The Long Riders' Guild

Bonnie Folkins, Alpamys Dalaikhan, Nurbyek Dalilkhan and Dalaikhan Boshai rode from Koptoghay in Aqtobe Oblisi to Makinsko in Aqmola Oblisi

Bonnie has just returned home, having had some hair-raising adventure.  She sent us the following information to prepare and warn would-be Long Riders in Kazakhstan. And Dalaikhan Boshal is The LRG's newest Member - welcome to The Guild, Dalaikhan!

We had one UAZ driver: Nurlan Dalilkhan.

The men believed it would be more convenient to ride from west to east.  They posed that at the end of the ride, we would have a good possibility of selling the horses to Mongolian Kazakh horse dealers they knew, living in Makinsko, near Astana.  We would also have the west wind on our backs and end-of-day riding would be easier because we would not be peering into the setting sun.   I liked their logic and was convinced. 

On the first day of driving, we tried to take a short cut and follow side roads out of Egindikol, west of Astana, where we had finished our ride in 2010.  For the most part the roads were unmarked and we got hopelessly lost for six hours.  That isolation left us low on gas and by the time we solved our whereabouts we were somewhat shaken.   We concluded therefore, that it would be wiser to follow major highways and, with shared driving, go day and night until we arrived at Aktaw, about 2000km to the west.   Traveling in an old Russian army UAZ , moving not more than 80 km/hr, with dysfunctional windows (only side vents) and no air conditioning, it took a gruelling 104 hours in oppressive heat.  As the hours ticked by, we melted under sweat and dust with the only thing that kept us going – perseverance and fabulous Kazakh music.

Upon our arrival in Mangghistaw Oblisi (Aktaw’s province), we discovered desert conditions.  Saddle horses for sale were virtually non-existent, yet camels were everywhere.  We even considered using camels for the first two hundred miles.  They were $250.each.  Then we learned that there is little or no camel riding in Kazakhstan therefore they are not trained but used only for milk.

After two days of rest in Aktaw, we headed northeast, stopping at every village near the main road, asking to buy horses.  It was a huge disappointment to accept this very real problem.  There were horse farms but with only with two-year-olds, ready for the November meat market - too young to ride and not broken in.  We even spent the better part of one day driving across desert-like terrain to a massive farm owned by a character called El Douche.  We were told he had 700 horses, and he himself told us so - but they were all for meat.  He had nothing to offer us.

At a village called Koptoghay in Aqtobe Oblisi we were told about a Kazakh man with could sell us two fine geldings – a five year old palomino and an eight year old brown with a gray face.  We bought them both, calling the gray face Cooke (meaning “blue” in Kazakh) and the palomino - Ramazan.  A kindly Kazakh man called Sallit-Collie worked at the town hall.  (With some of these family names I was beginning to wonder if maybe I wasn’t in Sicily!)  Sallit-Collie helped us carry out negotiations and did the paperwork.  He worked with the mayor who was a woman.  She took a great interest in our ride and invited us to talk about the trip.  Even though all of this was done through legal measures, the money for the horses was paid out in secrecy at a side road on the outskirts of the village.

At Koptoghay we also learned about local crime that took place in the next large town.  Outsiders, “from some other country”, we were told, had killed four policemen in a shoot-out at Oyyl and when police were brought in from other towns, three more were killed.   This had only happened a week or so before and everyone everywhere was on the alert.  In fact, later in the ride, some people were looking at us as the possible gangsters and we were questioned frequently by police!  Several people thought our movements indicated that we were riding stolen horses, I guess because we were strangers who popped up out of nowhere.   

As we carried on, we shared the riding of the geldings.  We were still trying to find the two horses we needed, as we were four riders.  We did not relieve Dalaikhan who was determined to fulfill his dream to be a Long Rider and wanted to clock up every possible mile.  

At the end of the next day we set up camp behind trees, far from the main road.  As we were putting up the tents, two leery visitors on horseback stopped to talk.   We paid little attention to their bold style.   Dalaikhan and Nurlan had gone to ask about a horse and not long after the visitors left, they arrived back.  At dusk, Dalaikhan received a call on his cell phone from a Mongolian Kazakh woman they had met in the village.  (Mongolian Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan network and do whatever they can to help one another).   She reported that she heard locals talking about us and warned about a group of ten young men who moved as a unit.  One owned gun and had been rumoured to have used it in the past.   She believed we were in danger and that they might be planning to overtake us that night, steal our horses and possibly to rob us at gunpoint.  

We immediately took down our tents and by the time everything was packed up, the sun had set and night had fallen.  Headlights off, Nurlan drove Nurbyek and me in the direction from which we had come.  In time he circled back.  Dalaikhan and Alpamys rode ahead in the dark.  Their nomadic riding skills were impressive, manoeuvring in the pitch black of night and at considerable speed.  At least seven miles down the road we met up and without lights, Nurlan drove the UAZ across the fields and into hiding. Without a word or a light we put up one storm tent and all slept together - on alert all night.

The next day, Dalaikhan and Nurlan back-tracked to continue negotiations to buy the horse they were considering - a red stallion we later called Beaveris Sultan (after a descendant of Chinggis Khaan).  As I mentioned before, the purchase of each horse required papers and registration because the police can stop you any time, asking to see ownership rights.  Their negotiations took more than half of the day. 

Still sharing the riding, we continued on, on the lookout for our fourth horse.  Three days later we found one for sale from an old Kazakh man at an isolated sheep farm.  Another stallion, he was a large brown four year old we called Islam.  The man also gave us a Tazzy dog that, unfortunately, less than twelve hours later, tip-toed sheepishly off to return to her master.  Unlike Mongolia, where dogs want to take to the road and join almost any riding party, in Kazakhstan they are treated fairly by their owners.   It is hard to get a good watch dog to follow unless you tether it to your horse - which would kill the spirit of such a union.  

In Kazakhstan, towns commonly have a majority of either Russians or Kazakhs, even though there are many nationalities that have made that country their homeland, (in most cases against their will due in great measure to the policies of Josef Stalin).  The Russian towns have story-book houses with decorative wooden window frames, lace curtains, corrugated metal roofs, Monet-type hay stacks, flower gardens and gaggles of geese or flocks of ducks by water-well puddles.  Kazakhs towns have white brick houses with simple Cerulean blue trim and crooked blue fences made of almost any material.  They also have the hay stacks and shepherds are in abundance because these people were once Kazakhstan’s nomadic people - robbed of their cultural traditions, also by Stalin.  

In the summertime you will see beds out on platforms where the Kazakhs sleep under the stars.   Almost all homes from both nationalities have satellite dishes and all towns are shadowed by huge flocks of crows and buildings that look like they’ve been blasted in a war.  The bombed-out cavities are only residue left by locals who are pillaging raw materials from former Russian owners who have returned to the motherland.   Many larger buildings are falling apart because, since collectivization, the massive barns and factories have been abandoned.  I was overjoyed to discover at least four Kazakh villages with ancient-styled roofs and chimneys and, in some cases, even thatching.   Among other fascinating sights for a Westerner are abandoned, overgrown parks with statues of Lenin, too high to deface, but his name has, in most cases, been carefully removed.  In an empty meeting place for the socialist movement I saw elaborate mosaics and wall paintings, (but gutted floors with cow paths and sheep droppings).  There, to my fascination, I came upon a massive head of Lenin.

It didn’t take long to realize that sometimes, people in the Russian towns might pose a danger.  They even asked for money when we wanted simple instructions.  And for the most part, the Russians had no knowledge of the Kazakh language.   Our Mongolian licence plate drew a lot of attention because there is no such thing as a touring car visiting Kazakhstan from another country.  In that part of the world young men look for any chance to beat up other young men who are not of their ilk.  At night, if we had to stop for any reason, we would conceal the plate.  Because of the enormous poverty in the countryside, we felt sufficiently threatened and avoided, at all costs, going into towns with the horses.  People would ask us what we were doing and why we were riding and if we were rich people.  They could not understand the logic of overland travel by horse.  We carried three large square jugs and two larger tubs with lids to collect well water in for the horses and for cooking.  These, Nurlan filled twice a day at water pumps in towns.   Water was not available everywhere in the landscape, so our collection system gave us the chance to move swiftly and not have to meander constantly in search of water.   We also bought bags of grain that the horses relished, even though grass was plentiful.

After Aktobe we came upon continuous miles of wheat fields that blanketed the landscape all the way to Astana.  Massive crop acreage, once harvested, does not always offer the easy ride one might expect.  The earth can be either too soft for the horses, too muddy after heavy rain or, in most cases, have treacherous erosion cracks, up to eighteen inches deep.   Last year Norbek’s horse tripped on a crack and they both went down.    

We took extreme precautions setting up camp, always staying out of view of towns and even riding until dusk if we felt particularly vulnerable.  A UAZ, driving far into the fields can manoeuver through almost any terrain and this made us inaccessible to most other vehicles. 

Nomads study the landscape continuously with spyglasses, watching the movement of cars and blowing dust.  Dalaikhan would often scout, even at night, and get up early in the morning to continue.  He would sit patiently with his telescope - always crouching and staying low. 

One day, in the middle of nowhere, we came to a restaurant.  I called to the others, “let’s go for soup!” We left the horses to graze in an adjoining field.  There were no other customers in the main dining room which was separate from the cashier /ordering section.   Nurlan, still on the road, had not rejoined us at that point, but we proceeded to eat without him.   Just as he arrived, three swarthy looking figures also moved slowly into the room – one at a time.  The first, older than the rest and with a handlebar moustache, sat at the table behind us.  The second seated himself at another table to his left.  The third, a tall, cocky looking character in a black leather jacket walked confidently over to our table.  To little Alpamys, he demanded: “documentos! ... telephone!” 

I was also feeling a little cocky, knowing instinctively that they were not police, and for some reason, still unknown to me, I said in a bold voice, “Bullshit!  No way!”   

 Leather Jacket paid no attention.  It was obvious he didn’t understand the words “bullshit”. He also didn’t understand “no” (“nyet” in Russian and “jock” in Kazakh) and “way” – an expression that probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone speaking another language, even if they did understand a bit of English. 

 A fourth, tough-looking character came into the room and I immediately identified him as Roma, (often called gypsy in Western societies).   I finally got the picture.  They were going to try to take our documents and sell them back to us.  Or take them and leave with them.   They would at least test our vulnerability and play their game from there. 

Number four sat at a third table.  When I realized they were not sitting together and were surrounding us, I knew we were in trouble.  My daring diminished and, trembling, I stood up and said to my group – “I’m getting out of here!”   I knew I wouldn’t be any good in a fight and if there was going to be one, I had no intentions of experiencing it in an enclosed space.    

Leather Jacket wasn’t getting any action from Alpamys who had started speaking only in Mongolian.  He told Leather Jacket he didn’t understand a word he was saying (but of course he did) and our group all spoke only Mongolian, trying to work out a plan of retaliation.  Dalaikhan looked like he could have doubled as a bodyguard who might beat them all up singlehandedly.  I was sure his presence must have had some influence because Leather Jacket was stymied!   Alpamys followed me outside - but so did Handlebar!

I was ready to put up a fight so I said to Handlebar in the best Jersey-girl accent I could muster, even though I am Canadian and have no idea of exactly how they speak in New Jersey.   “Hey!” I said,“ Why are you picking on this little guy?  And what is this “telephone” talk all about?  What do you think you are going to do with our telephones?“   He looked at me puzzled, as anyone might, baffled by our curious group.  Clearly he had no idea of what I was saying.  Then Handlebar, Alpamys and I, all looked at what was sitting in the parking lot.  A police car!  With two policemen in it!   I made a bee-line toward them – but not without first looking back to photograph their Russian licence plate.  Not more than three minutes later, Norbek came running out of the restaurant to tell us the foursome had taken off!   We told the police about our encounter and gave them the plate number and for the rest of the day the men praised Allah – certain in their minds that He had sent the police to our rescue.  From that day on we spent considerable time constructing possible scenarios and how we would deal with them.

In Kazakhstan, even more dangerous than her outlaws, are ticks.  There are two forms of tick-borne encephalitis and for one type there is no cure.  I concluded that the best investments were my knee -high riding boots that left no place for entry; I had protection up to my neck!   We all had head bites and it was important to help one another by removing any ticks before or while they were biting.  It is also imperative to inspect clothing meticulously before going to bed every night.  Ticks should never be pulled out but scraped off so they don’t have a chance to leave their venom.  This can be done with a knife or even a credit card (I was taught at the Medisys travel clinic in Montreal).  It is possible to receive an inoculation for one type of encephalitis (in three injections) which will offer some protection for three years, but the other has no cure.

Half way through the ride we were hit by a hard storm with raging winds (hurricane force) that lasted almost three days.  Beaveris Sultan took a slip in the mud while I was riding and it was immediately evident he had sprained his fetlock (hind right).  We stopped everything and looked into buying a backup horse.  After asking natives for leads, we were sent to a village where another elderly man had a muscular, fourteen-old, strawberry-roan for sale.  It was a done-deal.  We called him Allahbergen (Allah’s gift).  Setting off slowly, we towed Beaver at a walk.  Through text messaging I was able to learn that we could give him at least 20 aspirin, twice a day.  It wasn’t easy to get them down and the best method was to crush the pills and force it into his mouth using a plastic water bottle.  I also tried “muscle activation therapy” by deeply massaging his upper leg muscles, spine and side quarters. 

He seemed to like that because his ears would go up and he would look around as if to say “more, please”.   In four days he lost his limp and the swelling went away.

Near the end of our ride, we encountered more rain and strong winds and had to move slowly.  The mud made riding slow and because of Beaver’s incident we were concerned about repeated accidents, but there were not any.

I calculated the end of the ride at 1069 horse miles, but Nurlan, our driver, believed we came in at 1110 miles.   The camaraderie was impressive and rewarding.  After we finished the ride, we were nothing short of, as Dalaikhan said repeatedly, “a family.”             

Information about Bonnie's first Long Ride

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