BLACK SANDS & CELESTIAL HORSES
The author travels to Turkmenistan and shares her fabulous journey back in time to trace the infamous Silk Road of Central Asia. Her goal is to explore the route from the back of the Turcoman’s ancestral horse – the Akhal-Teke. Today the Teke is a critically endangered breed on the Equus Survival Trust’s Conservation list. But in ancient times, the breed was coveted by empires and dynasties as the ultimate war machine and jealously guarded by nomads as the horses were the keystone to their way of life. Suttle discovers finding a suitable mount for her trek a journey unto itself.
In her 1998 quest to find her own Celestial horse, she must navigate the modern political and geographic obstacles of Central Asia. No small feat for a woman in a man’s land where the main language is Russian, and more often than not, only the local Turcoman dialects. Suttle makes both past and present come alive with her tangible descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells, and her torrid depictions of the geography, people, and events as she samples and digs daily into the current and historic layers of the area’s culture and dynamic politics.
A daring trek for a man, let alone an unaccompanied woman, Suttle’s tenacious desire to trace the steps of her beloved Akhal-Teke breed takes her to a myriad of locations, both breathtaking, heart wrenching, and in some cases hair raising. Despite primitive conditions and personal suffering, she is constantly amazed and heart-warmed by the immense generosity and hospitality the locals everywhere extend to a strange Western woman. “Come and have supper with us. There is a farm up the road where you can leave your horse. Come and spend the night,” they implore, whereupon she is lavished with the best of whatever they have, no matter how poor the household. Any offer by Suttle to pay or compensate them for their hospitality is met with adamant “no’s”. “This is Turkmenistan! ” they insist, proudly upholding ageless traditions.
Yet despite the warmth of the general population, Suttle encounters government obstacles at every turn as she doggedly maneuvers through the brief 1998 window of opportunity (the collapse of Mother Russia and the newly massing regimes that are mobilizing to fill her place and soon slam the door to Westerners), determined to discover the history and sample the geography of the Silk Road’s ancient roots.
Suttle’s writing style paints avid descriptions of the crumbling places that once boasted of historic figures and kept me running to Google; like most Westerners, I am sorely ignorant of the layout and history of Central Asia and I was hungry for more. Her amazing journey covered two years and ended with her not only accomplishing her journey, but eventually taking her beloved Celestial companion – with whom she had shared so much toil, suffering, and joy – back to England where he has sired well over a dozen foals for his precious endangered breed.
This is an enchanting read. Bravo!
Victoria Tollman, Executive Director, Equus Survival Trust
An engrossing travel story in the grand tradition, Gill Suttle’s solo ride through one of the most isolated nations on Earth required epic bravery. Armed with a tiny budget and a somewhat limited knowledge of the Russian language, this intrepid woman managed to realize her dream of riding a legendary Akhal Teke horse through the desert from Ashkabad, Turkmenistan, to the ancient city of Merv.
Along the way, she encounters the frustrations, dangers and delights of this former Soviet Republic in its earliest years of independence. Turkmenistan is barely accessible to most Westerners, but Ms. Suttle navigated the bureaucracies as nimbly as her gleaming stallion sailed over muddy irrigation ditches. As someone who has lived and worked in the Turkmen capital, I can say that in the span of weeks, Gill Suttle learned and saw more than many people do in years.
Populated with an engaging cast of characters and tales of kindness, perfidy, and peril, this book weaves the colorful threads of past and present Turkmenistan with the skill of a carpet maker. The book’s real star is the ancient and prized Akhal Teke breed. These rare, beautiful, and fast horses posses great stamina and intelligence. The Turkmen are fond of sayings, and one of them is: The carpet is the Turkmen’s Soul; the Horse is his wings. Kaan, Gill’s travel partner, proves over and over the merits of the breed as Gill treks through daunting challenges day after day.
Gill’s efforts to care for Kaan along the way are a master class in horsemanship, with a few missteps along the way that could have ended the journey in an instant.
The story does not end at Merv. Gill’s efforts to bring her beloved Kaan home to England in the face of terrible odds, including Turkmenistan’s outright export ban on horses, is a second, emotionally charged story in the tradition of Michael Morpurgo’s “Warhorse.” Amazon, Laura Parker
BETWEEN the DESERT and the DEEP BLUE SEA
In 1998, author Gill Suttle travelled across Syria on horseback and this book tells of her remarkable adventure as she experienced firsthand what it was like to live among “the most generous and charming of the Arab peoples”.
In her own words, Gill embarked on the journey because: “A long-held passion for Arab horses and an obsession with [TE] Lawrence set me on the road to Damascus in 1978, while the current Ba’athist regime was still in its infancy. Two decades and several visits later, I thought it high time to gain a deeper acquaintance with the multiplicity of peoples, religions, cultures and landscapes which blend to form one of the most fascinating and diverse countries in the world.”
Having borrowed an Arab stallion from Basil Jadaan, President of the Syrian Arabian Horse Association, Gill set off from the edge of the Damascus Oasis and enjoyed a relaxed journey across Syria, going wherever the roads took her. Gill enjoyed the famed hospitality of local Syrians and often slept rough. Her biggest fear when travelling was always around her horse, Madfaa, as she promised Basil not to tether the stallion at night unless she had to and, if she did, that she would stay within sight of him. “I’m terrified that something will happen to my horse. I’m completely responsible for him and my worst fear is having to go back to his owner and say that, in some way, he’s been harmed,” Gill writes.
Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea is a well-written and inspiring book. Woven through the journey is information on the history and religion of the area, as well as some wonderful moments of pure humour which make you laugh out loud as you read on, including my favourite scene concerning a night Gill spent in a cockroach-infested stable.
“The floor was dark with cockroaches. Big, black cockroaches two inches long, with quivering antennae, uniform as the toys out of a cornflake packet, but minus the aesthetic appeal. There must have been about a hundred, motionless, paralysed by the sudden light. And although I’m sure they had actually all been heading in random directions, from where I stood they were all pointing towards my bed…”
It would be easy to compare this to Lady Anne Blunt Journals and Correspondence 1878 – 1917, but that would be unfair to Gill and the great journey she has undertaken. Certainly, the similarities are there – a woman, setting out across the desert – but while Lady Anne was searching for horses and specific tribes, Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea is more a acknowledgment of the fun that can be had when you set out on horseback and of how a place such as Syria, steeped in history, can be the most welcoming and hospitable place on the planet.
© The Arabian Magazine 2007