Wednesday 29 December 2010

Braving the potholes

It is some time since I wrote on my blog, and I will attempt to bring it up to date!
After reaching Kyzlorda at the end of October, and settling Zorbee in his winter home, I drove to Atyrau to catch my flight home. This was about another 1000miles/3 days drive, and I was very glad to have the company of cousin Rowena, who lives in Atyrau but came down on the train to join up with me.
The first part of the drive was along the new M3 to Aktobe, which is part of the planned trans Asia expressway system - as you can see, it is pretty whizzy - but unfortunately stretches like this do not last for long .......

....and it is soon back to the earth tracks running parallel to the road under construction.
It gradually became clear that the jeep was suffering some sort of radiator problem, but we fortuitously came across a water truck which enabled us to replenish the water. The truck driver is evidently most amused by our antics - the Kazakhs are used to expatriot oil men roaring past in brand new BMW or Suzuki 4x4s, and found the concept of two unaccompanied foreign ladies of a certain age tootling across the steppe in a clapped out Lada eccentric to say the least.
We plugged on for another couple of hundred miles to the next small one horse town in the middle of nowhere, where we managed to track down a back street garage. The mechanics below sorted out the problem while we resisted offers of betrothal to the one eyed Romeo on the right - they did not seem too concerned that we already had husbands. But he made an impressive job of personally blowing out the air lock which was causing the trouble.
On the third day we followed the A340 from the bright lights of modern Aktobe to the bustling oil city of Atyrau. One would imagine that there would be a fast and well maintained expressway linking two such major Kazakhstan urban centres, but we were soon to discover otherwise. For over 200 miles we were unable to drive faster than 20mph, the reasons being obvious if you look at the photos below. The potholes could easily swallow a small juggernaut and it was a toss up whether to drive around or through them. You may be wondering why the Lada lights are on - in Kazakhstan it is illegal to drive outside towns without headlights even during the day. Not such a bad idea when you see the speed at which traffic travels along narrow and bumpy roads. Not that there was much traffic here.
The alternative (if it is not during the thaw) is to drive along the maze of earth tracks at the side.
A desolate view looking west along the A340 to Atyrau as dusk starts to fall. With the Lada playing up and the night temperatures below freezing, it was not an occasion when one wanted to break down, but at least we were equipped with tents and sleeping bags if the worst had come to the worst.

Monday 15 November 2010

1000 miles across Kazakhstan

I am woefully behind with my posts due to one thing and another, so the first thing to say is that on Monday October 11th, in spite of all my earlier setbacks, I successfully reached my 2010 aim of Kyzlorda. The following day I rode Zorbee on to his winter quarters at Terenozek, 50 kms further along my route. This not only means I have ridden 1000 miles from the Chinese border, but it puts me about halfway across Kazakhstan and nearly halfway to London!
Being Kazakhstan, I suppose it was inevitable that we would not finish without a parting setback, and so it proved. Bakhram had not realised his registration papers were out of date, and he was detained and served with a deportation order by the immigration police. He spent a miserable night locked up in a detention room with a variety of offenders, and was only let out late the following evening after his court appearance. It was not so much of a problem for me as it was the penultimate day of riding and the wonderful Sandy Moir, who is the British embassy 'warden' for the Kyzlorda area, came to my rescue, sorting out overnight accomodation for Zorbee outside Kyzlorda and fetching me in his car.
However it was not such good news for Bakhram as it means he will not be allowed back into Kazakhstan for 5 years. This is what a Kazakhstan deportation stamp looks like ....

Sandy also provided me with a fantastic flat with all mod cons, although after over a week on the road it was the hot shower which was my priority! Here we are in the kitchen...

The last week's riding across the flat steppe was somewhat monotonous and I went through my whole limited repertoire of songs including nursery rhymes ...

though occasionally there was a subtle change of scenery ....

The big excitement was seeing the great Syr Darya or Jaxartes for the first time. Here is Zorbee perusing it from a bridge over an irrigation watercourse leading off the main river. Pony Club children please note this is a demonstration of how NOT to tie up a horse. Zorbee is wintering with Ahmed Davletpayeva, the parent of one of Sandy's Kazakh interpreters - here I am with Ahmed and his wife outside their typical Kazakh house at Terenozek. You may just be able to see Zorbee in a pen at the back of the yard behind us.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Donkey Work

I often dismount and lead Zorbee to give both of us a change and a rest. In Asia people can never comprehend why one would possibly want to walk on foot when one has a perfectly good horse to ride, and as a result I often get strange looks - although of course this may be for other reasons!

For my part I can never understand how very large men can possibly be comfortable riding on very small donkeys, when they are in possession of perfectly good legs which nearly reach the ground in any case - and if they have a donkey they will not walk even a step.

Above - herdsman Talgat who invited me to join him for chai near Shayan.

As in many other parts of the world, donkeys are expected to work like, well, donkeys. The photo above gives a new meaning to the phrase 'Ride and Drive' and is a fairly common sight though usually not with such a lump on board.

Surely it would be easier just to pull the cart oneself?

This self possessed little boy was better suited to his mount than some ofthe examples above. He must have only been about 6 years old, but armed with plastic bag on stick, he was in sole charge of a large flock of about 200 sheep and goats.

Friday 15 October 2010

Seeing Sauran

Tuesday 5th October

On our day off in Turkestan I was eager to visit the ancient ruined oasis city of Otrar, which lies about 50 miles to the south. In 1217 it was the somewhat ill considered decision of its governor Inalchuk to arrest merchants sent by Genghis Khan on spying charges, the situation being exacerbated when they were subsequently put to death - not good thinking. This suidical action precipitated Genghis Khan's swift conquest of the lands of the Korezmshahs which included this southern area of present day Kazakhstan - Inalchuk was executed and Otrar razed to the ground. Having recovered from this setback, it later achieved notoriety as the place where Timur died of fever.
But unfortunately due to our other activities we did not have time to make the 100 mile round trip there.

So after a day's riding across the flat desert steppe land of the Syr Darya valley it was a great excitement to see the crumbling walls of the old Silk Road city of Sauran rising up in the distance. Sauran escaped the fate of Otrar by wisely surrendering to the forces of Genghis Khan without resistance. At one point it was the largest city in the area that is now Kazakhstan, but with the rising prominence of Turkestan it was virtually abandoned by the 18th century.
It is now crawling with archaeologists excavating and developing the site. Restoration includes the controversial method of using new materials for partial reconstruction, as you can clearly see with these steps up to a madrassah at the centre of the site.

Apart from the madrassah, they are currently working on the remains of a mosque, which can be seen in the middle distance in the photo below. The city walls are on the horizon.

The workforce are a cheerful and friendly bunch and even invited me to join them for lunch. One of them is perusing a copy of my consulate letter on the right - I find it indispensable for quickly explaining who I am and what I am up to!

Thursday 14 October 2010

Turkestan Break

Sunday 3rd October

We are now following the valley of the Syr Darya, or ancient Jaxartes river, and have reached the Silk Road town of Turkestan. En route I discovered the culprit below skulking behind the treeline bordering the road - cotton!
It was the diversion of water from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya (Oxus river) to irrigate the deserts of Central Asia for cotton production such as this which resulted in the tragic dessication of the Aral Sea, which is fed by these two great rivers. By 2004 the Aral Sea had shrunk to about a quarter of its original size. But more about the Aral Sea when we reach it next year.
An enormous pile of 'white gold'.
This productive irrigated area also grows other crops such as melons and tomatoes - here is a novel use of an old bus as a roadside melon shop.

Having found a local family on the edge of Turkestan to look after Zorbee for a couple of nights, we are staying at the Yassi hotel, which is clean and comfortable, but with the usual Kazakhstan quirks such as hot water only after 8pm. The restaurant served 100 year old cow and there was no milk for the tea. But it is conveniently directly opposite the major Turkestan attraction and important Muslim pilgrimage site of the Timurid Kodja Ahmed Yassuai mausoleum, and we were able to stroll over there after a milkless breakfast tea this morning.

You can get an impression of the size of the mausoleum by the size of the figures - the tiny blue thing to the left of the archway is me. Behind the huge facade is a stunning blue-tiled dome which cannot be seen in the photo.
The mausoleum was commissioned by Timur - sometimes better known to us as Tamerlane - in memory of 12th century Sufi mystic Ahmed Yassuai.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Food Glorious Food

Wednesday 29th September

As well as pot noodles, our diet while camping has largely consisted of sausage and increasingly stale nan bread. This has occasionally been relieved by a visit to an all too rare roadside eating establishment, and on crossing the Karatau mountains and reaching relative civilisation, we were looking forward to the possibility of a decent meal. Thus it was with a sense of eager anticipation that we arrived at the wild west town of Cheyenne, or Shayan in its Kazakh incarnation, which boasted this imposing gateway as evidence of its supposed status.

In China any self-respecting town of this size would contain at least several dozen well patronised eating places. So Bakhram bounced off happily to scout for one, but returned to report woefully that he had only found one cafe and it had run out of food. That is Kazakhstan for you. Heigh ho. So it was back to the local shop to stock up on sausage and bread again - although at least the bread was fresh.
However after several hours riding across the steppe the following day ......


.......we were rewarded when we reached the main Shymkent-Turkestan road to find this delightful little restaurant, where Zorbee polished off half a bale of hay while we tucked into shashlik and laghman, with a pile of nan and a big pot of milky tea.

My husband enjoys his meals, and is continually pestering me as to what the food is like in Kazakhstan, so for his benefit and yours, here is a very brief pictorial guide to the main elements of Kazakh cuisine.

Laghman is a dish of spicy meat and vegetables served on a bed of noodles. You cannot see the noodles under the topping in the photo above, which also shows the plate of bread and teapot of milky tea which is commonly served with meals.

Shashlik - barbecued meat on skewers.

Manti - steamed dumplings filled with spiced lamb or beef, rather like large ravioli. Pelmeni are a smaller version like Chinese steamed dumplings.

Plov - a rice based dish cooked with meat, carrot and onion. It may also contain raisins.

This is plov being cooked up on a street brazier.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Krossing the Karatau

Tuesday 28th September

After leaving Taraz on Friday, we worked our way along the northern side of the Karatau range to the small town of Karatau, where we struck westwards across the mountains towards the Syr Darya river valley. Along the road to Karatau it was always possible to ride over the steppe land at the side.
It transpired that the road I had originally planned to take no longer existed, but with the help of local advice, including herdsmen en route, we were able to follow a rough and remote track all the way over the range. The snowy peaks of the Zailisky mountains came into view again, but so far in the distance that they do not show up on the photo below. But I promise they are there! The blackened 'Mordor' like appearance of the hills is due to burning off dry grasses, presumably to promote fresh growth.
The only people we met were a small group of amiable herdspeople tending a large flock of sheep and goats on the high pastures. To my surprise they turned out to be Kurdish. Here are the 'boys' looking immensely pleased with themselves at having persuaded me to immortalise them in pixels, while the missus looks on resignedly.

She had every reason to look a trifle fed up a few minutes later when another member of the clan turned up with one of their sheep slung over the saddle - its throat torn out by a wolf.

An uneasy reminder of the presence of wolves in these parts, though Bakhram assures me they will not attack a horse with a person. And we had a peaceful lupineless night at this secluded spot high in the hills.

Thursday 30 September 2010


Thursday 23rd September.

I have reached Taraz, having covered five hundred miles across Kazakhstan. We are all enjoying a day off, Zorbee in a cowshed on the edge of town, Bakhram and I at the Taraz hotel where we can avail ourselves of a hot shower and wash all our smelly clothes, though in the tradition of all rundown ex Soviet hotels, the bathroom does not have plug, cistern cover or loo paper.
The riding over the last few days has been quite scenic with the reappearance of the snow-capped Zailisky mountains to the south. We will soon be leaving the Tian Shan and its outlying spurs for good, so here is a final reminder .

A beautiful morning

By the Zailisky mountains
Flying mountain top - it is above the first layer of cloud.

On Tuesday we took the back road to the peaceful and little-visited ruin of Akyrtas, although as the site is being developed with a museum and hotel, that may not hold true for much longer. It is still a mystery exactly what these ancient ruins are - possibly a caravanserai or Nestorian monastery - the archaeologists are still researching and debating. As it appears to have been abandoned before building was complete, it holds few clues to its real purpose. Here I am with one of the retainers who was most surprised to have a visitor on horseback bound for London, and even took a photo of me.
No visit to Taraz is complete without a visit to the Aisha Bibi Mausoleum, which stands as a salutary warning against the dangers of snakebite. This lovely mausoleum set among red rose bushes was erected by Shakhmahmud, Governor of Taraz, for his lover Aisha, who ran away to join him but was tragically bitten by a snake en route and died at this spot.
I have in fact seen three snakes of various sizes since I have been in Kazakhstan, but happily they have all been focused on a rapid exit stage left.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Transiting the Zone.

Friday 17th September

For 21 kms, the main Almaty to Shymkent road actually runs along the Kazkahstan/Kyrgyzstan border. In the past this has presented no great problem, but since the troubles in Kyrgyzstan this year, the Kazakhstani powers that be have thought fit to erect a huge fence of coiled barbed wire along the boundary. This would be OK except it is on the Kazakhstan side of the road, so that if you are travelling along this section of road you are effectively trapped on the Kyrgyzstan side. And they have designated it a no-stopping ‘transit zone’.

Again OK if you are in a car, but a little more complicated if you are on four legged transport and find yourself in the zone with dark falling.

This situation was partly caused by the fact that I was stopped and interrogated by every eager little Kazakhstan soldier who popped up at regular intervals along the border (are they seriously expecting a Kyrgyz invasion?) and held up for over half an hour at a watch tower. This was while traffic sped past unmolested. But I suppose I have to accept that until the invasion occurs they must lead a rather uneventful life and I am the best entertainment they have had in weeks.
In such circumstances it was inevitable that we ended up camping in the transit zone and ignoring military requests for us to move on. The last time I read by torchlight under the covers it was not to avoid the attentions of the Kazakhstan army!

We are now ensconced in a field of akfalfa near Merke, courtesy of Ukrainian bee keeper Anatoly, who also kept an eye on Zorbee while Bakhram and I went off to purchase much needed victuals and a bottle of vodka to share with our host before he joined us for a bonnet buffet.

Here is one of the big ‘bee wagons’ which can house thousands of bees in the stacked bee boxes which make up the sides. This one was surrounded by a throng of little birds swooping around a making a meal of bees - very pretty pale-coloured things, but not so popular with the beekeepers. I don’t know what they were, but they were called something like ‘schuur’ in Russian. Anyone know?

The beekeepers sell the honey in large pots at the side of the road.

Monday 27 September 2010

Watching Over Us

Wednesday 15th September

Someone must be watching over us, as when the Lada broke down on Sunday, it was within a hundred yards of one of the few garages for miles around, and thankfully not negotiating the very rough and isolated track through the rugged mountains.
Added to which it snowed in the mountains only the day after we came down. Broken down and snowed in in the middle of nowhere would have made continuing somewhat difficult if not impossible. So I was surprisingly cheerful about the afternoon delay while the mechanics sorted the problem out.

We have also warranted a police escort for a couple of days, as the Kordai district Tourism office were concerned about ‘bad people‘ along the road. Here is a stout member of our police retinue guarding Zorbee while Bakhram and I take advantage of our new VIP status and stroll off for a spot of lunch and shopping in Kordai. As you can see, officials in Kazakhstan have hats large enough to hold a small police convention on.
And here they are poring over our route maps with Bakhram. The plain clothes policeman guarded us overnight in his car ….
…and also showed us the best roadside restaurant for a shashlik lunch.