Into the Wild – In the Saddle

I left off last time where Vlad had arranged horses for us to get us to the source of the Ikat river. (Click to see the previous post)

He arrived early in the morning to pick us up, but before we got in the car he explained that we needed to perform a short ritual, part of the local shamanistic traditions, that would help to ensure our safe passage. The ritual was mostly devoid of, well, ritual. Perhaps some incantations or magic words were muttered that I missed, but basically a glass of

Waiting for the milk ceremony to begin

milk was passed around and we all had to take a sip. Still, it seemed important to Vlad that we do this and we were willing to accept whatever worldly or unworldly assistance that came our way. Then we piled into his Toyota Corolla and he drove us to where the road literally ends, the last tiny town on the border of “frontierland”. Vlad had promised us that the guy who was to take us into the wilderness was “a solid guy” named Sayan.

Sayan’s home felt more like a wild-west compound or homestead, straight out of a Hollywood Western film. All wood construction, some horses standing around, a high powered rifle hanging from a nail next to a doorway, some kids with hammers and nails working on an extension of the veranda, and Sayan, who for his part in all this had chosen the Rambo costume instead of the cowboy one that went with the rest of the set. He wore his longish hair pulled back into a ponytail, camouflage pants, combat boots, and a nice big Rambo style knife that hung from his hip.

Sayan readying the horses

He greeted us with an air of equanimity and introduced us to Erdem who would also be coming along with us, a young guy who we never quite understood if he was his son or nephew or grandson. Sayan did indeed seem like a “solid guy”, the type you would want to be leading you into the bear-infested wilderness. The compound was a-buzz with his family members and a handful of others who had no doubt shown up just to witness the spectacle of these three foreigners showing up in their tiny town with big plans.

Rambo wasted no time. He led us into the kitchen of his home and pulled out a plastic tube from which he extracted a couple of battle scarred old military issue topographical maps of the area. Some space was cleared at the kitchen table, the map spread across it, and we all hunched over it and began to discuss the objective and agreed on a plan that seemed to be the most reasonable approach to reaching it.

The next order of business was another shamanistic pre-expedition ritual.  A half a dozen little glasses materialized and a fresh bottle of vodka was cracked. A few words were said, and some vodka

Sayan pouring out the first round

was flicked into the air for the spirits, who apparently do not have the same thirst as us mortals. Because the rest was for us, ALL of it. One shot went down the hatch. 3 minutes later Vlad poured the next round. A few minutes after that the third round was placed in front of me. This time I tried to graciously refuse, but that was clearly not on option. He explained that when a bottle is opened it must be drunk. And so it was that, at 9 in the morning, before setting off into the Siberian wilderness, we found ourselves polishing off an entire bottle of vodka.

Vlad (with his eager compatriot) pouring the second round

Round three, or was this four?

As if that was not surreal enough, it was around this time that one of the guys told us he had some marijuana, that Rambo would be bringing some with him because it’s good to help you sleep, and asked if we wanted some right now. “Uhhh, maybe later. Thank you”.

It was upon leaving the little kitchen, returning to the bright Siberian morning light, half drunk, observing some little Buryat kids running around, one guy loading the gun, another strapping our bags onto the back of a horse so that we can mount up and head into the wilderness, another guy rolling a joint, that I felt a wave of “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure”.

Soon it was time to head off and say goodbye to Vlad. My initial intuition about Vlad had been spot on. He was an honest guy, he just wanted to help out, he wasn’t trying to milk us for money. We gave him some anyways which he tried to refuse, but we insisted.  We were very grateful to have met him. We snapped a photo with him, mounted our horses and rode off.

Within the first few hours we made two stops at places that were obviously sacred to the local people as seen by the offerings left there to appease the spirits. Milk was thrown into the air, and of course, more vodka was drunk.

First milk offering

Second ceremony stop (That ain’t water he’s pouring out of that bottle)

We crossed the Garga river several times, each time elevating the “Holy shit – Adventure” feeling a bit more. The mosquitos were relentless, but the horses took the brunt of that attack.  We kept up an exhausting pace. Rambo was being paid to deliver us to the X on the map, not by the day, so it was in his interest to haul ass. We moved at a fast clip with almost no breaks. The romantic idea of heading off into the Siberian wilderness using horses as our mode of transportation was rattled out of me little by little as the insidious and painful reality (and sobriety) began to set in.

First river crossing

Second river crossing

After 9 hours in the saddle we were all totally wrecked. The forest opened up to a wide grassy plain upon which sat two tiny wood hunters cabins. The sun hung low in the sky casting a magical light on the whole scene.

We pointed our horses towards the cabins (hoping to God that he intended to stop there for the night) and began to part a way through the clouds of mosquitoes when Rambo spotted a wild boar in the high grass about 100 meters off. He dismounted, took aim, and POW! The boar took off running and then I lost sight of it. He had missed! What kind of Rambo was this guy! He had a perfect shot at him! It wasn’t until we got a bit closer that I realized he had not missed at all. The beast had made it 40 meters and collapsed in the grass, dead as a doornail. A perfect shot. Rambo dismounted again, and cooly tied one end of a rope to the boar and the other end to his horse’s tail (!?) and then jumped in the saddle and off we went towards the cabins, dragging the dead wild boar through the grass by a horse’s tail. The Wild East indeed.

Tyler and Rambo with the felled boar

The hunters cabin was a mess. A bear had recently raided it and left quite a scene. Tyler and I opted for our tent and missed out on the late night bong session that Bartek said later ensued just before bedtime.

I fell asleep in the tent to sleep to the sound of a million mosquitos planning a desperate and futile attack.

In the morning the mosquito siege outside the tent had only intensified. The same magical golden light that had lit up the cabins when we first saw them was back on duty, and Rambo and Son were readying the horses. We were back in the saddle by 7am.

From then on the road we had been following became less and less discernible until it just disappeared for most of the time. Solid ground gave way to flooded grassland and giant muddy pools of water. The horses struggled through, often submerged in mud up to their knees.  We crossed rivers. It rained. Mosquitoes mosquitoes. Some more rain. It was very tough going and Rambo was by no means taking it easy on the new guys. The pace was relentless.

After about 7 hours in the saddle we began to reach some higher (drier) ground as we approached the climb to the Ikat pass. We later learned that years ago this pass was so dangerously inhabited by bears and wolves that prospectors would have to give their horses vodka to give them the courage to keep moving because they were so spooked otherwise.

At the top of the pass the landscape opened up to reveal our destination, the Ikat lakes….the source of the Ikat river and our ticket out of here. The only thing that lie between us was 5 kilometers of what seemed to be easy peasy terrain of short-cropped grass, but was in fact our introduction to what we later learned is the terrain that seems to cover half of Siberia….bog. It looks like solid ground, kind of a lumpy grass, but with each step your foot would sink into a spongy hole halfway up your shin. The horses struggled through the bog while we struggled to comprehend the superpowers that Valentine had called upon to do this on foot.

We reached our final destination at 7pm, 12 hours after we started out that morning. Once again the strange and beautiful late evening Siberian light was casting its magic like a net across the landscape.

Ikat lakes

Ikat lakes

We woke the next day to find Rambo and Son already packed up and ready to start the return journey. They left some offerings of candy and cookies for the local gods, and some marijuana for us, then we said some goodbyes and watched them ride off into the morning light. It was right then that I think we all shared another “Holy shit, we have managed to get ourselves into a crazy adventure” feeling. We were now completely alone, literally in the middle of nowhere, going back the way we came, without horses, would have been nearly impossible in these post-rain conditions. From now on it wasn’t only about a “fun adventure”, there was literally no other way out of this other than to use our own devices.

Last goodbyes with Sayan and Erdem

After hours organizing our gear, and inflating the kayaks (happy to see they were holding air) we were ready to shove off.  The moment of standing on the bank of this river, about to jump into these boats, provoked another distinct feeling, it had shades of the “Holy Shit – Adventure” feeling, but it was different. At the core of this feeling was the knowledge that we had no fucking idea what we were doing. 

I have strapped dusty backpacks to the side of dustier motorcycles with strange foreign license plates on them, I have methodically packed a backpack with just the right amount of food and all the gear to get myself safely to the top of a mountain. And each time I do those things, when I jump on that motorcycle and start it up, or I take the first steps towards that mountain peak, there is a comforting familiarity to what I am doing.

Standing on the bank of that river next to a kayak loaded up with a weeks worth of food, in the middle of nowhere and with a mandate to reach point X on a map before date Y, using nothing than these “inflatable pool toys” which at that moment seemed impossibly insubstantial… there was absolutely no comforting familiarity.

Team Idiot, about make our maiden voyage

But here we were. It’s not really a feeling of fear, it’s more that feeling when you are about to jump off a cliff into a lake or river or ocean, it’s a little unnerving to take that first step, but you know it’s going to be a rush. For us it manifested itself in laughs, mostly at ourselves and the palpable confirmation of our idiotness.

Readying our steeds

And so we took the first few unfamiliar strokes of our paddles in the direction of the unknown adventures that awaited us. 

More to come….

There are a lot more photos (also some with commentary of other stories). To check them out click on this link:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10155860663881545&type=1&l=0e7a5ff190

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