Despite the fact that we were both on horseback, the ranger insisted. I trotted up next to him in the light rain, leaned in and snapped this shot just before his horse leapt forward, ready to lead us down the steep hill.
“Selfie” is one of the few English words this Kazakhstan ranger knows. The others were “Let’s GO,” which he used liberally, given our group’s propensity to take their time finishing a snack break, especially in the face of an impending thunderstorm.
You don’t want to be on top of the Altai Mountains when there’s lightning.
I have. It’s a nasty feeling, when you know you’re a target for Thor, who might just use your ass for target practice, when you’re surrounded by nothing else than rocks and rubble. You’re the tallest thing in the neighborhood.
“Let’s GO,” indeed.
This ranger, whose Kazakh name was far too complicated for me to spell or pronounce, was one of our leaders for the better part of four days during a long awaited horse riding trip I took to Kazakhstan this summer. Unlike some riding “holidays” which put you in a nice hotel at day’s end where you can soak your tootsies in a nice, fragrant, hot bath, this was a real adventure. Tents. Baths in streams. Eating roasted pine nuts right off the tree.
We were riding in the eastern part of Kazakhstan, which borders Mongolia. The Kazakh side gets the rain, which means lush forests, deep grass, rolling meadows and a plethora of wildflowers.
And summer thunderstorms.
Without the ability to converse, most of our interactions came with gestures, facial expressions and a lot of laughter. This man was my point man. I saddled up right behind him for four days, learning to ride like a Kazakh.
That meant descending steep mountains at speed, balancing on a sure-footed horse, watching for marmot holes, and keeping a wary eye on the ever-changing sky.
That meant letting the wind kiss your face as your horse thundered across the open meadows, rangers in front, the other riders trailing out like Canadian geese heading south for winter.
That meant filling water bottles in crystalline waterfalls fed by fresh snow, water that tasted so sweet it was otherworldly. It meant stopping for fresh blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and huckleberries, all in season, and in abundance.
Earning respect in this part of the world comes from your ability to ride, your love of your horse, and your willingness to get up before dawn to start saddling up, long before coffee is ready. This man and I chased the dawn’s chill and prepped the horses, then joined the others at the fire for tea and porridge. We bonded over cold hands, frosty breath, the smell of saddle leather and horse sweat, the pleasure of hard work and fine animals. His grin and good humor jump started my mornings.
This man took us over two steep mountain passes, through thunderstorms and across some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen. My only sadness is that we had to bid him goodbye after four days.
I filmed him as he led our string of mounts back over the mountains. He shot me a smile over his shoulder. We waved, then he and the horses disappeared beyond a thatch of birch trees.
Three hours later my new horse would express his preference to not take part in our new journey, and I would begin a brand new adventure. On a stretcher. I’ve long learned that riding animals can be an iffy proposition at best, and at worst, it can definitely be character forming.
My days since have been filled with memories, not the least of which are of this joyful, funny, exemplary man. A man of only a few words.
But they were all he needed.