Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
The road to our last stop-over before Sighisoara took us through all that we loved in Transylvania, riding on tracks through the fields and woodland, past meadows of wild flowers, deer tracks, terra cotta villages nestling between the hills, and sheep and cows ringing their bells, and bees buzzing lazily in last warm rays of the summer sunshine.
We were riding towards the Siebenburgen area, which had until recently been the home of Romania's Saxons who moved there at the request of King Geza the Second in the twelfth century to provide a buttress against the onslaughts of the Ottomans. Here the Saxons lived, maintaining their own distinct culture and way of life until the 1989 revolution in Romania. After the revolution, Saxons flooded back to Germany, enticed by promises of a better life, leaving those who remained as caretakers of almost a thousand years of history to become living museum pieces in their own lifetimes. Some have returned, disappointed with what they found, but time doesn't stand still.
Having dismounted from our trusty steeds, all heaved a huge sigh of relief, tinged with sadness, and we thanked God and our horses that none of us had fallen off or had to suffer anything more than the odd blister. Ibuprofen, Apricot Brandy and Asprin had dealt with all aches and pains.
Liz was still wondering about shipping Lipizzaners to West Malling, and Ghilly was ever thankful that her fiery Arab mare "Scheherezade" (or sometimes after a few Palenkas, "Schevardnadze") had tempered her speed to carry her safely through woods and water, Robert wanted to charge his phone and polish his boots and Natalie was keen to explore Prod and its library.
Our host for the night was Mihnea Virgolice ("call me Mick Jagger") who runs the cross country farm, together with an elegant retinue of energetic stable girls and a prize winning Russian Borzoi. Mihnea hosts all manner of riding events, including the Transylvania Horse Show (http://cross-country.ro). Mihhea also knew Greg Helm, who was my guide and friend on my first ride in Transylvania.
We felt extremely pampered in rooms with fluffy white towels, fresh bed linen and lashings of hot water. Some of us started to wonder whether the lady riders would ever emerge from their steamy "toilette", although they did eventually emerge like fragrant clouds, having miraculously smuggled Chanel No 5 and "Because I'm worth it" kits amongst their dirty riding boots and jodphurs.
We were joined for dinner by my parents (David and Jayne), who, having spent the last few days enjoying the remote guesthouses of the Prince of Wales and Count Kalnoky, travelling by horse and cart, inhaling health-giving mountain gasses and living in singular solitude, were keen for fresh company. They had acquired a deep knowledge of the culture of the Szekely people. Maybe it was my imagination, but I think my father had started to pick up a Romanian accent! He'd certainly gained a solid appreciation of Romanian viticulture and Palenka!
Mum and Dad kindly brought a Welsh flag, a "Welcome Home, Michael" banner and introduced Mihnea and his team to such unforgettable Welsh hymns and arias as "Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" and "Sospan Fach". No mention of this night would be complete without mentioning Mihnea's incredible cook, who produced steaming bowls of meat and vegetables laced with chilli and garlic and an award-winning creamed Aubergine surprise. As Mihnea said, "If you want the recipe, you'd better be quick, she's 77".
The following day, we arrived at Sighisoara, described in the Lonely Planet, as "so beautiful, it should be arrested!". Lonely Planet was not wrong! The architecture is just what one would expect of a 12th century Saxon citadel. Gothic Dracula wrapped in Austria Hungary - all protected by UNESCO. Vlad "the Impaler" was born here in 1431. He is now better known as Dracula and widely regarded as a hero for keeping the Ottomans at bay.
Casu cu Cerb (bastion of the Romanian slow food movement) provided us with a delicious dinner of Romanian fare and wonderful Romanian wines and ... more Palenka. We were interviewed on national TV - anntenae 1, which was very pleased with what we were doing to raise funds for the Romanian Paralympic Association, which has the smallest budget in Europe.
During the dinner, we were able to thank our wonderful guides and organisers in Romania, Radu, Catalin, Simi, Dan (and the team at DHL (Dan Kearvell) who had helped with logistics and provided vehicles), Yulia from La Roche Posay, which provided amazing sun-cream that prevented riders and horses from burning in the sun, Jo Richards for running GCHQ in Cardiff. We also toasted the teams at the British Paralympic Association, the Romanian Paralympic Association, Maria's Children, the Heart of Kent Hospice and St Andrew's Moscow for the wonderful work they do.
We toasted Robert (at 72, the oldest and longest riding rider other than me - a wonderful example of active septegenarianism riding intrepidly through Ukraine and Romania), my cousins Liz and Ghilly, and Natalie, who provided grace and poetry (wet wipes, antibacterial hand cleanser and good humour) throughout the ride. We also thanked the hundreds of people/friends who had been so kind to us during the ride, providing shelter for the horses and for us, fresh milk, eggs, coffee, smiles, encouragement and Palenka, Vodka, Horilka. We thanked the friends and riders who have joined us on the ride - our Russian friends (the "Teterentsi", who came to cook hot borsch and bring liquid refreshment when the weather was cool at the end of June). Jeff Browne, Ira, Louis and Beyonce, who came to visit bringing chilled champagne, fois gras and other essentials in the intense heat of the Russian summer, Rosie Hawes for providing shelter and good cheer! We also thanked beregpr.com, Coast magazine and Anna Jackson-Stevens for providing PR for the ride. Stephen Konigsberg and Brian Bellerose for being great sports and joining the ride. kelly Harrison and The Webfactore for IT mastery. And all the riding support groups (Eugene Matusov at bezpovoda.ru, Alena Maroz in Belarus, Andriy and Slavik in Ukraine, Mihnea for the warm welcome at the end of the ride). We toasted Mother Valentina at Spaso-Borodinsky Monastery for succour and silver crosses, and God for keeping us safe in such varied landscapes over three months.
We toasted Friday the Dog who provided much amusement, and protection before
becoming too friendly with a few male dogs and having to take it easy in a Russian village to prepare for motherhood.
Our toasts finished with an enormous thank you to all who have supported the ride by sponsoring the British Paralympic Association, the Romanian Paralympic Association, St Andrew's Moscow, the Heart of Kent Hospice and Russian Orphan charity, Maria's Children, supported by Stephen Konigsberg. We'll be having parties in Moscow, London and Cardiff to thank all supporters and to share photos and stories from the ride. Any last donations can be made as follows:
1. The British Paralympic Association - justgiving.com/michaelpughnew
2. The Heart of Kent Hospice - justgiving.com/LizBligh
3. The Romanian Paralympic Association and St Andrew's Anglican Church, Moscow via http://www.ridinghalfwayhome.com/make-a-donation
4. Maria's Children - http://www.mariaschildren.ru/en/help
3 months, 2,200 km, one war-torn zone, one dictatorship, Eastern Europe = Hidden Treasures. People .... everywhere kind, warm-hearted and wanting to live in peace.
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Saturday, August 23rd, 2014
After Stephen and Brian had set off on the night train to Bucharest to travel back to New York and Moscow, respectively, we prepared for the arrival of new flesh n' blood for our entry into Transylvania.
For the last week on the road, our new guests were my cousins Ghislaine and Liz, and a friend from the UK, Natalie. How would the first female guests during this ride manage with the long rides, the camping, the Transylvanian storms?
Our female guests were very pleased after arrival at Cluj Napoca to be welcomed to a Lippizaner stud farm, home to the lesser known black Lipizzaners, which left Liz wondering whether she might introduce this breed to West Malling.
After a night at the guesthouse of our new guide for the week, Simi Christmas, we set off for our first day of 35km riding through the gently undulating countryside of this part of Transylvania. Much much softer than Bucovina, small-scale fields of oats,maize and tobacco replaced the Alpine pastures of last week. Tall beeches were replaced with shorter copses of oak and hornbeam, leaving one nostalgic for the shade, but luckily, we were blessed with cooling breezes and frequently came across flocks of sheep, goats and cows, all protected by ferocious dogs and lonely shepherds.
As the first full day in the saddle for the ladies, we took the ride at a gentle pace until we spotted our camp for the night (indicated by our bright yellow DHL van) at which point, Ghilly's Arab mare took off like a bird! Natalie and I joined in the chase, thankfully finding that Ghilly managed to turn Scheherezade and slow her down around a copse, rather than galloping all the way to Sighisoara.
After a night under canvas, we set off in the warm morning sun, expecting to be looking for shade all day. How wrong we were. Transylvania exceed its spooky reputation by providing dramatic thunder and lightening, which cracked overhead, leaving us thankful that the horses were calm in such circumstances. Mountain paths turned to orange muddy rivers and the graveyards on the surrounding bluffs provided a dramatic backdrop. Regardless of waterproofs, the warm raindrops soaked us all through to the skin.
Our ever resourceful Simi managed to find a hill farm at which Maria, the lady of the house and mother of six, provided us with freshly baked warm bread filled with melted cheese, the sweetest tomatoes, and some warming glasses of Tuika "Tsuika" to chase away any blues.
By the time, we descended into a low valley for our final night camping, the storm seemed a long way away, but had left us with a clear warning that the weather can blow up and change dramatically at any time.
Our next stop was at a new establishment built in Hungarian Gothic style thanks to EU grants in a village predominantly populated by Hungarians called Mezomadrasi. Our host for the dinner was the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Father Szabo. Dinner was in the monumental oak veranda of his manse and an old retainer with gold and silver teeth, and white hair smoothed under her black headscarf served fragrant chorba and spicy ghoulash, which we washed down with a moderate amount of plum brandy.
The Hungarian community works hard to maintain its traditions and for our evening's entertainment, we were treated to the rehearsal of dances, accompanied by high pitched violins. The children of the village whirled around like so many carousels on the stage of the schoolhouse, stamping their feet and slapping their legs with great gusto.
After more plum brandy, we retired to our Gothic retreat under the brightest stars and feel asleep to a now strangely familiar and sleep inducing barking of dogs, clucking of hens and clip clop of horses hooves as night owls returned home to roost from the village pub.
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Tuesday, August 19th, 2014
And so the crossing from Ukraine to Romania took us from North to South Bucovina, which is the most northerly part of Romania's Moldova, not to be confused with the independent Moldova. Confused? It is easily done. Why? Ask Stalin.
Bucovina means land of the beech woods and South Bucovina certainly lived up to its name as we rode through the gentle foothills of the Romanian Carpathians. Enormous beech trees provide dappled shade from the mid-August sun.
While waiting for two new guests to join, Robert and I explored the Putna monastery, resting place of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), one of Romania's greatest heroes, having won almost every one of over 30 battles and named by Pope Sixtus IV as the "Athlete of Christ". Having been destroyed in various battles and neglected during the time of Communism, Putna monastery is now undergoing a revival and resonated with the chants of Romania's Orthodox prayers and the sweet smell of cooking apples, sweetcorn and barley soup mixed with incense and roses.
After a night in a local "pensione", which provided a hearty Romanian dinner of Mamaliga, forest mushrooms, five different types of smoked pork, and large quantities of sour cherry schnapps, our new team members arrived. Stephen Konigsberg and Brian Bellerose, friends from Moscow who had flown in from Moscow and New York, respectively. Stephen wanted to discover the land of his great grandfather Jacob, who had run away from his "Shtetel" at the age of 15 to take a boat to New York and become a tailor.
We were also joined by three members of the Berejovshi family (Daniil, Dmitri and Mihai) who are to endurance riding what the Von Traps were to singing. Their mounts were one pure bred Arabian horse and two Arab Shagya's. When not being ridden, all the Arab/Shagya horses glided around together, keeping separate from the other horses.
Stephen secured Scheherezade, a grey pure bred Arab and as we lined up for the morning's press conference. trotted up and down the line of our horses like Mel Gibson at the start of the Braveheart battle scene. Brian was riding Blondu, an enormous Romanian draught horse weighing over 700kg. I had a very tall Romanian sports horse, called Lord, and Robert had one called Barcelona. Stephen continued the Braveheart theme during the day, by riding up and down the line of horses, chatting to all and learning new words in Romanian (in exchange for New York slang) from the younger members of the Berejovshi family. Luckily, the only foes one the road were the odd tractor, truck, blisters and aches and pains.
As the valleys narrowed and the hills were replaced by the fully-fledged volcanic mountains of the Romanian Carpathians, summer heat became cooler, beech was replaced by pine and the pace became slower as the tracks became full of volcanic rock.
Radu and Cataleen had managed in the middle of this wilderness to find a comfortable "pensione" for the night, and Radu's girfriend's grandmother had provided warming bottles of plum and blueberry Palenka, which looked like liquid amethysts. After a few glasses, Radu became "Ragu" and Cataleen became Katelin.
The following morning, we awoke to thick mountain mist, which burnt off quickly as we saddled the horses and set off for the mountain pastures and the Twelve Apostles in the Caliman National Park wondering whether we'd see the bears, wolves and lynx that live there.
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Sunday, August 10th, 2014
Being somewhat ahead of schedule, we decided to spend a few days high in the mountains with Slavik's extended family. Maria, Ivan, Vasily and Vanya decamp to the high mountain pastures in May and remain there until September with about 80 cows.
Their daily routine is a hard one of early morning milking, evening milking and in between producing salty and bitter Brinza cheese. If the weather in the valleys is hot and humid, high up in the mountains, you feel very exposed to the elements. It is cooler up here and the skies crackle and rumble with thunder, lightening. Thick fog descends rapidly and is burnt away equally rapidly by the fierce sun. Nights are cold. Washing is in cold mountains streams and there is a very strong feeling that you are sharing this environment with the deer, bears and (luckily for us) timid wolves that inhabit the surrounding woodland and although you sometimes catch a fleeting glance of them, they are probably watching you all the time.
The mountains are full of blueberries, bilberries and the woods are full of such a variety of mushrooms that Robert, Slavik, Andriy and I collected several bagfuls in an hour. Luckily, Slavik was on hand to throw away the toadstools I had proudly collected before Maria served the best of the mushrooms in freshly skimmed cream and friend onion on a steaming pot of Mamaliga (Ukrainian Polenta cooked in cream). Far from town, we tuck into steaming plates of fresh yeast pancakes, painted with melted honey served with the bluest and blackest of blueberries mixed cold with sugar and the freshest of sour cream, "vareniki" stuffed with meat and served in fresh melted butter. All good food for the mountains rides, such as the ride to a far off watch-tower perched among swirling winds and constructed long ago by the Austo-Hungarians to keep an eye on their Eastern borders.
Maria makes cheese in dairy at the back of the hut as if conducting a Pagan ritual. She lights the carefully arranged fire with one match as Ivan and Vasily pour pails of fresh milk into Lime wood barrels. More milk is poured into a large black cauldron and while the milk is heating, Maria produces a large glass jar full of salted calves stomachs from under a bench. This contains the magic elixir to turn base milk into golden cheese. The air fills with acrid smoke and as we sit on a low bench to avoid the worst of the smoke, Maria levers a large cauldron over the fire to heat the milk and stirs with a large wooden spoon. More steam as the hot milk is mixed with the still warm milk in the wooden barrels.
The curds are left to drip in the warm, milky, smoky dairy for a few days before being delivered down to the town to be sold by Nadia, Slavik's grandmother in the local market. Nothing is wasted and the whey is sluiced along wooden halfpipes to ever plumper pigs that squeal with delight and then fight as to who gets to drink most of this warm buttery liquid.
The routine continues until the first snows of September, when the family decamp to the relative hustle and bustle of a cottage with no running water or road, 5 km outside Verkhovyna.
When the wind abates, the stillness and silence of the mountains is almost alarming at times, and yet the days fly by with reading, chatting, singing (I must learn some more songs) and no night (or even morning) in these mountains would be complete without a shot of powerful moonshine, flavoured with roots, moss and crocus stamens dug up and plucked from the hills by Slavik. These fiery brews warm one to the core and put a spring in the step of cool morning rides and fuel nights of jokes and songs before returning to the darkness to find that all elusive tent...… view more »
Monday, August 4th, 2014
For the past few days, we have been riding higher and higher into the Ukrainian Carpathians as we make our way towards the Romanian border. This journey has brought us higher and higher into pine-scented wooded mountain valleys where the imprint of the Soviet Union and modern technology is less and less detectable.
Slavik, our Hutsul guide, has been extremely happy to be returning to Hutsulschina, the land of the Hutsuls. This is a land of wooden huts, sheep and cattle farming where locals where traditional dress made of wool and cotton shirts with hand-embroidered collars. The blue green alpine rivers rush over pebbles are full of trout and the mountain air is warm and fresh.
The Hutsuls, who only number about 2,000 have lived in the Ukrainian and Romanian Carpathains for thousands of years. Once fiercely Pagan, the Hutsuls are now pious Christians and yesterday (Sunday) the churches were full of locals in their Sunday best. Men and women sit separately. As as the women rushed in to be on time, their headscarves flapping, the men were more relaxed chatting outside over cigarettes. Yesterday the valleys were thronging with hymns. Pagan beliefs live on and naughty children are warned that the "Babai", a kind of Hutsul Yeti will come and get them in the night if they don't behave.
The Hutsuls spend their lives herding sheep and cows, making "Brynza" cheese, and collecting berries and wild mushrooms, which the locals sell at the side of the road.
Hutsul music is full of haunting drum beats, high reedy pipes and throaty songs. It sounds a bit like Yiddish music. The Hutsuls have their own dialect, but luckily for us, some of them speak some Russian or Ukrainian.
Locals are very friendly and last night we camped in the orchard of a friend of Slavik who kindly brought us fresh milk and home-brewed moonshine (this is a recurring theme). In the morning an old lady walked past the orchard with a pretty goat and offered to deliver it to as meat ready for kebabs this afternoon. We commented that it was quite a pretty goat to be chopping up, to which the lady replied that she was only selling it as it was old. We decided to skip the goat and let it live on!
From tomorrow, we'll be up high in the mountain pastures, watching the locals make cheese and visiting a mountain observatory based in a castle.
In the streets, hang the black and red flags of the Ukrainian Independence Army (Stepan Bandera), ATMs ask if you'd like to make a donation to the war effort, and on the way up to the mountains at Kolomyya, we met a lady whose husband had donated a tank to the Ukrainian war effort. But all calm. This area feels more like any Alpine region, the Swiss Alps, the French Alps - pre-development of course!
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Saturday, August 2nd, 2014
It was such a relief when Robert and I left the baking heat of the vast sun-drenched Ukrainian plains to enter the shady cobbled streets of Lviv. This felt like the Europe that I know and love!
Our horses would be stabled out of town for a day or so to allow us to rest our weary legs and enjoy the luxuries of running hot water and a bed each.
We were both walking rather like cowboys and our comfortable riding clothes now looked out of places in this oasis of urban sophistication. We felt (and looked) very much like country bumpkins entering this elegant city of Baroque and Renaissance facades. The bitter sweet smell of ground coffee and freshly cooked pastries danced enticingly around my nose.
Deferring the temptations of a cold lager in the market square, we checked into the Taurus hotel to spruce ourselves up for the town. The Taurus is a new luxury hotel and everything smelled of new plaster and new carpets. The rooms were spacious, quiet and, because of the exchange rates, unbelievably cheap!
Having spent an immodest amount of time wallowing in a hot bath, I met Robert in reception a little later, ready for an adventure. Robert was keen to go for a cocktail at the bar dedicated to Alexander von Masoch, but that would have to wait until we had explored some of Lvov's many other varied attractions.
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"Run along and set all you have on the table for us. We don't want honey buns and poppy cakes; bring us a sheep! And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, but pure foaming vodka, that hisses and bubbles like mad." Tales of Nikolai Gogol
Thursday, July 31st, 2014
And so while the conflict rages in the East over a thousand kilometers from here, the locals of Western Ukraine are determined to maintain their passion for life. It is a land that Nikolai Gogol would recognise, but in contrast to his quote in the title, there is no need to ask for anything. Locals are intent on feeding us with hearty meaty dishes and providing us with potent distillations to "fortify the mind, avoid the summer colds and enjoy a vigorous life for many years to come".
While riding through a village on the way to Kremenets, we stopped to chat to a group of ladies busily painting their local church for a forthcoming religious festival. Surrounded by fields of sweetcorn, oats and wheat, these ladies were determined that their 250-year old church would be looking good for next month's festival. They were keen to know who we we are, why we are travelling through their region and whether between Robert, Slava, Andriy and I, there were any bachelors who could be tempted to stay in the village to make up the numbers.
More so than anywhere else on the journey so far, there is a real sense of a community, striving to survive, and not just survive, but to rejoice that they are alive, that the sky is blue and full of storks, and that the trees are full of plums, apricots, juicy pears and apples.
This is also the land of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian Free Army, whose partisans continued to fight the Soviets from within Ukriane into the late 1950s when Stepan Bandera was killed in Munich by the KGB. The strong spirit of independence that lives on is typified by the statue of Lenin at Dubna Castle. Covered from top to bottom in creepers, it is completely unrecognisable as Lenin, but sends out a strong signal.
As we ride along, locals engage us in conversation, to give their children a ride on the horses, to ask about life in the West, which they seem to think is just rich perfection in itself, with peace, wealth, big salaries and pensions and no problems. We are heading due South and the locals are distinctly more cheery here than at the boggy Belarussian border.
While official incomes are often less than US$200 per month, all the locals are well-dressed and well-fed. Two pigs and two calves are considered to provide more than enough meat per family per year and the very abundant land means than many people in the villages feed themselves in this way, not to mention the hens scratching around in large vegetable plots full of potatoes, tomatoes and courgettes, trees heavy with fruit and Ukrainian eau de vie (Samagon). Houses are large and while, yes, you do see ancient ladas wheezing along cheek by jowl with horses and carts through the dusty country lanes, there are plenty of smart German cars rushing by too.
Last night as we camped by a lake in the village of Ikva, we were joined by Father Nikolai, a local priest who we'd chatted to during the day. Copper-coloured, well-nourished and shaped like a Samovar in a cloak, Father Nikolai was shaped much like a Samovar. As Dana the horse had thrown one of her shoes, Nikolai was keen to help us to find a local blacksmith. He also owned a construction business and one of his contacts was able to come up trumps with a blacksmith. Although there are horses in every field we cross, finding a blacksmith here is easier said than done because most of the horses here are not shod.
After we'd given Father Nikolai a ride on Lubert (Robert's horse who still has all his shoes), from the boot of his BMW jeep, Father Nikolai produced a roast chicken, a jar of delicious goose pate and .... a bottle of vodka! As we toasted to peace, the world, friendship and to all beautiful Ukrainian women, Father Nikolai entertained us with a plethora of songs in his deep ecclesiastical base. Above us, the night sky showed off thousands of shining stars making me wish I hadn't dispensed with my rather heavy atlas of the night sky earlier in the trip.
In the morning, as were were packing up the camp in the already dry heat, Father Nikolai returned with his son, (training to be a priest and to take over the family construction business) and ice-creams. After another ride on Lubert for Father Nikolai and his son, Father Nikolai left us with a fanfare from his incessantly buzzing mobile phone and a cloud of dusk behind the jeep.
We continued our journey to Kremenets, known locally as "Switzerland" due its green wooden hills (the rest of the surroundings are as flat as a pancake). On the top of one of the hills is a castle, which was used as a base to fight off invading Mongols in the 13th century.
The castle was owned in the 16th century by Queen Bona Sforza, the Italian wife of the Polish King Sigismund I. Known locally as the "evil witch", Queen Bona is reported to have stopped at nothing in her quest to remain eternally young and is blamed for the disappearance of many hundreds of young girls from local villages. Queen Bona who died horribly after a glass of poisoned wine from a trusted servant is said to emerge from a well beneath the castle each Easter, making me feel relieved that we'd decided on a summer visit, rather than plumping for Easter.
Kremenets is home to a monumental Jesuit college, which is now part of the Ukrainian Orthodox patriarchate. Built in the 18th century, the college houses a vast church, which was full of women arranging flowers for the forthcoming services. Other than the collection box for the war effort, this gathering was very similar to those in Britain, with plenty of gossip being exchanged as Gladioli and Sweet Williams were arranged this way and that over cups of sweet black tea. Congregations are reportedly growing and the cheery ladies wished us on our way with presents of ICONs and promises of prayers to keep us safe on the journey.
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Sunday, July 27th, 2014
It was with more than a little trepidation that I crossed into Ukraine. The terrible conflict in the East of the country is the prevailing image of Ukraine today, but Andriy, my guide in Ukraine, reassured me that the West of Ukraine was calm. And so it is. We would be starting the ride from Dolsk near the Belarussian border, over 1,000 km from the war zone. When I cross into Romania in August, we will still be over 1,000 from Kharkov and Slavyansk.
It is haymaking time in Western Ukraine, and the golden fields are full of men, women and children turning the hay in the sun and loading up their hay carts for their plump horses to trot back to wooden barns. Trees line the side of the road heavy with apricots and plums. Storks flap lazily in the blue sky.
But there is a sadness to these days. Conscription has started and men from 18 to 45 are being called up to be sent over to support the war effort. Locals talk of conscripts enduring very poor conditions even before they are sent (sleep-deprived, poorly-trained and hungry) to fight the separatists in the East. The conscription net is tightening, catching brothers, cousins, fathers and sons.
Locals tell of refugees coming to the area in dribs and drabs, settled in by friends and family (Baptists welcoming Baptists and so on). All are welcome, other than grown men, because locals want these men to stay in the East and defend their own homes, so that the fathers, brothers and sons of Western Ukraine don't have to do it for them.
Another sore point is the war tax. Locals tell of rumours of racketeers making large sums out of supplying petrol, food and other basics to the Ukrainian army.
The churches are full - smells, bells and songs fill the air. Old ladies outside collect for the war effort. Posters advertise for conscripts, juxtaposed next to ones showing fallen comrades in happier, carefree days.
People are very hospitable and kind, everyone is calm and deliberate.
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Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
As we rode nearer to Pinsk (the capital of the Polesiye region), the boggy countryside gave way to fields, drainage canals, and an enormous reservoir at "Veluta": legacies of the grand work plans of the Soviet period.
We passed large herds of Friesan cows, some of which tried to charge us in a very ungainly way with their full udders swinning back and forth, tipping them off balance. Sunburnt shepherds on horseback admired our horses and were keen to engage us in conversation, although they didn't have much to say when we stopped. During their long days in the field with nothing but cigarettes, bread and sausage, they just seemed keen to have someone around.
Although during the past few days summer seemed to have "set", today the humidity rose and we were soon trotting along in heavy warm rain. We'd heard about an "AgroEko Usadba"* nearby, and as we were getting soaked through to the skin, we decided to forego our tents for the night and investigate the Usadba.
Olga Grigorievna, the chatelaine of the Usada, which was actually a busky country dacha (cottage), was a sprightly, nut-brown widow, who was supplementing her US$ 200 pension by running a country bed & breakfast. The dacha in which were were to stay was warm, dry and painted inside and out in mustard yellow, reds, greens and browns. Unpeterbed by the rain, Olga heated up the stove in her summer dacha and we loaded in our saddles, boots and clothes to dry for the night, hoping Olga would not notice (or mind) the strong musk of wet horse that enveloped us and our belongings.
As in most villages houses in Belarus, there was no running water, but within about an hour, we were washed in warm water and dressed in dry clothes and sitting down to steaming bowls of Olga's thick mushroom soup, served with thick rye bread, followed by sweet red plums from the garden and glasses of Olga's homemade red wine that was at once sour and sweet and was not unlike Port.
Olga Grigorievna, like most women of her age in Belarus, was a widow. During her working life, Olga has been the assistant of the chief forester of the Veluta region. Olga was a great example of ruddy good health (very much in contrast to many of the bent old lumps that one sees hobbling with stick around Belarussian country villages).
Olga's cottages, barns, and gardens and vegetable patches were carved out of the fields and woods, and as we walked to the reservoir, Olga stopped from time to time to taste the leaves and berries of various plants and described their medicinal properties, showing me the inky depths where she had caught pike, pointing out the ruined home of the former Polish landowners, and noting where she had saved a deer from hunters.
Olga's garden and vegetable patch was a classic Russian/Belarussian mixture of raspberries, apples, apricots, dahlias, dill, cornflowers, tomatoes and the ubiquitous potatoes. The barns were full of oak branches, tied together and drying for Olga to sell to people on the way to the banya, which people in this part of the world use to beat eachother to improve circulation. We managed to keep these away from the ever hungry horses!
The surrounding woods provided Olga with berries and mushrooms. Olga's home, like every single other home in the countryside, was protected by her trusty dogs, kennelled outside in all weathers.
Rising the following morning with something of a headache, which I attributed to ample tastings of Olga's homemade wine (to stave off the risk of a summer cold), breakfast was steaming bowls of homegrown potatoes cooked with onions, mushrooms and bacon, amply sprinkled with dill, and followed by hot tea.
Overnight, Olga's stove had done its magic and our clothes, saddles, boots were now so dry they could stand up all on their own. The horses were happy too, having spent the night in a cosy haybarn. So, we all set off to Pinsk, the final town for us in Belarus with a spring in our steps.
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Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
"Englishman like (sic) to ride horssssz!?" asked Nadia with an twinkling smile and a tone that made this seem like half question, half command! I almost expected her to add "Mr Bond" to the end of the sentence. This was not to the time, I decided, to explain the difference between England and Wales.
Nadia had the twinkling eyes of a Bond girl, and had learned her very clipped English on safari in Rajastan. She trotted past on her black and white Bashkirian mare and spent the next hour bobbing up and down in the saddle before me while I tried to catch snatches of the conversation that she spoke with a smile and a laugh, mostly into the breeze ahead of her.
We had guests, and the combination of new horses (stallions and mares), made for fast riding and a frequent rejigging of the order on the tracks through the forests and fields. The trees in the forests around were carved with diagonal scores that allowed the sap to collect in little green containers. Blueberries, cranberries and bog berries grew all around.
One of the challenges for the day was to find the only part of the river shallow enough for us to cross. We did this by leaving the horses in the shade and swimming up and down the river, finding sometimes that the shallows abruptly dropped into deep fast flowing water. Eventually, we found an underwater road, which was just up to the bottom of the saddles. This would be our crossing.
After investigating the river, we had a light lunch in the shade, finishing off some Ostrich biltong, which brought an end to the camping treats kindly donated by friends in Moscow. At this point, "Forsage", the horse of Igor, who had also joined us from Minsk for a few days, bolted off at a gallop having been apparently scared by a grass snake. "Forsage" was found and calmed down, and we set off south towards Polesiya, famous for its bogs and bogs and country
Riding in boggy areas is tough for the horses, as you need to stick closely to the track or risk losing your horse and yourself to the sucking black sulphurous muds. It is also tough because of the biting insects that tend to live in these damp places. Half the time, you expect the earth to open up before you and an army of Orcs to come running forth, or worse...
From time to time, our route would take us along beautifully old cobbled roads that were now in the middle of nowhere, but that testify to a prosperous time of merchants and trade. Most of the villages are now emptying as the young leave for the cities and the old look after their animals and survive on a largely subsistence basis, seemingly resigned to the fact that once they have gone, their much loved huts and well-tended gardens will join the rambling wrecks that surround them.
Another full moon, friendly villagers passing by (attracted by the horses), bringing fresh milk, eggs, and in the wide-vowelled and very melodic country brogue of Polesiye, wanting to know all about the journey, how much you earn, how old you are, how many children you have and to join us for a drink and some home-cured bacon (salo) around the campfire. As we move on the following morning, they come to wish us well, smiling and saying "Shastlivinki" (Have a safe journey)!
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