We drove for about an hour southwest from Talas to the gated entrance of the reserve that contains the Urmaral Gorge. On the other side of the gate we met the horses and Domas, our local guide in charge of the horses and from now on in charge of us. It became clear that it wasn’t only Jonny and Marat who were worried about the pack weights. Although our deft work with the vodka and the minimising of our wardrobes had reduced the weight and bulk considerably, once the contents of the minibus had been unloaded and dumped in a heap on the grass, there was much scratching of heads. With food for eight of us for over a week; pans; bowls; hob; gas cylinders; tents; bedding and our luggage, even pared down – it was a big heap.
The eleven stallions tied up in the shade of trees snoozed with alternate back legs resting, oblivious of what was in store for them. They had already come over the mountains from the village where we would end our ride. A handful of boys sat on their hunkers beside the track and watched bemused as Marat, Jonny and Domas studied the cargo. I suggested that we could do without the loo seat, metal frame, tent and spade. After all there were wolves and bears in the mountains – carnivores without spades, and there would be rocks for the modest to dodge behind. We also decided to dispense with camp chairs. They set about packing the remainder. Six heavy-duty canvas bags – two for each packhorse – were converted into yard-high drums by lining them with our Karrimats to make them rigid. They were carefully packed with the food, cooking kit and the essential vodka. Once strapped in pairs onto the packhorses our bags were put on top of them. Everything was tied down with great care being taken to keep each load balanced. The guys’ sleeping pads were strapped over the saddles and tents to the cantles of those not carrying a pack. Until we had absorbed some serious quantities of food and vodka each packhorse would be carrying over 220 pounds. No wonder one of them laid his ears flat back, rolled his eyes, ground his teeth and had to be led around on a tight rein until we moved off quarter of an hour later.
Not taking much part in any of this, lurked a lean, debilitated youth. This was Illyaz, the second ‘horse-boy’ whose father had sourced the horses. He had helped Domas bring them over the mountains to us but was suffering from serious gut rot. He felt and looked weak and miserable. For the first day he rode way behind us, out of sight, stopping off as need be.
The gentle cart-track towards the Urmaral Gorge followed the east bank of the swiftly flowing Urmaral River. At lunchtime we crossed a ford to the west bank and tethered the horses in the shade of poplar trees. While we ate our cheese and fruit the packhorse, still furious at his load, did his best to rub it off against the tree to which he was tethered. Just above where we dangled our feet in the river two tributaries met. The eastern one was carrying a lot of silt and was murky brown; the western one was clear and sparkling. It took a hundred yards for the waters to merge.
With pack ropes adjusted and girths tightened we followed the western valley that became narrower and the track steeper. Domas waved to some fishermen angling for trout. Pines replaced poplars. The cart track became an animal path. When the river cut through sheer rock we left its side, to snake up earth banks, loosely held together by sparse grass roots. Once back on stable terrain we came to streams draining snowmelt from the crags above. The boggy places bordering these streams made it difficult for the horses. They lurched to haul their legs from the cloying mud. Once the bank had widened again we dropped back to the main river. The descent was a steep sheep path with rocks on one side and a vertical drop on the other. ‘Don’t look down – look ahead!’ I told myself.
Every now and again it was necessary to cross the river. Bridges had been created using what timber had been carted or found, bound together by whatever had been handy on the day: sometimes wire, sometimes rope and if nothing else – frayed string. Gaps between twisted branches were loosely filled with stones. The older bridges looked far from sound with numerous rotted holes into which hooves could slip. However the torrent was either too fast or the water too deep to contemplate fording it and as Domas and the packhorses seemed to reach the other side as though crossing on tarmac, it was a case of letting my horse choose his own route while I earmarked a stretch of bank for which to head if things went pear-shaped – provided that I was not already numbly cold and could muster the strength to swim out of the current. None of the stallions put a foot wrong – they had not survived this long by being careless and their ability to cope inspired optimism for what might come.
After crossing one typically narrow and flakey bridge Domas dismounted on a flattish place just above an S bend in the river. This was it for the day. The fact that it was flat had stopped boulders from tumbling further in an historic landfall. We pitched the tents where we could find space between them. By the time the last tent peg had been heeled-in Shuhrat not only had his kitchen tent organised but the dostorkon laid and the kettle boiled. As we would learn somehow he always managed to achieve this.
The river fought its way noisily, swooping the bends and over rocks in a race to reach lower more peaceful courses. It had been a busy day and it was a good evening for us all. The packhorses looked delighted to be relieved of their loads; the sun retained its warmth until it dropped; and we were on our way and had gained confidence in our horses.