After a terrifying day of climbing yesterday we have decided that our last morning in Burabay will be more relaxed. However, it is going to involve riding the national animal of Kazakhstan. One that Anička hates – horses. As a child, a horse named Lentílka, or Smartie, bit her face. Ever since, she has kept her distance from all of them.
We climb off the marshurutka bus and an old woman leads us to a copse of tress. Tied in the shade are ten horses stamping and swiping their tails at the flies. Our guide is an old man, dressed in threadbare clothes, whose name I have forgotten. It is impossible to tell whether he is fifty or seventy-five. He has spent his whole life in the sun.
He saddles each horse and leads them over for us to mount. Worried that our cameras will break, he encourages us to hide them. Instead we tie them a bit tighter around our necks and ignore him.
The horses set off at a walk, we have no real control over them, and mine immediately begins to fall behind. Anička has made a pact with hers. He can do what he wants as long as he doesn’t hurt her.
Because my horse is lagging behind, I must learn how to trot. Our guide rides back and motions for me to stand and to swing my heel into the horse’s flank. I do, and he continues plodding on. The guide prods him with a large stick and he’s off. I bounce up and down helplessly on top. We reach the back of the group and he starts to walk again. This happens every five minutes.
Kazakhs say that they were given Burabay as a gift from god. This is why they call it the pearl of Kazakhstan. The story goes that god gave the Kazakh all of the steppe to rule but the Kazakh wasn’t happy. He complained that there was nothing in the steppe but thousands of kilometres of flat grassland. God understood and gave him the mountains and lakes of Burabay. Our horses are walking through the green foothills of the mountains, along a small river that feeds the lakes.
Down a steep hill we arrive at a pond. All the horses but mine drink from the water. Mine decides to eat grass instead. The old saying about horses and water seems to be true.
Our walk is not long – perhaps thirty minutes or half an hour – and we arrive back at the copse a little saddle sore. We wait for the bus to bring the next group with the guide. He can’t quite work out where Ireland is but has heard that Prague is beautiful.
I ask whether the horses have ever raced or competed and he shakes his head. Racing seems to be a big sport here, as does a form of polo where, instead of using a hammer and ball, you must drop a dead goat in the goal.
The bus takes us back to Burabay and we grab a quick lunch. We must catch a marshurutka bus back to Astana soon so we can take the train to Almaty. It will be a delightful journey of twenty-four hours in a carriage full of tired, bored children.