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.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The High Road to Kyrgyzstan

Saturday 11th September To avoid a long boring tramp along the high road, we have taken a short cut over a spur of the Zailisky mountains. This was a beautiful route along a very rough track through some stunning scenery.
An idyllic campsite with plenty of fresh if rather cold water to wash in!

Isolated yurts.

The only downside was that this route brought us inconveniently close to the Kyrgyzstan border, and we had a worrying few moments early on when we reached a Kazakhstan military checkpoint and thought we would be turned back. But our consulate letter seemed to do the trick and thankfully we were waved on.
But the next day we took a wrong turning, and if it had not been for the advice of a local herder, would have found ourselves on the wrong side of the border in Kyrgyzstan. Not such a problem for Bakhram, who is from Kyrgyzstan, but it could have been uncomfortable for me if I had been discovered there without a visa.

Which way to go?
I never knew Sancho Panchez had made it to Kazakhstan.

Coming down the other side to Embe .....


Crows and Dombras

Thursday 9th September

I have been riding steadily westwards along the foot of the Zailisky mountains through some unspoilt and quiet countryside, passing the occasional small village. But little hilltop citadels, such as shown in the photo below, invariably turn out to be one of the Moslem graveyards which are scattered throughout the area.

Sometimes we pass herds of sheep, cattle or horses, with or without attendant herdsmen..

sometimes we are approached by a curious riders - here a Kazakh on his chestnut stallion....

Compared with China, Kazakhstan teems with birdlife, but curiously this includes enormous flocks of crows, rather ominously reminiscent of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. I did not linger through this field, which must have contained several hundreds.

One village we visited en route was Zhambyl, named after the renowned pro-Soviet Kazakh poet/musician Zhambyl Zhabaev, who was apparently able to perform the entire Kyrgyz epic 'Manas' by heart, among other talents. The Soviet authorities gifted him a house here, and the building with its rooms as he lived in them is now open to the public. There is also a surprisingly substantial museum attached, as well as a mausoleum in the grounds.

The museum includes this diorama of a white bearded Zhambyl sporting his ever present fur hat. All the labelling is in Kazakh, so I have no idea who the shifty looking character in the white bedsheet is, but his dombra playing is apparently not up to much, judging by the way Zhambyl is clutching his stomach. In case you have not boned up on Central Asian musical instruments, a dombra is a Kazakh two-stringed guitar, particularly important for accompanying aitys, or Kazakh traditional improvised verse performance.

Kazakhstan is not short of ancient car wrecks, but this Mad Max livestock pen is a novel use for them.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Around Almaty

Wednesday 8th September
Almaty is tucked right into the mountains to the south, so getting round the city without tramping through town meant scrambling over the hills on little footpaths really meant for hikers - scrambling being the operative word. It was so steep and tricky in places that I had to lead Zorbee for much of the time, as well as negotiate roots and fallen branches. It is highly unlikely I would have got a packhorse over this route!

However the splendid views of Almaty with the steppe extending into the distance beyond made it all worthwhile, though the photo below does not do the view justice by any stretch of the imagination.

And the added bonus of travelling by horse is the interest it sparks - at Medeu I was invited in for a welcome cup of chai by local horse owner Ulaan - not something that is offered to the many hikers that trudge this way! Here is Zorbee giving a pony ride to his little daughter Uljaan.

And at long last I have had the change to christen my new tent. In style, as a nice gentleman let us camp in his apple orchard at Medeu, complete with al fresco dining room.

Wolves and Mosquitoes.

I have been out of touch for the last three weeks due to the fact that we have been camping and I have been unable to charge my laptop, so the following posts will bring news up to date. I have also just discovered that it appears I can now edit my blog from Kazakhstan. However, in checking my blog it also appears that one of the blogs I emailed home was never published, so here it is, slightly belated.

Monday 23rd August
Here I am having just crossed the Ili river, and the smile says it all - I am on the move again! My hat brim is tied to my saddle due to a stiff wind which preceded a rainy afternoon, but it was pleasantly cool for a change, which was a relief. Alimjan is peeking over the horse.
We stopped a little further on for lunch at the Kazakh house below - the sturdy fencing is to protect their sheep from the ravenous wolves which prowl the area. The ravenous horse is tucking into a feed of maize in the yard, while we were fed and watered, or rather 'chaied' inside.The humble exteriors of these houses invariably belie the sumptuous furnishings inside. Below is the luxurious dining room where we tucked into tasty bowls of laghman (noodles topped with spicy meat and vegetables) before a little siesta on the couches in the living room.

Alimjan pushed me to continue to the next small town of Taramgasu, with dire warnings of the monstrous mosquitoes which apparently prowl the swampy banks of the Ili, his exhortations being echoed by Kanat, who needed little persuasion after his insect ridden night in Koktal.

I ended up driving cattle along the road with a cheerfully talkative Kazakh herdsman who came galloping full tilt up the road to check me out - I managed a surprisingly informative conversation with my few words of Russian.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

KaZorbee the Vidazorb Horse

Saturday September 4th

Now the bay gelding is tried and tested and I hope to ride him across Kazakhstan, he can finally be unveiled as the new Zorbee, or should I say KaZorbee! A worthy representative for our sponsors Vidazorb, as he is calm and steady, but also has a bit of a kick, rather like the marvellous Vidazorb probiotics he is named for! And of course a natural product.
He is the right age and size, and a comfortable ride. Although not as bombproof as Bajiu, he is pretty unflappable. A slight attitude problem leads me to believe he has been getting away with things with someone in the past, but that is hopefully being ironed out. He can be tethered absolutely anywhere without mishap and is easy to lead. He is essentially a friendly chap and good to handle, though can bite and kick if he is unhappy. But that is undoubtedly the result of past handling, and it certainly did not deter Vladimir the wonderful farrier at Sergei Buikevich’s Equestrian Centre, who made an impressively calm and efficient job of reshoeing him without any Asian-style methods of restraint, and with a excellent set of shoes.
He is relaxing in luxury at the centre (at Butakovka near Almaty), which is like a rather grand equestrian health farm equipped with every sort of horsey amenity - he even had a wash in their equestrian shower room on arrival, before his manicure. Quite a rise in the world for a meat horse, as he rubs shoulders (not literally) with some stunning and no doubt extremely expensive horseflesh.
Here is Sergey with his Grand Prix dressage stallion Voltan - to my surprise he is an Akhal Teke, but nothing like the whippet like creatures I am used to. A big strong lad, he is apparently descended from the famous stallion Absent, who was the same type. In the meantime Marat the guide and I have been completing arrangements for my 4WD and driver.
The 4WD is an experienced but serviceable Lada Niva which I have bought from Valentina who is trading up. And to drive it I now have a charming young English speaking Uighur from Karakol in Kyrgyzstan by the name of Bakhram. I seem to be doing a line in Uighur drivers. Here they both are posing together in the mountains behind Almaty when we went for a recce today.

Unlike in China, I will actually be able to drive the Lada myself, and I intend to use it to get to Atyrau when I have finished riding next month.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Keeping Clean

Monday August 30th

I have arrived in Almaty having covered over 200 miles from the border, though the last few days have essentially been a hot and boring trudge along the main road. However one advantage has been Alimjan’s familiarity with the route - he has been able to find reasonable accommodation in people’s homes, and he knows all the best places to eat. Here is a lunch stop with friends.

One of the continual concerns particularly when one is riding in sweltering hot weather is how to wash at the end of the day, and I have certainly been faced with a variety of solutions over the last fortnight, and that is not counting when we were camping. Here is our water source for three days in Koktal, which we shared with passing livestock ….
…and the bathroom in Kokpek. If you look carefully you can see the bar of soap in the crook of the tree.

The most welcome experience was the ‘banya’ which is essentially a sauna bathroom in an outhouse, with steam produced from an old rusty boiler fired by wood. Containers of cold water are placed inside and having worked up a sweat and soaped, one ladles cold water over oneself - immensely cleansing and refreshing. Alimjan had his own banya, as did Rosa the Russian. In Bayseit Alimjan took me to the small public sauna bathhouse - only room for one at a time, in case you are wondering. In one household we were able to have a cold shower, which involved Kanat climbing up on the roof of an outhouse banya to fill a container with water. A turn of a tap by the shower head in the room below, and hey presto, a shower.

Another variation was the washing facility at a little house we rented for the night. Alimjan heated up water from the pump across the road on the outside stove …….

…. and we carried pails of hot water to the shower cubicle at the bottom of the garden.

More Frustrations

Thursday 26th August

We have made steady progress over the last three days through a largely desert area, irrigated in places. Here is Alimjan and me with a group of grape sellers by the side of the road - we bought a whole box for a couple of squids….

..and here is Alimjan again with Rosa, our friendly Russian hostess in Shunzhe, in front of her house. The gold car is Alimjan‘s pride and joy, and is carrying Kanat, our baggage and a bag of maize for the horse.
We were just about to set out to cross the Charyn river and 70kms of uninhabited waterless desert - a late start as it had been pouring with rain all morning. Why does it always rain or snow when I hit a desert area?
On the edge of the Charyn valley, which becomes a dramatic gorge in its higher reaches. The green belt of trees in the background is the protected remnant of a vast ancient forest of Sogdian ash which covered this area after the last Ice Age.

We camped in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately Alimjan and Kanat took it upon themselves to disappear up a side track in search of a mythical house just before dusk fell, leaving me tramping grumpily on up the road in the dark. By the time we were reunited it was pitch black and not worth fiddling around with tents, so ’the boys’ slept in the taxi while I opted for my sleeping bag wrapped up in the tarpaulin and hoped it would not rain again.

Our camping spot - a road sign makes a handy tethering post for the horse. The Tian Shan mountains in the background are a niggling reminder of one of my frustrations - that I will not be able to take the route through the mountains that I had meticulously planned. Having given up on packhorsing, circumstances have then conspired to make it too much of a gamble.
Yummy - mashed potato for breakfast.

Kanat left today, hitching a lift with the truck taking the two other horses back to Almaty. However, to my surprise he reappeared when we reached Kokpek on the other side of the desert. More problems. The papers for the horses had been mislaid, and the police were making it difficult for the truck driver at checkpoints - he had already had to pay one bribe. As there were several more possible checkpoints before Almaty, it was decided that I would follow the truck to Almaty in the taxi to provide support. Luckily we were only stopped twice and only had to fork out once, thanks to the letter provided by the British consulate. The checks are supposed to counter horse theft, but since if the horses are actually stolen all one needs to do is bribe the police, it makes a slight mockery of the process! A very long and late evening, though cheered up by the fact that Alimjan knew a nice little Uighur restaurant set under trees by rushing water on the way back, where we stopped to eat laghman and watch the locals bopping very elegantly to Kazakhstani rap.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

In The Doldrums

Sunday 22nd August

….which is what I have been in for the last three days while we wait and decide what to do next. It is obvious that the chestnut horse is not anywhere close to being fit enough to cope with the work I expect of him in the following weeks, and the black pony is still very lame. I am already over two weeks behind schedule, with the clock on my visa allowance ticking away inexorably.
The weather is blisteringly hot, and we quietly swelter in our little house, drenched in sweat during the day. The treeless steppe may have lovely views, but there is little privacy….
… and I long for a decent shower rather than a splash of my extremities from the cattle trough. I have tried waiting until nightfall to wash outside in the dark from the Ortlieb bucket, but that is when the mosquitoes come out in force. My solar chargers do not seem to be working properly, and the batteries on my laptop and our mobile phones have run out, so we are stranded without communication unless Jandos turns up. Kanat can only stay with me another few days, and then I will be completely on my own. All thoroughly frustrating and depressing when there appears to be no way forward, and I admit to a tear or three.

So I have come to the regretful conclusion that the only real solution is to abandon the idea of horse packing for the moment, and continue with the remaining sound horse (the one with a hole in its side) and a back-up taxi and driver, in the form of Alimjan who rescued me at the beginning of the week. The two lame horses are staying at Jandos’ house prior to being trucked back to Almaty (more expense), and I will set off alone tomorrow while Kanat and baggage travel with Alimjan.
The only welcome distractions in the last few days have been the constant stream of visitors we have attracted, mainly in the form of neighbouring herdsmen Talgat and Mirma who hang around hopefully for an invitation to join us for morning coffee. But Talgat and wife returned the favour with a delicious meal of plov (traditional rice fricassee) , chai (milky tea) and nan bread at their house.