The first post in a series of new and retold stories from my time in Kazakhstan.
While working in the city of Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan, I enjoyed weekly walks into the nearby steppe to visit a natural freshwater spring. The cool water provided a refreshing oasis, especially during the hot, dry months of summer. Like ancient times, people carried water jugs to fill and shared friendly conversation while waiting.
The steppe is a mostly treeless, slightly rolling terrain found in this part of the world. Few trees mean few birds. However, it is ideal for raising horses, as the traditionally nomadic Kazakh people have done for centuries. During my treks it was common to spot a herd of more than 100 horses gently grazing on the grasslands.
Startled and Stampeding
One early June day, I set out toward the spring before the midday heat. Passing through the Soviet-era apartment blocks, I crossed the last street and stepped out into open country. Rather than taking my usual clockwise route, I decided instead to turn right and bypassed the big hot water pipes snaking across the steppe.
Enjoying pleasant weather, I looked ahead to spot someone pulling a two-wheeled cart full of water bottles along the sandy path. Suddenly, she stopped. Glancing in the direction of her gaze, I saw why.
A large herd of at least 100 normally docile horses was galloping right for me! The other walker had stopped at a safe distance, but I began to panic as I realized I was directly in their path. The group was spread so wide and coming so fast that there seemed no escape. The thumping noise of their pounding hooves was close enough now that I could feel it.
Keep Calm and Stand Still
Unless you’ve run with the bulls in Pamplona, staring down a stampede is not something you usually face. I certainly hadn’t. Rather than run, I decided to calmly stand my ground. As the first few horses approached, still thundering at full speed, they began parting like the Red Sea.
Like a trough between two giant waves, a small gap opened as they separated and sped past. The dust spray settled over me as the thudding sound of hoofbeats continued. I didn’t move. Despite the dust, I probably didn’t even blink.
After what seemed like minutes but was really about 30 seconds, the last of the horses passed, leaving me breathless. I still don’t know what spooked them. Perhaps like me, a marathoner, they were just running for the fun of it. After all, Kazakh horses are legendary for their long-distance endurance.
After stopping at the spring and returning home, I decided to share this surprise on my Facebook page. I thought it would make a good, although brief, story. Interestingly enough, while I got a few “Likes,” I also received comments that got me thinking.
Several asked, “Where’s the video?” I realize most people these days carry smartphones. I do. However, this event happened a few years ago, before iPhones were commonplace.
But even if I had owned such a phone, there are times when I like to leave it behind, especially when enjoying a peaceful walk. Sure, it’s handy for emergencies, but there are other ways to get help, like asking a neighbor.
In retrospect, I am thankful I didn’t have a camera with me that day. The experience is still vividly branded in my mind’s eye, and I hope the word pictures shared in this post help bring it to yours, too.
Some stories are best that way.
Thought Question: If a picture is worth 1000 words, what’s a video worth? Are words worth anything?