The Long Riders' Guild

Long Ride in Central Asia

 by Nicholas Ducret

(Translated from the French by Basha O'Reilly)

In May 2007 I left for the trails of Central Asia, intending to cross Central Asia from Kazakhstan to Afghanistan.  After five months travelling, I reached Kabul at the end of the month of October.

I arrived in the AltaÔ Mountains at the beginning of Spring, and stayed with a Russian friend who is a huntersí guide in the AltaÔ.  A few weeks later, and after having absorbed several litres of vodka, I finally dragged myself away from my mountain refuge to head for the peaks, the trail to faraway mountains which stretch the length of my journey south.  I suddenly found myself all alone with my two horses in the middle of the steppes of Kazakhstan, its dreariness swept by winds.  I turned my back on the beautiful and wide green slopes of the Altai to thrust myself into the enormous area rich in history, legend and the eternal memory of the great conquerors, as if man and land both retained in their memory the indelible marks of a glorious and murderous past.  Land marked by too many things, land burned too often to be able to forget.  So the people drink, feast and sometimes drown in their own history.  As a result of centuries of nomadism, tradition has it that the door is always open to a passing horseman.  The people squat down while one son holds the sheep chosen from the flock.  The old man says a prayer in a deep voice, a litany which flies away in the steppe.  The sheep is killed and eaten and vodka ensures the return of a joyful heart.

After several weeks I had to tell people I had stomach problems, which pretext saved me from getting plastered every day, and anyway, being drunk on horseback is never a good idea!

Finally the Tien-Shan mountains of Kirghizstan opened up before me, and I entered them along the shores of Lake Issy Kul.  One valley took me up to a snow-covered peak of 13,000 feet.  I stopped for the night in an old control post used by the Red Guards until 1991.  Sometimes, I didnít meet anyone for days, as the shepherds no longer have the courage to come to these far flung corners.  I was most impressed with my horses.  They scrambled courageously across rocks and boulders through these mountains, although sometimes food was had to find at the end of the day.  They showed exceptional endurance and willingness.  Sometimes the peaks turned us into Alpine acrobats, the only choice being to keep going until we found the pass.  The trails were sometimes very dangerous, but the horses followed me with unbounded faith, reminding me of the great responsibility I had for them.  The Ferghana valley now offered us a small respite before attacking the Pamirs.  Not a day passed without somebody inviting me in for tea or to spend the night.  The Kirghiz people are very nice, although they spent most of their time trying to find me a wife!

I arrived in Tadjikistan through the Kizul Art mountain, which took me onto a high desert where life seemed to have almost completely disappeared.  From Lake Karakul I cut through the mountains towards the Fedchenko glacier.  For four days I travelled alone through these high plateaus;  there is nobody there Ė just the howling of the wind and a smell of salt.  Then one morning I found men:  Pamiris, proud men who very seldom meet strangers.  In this country of rubies where everyone dreamt of escaping one day by discovering one of these famous stones, which could perhaps sell for a hundred dollars, I was assumed to be  a geologist who might be able to help them realise their dreams.

A convoy of donkeys took fright at my arrival, they had probably never seen horses.  The men leading them seemed to have emerged from the bowels of the earth.  A large red-head is in charge, probably a descendant of Alexander the Greatís army, with a man of medium height with a luxuriant moustache of which any old commissioner would be proud of, and certainly as splendid as that of a Viking.  Large black eyes made him look half-mad, but his quick smile was immediately reassuring.  He wore trousers of thick, striped material and leather shoes which must have lasted for generations.  We drew level with each other, looked at each other and stopped:  these are the first men I have met.

The people of the Pamirs were extremely kind, and for the first time I felt completely safe, which was very comforting, and I regained my strength for the next stage.

On the other hand, I had great difficulty in finding food.  Grass was effectively non-existent, hay rare and jealously guarded for the winter.  I was lucky enough to obtain 285 pounds of barley from the Kirghiz people on the shores of Lake Karakul which enabled me to be self-sufficient.

When I arrived in Afghanistan, I looked for a guide who could accompany me as far as Kabul.  I found one who agreed to take me there, but unfortunately he only spoke Dari.  Having obtained a permit from the commandant of Ishkashim, we took the road across the Anjuman peak (14,540 feet), the entry into the Panshir valley.  We travelled the length of a tortuous and stony valley, with many villages punctuating the route.  Each evening we found somewhere safe, as my guide was brilliant at finding a house where we could pass the night.  One evening I was taken away by Panshir soldiers who suspected my presence here.  I was finally released the following morning.  After this my guide was terrified every time I put a foot out of doors during the night, as he was convinced I would be kidnapped.  Then, on 30th October, we finished our journey with my brave equine companions, Tsigane and Musician of the Steppes, and arrived in Kabul.  Afghanistan was fabulous and magnificent, even though I often didnít have a clue what was happening to me.

It was a moment of enormous happiness to know I had succeeded in travelling some 3,300 kilometres (more than 2,000 miles) across Central Asia, and a moment of great sorrow to have to leave my faithful companions, Tsigane and Musician of the Steppes, who were much more than just horses.

Click to enlarge photograph of Nicholas Ducret with fellow French Long Rider, Louis Meunier. The intrepid equestrian explorers met and rode together in Kabul, Afghanistan

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