Saturday, March 21, 2009

Riding on Horseback from Russia to China

From Russia to China, on horseback

By He Na

At first glance, he looked like a movie extra who had wandered away from the set of a period production.

Sitting astride a horse with his hair worn long, clad in a dark green cloak and a mud-stained pair of riding boots, the weather-beaten man was so out of place in a Beijing street that people were doing a double take - and looking for the cameras.

He is, in fact, a lonely adventurer keen on horse travel: The 47-year-old Chinese-Russian has trudged nearly 9,000 km in a year and a half from Eurasia to Beijing.

Fatigue still writ large on his face, Li Jing recalled his extraordinary journey. The modern-day Don Quixote set off from Votkinsk, the hometown of famous Russian composer Tchaikovsky, in August 2007. After passing 10 Russia cities and what seemed like endless countryside in 12 months, he arrived at the Sino-Russian border last August.

Entering the country at Manzhouli in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, he traversed through Daqing, Harbin, Changchun, Shenyang, Qinhuangdao, Tangshan, and finally reached Beijing on March 8.

"I've been in love with horses and nature from the time I was small; and always dreamed of riding horses and traveling long distances," said Li, who graduated in library science from Wuhan University, and later worked at Shenzhen University's library.

His hometown, Wuhan, was the country's horse racing center in the early 1900s; and racing made a limited comeback earlier this year for the first time in 60 years.

At his university job, Li voraciously read travel journals and the idea for his odyssey started to take seed.

His life totally changed after he met a Russian scholar - also a keen horse rider. Li was so inspired by him he moved to Russia in 1990, where he has since worked as a part-time interpreter and Chinese language tutor. He married a Russian nurse and the couple, who now live in Moscow, have a 9-year-old son.

His latest journey has its roots in an aborted attempt three years after he went to Russia. He and a Russian friend planned a global expedition but the latter did not turn up on the day they were to set out - and Li reluctantly had to give up his plan.

Life was not easy in Russia, but his dream never faded.

Despite his family's objections, he took out all his savings of about 40,000 yuan (S$8,900) and borrowed another 60,000 yuan (S$13,400) from friends to embark on his journey with two horses in the summer of 2007.

"I planned to arrive in Beijing in time for the Olympic Games last August but I was delayed by the vagaries of travel," Li said.

In December, he reached Siberia, where the lowest temperature was -40 C, and "I had to stay in a small village for three months".

During his trip, he changed nine horses, each of whose names he can clearly remember. The equine that carried him to Beijing is appropriately called "Traveling Companion".

On the way, horse lovers gave him four, and he bought the rest for about 5,000 yuan each.

He often stuck to country roads for it was easier to feed the horse, and slept in a tent for more than five months along the way.

"Not all places are suitable for camping, so I was sometimes riding in the wild after midnight. It was so quiet I could hear my own heart beating. During those times, I would sing songs loudly to drive away fear.

"But in good weather, it was really enjoyable to sleep outside. I thought the whole world belonged to me.

"Breathing the fresh air, looking at the stars and listening to the sound of the horse chewing grass, it was the most wonderful experience."

However, Li's journey was not all about good memories.

"When I was in Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan in Russia. I was interrogated by police six times because they thought I was a criminal on the run.

"And even in China, my homeland, things were not much better initially.

"Many people did not comprehend what I was doing; and some even called me a mad man.

"In almost every place I arrived, police were among the first batch of 'guests' to visit me."

Many people took him to be a beggar and shied away when approached for directions. Some shop owners refused to sell goods.

"I felt very lonely at that time ... But every time I wanted to give up, I found solace from fellow horse lovers."

Things began to look better when local media started writing about him, and the reports came to the attention of the China Equestrian Association, which has members and branches in many places.

"They took care of me and my horse during my stay, and we shared our stories. I spent my happiest days on my journey with them," Li said. A member of a Beijing horse club volunteered to host Li when he arrived in the capital.

"I admire Li Jing so much; in my opinion, only a man with great courage and determination could have made the trip," said Xie Peiliang, manager of the club.

Zhang Yongqiang, a horse lover from Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, came to the club to see Li when he heard that Beijing was his last stop.

"I plan to buy a horse in Inner Mongolia and do a similar trip to the western parts of China. I came to ask for some advice from Li," Zhang said.

And just as Li was about to head to Hubei province to visit his mother before returning to Russia, he received news that could see him saddle up again for an even longer trip.

"The China Equestrian Association told me that an elderly lady from England is planning to ride by horse from Beijing to London, the host city of the next Olympics.

"I will meet her next month and see whether it is possible for us to do it together."

-China Daily/Asia News Network

No comments: