STEPPE BY STEPPE
A Day at the Races
…with a rising buzz at the sighting of the distant leaders, drama broke prematurely.
As heads began to turn and the spectators to lean out for a better view, one end of the tottering grandstand gave way, spilling people and heavy boards together down on to those below. A few remained, clinging to the remaining rail, or swung down harmlessly in a controlled fall. Helpers came quickly to scrabble among the wreckage towards those groaning underneath, or to catch children passed down to safety from above.
One more moment, and the disaster was forgotten by all except those caught up in it directly; for the first horses were thundering up the finishing straight. Cheers went up for the gallant winner who had galloped nineteen miles. A moment later, all hell broke loose.
Through the increasing dust cloud galloped horse after horse, still tightly packed and racing hard after all those miles… a stampede began, as those supporters who had followed the last few miles on horseback scooped up the mounted spectators at the finish, and all raced pell-mell together beside the finishing funnel to greet their own competitors.
…as the backmarkers trailed in, they were overtaken by the first of the ambulances, threading a path from the broken grandstand through the dust and horses to escape at the funnel exit. It was utter bedlam. To be a spectator on foot felt like walking through a herd of charging buffalo, and about half as safe. The riot police, wisely, had completely disappeared.
Further extracts from Steppe by Steppe
BLACK SANDS & CELESTIAL HORSES
First Meeting with Atamekan
Kako, Rep’s head lad, disappeared into the gloomy depths of one of the barns, to return with the best horse I had seen in Turkmenistan. He was jet-black, the colour that the Russians call voronoi – raven – and seemed to ripple over the ground with the lightness of a dancer, head high, every muscle of him conscious of his three-thousand-year lineage.
“He has won both his races,” said Rep. “His name is Gagat. He is for sale, at two thousand dollars.”
In the West, such a horse would have cost twenty times as much. My imagination began to run riot with fantastic ambitions. All perfectly vacuous. I would never get him out of the country, and I didn’t even have two thousand dollars.
Slowly, my tentative hopes sank again. Rep’s interest in me was as a potential Western business associate. I was here only as a prospective buyer…
I walked once more round inside the barn, taking a last look at the horses. When I came out into the sunlight, Kako was holding a horse I hadn’t seen yet, brought from elsewhere. He was chestnut, golden as the sands of the Kara Kum, and he stood with his head high, neck curved so as to look right over his own back, scenting the horses in the barn.
“Will he do?” asked Rep.
Further extracts from Black Sands & Celestial Horses
BETWEEN the DESERT and the DEEP BLUE SEA
Madfaa: The Companion
“Ask about the neighbour before the house,” cautions an Arabic proverb, “and about the companion before the journey.” My companion was Madfaa, a pure-bred Arab stallion. If you lifted his thick black mane you found the freeze-brand hiding underneath, a white swirl of Arabic calligraphy that attested his blue blood.
His name meant Cannon. Cannonball might have been more appropriate, for he was small, round and tough…
He had been bred by the Shammar Bedouin in their spring pastures of the Jezira, the land beyond the River Euphrates. His present owner Basil Jadaan… was a leading figure in WAHO, the World Arabian Horse Organisation. “Don’t worry; I can find you a horse,” he’d told me. I little dreamed that he would lend me one of his own pure-bred stallions.
Basil kept Madfaa by the Ghouta at Fayiz’ farm. The yard was an oasis within the Oasis… a cool, twilight zone shaded with tumbling vines and paved with cream tiles. Here under a row of graceful arches lived Fayiz’ string of prize Arab bloodstock.
My dream of travelling through Syria with an Arab horse was about to be given substance, thanks to Basil. I intended to join the River Orontes at Hama close to where it enters Syria from Lebanon, and follow it north almost to the Turkish border. From there I would find my way through the coastal mountain range to Lattakia, where old friends would give me a rest from the road. Then it would be back into the mountains, working my way ever southward until Lebanon barred my way. Skirting its border, I would then head due south for Damascus, bringing Madfaa home along the very edge of the Syrian Desert…
According to the proverb, I had done it the wrong way round; I had planned my route long ago, with no foreknowledge of my companion. But from my first meeting with Madfaa, I knew I had had the luck to get away with it.
Further Extracts from Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea