Two young adventurers from England, Jamie Bunchuk, an award-winning travel journalist, and Matthew Traver, a documentary filmmaker, completed a two-month crossing of the steppes of Eastern Kazakhstan by horseback and walking. Their trek took place in the summer of 2013. They endured many hardships, including searing heat, constant thirst and hunger, ailing horses, and the mind-numbing effect of a flat, monotonous landscape. RailRiders clothing was there the entire time; they survived in a single pair of Versatac Shirts and Pants.
Q: Why did you choose Eastern Kazakhstan for your two-month expedition? And by horseback and foot!
Jamie Bunchuk: It was part of the One Steppe Ahead expedition, which was a big project that ultimately came to take up most of my early twenties. The idea was a simple one, first thought up on a mountaineering trip to Kyrgyzstan way back in 2010. Basically, Matthew Traver and myself wanted to pay homage to an old Anglo-Irish explorer by the name of Sir Charles Howard-Bury, on the centenary of a journey he’d completed across Central Asia in 1913. This old gent had just decided one day that he would leave the comforts of his Irish castle to head to the remote depths of a sub-section of the Tien Shan Mountains in present-day Kazakhstan. We wanted to replicate some of his route through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as a project of our own in Tajikistan.
JB: l likened traveling in the Kazakhstan to passing through a series of paintings. You could wake up in the morning, pack all your things away, ride for over six hours straight in a straight line and then still see where you had set off from that very morning. The steppe is so utterly flat that one remains in the same perspective, with the same horizons and with the same mountains in the distance, for hours, even days at a time. There was something also about the dried grass, a subtle hint of salt in the air and the endless flat vistas stretching out on all sides that really reminded me of the ocean. I kept convincing myself that over the next rise of the horizon I would see the sea. Of course I never did, we were about as far away from the ocean as it’s possible to be in Asia.
Q: Describe the horses. Where did you get them? And how much did they cost? How did they hold up?
JB: Unlike neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, in Kazakhstan horses are primarily raised for their meat and milk and, as such, securing suitable riding steeds is not only a hard but also very expensive affair. The three horses we ended up buying were not of the highest standard but they got us through the journey, which is all we could have asked of them! Their names were Charlie, Totoro and Arman. We bought two of them in an old collective farm and one the last one, Totoro, off a one-eyed farmer, which is a coincidence as it turned out to be a one-eyed horse as well. The asking price was $1,800 per horse; all my life meager’s life savings.
Q: How did the horses hold up?
JB: We did have problems with the horses over such a huge distance, with Arman suffering a saddle sore that became infected and unfortunately turned into an abscess. You try to do everything in your power to keep your horses safe and well, but on expedition mistakes are made regardless, and new solutions often cause new problems too. It’s a big balancing act between action and responsibility and – at my lowest ebbs – I found it a very heavy moral burden to bear. Towards the end of the expedition we spent most of our time marching across the steppe rather than risk their health further.
Q:: How did each of you hold up over two months?
JB: We held ourselves together, just. It was an incredibly hard two months for us, especially towards the end of the journey when we were walking up to 20 miles a day in the searing heat. We couldn’t carry that much food with us, as weight was a constant issue with our horses, so as a result we didn’t eat very much. Gruel for breakfast, followed by one small packet of instant noodles, dry, for the lunch, and then two packets of the same for dinner. At points we must have been surviving on less than 800 calories a day. On top of that, there were several instances when we managed to contaminate our rations with petrol, leaking out from our pressure stove in the packbags. Eating gasoline-soaked biscuits because we had nothing else is a memory I’d soon rather forget!
Q: What was the most difficult part of the crossing?
JB:Without a doubt, walking in the heat was the hardest part of the expedition. At its peak it was around 45°C, and trying to do anything in those temperatures was energy sapping in extreme.
Q: Can you describe the lifestyle of the Kazakh people? The comic image of Borat seems to come to mind.
JB: It’s funny, but Borat is about as far away from the real Kazakhstan as it’s possible to be. The people in that film don’t look anything like Kazakhs and their mannerisms are also completely different too. Kazakhstan is actually a very affluent country and urban centers like Almaty and Astana are very stylish, almost Parisian in feel. Further away in rural areas, things become a bit quieter and it’s a more simple way of life but still, it’s probably not a million miles away from how the farming communities of the American Midwest used to operate several decades ago. I guess the difference that’s most observable is the collectivist attitude to society and family, as opposed to our more individualistic outlook here in the West.
Q: What happened to your horses when you finished?
JB: We spent around five days camped out behind a petrol station on the motorway outskirts of Almaty before we could sell them. In the end, with the help of friend of a friend, who rang up pretty much everyone in Almaty connected with horses, we found a company who was willing to buy the animals, but only for half the price that we had originally bought them for. Being an established and affluent horse-dealership, with a wide network of connections and the transport to potentially get the animals out to rural areas, I sincerely hope the genuine fellows we met sold our horses out to farms where they could be put to good use.
Jamie And Matt’s Favorite Gear: