Thursday, July 30, 2015

Best for Last

The night before I had called another acquaintance I had made online. Danyar was a local horse breeder, dog breeder, organizer of “Kahpar”and had several large flocks of sheep and goats. Kahpar is a traditional sport that is similar to soccer but it is on horseback and instead of a ball you have a 40-kilogram ram. If you have seen Rambo you will recognize it. When he was in the Afghan camp they had a game that he ended up participating in. He had arranged that we could visit his property about 1.5 hours from Almaty. On the way down we passed the beautiful Peak Talgar. The highest mountain in the local chain of mountains. This was one that I would have loved to climb while here but needed far more time than I had. It was good to at least see it and get local mountaineer contacts through Elina and my cousin Vladimir. We stopped at a gas station that neighbored a field of wheat. The cloud crowned Talgar stood watch as we snapped a few pictures of her 18 sum thousand foot peak.

We made our way across the washboard roads and met a colleague of Danyar named Erzhan. We waited a while longer for another to arrive. They had a buyer coming up to the stables to look at buying one of his horses. We climbed up a gravel and rock road to the “Fazenda” the American equivalent to someone’s vacation cabin. It had a stable, several houses for the workers, a banya, pool, and the main residence.

In the courtyard there awaited us a massive table made of a split log and matching benches. At the head of the table was the owners seat carved out of a massive trunk of wood. Erzhan shouted a few orders and workers quickly came out and set soft decorative padding for us to sit on. The waitresses quickly followed with tea and sweats. They also brought out the best tasting bread and butter I had ever tried. I could have just sat there and eaten it all day but I had a feeling that the amazing hospitality would have us treated to much more delicious treats.

While we ate the stablemen brought out several horses and paraded them around to the potential buyers. They brought out the father and brothers of the colt they where interested in. Magnificent animals. Daryan was adamant about bringing a nearly lost breed of Kazak mountain Horses back from near extinction. Erzhan always compared them to tanks, capable of going through any kind of terrain.

After our snack we poked around a yurt that was just to our backs. It was cool inside and the walls were lined with rugs and traditional Kazakh weaponry and ornaments. It felt like you were back in time 1000 years, if you didn’t pay attention to the 2 flat screen tv’s inside.

There was a pathway around the perimeter of the yurt and seating surrounding a center fire pit. Erzhan explained to us that this is where they would typically go after a long hard days out in the pastures to warm up and tell stories around the fire pit.

When we came out Erzhan signaled the workers to chase down some of the dogs that spent most of there time near the Fezenda. They came running after several hoots and whistles. The breed is called Tobet, and is a massive animal. It is typically used for protecting herds of horses and other livestock from wolves that roam the hills just above us. They creatures are completely doscile and sleep most of the day. When darkness comes their 4000 year old instinct kicks in and they take their positions and focus all their senses on one thing, wolves. I was amazed at how friendly they were. They took no time in wanting to find out if I was friendly or not and nearly pushed me over wanting to get their rub and scratch from me. I took several pictures and one of them wanted to see how they turned out.

The sun beat straight down on us and after a short introduction with the dogs we jumped in the Pathfinder to get to higher ground. I could see the excitement in my local relatives, as they had never experienced anything like this before. This was Vladimirs first time taking the Pathfinder out on roads like these and he ended up bottoming out a few times from inexperience, but I could tell he felt like a kid again. Adventure will do that to you. Erzhan entertained us with stories of daily living in the pastures and mountains. Plenty of wolf, horse and Tobet stories as we made our way up to the yurt that stood at the halfway mark of the climb.

As we approached a massive Tobet stood watch and barked as we drove up. The shepherds would let the flock of sheep and goats out at 5-6 am while the temperature was still cool. As noon would approach they brought them into a fenced area and the shepherds would take shelter in the cool Yurt. The large Tobet didn’t feel a threat to us and after barking several minutes retired somewhere down below in the shade next to a natural spring. Two 4 month old pups could not pass up the opportunity to play and stayed with us knowing that they would get their fair share of love from us.

The fenced in area had several goats, one of which had horns so large he could lay to rest like the others. He had to lay with his head tilted back to allow the horns to lay horizontally.

We wished our blessings to the shepherd and have one last good pat on the pups and headed further uphill to the camp on high ground.

We drove through the herd of horses and just beyond them was the campsite. The rolling hills looked like they had been mowed, but it was in fact the work of the sheep and goats. In the distance the rolling hills gave way to evergreen forests, and they eventually gave way to crumbling rock, that finally succumbed to year-round glaciers.

We were greeted by the shepherds that spend the entire summer here and one of them offered us a horse. I gladly accepted and took it to the herd just below the campsite. As I made my way through the unsaddled horses I wondered what they would say to my saddled one if they could speak. Would they consider him a traitor?

By the time I got back everyone was inside of the tent and well on their way to eating what was prepared for us. There was fresh lamb, “Kumis”, tea, bread and butter. Kumis is horse milk prepared by smoking local herbs and the smoking the inside of the vessel in which they prepare it. Traditionally it is a large flask like vessel made from the lining of a horse’s stomach. They usually get that when they butcher horses. This is quite common here and horse meat is a delicacy. The Kumis gets whipped and sits for it to ferment a small amount, which gives it a tart taste. The bottom of the bowl has the remnants of the smoked herbs and is very healthy for you. I had several large bowls and really took a liking to it more than the others. Again I was blown away by their hospitality, they had nothing but gave everything. I quickly began to think of gifts I could send them as soon as I made it back to the states. After thanking them we made our way back out and by this time another shepherd came in from the fields with a horse that was a bit quicker than the previous one. I again took advantage and trotted off once more. My mind drifted off and I wondered what my adventures would be like if I had a horse. A horse, a rifle, and my dog off in the hills of Montana or Wyoming somewhere, what a thought!

When I got back they summoned the sleeping Tobet dogs that came out as friendly as can be. Erzhan mentioned several times that their temperament changes completely when the threat of a wolf arises. This particular one looked more like a polar bear than a dog.

We descended and Vladimir did so with a bit more confidence after being able to feel out his vehicle on the way up. We continued chatting with Erzhan and I enjoyed it very much as we had many things in common. I felt that I had made a good friend with him and though to myself to continue our friendship when I make it back to the states with emails and texts.

More food. More food is what was awaiting us at the Fazenda and the massive log table. I could not eat anymore but I could not pass up the opportunity to try something that I may not have the opportunity to in the future. Though I hope this is not the case and wish to come here to visit them again in the future. All this time Erzhad ate nothing, as he was fasting for Ramadan. I could tell his faith had sharpened him into a good honorable man. I truly enjoyed getting to know him. The head of the table remained empty and I wish I could have met the instigator of all this amazing hospitality, all the more reason to return. While we ate they brought up a rare Tatgzhik horse and referred to it as the Mercedes of horses. He was high-strung yet obedient. He looked like he could go from zero to tornado in a seconds notice. He was a beautiful horse but not one for this rugged landscape.

It was time for us to leave and I felt horrible. Such amazing hospitality and I had nothing to offer in return other than thanks and blessings. I made sure to get Erzhad’s contact information as I will surely send him gifts from the states. I drove back and was heartbroken knowing that I leave the next morning. I wished that my everyday was as adventurous and eventful as this one was. While driving I argued within myself and convinced myself to return. There is a part of me that always wants to go somewhere I haven’t been before, and there is a new part of me that made good friends here and bonded with the place from which I was born.