Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Last Straws

Friday 20th August
The bad news is that I have been beset by an endless host of problems - I have had enough last straws to make a bale. The good news is that in spite of everything I have at least managed to make a start. I arrived at Marat the Meat’s on the day of departure to the border to find that the bay horse had a nasty gash in his side - I think the result of a kick from the black pony, who is wearing the ‘mountain shoes’ the so-called farrier insisted on fitting in spite of my objections. They have nasty ‘calkins’, which are protusions on horseshoes to give grip in treacherous conditions we are unlikely to encounter. Luckily the wound was not anywhere vital and is not affected by the tack, but it needed stitching. Someone, whom I was assured several times was a vet though I am now very doubtful, did the deed. I stressed the importance of making sure the gash was scrupulously clean before stitching, but the whole thing rapidly swelled up afterwards, and I had to call vet out again on arrival in Zharkent, and two days later when I arrived back there. It has gradually been improving, and the walking will have helped it, but it is still oozing.
Then Kanat phoned to say there were delays with his registration and he would not be able to arrive until the following evening. As the truck driver had to get back to Almaty the day after travelling to Zharkent, it looked as though I might end up being dumped at the border (which is 10kms from anywhere) to cope on my own with three strange horses and baggage - not a viable proposition. However, the lady of the Kazakh home where I was staying came up trumps and helped to arrange a solution.
So here I am on Tuesday 17th August at the Kazakhstan side of the Chinese/Kazakh border with our truck driver, and local Uighur taxi driver Alimjan aboard the black pony, about to set off for Alimjan’s comfortable home at Pendjim10 kms away where we had left the chestnut horse, and where we stayed the first night. Kanat arrived later that evening.
The first two days went off reasonably well, and with the chesnut as packhorse, we made slow but steady progress to the small town of Koktal, though our seemingly idyllic streamside camping spot there turned out to be a mosquito infested hell once the sun went down. We had to move the horses across a busy road in the dark to a spot which I doubt was any better, and I slept with a shirt over my head.
However, problems began again today. The chesnut started hyperventilating only a couple of kms after setting out, and then it became apparent that he was also lame from a rope burn. Then to top it all it became obvious that the black pony was hopping lame as well, probably a bruised sole. Luckily a passing local, Jandos, said we could hole up at an empty ‘fazenda’ he owned just down the road, and that is where we are while I decide the next course of action. There is no electricity, but there are two dusty rooms, grass for the horses, running spring water into a cattle`trough outside, and even a long drop loo with no door, so we have the basics to be reasonably comfortable.

Our house.

An old fridge makes an excellent table, and we even have fanciful posters to brighten up the walls.

Kanat entertains owner Jandos and his three sprogs.

The Last Supper

Sunday 15th August

Marat the guide has managed to find a nice young Kyrgyz guide Kanat for me, and he travelled to Almaty to meet up with us and stay the first night at Marat and Valentina’s guesthouse - here is Kanat, Valentina and daughter Yana at our last supper in Almaty with a bottle of Kazakh wine. The only person missing is Marat himself, who was out taking a group of trekkers.
If you want somewhere reasonable to stay in exorbitantly priced Almaty, Valentina guesthouse http://valentina-gh.narod.ru
is not a bad choice. It is rather out of town and somewhat quirky, as befits a homestay in Kazakhstan, but spotlessly clean, comfortable and has convenient bus services to the city. The breakfasts are generous, and you have the advantage of friendly hosts who speak fluent English - as they work in the tourist business, they can give advice and sort out excursions, treks, guides etc on site. There is also internet connection and airport pickup.

In the morning I am travelling ahead on the truck with the horses to Zharkent, 30 kms from the border, and Kanat is following by bus in the evening when he has finished sorting out his registration papers for Kazakhstan. The truck driver will then truck horses and us up to the border in the morning to make a start.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Five Fingers

Yesterday I went over to Marat the Meat’s as the horses were being shod, the first time for all of them. Not too traumatic, though the bay and the pony were put down on their sides in the traditional Central Asian way to have their back shoes fitted. Here is the bay being shod before he proved too troublesome to be done standing. However they all seem relatively amenable, and hopefully with handling this will not have to be repeated. The wooden platform in the foreground is commonly found in Central Asia, and with a colourful carpet spread on it can be used for al fresco dining.I tried the packsaddle and saddle bags out on the pony (just in the stable) and he did not seem particularly fazed out, so with a bit of luck we will not have too many hairy runaway incidents. They are all basically friendly, and I was able to brush them all over without any problems which is encouraging.It was the last night before the onset of Ramazan, the Muslim fasting month, so the family were having a traditional Kazakh ‘beshbarmak’ to fortify themselves for the rigours ahead. I was invited as guest of honour. Beshbarmak means ‘five fingers’ as it is traditionally eaten using them. It consists of chunks of boiled meat served up on a bed of flat pasta which has been cooked in the meat broth. Our beshbarmak included horse meat and potato, and was accompanied by bowls of kefir, a kind of fermented milk similar to yoghurt which we could add to the dish.
Here is the meat being boiled up by Marat the Meat on an outside stove….
…and here is the family consuming the tasty results, although I tried to avoid the bits of equine innards with which it was laced. Marat the Meat is on the right with his son, and his wife is on the left. The girl in the middle is his fifteen year old daughter Arai, who speaks some English, so is continually hauled in to interpret.In front of the table is a bowl of the meat broth in which the meat and pasta was cooked, and which we drank afterwards from bowls. An enormous juicy watermelon was produced as well.

Buying Sausages

I eventually managed to pin Abdul Karim down, and got Marat (the guide at whose home I am staying) to drive me over to see one potential mount he had identified. Unfortunately, although it was quite nice, it was unsuitable for my purposes and the owner was asking a frankly ridiculous price way beyond my budget. Despair. But I had car and driver at my disposal, and decided to whip down to the meat market and see what Marat the meat man (who supplied our first horse) had to offer. Happily he had two likely candidates and I immediately bought both, in the process saving them from a fate as sausage meat.

One is a nice seven year old bay gelding about 14.3hh. I tried him out and he seems quite quiet, which is the main thing. The second is a smaller liver chestnut six year old from the same home which should do as a pack pony. I would have preferred something a little bigger, but it has a strong build and as the two horses already know each other it means they will travel easily together. He is a bit green, but appears to have an amenable temperament. They have been transferred to the house of Marat the Meat (as we would say in Wales!) to join the first horse. I have arranged transport to the border at the weekend, so hopefully we will soon be on the move! As they have all been spending time being fattened up for slaughter, they are in good condition but unfit, so we will have to start off slowly.

Here they are grazing on the river bank outside Marat the Meat’s house. As you can see, they are already comfortable with being tethered which is a plus.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Kicking My Heels

The elusive Abdul Karim apparently exists, and I have been assured that he is not a figment of the imagination and is currently somewhere in Almaty working hard at finding horses for me - and indeed has already identified a suitable candidate. The wait is rather frustrating, especially as I never quite know what is happening, but it will all be worth it if I end up with good horses, and of course I am immensely grateful for everyone’s efforts on my behalf.
In the meantime I have been taking the opportunity for a little sightseeing and having the obligatory snaps taken by all the sites on Almaty tourist route.
Look behind you! In front of the dramatic memorial to soldiers of the Panfilov unit, which was formed in the Almaty region, and all but wiped out defending Moscow in 1941. If you look closely and stretch your imagination, their profiles purport to show a map of the USSR. It is also a rather incongruous venue for Almaty newly weds to have their photos taken.

The happy couples do the rounds of Almaty top spots in enormous white stretch limos bedecked in pink and white garlands, and another popular venue is the Independence Monument. In front of this is a bronze book representing the Kazakhstan Constitution and bearing the handprint of President Nazarbayaev. An inscription reads ‘ Choose and be in bliss’ the idea being to put ones hand in the print and make a wish. So here I am wishing for some decent horses to materialise and put an end to the heel kicking. Whether or not I will be in bliss by the end of the week remains to be seen. One afternoon I took the bus up to Medeu in the hills behind Almaty, where there is an imposing ice skating rink, currently in the process of major renovation works in time for the 2011 Asian Winter Games. The other attraction is the enormous dam behind it, built to protect Almaty from mudflows caused by rain and snowmelt from the mountains - it has already proved its worth in 1973 when it saved the city from a huge deluge of mud and rock. The more adventurous can brave the 841 steps to the top - I decided to be among their number, though it did not inspire me to take part in the annual ‘traditional’ competition of ‘Baspaldak’ which is oddly a special word the Kazakhs have for a run up stairs. Is running up stairs really a traditional Kazakh sport? I could hardly manage a walk up stairs, and had to stop for a breather and tepid orange drink at the rest-stop three quarters of the way up.

The photo shows the Medeu ice rink at the bottom, and yes I did walk all the way up - the white wing things are where the rest-stop is.

You know you are in Kazakhstan when you see eagles hanging out with teenagers in the park.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Horse

Sunday August 1st
Last weekend I went out with Yuri the vet to see The Horse that Rowena has bought. The gentlemen showing off his one pack is meat man Marat, who sold us the horse, and on the right is Yuri. The Horse itself is Kazakh and apparently a pacer, but I was not able to see it ridden as Marat did not have a saddle, so I will have to return with one.

So only two more horses to find, but I will be meeting up next week with Atyrau horseman Abdul Karim, a trusted contact of Rowena’s who is bringing horses to Almaty to race, and hopefully should be able to find something suitable. It is immensely frustrating having to hang around while these things are being sorted out, especially as it all eats into my visa time, but I feel it is worthwhile if I can get decent horses.

The British Embassy office here have been amazingly helpful. The Pro-consul Svetlana Solomkina has not only included a write up of the ride on the Embassy newsletter, but set up meetings with both the British Council (who are going to provide a list of English teachers en route), and the charming new British consul Stephen Hickling. He has organised an official letter of support which I am sure will prove invaluable in the months to come. Svetlana lent me her delightful young daughter Anna to act as a most proficient interpreter when I needed to buy some essential accessories for the pack saddle Having concentrated on learning Chinese up till now, my Russian is sadly lacking, and it was bad enough trying to explain what a latigo is in English. I am attempting to teach myself Russian, but I fear it will be some time before I am even feebly conversant.

I had hoped I could edit my blog from Kazakhstan, but surprisingly Blogger is also blocked here and I am forced to e-mail my posts home once more. This means the blog posts will be a little out of date, but it should be only a couple of days, rather than weeks as with China.