Danger and Disappointment
A Tale of Mounted Hardship
You think you’re ready.
You’ve laid your plans with great care.
The horses are rested.
The equipment is the best you could buy.
You run through your mental check list one last time, decide you’ve done everything you can to prepare properly before setting off on your great equestrian adventure.
So you take a deep breath, put your foot into the stirrup, swing into the saddle and ride towards the unknown horizon that’s been beckoning to you for so long.
At first everything goes well.
The plans you made seem to be working out splendidly.
The horses are doing fine.
The equipment is holding up.
Things are looking good.
You’re going to make it, you cautiously tell yourself, never realizing that you’ve forgotten the old Long Rider adage that, “The horseman’s grave is always open.”
That’s when disaster strikes in any number of unexpected ways.
Ask Laura Bougault.
She was riding across Africa when she was ambushed, beaten and robbed by Zulu bandits.
Ask Lisa Adshead.
She was riding from Wales to Jordan when her beloved gelding, Audin, died without warning in Turkey.
Ask Louis Meunier whose journey across Afghanistan was going splendidly only a few days ago – until doctors told him he was on the edge of death.
The last time The Long Riders’ Guild heard from Louis Meunier his tale was one of courage and friendship.
The young French Long Rider and his Afghan Long Rider comrade, Hadji Shamsuddin, had set off to make the first modern equestrian journey across Afghanistan. Departing from Hadji’s home, the northern city of Maimana, the two intrepid equestrian explorers rode south to the fabled lakes of Bandi Amir, across the center of the country along an ancient caravan track to see the legendary Minaret of Jam, and then on to Herat, the city which marks the western edge of Afghanistan. With the majority of their journey successfully completed, the pair had emailed The Long Riders’ Guild to say that they were leaving Herat in two days time, bound on the last part of their journey back to Maimana.
|French Long Rider Louis Meunier was making the first twenty-first century ride across war-torn Afghanistan. He set off from Maimana with his friend, Hadji Shamsuddin; he is pictured here riding Mushki above the river Murghab. (Click on photo to enlarge it.)|
There was just one small problem Louis said in his last email to The Guild.
He had been ill throughout most of the journey.
Yet the excitement of his equestrian mission had helped him to ignore an increasing amount of pain in his chest.
In his last report to The Guild, Louis concluded his update by writing, “We all need a good rest. Horses are well but tired. They have always had proper and sufficient food. But I had an outbreak of what I think is malaria two days ago and I am in no shape to ride on immediately. Insh’Allah, we shall leave for Maimana the day after tomorrow.”
Louis didn’t mount up that Tuesday.
He never finished that ride across Afghanistan.
In fact, he barely lived to tell The Long Riders’ Guild what went wrong.
The next message which arrived at Long Riders HQ left us stunned.
It read, “Hello Long Riders,
Just a short note.
The pain grew stronger these last days so I went to the Spanish Military Hospital here in Herat.
They told me that my illness was not caused by malaria.
Instead the doctors have found a 4 centimeters (2 inch) diameter growth in my liver.
They don’t know if it is a tumor or a virus but it is hurting me very badly.
I need treatment quick, which I can’t get here, but only in western countries.
So I am just out of the Spanish Military hospital in Herat and writing to say that here sadly and abruptly stops my ride.
I have wept all my tears realizing I have no choice.
I will now rush to find Hadji Shamsuddin.
I am worried about my horses and must find a solution for them.
The doctors want me to return to hospital while I wait for a military plane to take me home to France.
I am all upside down.
I will let you know how I sort things here and how it is going for me.
Best regards to you,
The Long Riders’ Guild emailed Louis immediately but there was only silence from Afghanistan.
A long, long week went by.
We did not know if Louis was alive or dead, if Hadji Shamsuddin had continued the ride alone, or what had happened to the horses?
Then Louis telephoned from Paris.
In a voice laced with pain he explained how he had been placed on a military flight out of Afghanistan and rushed to a hospital in France, where surgeons had stopped the growth which had spread so extensively that it was blocking his breathing.
Knowing Louis was alive was good news.
Learning what had happened back in Afghanistan had to wait until he was released from the hospital, at which time he managed to type out an email.
In that message Louis told The Guild what had occurred in Herat.
“Dear Long Riders,
I was very happy to talk to Basha on the phone yesterday.
The doctors here in Paris told me I caught an amoeba in Indian Kashmir when I was traveling there four months ago.
That germ turned into an abscess while I was on the saddle in Afghanistan.
It located itself on the upper side of my liver, hurting my lungs.
After giving me heavy medication, I was released from the French hospital and sent home to recover.
I am still weak but feel much better.
Insh’Allah, I should be on my feet in a month or two.
Now let me tell you what happened after my last
email in Herat.
By the time I rode into that city my liver was hurting badly.
An Afghan doctor provided me with an injection of a drug called diflofenac.
I was feeling better after receiving this medication and had no reason not to think Hadji Shamsuddin and I could not pursue our journey all the way back to Maimana.
That's the time I sent my last email to The Long Riders’ Guild.
But then the pain began to come back worse than ever.
I went to see a doctor from the Spanish army who is stationed in Herat.
He diagnosed the danger to my liver and convinced me not to continue the journey.
But even if I had to stop, I knew I must see to my horse’s welfare.
Because I was in so much pain, this doctor gave me heavy drugs to allow me a couple of hours to go back to Hadji and the horses.
I knew the time was running out and that I had to make fast decisions before the pain returned.
I was really disappointed in not being able to ride on but I told Hadji Shamsuddin that he mustn’t stop the journey on my behalf, that if possible he could go back to Maimana without me.
Actually I am sorry I didn't take the time earlier to tell you about Hadji Shamsuddin.
He grew up in Maimana, until the Russians invaded Afghanistan.
That’s when his parents were killed and he left school to hide in the mountains.
He entered the resistance and walked to Pakistan ten times to secure help.
After the Russians retreated, Hadji went to Kabul where he worked in the government for Professor Rabbani.
But when the Taliban came to power, he was forced to flee once again.
This time he went to Meshad, Iran.
He only came home to Maimana a year ago.
That’s when I met him.
Hadji Shamsuddin is related to my good friend, Doctor Zaman.
When I told my friends that I wanted to make a long horse journey across Afghanistan, everyone said Hadji Shamsuddin was the man to accompany me.
When we met, we conversed in Farci and Uzbek.
"Here is a picture of Haji Shamsuddin with Chaïtane. They are at the shore of Band-i-Amir in central Afghanistan. I took this picture as we were walking around the lakes. We were both there for the first time and we were amazed by the beauty of the legendary lakes. This was a great moment as we were considering it as the achievement of the first step of our journey.”
Photo by Louis Meunier
Hadji couldn't understand why we didn't take motorbikes instead of horses?
He had never sit on a horse before I asked him to accompany me on this journey.
But he learned very quickly about riding and rapidly understood our four-footed friends, the way they walk, the way they eat and digest, the way they sleep.
Moreover he was happy to discover places he had not seen before like the lakes at Band-i-Amir lakes and the minaret of Jam.
We shared many great experiences together and even though he was not a horseman when he started, I could tell that he really enjoyed our journey.
After the doctor told me I had to have immediate treatment, I went to find Hadji and told him what the Spanish doctor had said.
We discussed all the options of what to do, talking about every possibility.
Should Hadji take the three stallions back with him to Maimana?
I offered them to him as a gift and urged him to
take them home if he wished.
Or perhaps he could sell Chaitane and Danesh, and just ride my favorite, Mushki, back home?
The other option was that he might have to sell all three horses.
As you may recall from my last email there was also the danger of what lay ahead.
The next part of the journey was very perilous.
The main road is blocked by Taliban, so we had already planned on making a long diversionary ride out of Herat through Bala Murghab and Gormanch, in order to reach Maimana.
Now I was asking Hadji Shamsuddin to take three stallions and cross enemy territory alone.
I wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
But with the pain returning, I was forced to bid my good friend goodbye and return to the Afghan hospital.
Before I left I told Hadji to do what he thought was best.
Then I rushed back to the hospital where my condition worsened.
I was mostly unconscious for the next four days, at which time I was put in a military plane to Kabul.
Then I was flown to France, via Delhi.
It was only when I came out of hospital that I was strong enough to telephone Afghanistan to find out what had happened to Hadji Shamsuddin and the stallions.
When I rang Maimana I discovered that my friend Hadji had decided that he should conclude the journey in Herat.
He said he was not confident to continue alone without my help with the horses.
So my fierce and proud Afghan friend had reluctantly sold our three friends in Herat and returned with a cheerless heart to Maimana.
I was very sad to hear that I would not see Mushki, Danesh and Chaitane again.
That was an amazing journey and I wish it had never stopped.
So when I heard Hadji Shamsuddin’s news, I once again felt great frustration that we had not been able to complete our journey.
However, then I remembered that I had enjoyed a great experience.
I knew my life had changed since I set off for
this unforgettable journey across Central Afghanistan.
Not only did I experience what had long been a dream of mine, I discovered more of my beloved Afghanistan on the back of a great stallion, all the while traveling in the way of the ancient Turkomen horsemen.
This journey has been like an awakening which has left a deep impact on my soul and will surely influence my life in the future.
|Despite his recent brush with
death, French Long Rider Louis Meunier hopes to return to Afghanistan soon
and resume playing buz-khazi, the national sport.
Photo by Louis Meunier
As I sit here in the bed resting, I can look at my maps, notes and pictures and imagine myself back on the saddle.
But I don't want to live in the past, I have to make new projects.
I wish to go back to Afghanistan again.
But I will need to go back to the grindstone to make some money, so maybe I will have to postpone my travel plans for some time.
I don't know and have not made any project yet.
We shall see what happens when the doctors say I am better.
For now I am just slowly recovering.
I share my days between the internet and my cherished travel books.
I visit The Long Riders’ Guild website regularly and I closely follow other ongoing expeditions.
Great to know that Australian Tim Cope was able to cross the border into Russia.
What a journey he is making !
Back here at Long Riders HQ, we have given a great deal of thought to the dangers and frustrations which Louis and Hadji Shamsuddin have endured.
While many people would be frustrated and bitter about the unexpected outcome of their journey, these two equestrian explorers exemplify The Guild’s belief that being a Long Rider is not about being competitive.
It is instead about the deceleration of our souls, not the idle boasting of a lightning-flash crossing of a country or continent.
Though our members have set an assortment of world records during the course of their equestrian travels, The Guild does not encourage anyone to brag about a needless quest for kilometers as a justification for their existence.
We encourage our members instead to undertake a life-changing equestrian journey that explores not only the unknown portions of the world, but their own souls as well.
That’s the sort of journey which Hadji Shamsuddin and Louis Meunier have just completed.
Thus, due to their courage in the saddle, The Long Riders’ Guild has nominated Louis and Hadji to become Fellows of The Royal Geographical Society.
Well done, Saddle Pals.
To read about the first portion of this historic journey, please click here.
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