While Kazakhstan is most certainly Third World in many ways- without question, despite all the efforts the Soviet regime put into it since the 30s to shove this nomadic, herding, agrarian and barter economy into manufacturing and a financial system, it is still in some ways a most backward nation. The Soviets did a lot of damage. (Not that we don’t but hey, they do their fair share). Most big, arrogant, clumsy powers are.
My travels took me through a few cities and then out into the back back back county. This allowed me to see both the rotting, rusting, and disintegrating factories and manufacturing facilities of that era that now lie as eyesores on the plains and on the outskirts of the cities as well as the horse culture that still thrives in the high country. Generations of Kazakhs who grew up under the Soviet regime had to give up what they knew about herding and barter, and learn a new system, which now no longer exists. Now they work to find their way in a new world, hung somewhere between the ancient hawk-hunting cultures and villages of the far eastern mountains and the cities. These environments work to provide jobs in a brave new world that people are suspicious and afraid of, but yet at the same time, immensely curious about.
Not surprisingly, the farther into the mountains we got the more welcoming the people, the more relaxed, the easier it was to create connections. Laughter was easy to come by, and people were eager to ask questions. I ran into English speakers with MBAs in Project Management in the impossibly remote areas. Walking into a small village store would reveal a well-used, ancient abacus, its wooden pieces made nearly black from hundreds of years of skin oils. Today’s kids were just as adept at using them as their ancestors.
My status was gained primarily as a rider. My willingness to rise at 4 am and help bring in the tethered horses, help saddle and prep before breakfast was respected. That was rewarded with Kazakh instructions (mostly gestures) on how to ride like a Kazkh. I learned. As with every country I visit, each culture has its own tack, its own way to ride, every horse is trained differently. Shortly I was right behind the rangers as we descended steep slopes at speed, comfortable on a fine, feisty black horse who rewarded me with a gentle nibble on the cheek each night when I rubbed his ears.
Until we changed horses and rangers the very last time. I was given a lively white steed, who even after massages, sweet nothings and all my hard work was not having it. Perhaps a sore back, a bad day, a burr under his saddle. With horses, you pays your money and you takes your chances. The day he dumped me we were riding as a group (there were twelve, and five rangers). At 1 pm, as we passed through huge farms of freshly-mown hay, a thunderstorm laying down a layer of rain on the Altai slopes just off to our left, the rangers alerted us to the right.
There, in the bright afternoon sun, ran a herd of some fifty horses at full speed. Manes and tails flying, they sped from the edge of one forest to another. Here, quite a common sight. Not to me. Not to us. I held my breath. The sun danced on their muscles, their flashing hooves. Some would reach down and grab a mouthful of fresh hay and keep running. Never have I seen such a gorgeous sight as just a part of every life.
Two hours later I was in a fetal position in the bottom of our trip van being transported to the nearest rural hospital some 25 km away. My horse had bucked me off twice. The first was a simple tuck and roll and I remounted. The second, he was galloping full speed. When I landed and got up, I tested everything. I tried getting back on. Gingerly I .got off and laid on the ground. I really wanted to go to sleep. A broken back will do that to you. Still, you don’t blame the horse. It is after all, an animal, and it was his choice, and I respected it. He spoke the only language he had. GET THE HELL OFF MY BACK.
Despite the pain of the following several weeks, what I thought about were the horses. The rangers, the villagers. The lively herd of yearlings that ran across our path in a beech grove. The way the animals we rode responded to a butt scrub (the rangers made money bets I’d be kicked into next Sunday and they all lost). My memory of Kazakhstan is the country. The immensely lush, incredibly beautiful country that still remains ancient and unspoiled.
Before the West invades.
I hope that takes a very, very, very long time.
I mean to go back and ride there again before that happens.
…on a different horse.