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Astrakhan Oblast: Freezing Volga, Saiga, Caucasus meet steppe ...

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES) After a send off from the local school in Mirni on the edge of Astrakhan I set off south along the Volga. The temperature was dropping well below zero at night and with each day the ice grew rapidly out from the riverbank. Container ships, fishing vessels and smaller boats chugged up and down far out in the middle of the channel. Fishing is the overwhelming industry in these parts and provides income for the many officially unemployed. Poaching of Sturgeon and Beluga for black caviar is a profitable business but it inevitably has a destructive effect on local fish populations. There are also many fish farms where all manner of species are bred. I stepped into one such farm but found all of the administration gloriously drunk and not particularly friendly. “This is a fish factory, you can’t bring your horses in here!” yelled a stumbling, falling man as I tied the caravan up to a tree. The many channels, bridges and villages all hugging the river made me pine for the open steppe. In the town of Ikrannoye drunks hit and screamed at my horses from behind while on a bridge which almost proved a disaster. Others gave me looks of distrust and contempt. Tigon’s mood also seemed to sink with these claustrophobic conditions. This was with the exception of one morning when a car raced to a halt and the director of the school leapt out. She convinced me to visit and so tying up to the school gates Tigon and I were led inside and offered chocolate, champagne, and boiled sturgeon! Tigon pranced around the school as if it were his home and even posed with children who were being photographed by the school’s big new-years tree. Three days brought us to the Kazak village of Svetloye on New Years eve. Most people in this village were ‘Berish,’ a clan of younger tribe of Kazaks who populate the west of today’s Kazakhstan. Here I was met by Shamkhat, his wife and children. Bes Barmak was served and for the second year in a row I celebrated the coming of a new year among Kazaks and their particular love for endless feasting, dancing, and toasting. During the last hour to midnight the whole community squeezed inside the public hall for games. Some were theatrically drunk, while others tried to hold the show together by pushing the drunkards out of sight of the children. After a few hours sleep I was up and moving, heading west away from the Volga. We climbed a hill from where the land opened out into space and boundless horizons. Tigon ran circles and the horses lost all sense of stress. I chose a dot on the horizon and pushed my heels into Blackie’s ribs. This particular stretch of steppe was more of a spit of land that ran between the many lakes and wetlands of the Volga floodplain. In the distance great tracts of reeds spread out, the home of millions of migrating birds in the spring and wild boars for much of the rest of the time. That had all faded into black by the time I had ridden 45km to the town of Liman. A very friendly Anotoliy Khludnev received me with a crushing handshake and hug. Anatoliy was a former colonel in the Soviet Army with chest and shoulders as broad and deep as a Lion. Nowadays he directed the wildlife sanctuary ‘Stepnoi.’ Anna Luschenko of the Russian Academy of Science had contacted him and requested help in receiving and guiding me through the region. Losing no time he escorted me to the local horse club run by a Cherkes man, Mikhail. The big gates were swung open and after herding the horses into a barn we retired to Mikhail’s quarters. He lived in a room cornered by stables that was part workshop, horse museum, kitchen, and bedroom. The walls were decorated with carvings, photos, and strung with all manner of saddles, stirrups, whips, and traditional riding outfits. Mikhail is renowned as an equine expert in Russia, in particular with the ancient breed of Turmenistani Akaltiki. At around fifty he had wide open, round eyes, stretching all the time to take everything in, a groomed moustache, and a wiry, ever wriggling, active body that probably rarely lay still. “Tim, I tell you, honest to God, I do not drink!” he said as he poured us all a shot of whiskey and glass of champagne. He was ecstatic to hear of my journey, and eager to tell me that I had been very lucky with my choice of horses. He believed that they were more suited to the task of travelling to Hungary than any he knew of in Southern Russia. A historian, artist, and all round horse eccentric he then showered me with information about everything, from the special coal-filled stirrups that Tajik riders used to use in winter to warm their toes, to tree-root carvings of horses heads and the peculiarities of his own Cherkes heritage. Cherkasia is one of the many republics of the northern Caucasus. In the stables he had a herd of pure-breed Akaltiki horses, and all manner of dogs from Caucasus Shepherds to grey hounds. Later he was happy to parade in his traditional Cherkes dress including a dagger in his belt and gunpowder pellets in his cloak pockets. Having not eaten anything since breakfast my head was already rolling by the time Anatoliy took me home. There his wife had already prepared mince patties, mashed potato, and of course a round of Vodka. This was followed by a 90 degrees Celsius sauna that just about murdered me all together. Utterly ruined I was led to a bed with fresh blankets and sheets and sank into blissful unconsciousness. Over the next three days I came to know more about Anatoliy and his work. He had served in the army as an officer and colonel in many locations including Germany, Novgorod, Armenia and Georgia. At the age of 39 after the fall of the Soviet Union he decided to retire, and after serving as chief of police in Liman, he became director of the Stepnoi sanctuary. The main task of the sanctuary is to protect the Saiga- steppe antelope. The Saiga was once estimated to number around one million in Kalmikia and Astrakhan province, and the same number in Kazakhstan. They are a migratory animal related to the mammoth that has always played a vital role in the culture and life of the steppe. Ancient Mongolian and Kazak songs talk of the Saiga as it runs and darts across the steppe in herds of thousands, up to speeds of 70km an hour. In the past the Saiga was hunted from time to time, but there was always a balance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union things took a rapid change for the worst. Chinese believe that the translucent horns of the male Saiga offer remedies for the common cold, and flu, and operate as a general aphrodisiac. Having virtually wiped out the native Saiga herds in north-west China, they turned to this new market on the steppe of Kazakhstan and Kalmikia. For out of work villagers and hunters, the prospect of earning up to 70 dollars a kilogram was too tempting, and at last count, there were no more than 18,000 specimens remaining in Kalmikia, and no more than 20,000 in all of Kazakhstan. At home Anatoliy showed me videos of their anti-poaching team in action. Each team of hunting inspectors has a four-wheel drive van which is equipped with a Japanese trail-bike. This can be rolled out of the van within a minute and can overtake the slower Russian bikes used by the poachers to hunt Saiga. It is a dangerous game, and there have been occasions in the past when hunters have even died when crashing at hi speeds on the uneven, burrow-ridden steppe. One scenario that Anatoliy caught on film for evidence was particularly ironic. On the territory of the Sanctuary they had reprimanded a four-wheel drive that was driven by a hunting inspector from Kalmikia. With him were two Kalmikian policemen on a hunting tour, and in the boot were two shot and dying Saiga. This proved a tricky case for the local prosecution office because technically they were caught on land that has been argued over between Astrakhan province and the republic of Kalmikia. Eventually the prosecutor decided that it was not within his jurisdiction, but when he sent the evidence to the authorities in Kalmikia everything mysteriously disappeared in the mail. Unfortunately despite the courageous and disciplined control by Khludnev and his team, poachers with connections to the higher authorities and business can still get away with it. My days in Liman were of course also coloured by visits to Mikhail, and hearing all manner of stories. We also visited some local enthusiasts who had collected relics of the nomad era in the sand dunes nearby on the steppe. Arrowheads, ceramic pots, and a rib-bone carved with a story were just some of the many fascinating items that were a reminder of the region as a nomadic crossroads of the region. The locals in Liman themselves were mostly of Kalmik, Russian, and Chechen background. These Kalmiks were mostly of the ‘Torgut’ tribe that were famously known as the bodyguards of Ghengis Khaan. The Torguts here, unlike there ancestors though, had for centuries now based their lives around fishing the Volga delta. Other groups of Kalmiks living further west had always lived a more traditional nomad life with sheep, cattle, camels and horses as their basis of living. Anatoliy recalled stories from his great-grandfather of how the main route between Astrakhan and Stavropol passed along this way, and further across the Kalmik steppe. Those trading fish were often attacked in the night by Kalmik and Cossack thieves. It was this route that I was now going to set out to follow. On a violently windy morning as snow fell from a low grey sky, I herded the horses out of their luxury barn, and packed for at least a week of being on the steppe. Anatoliy would drive ahead, guiding me through the wildlife sanctuary, and leave me at the border with Kalmikia near a scientific conservation reserve, Chernaya Zemlya. There was one village to pass through before heading out onto open steppe. The village of Yandik, despite being a relatively small clutter of homes that were built during oil works during the Soviet Union, reached world headlines in August when a conflict was ignited between local Kalmiks and Chechens. Chechens shot and killed a Kazak girl, and after the funeral on the edge of town, a 500 strong crowd of enraged Kalmiks rioted through town burning down between nine and eleven homes. The army was called in, and in fact had only left a week earlier when things had calmed down. The local journalist told me of how no one was allowed to write anything in the papers, and only official government details were provided to the media. There were few people out and about as I made my way through on the horses, and passed by several of the burnt homes. In reality it was a peaceful place on the edge of some of the most open and inspiring steppe landscapes I had ever come across. A 35km odd ride brought us to a winter ranch on the steppe, not unlike the Kazakhstan varieties I had seen and stayed at time and time again. As I was to discover though, there were several big differences. On approach Tigon was attacked by a pack of bear-sized Caucasus Shepherd Dogs. These are renowned as guard dogs that are even capable of fighting with wolves (although I must say that I am sceptical about almost all tales regarding wolves on the steppe). As a rule, their ears and tails are always cut off so that their hearing is better, and they can’t hide their nose and eyes under their tail. Tigon put up a brave fight but eventually we resolved to put him in Anatoliy’s car that was already waiting for me. I tied the horses up as two herders arrived, having locked up their sheep, cows, and horses for the night. The ranch itself was looking terribly run-down with broken windows, planks of wood dangling by a single nail, and no real signs of care at all. The electricity had been cut off since the owner had not paid the bills (the wire connecting the transformer to the main line in Liman had of course been removed as well of course), and the canal which earlier serviced them and the former water-melon fields was now a shallow pool of salty water that had frozen over. These herders lived in a tiny shack built of clay and wood, patched up with plastic and scrap metal. One of these men was 65, and looked like a tiny shrivelled potato wrapped up in his long-unwashed winter clothes. His first mission of the evening was to drink ‘chifir’ which is primarily an extremely strong mix of tea made in Russian prisons. Looking more like a porridge of tea leaves, the liquid that is poured gets the heart racing, and as the old herder mumbled ‘gives me strength!’ In fact he swore that he never ate during the day. He drank chifir for breakfast and took a bottle with him to drink while herding, and worked from dawn to dusk without a crumb to eat! His fellow herder was a Tatar that looked in marginally better condition, but only because he was ten years the younger. Despite working on the ranch he had a phobia of horses and when handed a horse to lead to water later that evening he jumped and ran, dropping the lead rope on the ground. He was the more talkative of the two. “Yes, we Tatars, we showed them Russians for 300 years! But you know those Kalmiks, wouldn’t touch em with a barge pole. Oh no, not to talk with them! You see they are Buddhist, and I am Moslem, you see I can talk with Chechens and Kazaks, but Kalmiks, don’t trust em. They might be nice one on one, but in a group watch out. The only thing worse than a drunk Kalmik is a drunk Kalmik woman!” The older herder, a Russian from Volgograd province, piped up over a watery dinner of macaroni, onion and oil. He recalled how he had fought off wolves by hand with his walking stick, and how once he had been crushed by his horse in winter, stuck in the bottom of an empty canal. It was the foal that came searching for the mother horse that saved his life. The foal, he explained, had eventually bitten his mother –the fallen horse- on the nose, and in one last effort had managed to rise. The companionship between these two men may have been a little warming, but everything else about their existence was pretty bleak. They received a meagre 1000 roubles per month to look after all of the animals (about $35 US), and lived here almost permanently. The owner of the ranch and animals was a Chechen from Liman who was known as a local rich. He owned a foreign-made jeep, a truck, and homes both in Liman and in the Caucasus. He apparently managed to receive some government funding for his farming, and lived comparatively luxuriously. For me, this style of farming on the steppe is ghastly. There is no attention at all paid to the quality of life for those who tend to the animals, let alone a respect for the animals themselves or the land. It is all about living in ‘civilization,’ earning huge profits from livestock, and putting little or no investment into your practices. What’s more, the idea is to find single, homeless, men who are often former criminals, or without identification papers, and unofficially employ them for a pittance. There is no sense of pride in farming, in living on the steppe, let alone care. The old man later showed me his saddle- it was a couple of pieces of weatherboard connected by some welded pipes as the frame. He had stopped using it since terrible sores had appeared on his horse’s back. In hundred years, what soviet times hadn’t killed off, this unashamed exploitation of the land for money was destroying any soul that was left. There was absolutely no comparison between this style of farming on the steppe, and that of Kazakhstan and Mongolia (although in Kazakhstan this trait is on the rise). When there is a sense of family and togetherness in a summer yurt camp, or winter ranch, there is a care and pride that raises them far above from the slavery and indignity of what I was now seeing. This was not an exception either, but the common practice in most of Astrakhan province. “But you realise you are slaves!” Anatoliy told the men as we discussed things, in particular their wages. “Yes, but I can buy cigarettes, and Vodka, and soon I will receive my pension” replied the Tatar. What he didn’t say too was that for these men, this routine of life, no matter how wretched was a routine after all that gave them a sense of work, even if they had no dignity or self-pride. The conversation moved on, and Anatoliy spoke of how most Russians working with the former collective farms on the steppe had long moved away. Some were intimidated, but most were probably frightened when Chechens, on resettlement programs, moved to the area and took over much of the agriculture. The Chechens brought with them a different way of doing things on the steppe, and whether it be rumour or not, I was constantly reminded throughout my time in Astrakhan and Kalmikia of frequent kidnappings and slavery. The first story of this was told by Inna in Astrakhan who had investigated the disappearance of a middle-aged woman. Her sister had come in desperation to seek help at the paper. By chance this missing lady eventually re-appeared with a horror story. She had been taken from the city and put to work in a guarded house in Chechnya for three years. Inna had tried to then visit Chechyna with a photographer, but with machine-gun armed guards surrounding the fortress of a house, they could not get nearer than 500m. Whether or not this is true I have no idea, but these men had similar, more plausible stories. The Tatar told about the fate of a friend. It was something like this: “One day, my friend, an unemployed alcoholic from Astrakhan was approached by some men who offered him work in a brick factory. His was given a couple of bottles of Vodka, and when he woke from his drunken stupor, he found himself in Chechnya, at a brick factory. For four years, he was forced to work for free. The factory was always guarded by armed men. One day the local police arrived, and taking his chance he took the officer aside and told him of his plight, and that he just wanted to go back to his home in Astrakhan. The police then told him to find another slave from Astrakhan. If they agreed to work for free at the policeman’s house then he would free them. For one year they worked as labourers for the policeman, renovating his house and building a garage. They were then given tickets, and put on the train home. You see, these people like my friend, they do not have passports, no good papers, and can’t appeal anyway. Oh yeah Tim, that is life out here I tell you!” As another interesting twist, the owner of this ranch was one of the victims of the August riots. Two of his houses had been burned to the ground, and he had lost one of his semi-trailers and trucks as well. Khludnev eventually retired to his car to sleep – something he was apparently used to- and I tried to catch some shuteye once the two herders had finally quietened down. They gave me one of the spring beds, and the Tatar slept on the floor. The following day was one to forget. Anatoliy gave me some rough directions and after several kilometres uncertainty set in as to where I was to go. In the end I headed in the wrong direction all together and waited for Anatoliy on the top of a hill where I thought I would be visible from all around. In short we lost each other, Anatoliy drove 150km in search of me, eventually deciding that I had been eaten by wolves. We found each-other in the evening at an oil-pipeline security post (one of the many on the pipeline that crosses from Kazakhstan to the Black Sea) where we stayed the night and I copped a bit of an earbashing. The temperature was now dropping to –18 degrees or so, and poor Anatoliy didn’t get the best of sleeps, restarting the engine time and time again to warm up his freezing feet. All was forgotten at sunrise the next day as we started afresh. The sun rose into a clear blue sky sending an orange light across plains of golden grass. We had entered the sanctuary and now the steppe was riddled with the crests and hollows of the sea. A frost gathered around my sheepskin hat, and the horses moved lightly across sandy soil. It wasn’t long before something in the midst of the steppe caught my eye. As I paused and squinted there was a rush of movement, darting, jumping, leaping. Fifty or so saiga took off with the speed and lightness of a flock of sparrows. Their short fat bodies and thick winter fur shivered and wobbled as twig like legs took them over the rise. Soon later, sure enough I startled another herd. The land was such that you could only see a kilometre or so ahead maximum, due to the many little hollows and rises. This time I surprised them at a close distance. A male with his translucent horns, floppy, fat trunk-like nose and popping dark eyes paused to look. It was only seconds before the herd took flight as one and shrank into the camouflage of the steppe. For 15 months I had been hearing stories and legends about these animals that once migrated in their thousands. In Kazakhstan I was told in almost every village that 10 years earlier at the time of migration they would look out of the window from home and see thousands. That era has sadly ended however, and in all of my time on the steppe, this was the first time I had ever laid eyes on them. Taking a GPS coordinate I parted with Anatoliy and agreed to meet him at lunch. We rode into steppe with rich grass tussocks and passed several saiga skeletons, the remains of wolf attacks, and always on the horizon there was movement. The heart and pulse of the steppe was beating, and under its endless blue sky I felt all the stress of the last three months wash away. Later Anatoliy said something that made a lot of sense. “We are protecting the very spirit and soul of the steppe and our heritage.” Logically, in an age of economic rationalism, barbaric capitalism, and opportunism in Russia it was better to shoot a saiga and earn more in a day than you could usually in a few months than to let it run free. I recalled how many times local hunters in Kazakhstan, and even hunting inspectors had sidled up to me and whispered: “if you do see a saiga, be sure to shoot it. Do you know how much you can earn from the horns!?” The twinkle in their eye and dry smile had haunted me, and to meet someone like Anatoliy Khludnev putting his all into protecting the saiga was heart warming and a real sign of hope. We lunched at a natural spring that Anatoliy had had re-drilled and opened to attract saiga in the summer to drink. One of the problems was that despite a ban on saiga hunting all together, they had no right to reprimand hunters who hunted saiga beyond the boundary of the sanctuary. Saiga, a natural nomad, often left the park and never returned on their migrations north. Anatoliy guided me a further few kilometres to an abandoned hut that he called ‘Volga.’ We had technically crossed into Kalmikia and reached the edge of the sanctuary. He praised my journey, offered me good luck, and shook my hand with a powerful hold. Having seen me through his territory it was time to say goodbye and at his salute I headed of at a north-westerly bearing into the sunset. I was now all but alone in some of the least spoilt steppe of my journey to date…. Tim is now situated at: Latitude: 46° 21 Min. 31 Sec. Longitude: 45° 00 Min. 57 Sec. Go to WWW.MAPQUEST.COM/MAPS/LATLONG.ADP and type in the above coordinates to see where Tim is now. (CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES)