Expect the best and plan for the worst. For the past nine months I’ve been planning and anticipating a three-week horse riding adventure in the high country of Kazakhstan, a country that most Westerners haven’t explored much. It’s still a horse culture, with herds running free in the country and gaggles of yearlings horseassing around in the village square as part of daily life. It’s a sight to see, and precious, before it disappears all too quickly.
In the cities, people are doing their best to catch up to the 21st Century. Most people live in depressingly, ugly, decrepit Soviet-era apartment blocks that haven’t seen upgrades or a coat of paint for decades. Downtown, the stores are stocked to the brim with any kind of liquor you could possibly want. An unbelievable selection. And cigarettes, chocolates, candy, and junk. You might find a rotting peach if you’re lucky. The open market, where you can find fresh goods, is open only on certain days. What is prevalent is technology, and people are as distracted, fascinated and fast asleep here with their devices as anywhere else.
However, once you are in the great and mighty Altai, riding with the Rangers, this all goes away. The lush fields and dense forests welcome you in their rich embrace. You find street signs at high altitude and water so clear and sweet and clean that you can safely fill your bottle in any stream or lake.
The further east we traveled, from one ranger station to the next, using their horses and a base from which to explore the breathtaking mountains, high peaks and rich horse fodder in the meadows, the more I fell in love with Kazakhstan. We left behind the suspicion of the military and the police, and were embraced by the villagers and the horse people.
The day I broke my back our group was riding through newly mowed hay fields. The hay, nearly five feet high, filled our noses with the sweet fragrance known to those of us who grew up on farms. Not many remember any more. I do.
As we rode, some twelve of us with about five rangers, on our way to the night’s tent location, another ranger made his way towards us moving a herd of some twelve horses. All in a day’s work. Then, one of our rangers alerted, and pointed off to the right.
To the south, and too far for my camera, was a herd of some fifty horses running free. They spread out, leaving one forest edge and heading towards another, manes flying, tails lifted. The sun glanced off their powerful haunches and hooves.
It only lasted a few seconds. That vision is emblazoned on my memory forever. The sweet smell of hay, the soft warm breezes, the thunderstorm over the Altai mountains, the gentle gait of our walk.
An hour later my new horse would buck me off at full speed, break four vertebrae and bring my trip to an abrupt end. I would spend five days in an isolated rural Kazakh hospital with woefully limited facilities, but a doctor who really cared.
It is a gift beyond measure to see countries that have largely been hidden to us for years. To see land that hasn’t been invaded by McDonald’s and Burger King and Starbucks is like opening up a secret book. Virgin territory. Beautiful, and sad, because eventually those bastards will get there and ruin everything.
Sometimes, on my adventure travels, things happen. Something gets broken or crunched. However it’s a remarkably small price to pay for what I have seen.
Horses running free across open land. A gaggle of fractious yearlings mock fighting in a beech grove and then galloping off down the streets of the village. The infectious grin of a forest ranger as we gallop together across an open meadow.
There aren’t words.
I will be back on a horse in six weeks, maybe seven. And I am going back to Kazakhstan. Despite the suspicious police (even at the hospital where my passport was photographed some fifteen times by a cop) and the repressive government policies, it is an amazing place.
I want to see those horses again.
Because someday, they too will be deemed too old-fashioned, and like a great many other heartbreakingly beautiful things, will be gone.