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Horse slaughter and other tales from Akbakai (16/1/04)

(Click here to view the complete list of diary entries) “Will I ever leave Akbakai?” I wrote in my diary. I had intended to break here for two days over Christmas. Then my horse had developed an abscess, and then I had caught a flu. But finally after over two weeks I had woken from this blur. The flu had gone and I had the strength to climb up a hill near the herder’s hut where my horses were being kept. Rolling hills, rocky little gullies, and a huge white plain stretching out under the glow of the evening sun. The cold wind, little plants encrusted in ice, the squeak of snow under foot. I felt alive again and just couldn’t wait to get moving. Before this day was done however there was a big event to attend: ‘Sogim.’ Sogim is the winter slaughter of animals, primarily horses. There was a beautiful nine-year old gelding in the barn that they had been fattening up for a month on grain and hay. The owner of the winter hut, Baidak, and many other characters arrived by car wielding freshly sharpened knives. For Kazaks this is a big event. Horsemeat is considered a delicacy. ‘Koza,’ made by stuffing intestines with salted meat and fat is the most prized meal. In the past most nomad families would have eaten Koza every winter. However particularly after perestroika when about 70 percent of the livestock disappeared from Kazakhstan, horsemeat is a luxury not affordable for all. Kazakhstan probably has some of the most expensive horsemeat in the world: Baidak’s horse would fetch at least $1000US on the market. For me it was at first difficult to comprehend. It was a good horse, a good age, with a good back that would suit me fine. I had developed a real affection for my own horses and gone to lengths to keep them in good condition….and here was a perfect specimen being chopped up! On the other hand, slaughtering a horse made just as much sense as the slaughter of a sheep or cow. In reality horses here have a good life. They roam free on the steppe all year round in a herd, and the owners only see them once a month if lucky. Then every year a couple of them are plucked out, given a dream month of rest and food, before their life on this earth comes to an end. Madagol, the herder, tied the horse’s legs together and pushed him over. A basin was placed under the horse’s neck, a muslim prayer of sorts was muttered, and then the knife was brought to its throat. It was all over in a minute or two. The blood poured out like a waterfall and the animal sank like a deflating balloon until it lay as meat and bones and nothing more. The women from the hut came rushing out with a bottle of vodka, and salad. We ate from the crumpled bonnet of Baidak’s car. Madagol had a Euphoric grin and left his Vodka shot glass covered in horse blood. The dogs ate well, and within an hour we were sitting around a table eating fried horsemeat. It occurred to me that this whole event was a celebration of life on the steppe. These people appreciate the value of meat more than most of us do in the western world. They toil with the freezing winters, the baking summers, and the open steppe where the wind blows and there is almost no water. It is by grazing animals, traditionally moving with the seasons to find pasture, that life is at all possible here. This meat, these animals, the need to survive keeps these people closely connected to the earth and its annual cycle. So cutting up a horse- the grass that turned to meat- is the miracle that allows life to go on. Two days passed while we were all inebriated by the tang of horsemeat. We ate horse fat, Koza, huge chunks of meat the size of footballs, and of course dined on ‘Besbarmak.’ Besbarmak is an enormous plate of home-made pasta topped with a good couple of kilos of meat with onion and sometimes potato. ‘Besbarmak’ actually means ‘Five Fingers.’ This meal is traditionally only eaten by hand and there is so much meat that you have to use your whole hand just to pick the pieces up! Finally it was time to say goodbye. I had my last meal with Baidak and his family in Akbakai, and returned to the winter hut by horse. It was time to leave, and have my last meal with Madagol, the herder. We had had our moments together- good and bad- and I wanted to part company on a good note. He was the kind of character who’s mood rapidly changed. He was always more approachable after a cup of tea and a meal. He always became particularly angry when I refused to cave in to his requests: “What do you need a dog for!!?? Leave him here!!” ‘What do you need all those ropes for, leave at least one here!!” “What do you need those clips for, leave them here!” “What do you need those saddles for- leave one here!” “Your vet is wrong! Your horse has an old injury in its leg!” “Don’t ride like that, ride like me! Your stirrups are too long!” “You ride too slowly!!!!” Like most herders his concept of the world was based on the patch of steppe where he had spent all of his life. He believed that if necessary he could ride 1500km in one and a half days, and that riding to Australia would therefore take him about one or two weeks maximum. (He dreamed of mustering wild horses from Australia and bringing them home and selling them for meat.) “That Indian Ocean, is it a shallow, or deep lake?” he asked one night in all seriousness. He could not comprehend real mountains, oceans, country borders, or even the very idea of travel. Therefore he had no understanding of my journey and saw all of my gear, and my pragmatism with my gear as foolish and unnecessary. Like most herders that I had met throughout my journey I would ride out beyond the borders of his world within a couple of days. He feigned bravado but like most, could not even tell me the lay of the land more than 30km away, let alone a good route by horse. I guess that even at the time of the Mongols very few knew about long distant routes, and their concept of the world had always been based on the steppe. When they reached Europe, or even the civilizations of central Asia and the Middle east they must have seemed like inferior places on the peripheries of the world. We shared a glass of vodka after dinner and Madagol actually sang a couple of songs. Sweat poured off his brow and his wife frowned. “You better make sure your camera doesn’t break while he sings!” she joked. It was pretty bad singing, but it came from his heart and was a fitting last little moment together. In the morning I was packed and ready to go when it appeared that Madagol wanted to lead me for the first few kilometres. My heart sank- I knew that he would be taking me in a direction contrary to where I had planned. By map, compass and GPS I had already worked out a four day plan to the next village, 125 kilometres as the crow flies. After half an hour of fast riding my fears were confirmed. I checked the GPS and discovered that we were now 130km from the next village!!! Madagol only became enraged when I told him this news. He didn’t trust my compass, map, or GPS, and had no real notion of distance. Eventually we parted ways with a handshake- I felt we were both putting on rather strained smiles. This situation is always difficult for me- the very people who can be so helpful, can also be extremely unhelpful, but I cannot get angry, and I cannot risk offending them. Usually I have to grin and bear it, let things run their natural course. I waited for Madagol to ride out of sight before setting my bearings and riding off. It was a huge relief to be alone again, and to be out on this steppe. Patches of incandescent blue above were severed by huge banks of clouds that came rushing overhead from horizon to horizon. The steppe panned out as gentle hills with valleys of a small bush called ‘Saksauul.’ A mountain to the north called ‘Baigaraa’ cut a spectacular white pyramid into the sky. From horseback it seemed that I could see at least 50km or so into the distance. To the west the land descended to some lower flats and I looked forward to the warmer weather that this might bring. Akbakai is situated in the middle of a long mountain ridge that is a magnet for bad weather, particularly strong winds. Due to the fast moving clouds, patches of shadow and light danced over the landscape like frolicking spotlights. Where the sun shone through the snow appeared silver. There were no roads, no people, in fact nothing at all. I marvelled at the thought that in fact the steppe nowadays is probably emptier now than it has been for a few thousand years. Even fifteen years earlier there would have been geologists out on the steppe, manned winter huts, herds of horses, and a few million wild ‘Saiga’ (a kind of wild goat). In fifteen years the wild ‘Saiga’ have been wiped out by hunters- their horns sold to the Chinese. The livestock disappeared along with the herders, and the geologists packed up and went home. It may have been similar to this in the 1930’s when the Soviets came in and wrought havoc- millions of herders starved to death or were killed, and their animals and much of their way of life was destroyed. Perhaps as Baidak explained to me, ten years down the track life on the steppe might be blossoming again. At present there are breeding programs for sheep, cattle, and horses, and when the herds get big enough, herders will be forced to roam the steppe for adequate pasture. I made good progress for much of the day, following little gullies and valleys, picking features on the horizon and taking new bearings from there. I crossed one pair of fairly fresh wolf tracks and what seemed to be hoof prints of a wild Argali sheep. By sunset I was feeling freshened and euphoric. I had reached some flat empty plains and wiped away the cobwebs and doubts that had been gathering in Akbakai. The fresh air, sense of being along and the space all made me feel alive. How quickly things can change. I put the stove on while I was tending to the horses. When I came back ten minutes later the stove was out and my fuel bottle was empty. “Strange? I am sure I filled that bottle before I left.” I refilled the bottle with all of my spare fuel, lit the stove and returned to the horses. To my horror the horse that had just overcome the abscess was limping again! What’s more he had a friction blister on his shoulder from the Kazak saddle. My horse was also suffering a bit due to what seems like compressed saddle pads. And this was day one after two weeks rest! I quickly got onto the phone to Sheila, the horse vet in Margaret River who has saved me on so many occasions. She suggested that I needed to start the horse on anti-biotics, especially since I now didn’t have the option of resting the horse. After the phone call I was shocked to discover that the stove was again out….and once again the fuel bottle was almost empty! It seemed that my fuel line was damaged and it had leaked out when under pressure. This was serious: I now had no more than a few drips of petrol to my name. With at least another four days to the next village, going on without fuel would be a significant risk. I spent an hour or two trying to get a fire going with the plants and grass from the steppe. I did so in the end with the help of the remaining drips of petrol. It was a miserable fire that was only enough to warm up my evening meal. I sank into the tent in a state of rejection. To add to my state of mind I discovered that my satellite phone batteries were almost totally flat, and I felt a definite weakness inside me- perhaps an effect of the flu? The last thing I wanted to do in the world now was re-trace my steps and return to Madagol’s hut…yet to go on didn’t make sense any more. I had learnt that this trip requires cadence and patience- ‘there is still another year to go Tim, and this will just a be a bump in the scheme of things.’ Still I waited until morning to make my decision. ‘Would the weather turn nasty? What happens if I have to stop in a blizzard and I have no fuel, an injured horse and no telephone batteries? That won’t happen Tim, just push on to Ulanbel the next village!’ In the dark of morning I decided to call Eric Phillips in Australia and ask him about the stove. Later I replaced a couple of rubber ‘O’-rings which seemed to do the trick, but I still had no fuel. With a snow storm already in full swing I took the conservative option and turned east into the wind. I reached a bamboozled looking Madagol and decided to confuse him a little more: “I have just come back from Australia. I have got 500 horses behind me for you.” At first I was determined to buy some petrol, continue the anti-biotics, charge my batteries, and get back on the road. In reality I knew that deep underneath I was kidding myself. I felt weakened by the flu, the horses could do with some more grazing, and everything was telling me to rest. I had planned to try and travel a further 500km, then have my planned one-month winter break. The solution for now was staring me in the face- pay Madagol to look after the horses for a month, leave my gear with Baidak, and have my break good and proper. I had spare equipment waiting for me in Mongolia, Almaty, and Australia and could return with a better pack-saddle for the third horse, some other fresh gear and set off with a much better chance of success and happier horses. And so I lie in Baidak’s home with my gear stowed away, the horses at the hut, and me preparing for a month of luxurious access to civilization. So, until February 15 or I am officially on leave!…. don’t know how I will live without Tigon, my dog, for that time. (Click here to view the complete list of diary entries)