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Six English Ladies In Turkmenistan

It was a real dilemma. What do you do when you find yourself, at 4 a.m., in a tent on a high plateau in the mountains of Turkmenistan, the gurgling noises of your lurching stomach competing with the howling of the jackals? Do you go out and hope you do not meet a snake or a scorpion? Do you stay in and hope to hang on until daybreak? In the end I had little option. So I unzipped my tent and cautiously tiptoed through the wiry clumps of spiky grass away from the camp until I found a convenient furrow. The muezzin, sung for real and not a recorded version, called the faithful of the remote village through which we had passed the previous evening, to prayer. Feeling much better, I stood for a while under the stars. The moon was so bright I could see my own shadow as I walked back to my tent. Down below, our horses were grazing, the foals sticking close to their mothers, the stallion, the only one to be tethered, occasionally throwing up his head and issuing forth a challenge to any passing rivals.
We made a curious caravan, deep in the Kopet Dag mountains that form the buffer zone between Turkmenistan and Iran. Six English ladies (as we were labelled), a wild Russian guide (who must have been a horse in a previous life), an even wilder Turkmen guide who appeared suddenly through the haze one morning, five Akhal-Teke mares, two foals, one yearling and a couple of stallions.

Most of Turkmenistan is desert, but because of the unusual rain this spring, in the mountains you ride through a sea of wild flowers and butterflies: knee-high poppies, gentians, forget-me-nots, wild camomile, cranesbill, red clover and multitudes of others, together with sweet-smelling herbs in glorious profusion as far as the eye can see. The colours and scents make it like the Garden of Eden and if you fall off, you land in a bowl of fresh pot-pourri. The foothills, on which the poppies are spread like red snow, go on and on, criss-crossed occasionally by sand tracks. Above, the higher ranges of the mountains are almost translucent in the sun, their outlines sharp, the passes deeply shadowed. Below is the desert.

As we passed through this glorious country, my horse and I came to an understanding – or so I liked to believe – just in time to say goodbye. This was not the horse on which I was to set sail towards the Iranian border. I was really quite sorry.

When all the “English ladies” were gathered, we were driven out of Ashkabat, off the end of any beaten track, there to meet our “real” horses and pitch camp. We arrived just before dusk, sat crosslegged under a bamboo shade on carpets laid on top of wild sage and ate pilau for supper. Because we were English ladies, a loo roll was prominently suspended on a piece of string. In the gloaming, the splutterings of a jeep pouring sparks heralded the arrival of our mounts. Wedged against a suitable hillock the back was opened and out leapt mares and foals, one yearling, one large stallion and Anton, our blond, green-eyed Russian guide.

Anton, a man of few words and all of those in Russian (although he did mellow after some gentle teasing) allocated horses for each of us. Mine was an elegant, golden mare called Crissa (the rat, in Russian). She loved Anton’s stallion and loved Anton more so I had pole position as we set off following the line of the river, the stallion in front, then the English ladies on the mares, with the foals, the yearling and two spare mares running loose alongside. After three of four miles, the yearling refused to keep up so a Turkmen boy was sent back on the stallion to get it. When he found it, he simply unsaddled the stallion, which hurtled back to Anton, plonked the stallion’s tack on the yearling, leapt on and broke it in whilst riding back to join us. The animal arrived covered in sweat, a sadder and wiser horse, ready for one of us to ride. The English ladies exchanged disapproving glances but said nothing.

We rode through the bottom of the gorge, the green-topped sand cliffs towering above us. Along the sides of the mountains, exposed sills of pink sand formed tiers of decoration. The rain had been such that the whole landscape had, over the winter, shifted on a monumental scale, with wild animal carcasses and trees washed down into our path. We followed the footsteps of Anton’s stallion, Good King Wenceslas style, over, under and through terrain I would have thought impossible for a horse to manage. Sheer climbs, sheer drops, with the sand always deceptive and often treacherous, saw us cross and recross the river, picking our way as eagles and vultures soared high above casting sinister shadows. The noise was of wind, crickets, birds and water. It is difficult to imagine a scene less cosy. On and on we went as night began to fall, pushing our way deeper and deeper into the ravine. Eventually we found ourselves climbing out, the darkness making the sand gleam like snow through the scrub. Suddenly we could hear the croaking of millions of frogs and soon we were surrounded by small orchards and strips of irrigation planted with potatoes, tomatoes and vines. A dog barked as we passed through a tiny village. We pressed on, now riding down a sandy track and, after eight hours in the saddle, we saw the fire of our camp. My bottom was extremely sore as I climbed off and set my mare free. I looked briefly at my toothbrush but in the end just climbed straight into my sleeping bag, jodhpurs and all.

We woke to find ourselves in a grove of walnut trees. The sun was warm and near the river I found a spring coming straight out of the ground. Oh the bliss of getting out my Charles Worthington shampoo, some Sanctuary Bodywash and a pot of L’Oreal face cream. I felt momentarily embarrassed but, hey, I am, after all, an English lady. When I returned to the camp, we had been joined by a small, dark Turkmen named Mehmet. He was sitting cross-legged on his dun stallion which was strung around with all his worldly goods. Every time he got off it lay down for a kip. “Bolya (ok in Turkmen)?” he remarked. “Bolya”, I replied. Anton’s stallion shifted about and shouted rude things as we set off again. All the mares were thrilled and began to swish their tails and smirk in a decidedly flighty manner.

The next two days were sheer heaven. We climbed up onto a vast, flower and wild tortoise-filled plateau in the middle of the Kopet Dag, a land hidden from the world with the muezzin and the cuckoo competing for our attention. I distributed Sainsbury’s stickers to a great gaggle of children. All through the landscape ran a curious narrow, rusty pipe. “Gas” explained Anton. The President, in his beneficence, gives his people free gas, piped directly from underneath the desert. Occasionally we had to step over the pipe in a village to allow ancient trucks or great herds of brown, black and white sheep with floppy ears and little horns to go past. Donkeys roared at us and cows lay in the shade. The Turkmen stared from under their telpeks (great hats made of wool) and the women smiled uncertainly. No American trash culture here. Mehmet was wearing some ancient trainers, but traditional dress is de rigeur in these villages as well as in Ashkabat.

The going underfoot was now perfect and much to Anton’s disgust, the six English ladies were regularly carted by their horses, leaving him shouting “one line, ladies, please, one line, there are snakes” to our departing behinds. He was right, of course. There were snakes and we saw some. But try telling that to a dizzy Akhal-Teke mare in full flight. Thus, despite his glowering disapproval, we all found ourselves on more than one occasion blithely whizzing past him, the wind in our faces and the sun on our backs.

Each day we packed some food into our saddlebags and stopped when the fancy took us. Lunch was a relaxed affair, eaten underneath tamarisk and juniper trees or just plumped down on a green blanket of herbs. The horses grazed around us, the foals lying flat out. One glorious evening, we swam in a lake that had been dug straight into the sandy soil. We got the idea from Anton’s horse which, to our great amusement, unceremoniously parked him in the water when it decided to go for a swim too. In the morning, on our lakeside beach, one of the men killed a viper.

The kind of people who sign up for this kind of journey refuse to be categorised. One of our number was a redoubtable lady of 76, an old foreign service hand. Another was Anna Cockburn, the fashion stylist, another was a grandmother from Chipping Norton, another a PR guru from Tokyo with Bridget and I making up the six. As we sat each evening and had supper of soup, shashlik, cucumbers and tomatoes, we tentatively found out a bit about each other. The horses, the terrain and ourselves were now our world. There were no telephones, no newspapers, no shops, no doctor, no turning back. We were all in it together, dependent entirely on each other, on Anton’s ability to pick out a path and the perseverance of the men driving the battered truck that hauled itself round the mountains to meet us at night. It will be interesting to see if the bonds created will last the return to our normal lives.

On my last day of riding, we left the flowery plateau with its wild wheat and barley and rode down the side of the cavernous Aydere canyon. The drop to the right made my head reel. Anton, who paid us the compliment of taking us down the most difficult way, turned to reassure us. “The horses know how”, he said, a long sentence for Anton. I dropped my reins and Crissa, all thoughts of flirtation temporarily banished, picked her way. The foals tucked themselves in behind their mothers and even the stallions concentrated more on their feet and less on their manhood. Occasionally the shadow of an eagle passed over us along with tiny birds with breasts of brilliant blue and high, piercing cries. Otherwise there was silence. The sand changed into limestone as we inched down to the water below. It took us well over an hour, through scenery that nearly made you weep in awe. Then we were in the Sumbar river, the horses drinking and we were suddenly chatting again, mainly with relief. Camp was set about 5 kilometres further on, the tents close together because the boy putting them up had to hack down the virgin scrub.

But this was civilisation. The village boasted a rope bridge and Turkman picnickers were drinking vodka under the waterfall. The track we rode down became harder as the sand retreated and lizards rather than tortoises were baking in the sun. Occasionally, as we neared the camp, an old tractor ground along beside us. In this place, the people, especially the young men, were less openly friendly than they were right up in the hills. The Iranian border was now pretty close.

After this extraordinary trip, I was driven back to Vica’s house in Ashkabat by another blond Russian, a charming, funny man called Vladimir. He drove an old Soviet jeep which once took part in the Paris/Dakar rally. “Ready?” Vlad asked at about 8 p.m. “You think you have seen some sights? Well, now you will experience what we call extreme tourism”. And we certainly did. After I said a sad goodbye to Crissa, Vlad revved the engine and we ground our way directly up the mountain into the deepening gloom. There was no road. We lurched and stalled, pitched and rolled, skirted ravines and slid down great gouges in the hillside. When a change of direction seemed in order, Vlad laughed and consulted the sky. Hours later we plunged off the side of the mountain and onto an unmade road. “Ah”, said Vlad. “The motorway”. When we eventually staggered into Ashkabat it seemed like the hub of the universe. It was 2 a.m. but Vica was waiting to save me from Tosti’s slavering jaws and fussed over me like a mother hen.

The next morning it felt like ten months instead of ten days since I had left home. There were a few more people at the airport but nobody had heard of a plane going to Birmingham. However by now I was in full Turkman mode so I stood nearby and waited. After a while, for no apparent reason, I was accosted by a lady shouting “You are late” and rushed onto the tarmac, my luggage whisked away. Boarding cards are not a feature of Turkmenistan Airlines. I had barely got through the door when it was slammed and we were airborne, flying directly over the desert, the Caspian Sea looking crystal clear from 24,000 feet.

It has been difficult to settle back into normal life after all this. I have seldom done anything that made me realise how good it is to be alive, even if there were moments when life seemed a little precarious. As I landed back in Glasgow, it was also good to be home. But as I sit at my desk, half of me is still on my Akhal-Teke horse, still avoiding the tortoises as I ride on top of the world, wild flowers skimming the bottom of my boots and eagles hovering above, still one of six English ladies on a journey through Turkmenistan that will be quite impossible to forget.

The article has been kindly provided by Katie Grant a freelance journalist for Scottish Daily Mail.

The trip was orginised by Ayan Travel-a tour operator based in Ashgabat.
For more informations contact Mr. Arthur Osipian of Ayan travel

Ayan Travel, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 744000, Magtumkuli ave. 108-4/2, Tel.: +993 (12) 352914 Fax: +993 (12) 393355
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