen no rain for months, I seem to attract precipitation, and Russia has been no exception. After a long day's ride, I approached the village of Khulhuta as a storm cloud loomed over it. The little speck to the far right of the photo below is the lorry. After narrowly escaping being stuck in the mud near Dossor after a thunderstorm in the spring, I was a trifle worried. But little Zorbee was already staked out, the first drops of rain had started, Bauzhan had supper on and did not seem too concerned at my worries, so I relaxed.

Bad mistake. An almighty thunderstorm passed over with impressive thunder and lightning show, and it continued to rain all night. When Bauzhan tried to drive off in the morning, the lorry managed about a metre before plunging into the sodden steppe earth.

Added to this it has been raining on and off all day, so I am beginning to think it will be days before we get out of here. Most annoying as I was making good progress, but one just has to be philosophical about these things.
A sorry sight -
On the bright side it has given us a chance to sort out the lorry and for Bauzhan to show off his pecs scraping the walls of the living area where there was a carpet covering before - I hate carpet covered walls, so intend to then sandpaper and paint them.

It has actually been quite cosy snuggled up in my duvet in the luton with a book while the rain patters down.
And we have a goodly supply of vodka, not to mention Welsh Country Cottage cakes courtesy of Anthony, to survive on until we are extracated.
Early this evening the Kalmickian version of a knight on a white horse turned up - a friendly Kalmyk-Kazakh called Salawat on his motorbike.
He has promised to return tomorrow to help us out - well he has to as his motorbike wouldn't start and he has had to leave it here. Perhaps we should start a small settlement here based on stuck vehicles.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Into Kalmykia

Heading into the sunset of Kalmikia - Baurzhan leads the way. The lake on the right is one of the last, getting saltier as we head west.

Leaving Astrakhan

Friday 2nd September. Sergei the driver turned up at our hotel early yesterday morning to guide us through the streets of Astrakhan back to the roundabout where I stopped riding. I saddled up Bolashak and set off through Astrakhan, with Sergei continuing to act as a guide which was most welcome. Below is Bolashak negotiating one of the two long bridges over the Volga river. I only saw one boatman.
Sergei saw us onto the road to Elista before leaving.

The sign for the chaikhana where we stopped for borsch at midday says something along the lines of Welcome to our Rest Stop. Quite what the relevance of the bear is I am uncertain but the proprietoress was certainly not one. She was in fact most excited as she recognised me as a star of Astrakhan TV and we had to pose for photos. What it is to be a celebrity. From here on I came into a beautiful steppe region dotted with stunning blue lakes fringed with waving green rushes and teeming with birdlife.

Lotsa pititsa. If you are a fan of Clockwork Orange, you no doubt know that the slang used is actually Russian - so you should understand what this refers to. I would be slightly wary of using this picnic site.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Reluctant Russian Puppy


Wednesday 31st September
I had been dreading negotiating Astrakhan's warren of streets to reach the Volga river crossing, not to mention finding a suitable hotel to complete our necessary 5 day registration in Russia. So I was delighted when Matt and Rowena's friend Brian, who was moving to a post in Moscow, promised he would sort something out with their office in Astrakhan. Colleague Vladimir proved to be a Mr Fixit supreme, and we were met on the outskirts of Astrakhan by highly efficient interpreter Olga and driver Sergei. As it transpired that the hotel was a long way away on the other side of Astrakhan and the temperature was about 40degreesC, we loaded up both horses into the lorry, and followed Sergei and Olga to a lovely little hotel in a charming location on a quiet tree-lined street overlooking a canal.

We had air-conditioned rooms with spotless shower rooms, though in true ex-Soviet style, no plug for the sink, and the hot water took about a quarter of an hour to come through. And the impressive looking bar in the restaurant had no booze. But the staff could not have been more helpful, and the horses were in heaven in the grassy yard behind.
And all within walking distance of the centre of Astrakhan.
Our street had some beautiful old crumbling houses which reminded one that this has been an established settlement for centuries. My first aim in the morning was to find somewhere to change the SIM cards for my mobile and dongle. I was struggling to communicate with the shop assistant when fortuitously it turned out that the lady beside me was an English teacher. Tamara took me in hand, marched me off to the relevant shop and sorted me out!

Astrakhan is a most attractive city, and I wandered through a neat lawned municipal park full of trees, flowers and statues, to the Kremlin - no, I did not wander as far as Moscow. Kremlin in fact means fort in Russian, and Astrakhan has been a fortified site for centuries. The Astrakhan Kremlin is a most impressive place surrounded by great white walls and seven watch towers. It was apparently built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible in place of an older fortress, with regards to which my guide book graphically stated ' This fortress was constructed in due time as only discrepancy between the Crimean khanate and the Turkish Empire buggered up their joint crusade against Astrakhan'.

Hopefully this resigned class of Russian schoolchildren 'doing' the Kremlin were not being given the same take on Astrakhan history.

Then it was back to the hotel as Vladimir had sorted out an excellent local farrier to shoe the horses ( no-one was available in Atyrau) and also a visit by local Astrakhan TV. Quite an unusual interview even for me, as the young lady journalist spoke no English, so an English speaker in their office asked me the questions over a mobile phone and then I answered them into the camera!

The wedding cake. Baurzhan poses in front of the green, gold and white confection of the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Astrakhan Kremlin. Surprising to come across St George and dragon here, or should I know better?

War and Peace Does this waterless fountain show the Astrakhan version of a headless chicken?