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.
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.
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
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.
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 Antons 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 stallions 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.
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 Antons 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.
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 LOreal 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. Antons 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.
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 Sainsburys 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.
going underfoot was now perfect and much to Antons 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.
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 Antons 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.
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 Antons 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.
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.
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
this extraordinary trip, I was driven back to Vicas 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
Tostis slavering jaws and fussed over me like a mother hen.
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.
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.
article has been kindly provided by Katie Grant a freelance journalist
for Scottish Daily Mail.
trip was orginised by Ayan Travel-a tour operator based in Ashgabat.
more informations contact Mr. Arthur Osipian of Ayan travel
Travel, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, 744000, Magtumkuli ave. 108-4/2,
Tel.: +993 (12) 352914 Fax: +993 (12) 393355
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and/or
Web Site http://www.ayan-travel.com