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25.05.09 08:53 Age: 9 yrs

Horses of course

By: Roger and Megan

Theres a track leading back, to the old fisherman's shack, along the road to Taldysay

It was a very sad departure from Balshino for us. The families there had been very kind and welcoming toward us, even giving us some traditional Kazakh clothing and food as gifts as we left. Alas, we had to move on southward, to venture deeper into the Kazakh steppe. From Balshino, we headed toward a town called Taldysay. This was a bit of a gamble for the town was only marked on one of our three maps of the area, and that map is from 1973. Our decision to go via Taldysay was based on the word of several different people from Balshino, who had recommended that route as the easiest way to Shubarkol (a town that was not on our 1973 map, but was on the other maps).

Along the way we saw a crumbling stone structure a few kilometres off the main road, miles from anywhere. Being the inquisitive explorers we are, we decided to investigate. As we approached the building we could see the movement of some cows and a human-shaped figure outside the house, which was a bit of a surprise. Getting closer, the big smile on the man's face became clearer, and he came out to meet and greet us in his driveway. This house was the humble abode of a horse, cow and sheep herder, and his young family. He invited us in for lunch, which was for some freshly caught fish from the river down the hill from his house, and we shared some of our nuts and balsacs (Kazakh fried dough balls) with him too. After eating, we traded some more nuts and fruits for some of their homemade bread and cream, and we were once again on our way to Taldysay.

Throughout the day the wind got stronger and eventually were slowed to about 6 km/h. We made the decision to stop at the turn-off, or at 5 pm (whichever came first) and see what the next day would bring. We figured that the headwind couldn't get much worse, so we may as well rest it out. That afternoon we lazed around, Megan going off for a wander in the steppe while Roger hid from the mozzies in the tent. It was balsacs and chai again for dinner, then finally a long sleep. During the night it started raining quite heavily, and we were hoping that this would be the Melbourne-style cool change, and the weather would be settled the next morning. Alas, this was Kazakhstan, and the weather behaves a bit differently here! So in the morning, the wind was still there, but now it was not bad, it was worse!

But we had to start riding anyway, since even if we travelled at 4 km/h we'd reach Taldysay in the day (only 19 km away). The first hurdle was getting back onto the road, and in our way was a steep embankment. The rain the previous night had softened the top layer of soil into mud and we couldn't get any traction. So we had to investigate other ways of pushing the thing up. However, it was hard enough getting traction on foot! So after about 30 min of hard work, we had finally made the first 50 m of the day.

And the whole day continued in that fashion. It was a rare sighting to register on the speedo... which goes down to 3.6 km/h... and this was rather disheartening. We put the estimate at a 100 km/h headwind, and our troubles were compounded by the fact that the road was attaching itself to our wheels, and the front wheels had a lot of resistance when the mud accumulated higher than the fork stays (1 inch thick). At times, it went above that to touch the mudguards too (3+ inches), and then dropped off in a big ball. We could also hear (and feel) the mud catching on the luggage on the rear, which was 2 inches above the tyre. Also, when the road wasn't attaching itself to our tyres, we were sinking in it, slowing us down further. And when we did have a downhill, not only did we have the headwind preventing us from accelarating, negotiating the road itself required a lot of weaving and strength in steering. So in all, we had a bit of momentum resistance that day, and every stroke of the pedals was hard work. Thus at an average of 2 km/h we finally reached Taldysay around 8:30pm at night.

Upon arriving in the small village we were greeted by five men, asking us if we were having dinner with the "president". We thought it was a joke and so laughed it off. They then asked us to ride on through the town, and stop at the house with the green truck and Kazakhstan flag, so we followed their directions (didn't know what we were in for) and rode through the town. We didn't know whereabouts to be looking for this green car, and couldn't see a flag anywhere, and then we turned around to find we'd lost the five men too! Getting to the end of town (one road) we stopped and were looking for somewhere to camp, when a young man approached us.

He beckoned us to come inside his house with him, and told us to leave the Quike in his garden where it would be safe (he kept re-assuring us it would be safe, but we were very hesitant to just leave it there unattended in this strange town!). Inside we met his wife, who was still cooking dinner (in Kazakhstan it is quite normal to eat dinner at 11 pm at night, even little kids stay up that late). Over dinner we showed his our documentation (to show we're legal) and asked where the police were located in town, so that we may inform them that we're there. He said that wouldn't be necessary as he'd seen the papers, that was enough. Hmm... . Then, we asked whether he knew anyone at the school, and whether we could visit there the next day. He said that he'd call in the morning and arrange it with the school director. Great! Then we started to wonder about who this guy was, that he had so much influence in town. Very late at night, just before we were about to retire to bed, it finally dawned on us that this word he was using to describe himself (Akim) was not his name, but his profession. He was the town mayor! This surprised us further, as he was only 24 years of age, and had been Akim for three years!

So after a short sleep, it was off to school at 9 am in the morning. The school at Taldysay is small but has a very nice Kazakh culture museum. We were also treated to another dombra performance and Megan had a quick lesson too. After this, it was back to the Mayor's house for more chai and khleb (which they eat about 6 times a day!). We stayed another night in Taldysay (the wind still sitting around 100 km/h) before hitting the road again. Then, about 10 km from town, we again saw a small house a km or two off into the steppe, and decided to investigate...

Here we met a Kazakh girl and her husband's parents. Their farm is very large, complete with a river (with fish), some 50 horses, 300 sheep, 8 cows & calves, and a bull. After more chai and khleb the son (and husband of the girl) and his friend arrived. They had been out herding the sheep on horseback and had come back for lunch. We were planning to leave after lunch (to make the journey on to Shubarkol) but they asked us to stay with them for the night to learn about the farm life, then depart in the morning. That afternoon they took us out to watch them catch horses by lassoo and noose. It was very spectacular seeing the men (big strong men) being dragged along by a horse, which they had lassooed. It was all very fast-paced and noisy, with horses thundering around trying to escape and then the men on foot trying to lassoo them whilst trying to not be dragged around or get rope burn (not always successful) or being kicked by the rearing horses trying to escape .

After this, it was then time to collect the hay to feed the cows, using a rickety old horse-drawn carriage and pitchfork. Then Roger got on the horse (Megan couldn't because it is men-only duty) to round up the sheep, with whip in hand. This was a nice change from riding a Quike, since you don't need to work as hard in the wind! After the herding the sheep on horseback it was time for Megan to help milking the cows (women's duty). Her feeble attempts at this left more milk on the floor than in the bucket! Then, straight after milking the cows, it was time to turn the milk by hand to make smetana (cream). This is a very slow process and after an hour of winding and winding the machine, she'd produced about 500 ml of cream from the 20 litres of milk. Finally, after all this, it was time for dinner (at about 10 pm). We were quite exhausted and can't understand how they can do this each day, as they start at 6 am and finish at midnight.

Dinner that night was, of course, bisbarmak! We got to help out a bit with making the noodles for the meal, so we might now be able to bring this dish back home with us, and cook it there. This time the five meats were a bit more recognisable, and we enjoyed digging in to the big communal bowl with our hands. After dinner, with very full bellies, we discussed the differences betwen food/farming/agriculture in Australia and Kazakhstan with them, being very intersted in the fact that at they did not use the sheeps wool for anything (on this property at least), and that after making the cream, all the left over milk was not for drinking, but was rather just "rubbish" to be given to the sheep to drink.

After another late night it was again back to work the next morning... out on the farm this time wrestling with sheep, chasing them down on foot, and tackling them to the ground and holding them (to turn them into surrogate mothers for abandoned lambs) and milking more cows. Another very tiring but interesting exercise! By now the wind was still growing - it hadn't subsided for 5 days now, and was still getting worse! We had no idea if we could even ride in this weather, so again we were forced to spend another day at the farm helping out (or getting in their way, more like it!). That evening we went to look at the old mud brick house ruins on their property.

Finally the next day the wind had subsided enough (by 7 pm at night) that we decided to take this small window and leave! We got about 10 km away before being forced in for the night by the strengthening wind. The next day was much of the same - struggling against the unrelenting headwind. By evening it was evident we would not make Shubarkol that night, so we started looking for somewhere to camp on the steppe. Or decision was eased when out of no where we saw two pink flamingos taking a dip in a small lake near the road. This was pretty special, so that we decided to camp there that night, waiting for more flamingos...

[posted 30/5 by Trevor]