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Enter Kalmikia: nomads in Europe (6/2/06)

(CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE COMPLETE LIST OF DIARY ENTRIES & CHECK THE IMAGE GALLERY FOR UPDATES) When in the steppe I stand alone With far horizons clear to view, Ambrosia on the breezes blown And skies above me crystal blue, I sense my own true human height And in eternity delight. The obstacles to all my dreams Now shrink, appear absurd, inept, And nothing either is or seems Except myself, these birds, this steppe... What joy it is to feel all round Wide open space that knows no bound! (Kalmik Poet.) With these words, and after 19 months of anticipation, I arrived in Kalmikia: the last example in history of Asian nomads to settle in Europe. (Click here for a brief history and background of Kalmikia and why it is so important for understanding the genral heritage of Eurasian steppe nomads). Only now it was dark, and a heavy frost of –15 or so was falling. Barely a breath of wind brushed the steppe and as the moon rose it cast a vague shadow of my caravan. I opened the bell on blackie’s neck and snuggled deep into my winter coat. Like in old times the bell warned those in earshot of my arrival, helped to keep wolves at bay, and was a safety precaution in the event of the horses bolting. On the advice of Anatoliy -who I had said goodbye to earlier in the day- I kept my compass between 270 and 290 degrees and followed a set of vague ruts and hollows. This would apparently guide me to the hut of ‘Atsan Khuduk’ in the ‘black land’ nature reserve. Alone in the night, it was easy to imagine the conditions and fear that earlier travellers must have felt. The ruts below were the remains of an ancient route from the Volga to the lusher, more temperate lands of Stavropol and Krasnodar. For centuries merchants had travelled here across the Kalmik steppe to transport fish to Stavropol, and were often attacked and robbed by nomads. To a settled person from a hemmed in life on the Volga, the steppe must have seemed wild, lawless and unforgiving: a place with such openness that it could swallow you without trace. For a Mongol arriving from Asia however, it must have felt like a homecoming, to once again to be in this familiar boundless landscape that beckoned and nurtured. Until the 1920’s the steppe around me in the darkness would have been dotted with the kind of nomad camps and yurt tents that can still be found in Mongolia today. On we plodded, over the wavy curvature of the steppe, the thud of hooves on frozen earth, ice gathering around my hood, guided by these ruts that sometimes seemed to fade and reappear. Tigon stayed close, and having already covered around 40km was looking forward to curling up for the day. How the tide of time had washed over this steppe that now glided by beneath- hard to comprehend. The Scythians from the heart of Asia had at some stage rushed over the Kalmik steppe and surprised Europeans and other settled societies with their horsemanship skills. The Mongols had been and gone, and all of this time it had been trodden by traders of the silk road. When ‘civilizations’ proved dominant over the nomadic way of life, Russia’s grip widened and the great cycle of the Eurasian nomad came to an end. I was beginning to worry that I had altogether missed the hut of Atsan Khuduk when three dark shapes appeared. From one came the faint glow of an oil lamp. Plonked right on the middle of this old road, it reminded me of a bygone era of travel. This would be the typical roadhouse –whether on the silk road or on more recent trade routes- where one could rest, be issued with a fresh set of horses, and seek refuge from the weather. Like in old times, the oil lamp was put in the window every night as a guiding light on this sea-like expanse. Approaching without hesitation I was greeted by an old man reeking of vodka. We could not see each other for the darkness. Tying up and dismounting we shook hands. Although the director of the reserve -which is usually strictly open to scientific researchers- had granted permission for me to transit, word had not reached Atsan Khuduk. Nevertheless, I unpacked and he invited me inside for a hot cup of tea. He was a Russian from the town of Komsomolskiy and worked here as store manager. This station was primarily used by park inspectors and scientists carrying out research on saiga, and the general ecosystem of Chernoya Zemlya (‘Black Land’) reserve. Scientists from as far as Germany, England, Japan and America often visit Atsan Khuduk as the base for research on the unique ecosystem of Kalmik steppe. It is called ‘black land’ due to the lack of snow in winter. The warmth of the hut sapped my last remaining energy, defences gave way, and I slumped fully clothed onto a mattress. Hours later I rose disorientated to unsaddle the horses, greeted by the deputy director of the park, a researcher, and the reserve inspectors. They had just returned from a fox count. The deputy director and his assistant were Kalmiks and I was at once aware of their Mongolian features, and a kind of gentleness that I had often encountered in Mongolia (and that was usually totally lacking in Kazakhstan). We got along well and they were particularly intrigued to hear that I had come from Mongolia. There was a sense of nostalgia and fascination that came over them as they watched some of my footage on the laptop from Mongolia and Eastern Kazakhstan- the home of their ancestors. The following morning they agreed to take me out in their Russian 4WD to see saiga. Over every rise it seemed we surprised a herd of this pale, sandy coloured antelope. They darted so lightly, as if gliding across the steppe, and always moved as one like a flock of birds. The largest herds we saw numbered about 500 although years ago, before the massacre of the Saiga in the 1990’s (for the male saiga’s horns), herds of thousands upon thousands were a regular sight. (read the previous update for more detailed info on the Saiga). The pride that these men showed of the steppe and the saiga – whose life and fate runs parallel with the Kalmiks- was heartening. Chernoya Zemlya (Black Land) reserve itself was formed after perestroika and it soon became the only of its kind on the Eurasian steppe, predominantly designed to save the saiga. The director and his colleagues left for home, and setting the horses free to graze Tigon and I curled up for a day of rest and reflection. Drifts of light snow came and went, broken by patches of wild blue. Early the following the morning we packed up and were again on the move. A day of riding followed, guided only by compass over undisturbed steppe and sand dunes. At nightfall I arrived in the village of Tavin Gashun, met by a very cheery Yury Nimeevich. Yury, professor, and director of the ‘wild animal centre’ in Kalmikia had been waiting for me for months- ever since I had been stuck on the Kazak border. We travelled further to a steppe ranch owned by his brother in law where I dismounted and was welcomed inside. “Where is the caravan from!” shouted Yuriy’s brother, known by the Russian name ‘Vladimir.’ He had just turned up on motorbike, his broad face framed by a woolly Kalmik hat. Inside I was soon drinking salty Kalmik tea- the first I had tasted since departing Mongolia. Prepared with boiled milk, water, and sometimes sheep fat, it is served from huge pots without the use of kettles. It was followed by fresh boiled mutton and more tea. Later as I unsaddled, Vladimir proudly showed me his best horse in the barn and whispered that its father was a racing legend. Vladimir himself had earlier worked as a school teacher but eventually decided to buy out an old ranch and has lived on the steppe for more than 15 years. Yuri departed, and I stayed up late with Vladimir and his family who were particularly keen to see some footage from Mongolia. They listened intently to the language spoken by western Mongols and their eyes lit up: ”That is even clearer language than I have heard than from the Oirats from China!” There was an excitement and shared intrigue. Vladimir invited me to stay for a week, which I would have gladly accepted but for my Russian visa near at an end. He was particularly fascinated by my horses as they were real steppe breeds, and not the Don/English mix of horse found today in Kalmika. I delayed my departure until mid-morning, and after the tenth cup of tea with very vague directions I was moving again. On nightfall I arrived in the town of Yashkul and was met by Yuri’s friends who put me up with another Kalmik family. A bale of hay was trucked in on a trailer and the horses ate themselves silly in the yard “If even you had come two days ago, you would have seen that we were still living like nomads!” joked the middle aged couple. They were referring to the fact that gas had just been installed and they were cooking one of their first meals without the need of firewood or dried animal dung. Anatoli, (I now realise that he didn’t write his Kalmik name in my diary!) shared some of his personal history. “My mother, she tells me how the Russian guards just turned up one evening. The family was given fifteen minutes to leave the house. They were herded onto freight-carriages like animals. They were not ready for what was to come. In fifteen minutes they didn’t even have a chance to gather food or warm clothes. For two weeks my parents travelled in the carriage to Siberia. Many died along the way. In Siberia they were given barns to live in. I was born in Tyumen Oblast, my wife was born in Omsk Oblast. It was only in 1956 that we returned, and came back to nothing. Our homes, animals, all gone.” Indeed the Kalmiks today are so to speak rising from the ashes. In 1943 as the Germans closed in on the steppe of Kalmikia, all Kalmiks were deported to Siberia on the orders of Stalin. Furthermore their animals- the basis for their way of life- were herded away to the eastern banks of the Volga. As a result, the Kalmik breed of horse is today almost not in existence and Bactrian camels can only be found in a few pockets, mostly as novelty items. At Vladimir’s ranch the night before I had been surprised to see that he kept merino sheep. The fat-tailed sheep was another casualty of the mass deportation. Essentially kalmiks returned to their homeland with a task of trying to grasp who they were as a people without a leg to stand on. After a session with local journalists in the morning we were off again. It was a day of long shadows, little wind, and open, long angling slopes of rich grassy pasture. Snow had settled here in greater amounts and the land sparkled with its fresh winter coat. I travelled purely by compass and aimed for Yuri’s wild animal centre, arriving on dusk. Here on a hilltop was perched a modern yurt, several homes, and 60 hectares of fenced in Saiga paddocks. Yuri met me just as enthusiastically as the first time and ushered me inside for a shot of vodka and hot meal. He explained that in 2000, the president of Kalmikia had issued him with the task of setting up a special centre to save the saiga. Beginning with fourteen young saiga babies from Black Land reserve, they had now bred their numbers to around forty. Here the Saiga could be studied, and sometimes even re-released into the wild. “The President told me: ‘if the Saiga of NW China could be wiped out all together, and the Saiga in Kalmikia could be reduced to 18,000 from 800,000 in ten years, then it is possible that not a saiga will be left for the future generations of Kalmiks. That is why the centre is so important.” From here began a whirlwind five days that I find hard to recount with accuracy. Anna Lushchekina, -a Leading researcher of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences and Executive secretary of the Russian Committee for the UNESCO program on Man and the Biosphere (MAB)project- flew down from Moscow to meet me. Anna had been a great support ever since learning of my journey, and I have her to thank for all of my contacts in Kalmikia who have made it such a rewarding, and informative part of the journey. Her and her team work on international projects based on saiga conservation supported by the Darwin Initiative, INTAS, Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, Large Herbivore Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Government of the Republic of Kalmykia, Administration of Yashkul region. Two journalists arrived with Anna, from both the local Kalmikian and Russian language based paper. In Elista, the capital of Kalmikia, I arrived for the first of many meetings, struck by the similarity of its surroundings to Mongolia. On approach to Elista we drove up long, never ending slopes dusted with snow and back-dropped by bare hills. The new Buddhist temple (reportedly the largest in Europe) was unavoidable, casting a sense of the east over the hillside-perched city. First I gave a talk at the local University and was shown a wonderful display of rural life in Western Mongolia. The faculty head had been to Mongolia on several occasions and brought back photos and relics. Next was a meeting with the deputy prime-minister of Kalmikia, Ertne Bakaev who presented me with a Chechen dagger as gift. Then there was a meeting with a regional administration head, who told me about the problems and future aspirations of his part of Kalmikia. He had also been to Mongolia as a guest, and told me about the rich history of Kalmik horses. He was particularly proud that Kalmik bred horses had recently participated in races in Dubai. Afterwards he presented me with a ‘Khaduk’ which is a white silk scarf given in aid of a fortunate and successful journey. The Yashkul school was one of the highlights. The children, almost all Kalmiks sat glued to my computer, watching my footage from Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Their classroom was decorated with all manner of Kalmik art, sayings, maps, and drawings. Later they showed me through the school’s own museum in which one display was dedicated to the memory of the deported generation. Finally I was presented with a Russian-language version of the great Kalmik folk story epic, ‘Dzhanghar.’ On my last day in Elista I was lucky then to be invited to the ‘Kalmyk Institute of Humanitarian Studies.’ This is one of the premier institutes in the world focused on steppe and nomad cultures. Here I had the privilege of speaking to an audience of professors and researchers and later toured through their Kalmik heritage museum and library. In this library I caught glimpses of old original-printed books by Prezwalski, and earlier explorers and ethnographers. As a gift I was also given a ‘Khaduk Scarf’ and a huge pile of books. I felt overwhelmingly lucky to have so many people interested in my journey, and a little in awe to be in the presence of those who have dedicated themselves to the research of steppe central Asian, and in particular Kalmik culture. After other events including a talk for students from an orphanage, and special journey back to the Wild Animal Centre for local TV news, it was time to say goodbye. Unfortunately my Russian visa had ended and could not be extended. Most of the visa had run out while waiting on the Russian/kazak border, and now I had no choice but to exit to the Ukraine for a new Russian visa. On the other hand, I was leaving my horses with the workers at the wild animal centre, and the prospect of returning with much more time to spare was exciting. I knew at once that I could spend a month alone at the humanitarian studies institute flicking through books and meeting specialists. My horses would rest up on the kind of steppe that they loved, and I would be able to arrange further logistics for the Ukraine. As usual it was only poor Tigon who lost out, and I knew I would miss him dearly. So, the whirlwind tour ended and I waved goodbye to Anna and Yuri promising to return within a month. I took a bus through to Krasnodar, then further to the Kerch peninsula. There, on the last day of my Russian visa, I boarded a ferry and found myself on the Crimea in a world all so removed from the steppe I knew in Kazakstan and Kalmikia. It was the first time I had seen open sea since leaving Australia in May 2004. That night, having been on buses for 24 hours I arrived in the port city of Sevastopol for yet another very special meeting: “Oh a Tim, my old friend!” hollered Baba Galya as I opened the apartment door and she greeted me with open arms. And it was back to the jokes, pancakes, vodka over breakfast, and special humour that I knew about her so well. (Baba Galya was the Babushka who originally helped myself and Chris during our cycling journey in 1999 when I received frostbite. I revisited her in 2003, after which she moved to Sevastopol on the Crimea to spend winters at her daughters home. And so our paths have crossed again!). Am now preparing things for re-entry to Russia on the 23rd of February. Fingers crossed it will all work out. Still a long, long road to Hungary but wonderful to be here among a sense of family and familiarity. 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)