The Last Great Journey
Ocean to Ocean from Russia’s Pacific to England’s Atlantic
(Click link above to read this article in Russian.)
Mankind has been riding horses for approximately 6,000 years, during which time countless equestrian journeys have been accomplished on every continent including Antarctica.
Yet even though men have walked on the moon, no human has yet to ride ocean to ocean from Russia’s Pacific (Asia) to England’s Atlantic (Europe).
Two Continents – Two Traditions
The annals of the Historical Long Riders include men and women of astounding bravery, remarkable resourcefulness and enduring optimism.
While each of these journeys had an emotional impact on the lives of the riders, two astonishingly original equestrian travel traditions developed on either side of the Bering Strait, the 82 kilometre (51 miles) wide body of water that separates Russia and the United States.
Leaving New York State in 1875 former cavalryman Willard Glazier set out to become the first Long Rider to ride ‘ocean to ocean’ across America.
This national tradition was confirmed in 1911 when Temple and Bud Abernathy, who were only six and ten years old at the time, rode nearly 4,000 miles, from New York to San Francisco, in sixty-two days.
In contrast to this focus on the sea, beginning in 1717 Long Riders launched Russia’s rich tradition of vast land travel.
The most historically important journey occurred in November 1889 when Dmitri Peshkov left his garrison's faraway outpost of Blagoveshchensk in the far east of the Russian Empire on his Siberian horse, Seriy. After many amazing adventures, they arrived in St. Petersburg at the Tsar’s court having covered more than 5,500 miles – in temperatures sometimes as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit. In recognition of the hardships endured by Seriy, the Siberian horse was adopted by the family of the Czar.
|Peshkov is considered the father of modern equestrian travel, as his influence spread far and wide.|
Like his American contemporary across the Pacific, Peshkov also inspired others to follow in his horse’s hoof prints.
In May 1910 Alexandra Kudasheva set off alone from Harbin, China. After riding 12,600 miles, Kudasheva reached St. Petersburg on May 30, 1911, where she too was greeted by Czar Nicholas II.
Thus “Ocean to Ocean” and “Across Siberia” are two remarkable equestrian travel themes which have never been connected – until now.
How to Ride Ocean to Ocean?
Why has an equestrian journey across Eurasia never been attempted?
Because of several potentially deadly reasons!
It will require approximately two years to ride the 15,000 kilometre (9,320 miles) that separate the two great oceans.
Eastern Russia is sparsely populated and large parts of the vast country are impassable.
|The term “taiga” refers to one of the world’s major ecosystems. The Russians have a word for this type of trap. They call it “rasputitsa,” meaning “roadlessness".|
The journey will begin in eastern Siberia. This area is famed as being the ‘Pole of Cold’, where the temperature reached as low as −71.2 °C (−96.2 °F), the lowest temperature ever recorded for a permanently inhabited settlement.
|Extreme cold is responsible for the creation of a special breed of horse that actually thrives in the world’s coldest weather. This photo shows such an animal and his rider in 1905.|
Finally, though Russia once had a strong equestrian travel culture, Joseph Stalin outlawed the private ownership of horses, so there were no equestrian journeys done by outsiders for most of the 20th century.
Thus a journey from Russia’s Pacific to England’s Atlantic would be remarkable.
But can it be done?
Only if a specially qualified traveller, mounted on a unique horse, has the unprecedented aid of political, cultural and equestrian experts from a brotherhood of nations.
Heritage and History
Dr. John Bell set off from St. Petersburg in 1717 and then spent sixteen months riding to Peking.
Prior to that Peter the Great had gone to England in 1698 to study ship building.
So there are equestrian and historical links between Russia and England that date back centuries and a ride between the oceans of these nations would be of tremendous interest to the people of both countries.
In his brilliant book, Imperium, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski documented the vast ethnic diversity that once resided under the flag of the former USSR. The journalist referred to a new type of individual as Homo Sovieticus.
Though the Soviet Union no longer exists, luckily a young man with connections to both Russia and England is preparing to set off on the first ‘ocean to ocean’ ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Nikita Gretsi has genetic, linguistic and cultural roots that reach across the vastness of Russia and his family’s history symbolizes what once was and what no longer exists.
“People often ask what my nationality is, and it’s difficult for me to immediately give one answer. Mom has Russian and Ukrainian background. Dad has Russian, Uzbek and Estonian. My great grandmother was born in Altai, Siberia. I was born in Estonia and grew up between that country and Ukraine, until I moved to England at the age of 7.”
A fluent Russian speaker, Nikita lived in the small town of Welwyn Garden City near London, where he worked as the manager of a restaurant, until the allure of making a historic equestrian journey touched his soul.
Having read the three-volume Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration and the Horse Travel Handbook, Nikita had gained a solid equestrian travel education. In early 2019 the twenty-two-year-old contacted the Guild in search of wisdom, advice and allies.
He wrote, “I want to ride on horseback across from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Many people in America have made such horse trips, but in Eurasia no one has even tried.”
What transpired next was unprecedented in Long Rider history.
Though the Guild’s equestrian explorers have crossed every continent except Antarctica, only exceptional journeys are granted the privilege of carrying the Long Rider flag. Nikita’s ocean to ocean ride from Siberia to England is a journey deemed to be of such historic significance.
An International Alliance
Three experienced Long Riders began the process of helping Nikita prepare for the potentially dangerous journey.
Canadian Long Rider Bonnie Folkins, who travelled extensively in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, shared valuable advice gained during her numerous journeys.
New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robinson, who rode solo across Mongolia, Tibet, Afghanistan and part of Siberia, provided Nikita with essential guidance about conditions in the desolate taiga.
And in the summer of 2019, Nikita met New Zealand Long Rider John Williamson, who operates an equestrian tour company. John arranged for Nikita to spend two weeks riding and travelling with Mongolian nomads.
But having the support of the Long Riders’ Guild was deemed not enough in this special situation.
With the help of the Guild, Nikita visited Moscow, where he was greeted by two of Russia’s most important equestrians.
Though born in China, legendary Long Rider Jing Li made a gruelling 9,000 kilometre (5,592 miles) ride from Votkinsk, Russia to Peking, China in 2009.
In 2018 Jing Li carried the Guild flag from the Caucasus Mountains to the Moscow headquarters of the Russian Geographical Society, thereby honouring the Russian roots of modern equestrian travel.
To mark the occasion, Gennadii Semin, President of FITE, the International Equestrian Tourism Federation, presented a special lecture which explained how Russia played a remarkable role in horse-human history.
|Gennadii (left) urged the Russian Geographical Society to lend its support to Nikita’s journey. Jing Li (right) passed on the LRG flag that he had carried across Russia to Nikita.|
Jing Li, who famously said, “Life is too short. When the time comes, we must swing into the saddle like the ancients did in the old fashioned way,” filled Nikita with eyewitness evidence about what lay ahead.
And Gennadii promised to alert the Russian government and media to the importance of the unprecedented ‘ocean to ocean’ ride.
With assistance assured in Russia’s capital, Nikita travelled by train to reach the heart of his forthcoming journey, Sakha, the mysterious heart of Siberia.
Scouting in Siberia
For countless generations travelling horsemen simply disregarded borders, preferring to ride where their hearts led them. Nowadays you can’t get away with ignoring political reality.
In the 21st century it is bureaucrats, not bandits, who pose the greatest potential threat to any international equestrian journey. This has resulted in the rise of an increasingly hostile mindset, one which defines a Long Rider as a potential hazard or a national menace. Such people have obstructed the progress or cancelled the journeys of uninformed equestrian travellers.
The more potential problems you can identify and either solve or prepare for in advance, the higher your chances of success.
This basic principle is seldom understood, even by Long Riders with thousands of miles under their saddle.
Thankfully Nikita realized that even though Russia had a rich history of equestrian travel, those journeys happened a long time ago. He knew that if he wanted to open a new chapter in modern horse travel he must obtain the critically important diplomatic support of the government authorities that rule eastern Russia.
"Given the difficulty of the journey ahead, I know that no matter how much I prepare I will still be faced with moments and situations where I will struggle to find the wisdom to deal with the problems at hand. But I want to drastically reduce the potential risks and consequently increase the chances of success. To do this, I want to learn from the mistakes made by other Long Riders, not repeat them.”
To improve Nikita’s chances of success, the Long Riders’ Guild provided him with a special “firman” (PDF); i.e. an official letter of introduction that was written in Cyrillic. It explained the importance of the journey and asked government officials to provide official recognition and logistical assistance.
Say the word “Siberia” and most people picture a vast uninhabited frozen wasteland.
In fact the world’s most unique equestrian culture has thrived there for centuries!
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the newly formed Russian Federation recognized the borders of an enormous portion of Siberia. Preferring the native word “Sakha” to the Russian word “Yakut, Yakutia became the Sakha (Yakut) Republic.” Consisting of 3,083,523 square kilometers (1,190,555 sq miles), the republic is the largest subnational governing body in the world. With a population of less than a million people, the inhabitants speak their own language, have a different culture and practice a different belief system than Russia Orthodoxy. More importantly, living within the borders of this frozen realm are the original Polar Riders whose astonishing horses thrive in sub-zero temperatures.
It is not widely known that Sakha is home to one of mankind’s oldest continuing equestrian cultures. For example, a 4000-year-old equine petroglyph provided the inspiration for the republic’s national coin.
When Nikita arrived in the capital city of Yakutsk, he was greeted by Egor Petrovich Makarov. An author, photographer and documentary film maker, this passionate and knowledgeable expert in Yakut horses is an official Friend of the Guild who has assisted Long Riders in the past.
With Egor’s help, an extraordinary meeting was organized. Representatives of the Sakha government, and tribal elders of the horse herders, gathered to meet the young traveller who proposed to use two Yakut horses to ride across Eurasia.
The deputy chairman of the government, Denis Belozerov, approved of the idea.
“Of the entire length of the route, the section passing through Yakutia occupies about three thousand kilometers. This is one fifth of the route.”
He went on to state that “the government is ready to support this initiative.”
And the vice speaker of the State Assembly, Il Tumen Alexander Zhirkov, expressed his admiration for Nikita’s idea “to promote the culture of the Sakha people and the unique Yakut horse to the world”.
In an unprecedented act of diplomatic support, the Ministry of External Relations and Ethnic Affairs, Ministry of Digital Development, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Culture and Spiritual Development, the Federation of Equestrian Sport, the Russian Geographical Society and the State Agricultural Academy offered tactical and political help to Nikita.
Deeply moved by
the kindness and generosity of these officials, Nikita told the local press, “Sometimes
life grants us a great opportunity and it is up to us to seize it. I am very
encouraged by the fact that there are so many of us who not only share the same
views but by the looks of it are trying to achieve the same goal.”
Though the government and tribal people came from different parts of Russia, they recognized that the mother tongue of all Long Riders is "horse."
Having gained the trust of the government, Nikita and Egor set off to locate the two horses which would make equestrian travel history.
Documenting the Neanderthal Horse
The horses chosen to make this journey are of critical importance. Thankfully Sakha is home to a breed that is nearly impervious to cold and may have been in existence since prehistoric days.
The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in France is a cave that contains what is believed to be the world's oldest known representational art. The images are estimated to be between 27,000 to 32,000 years old. Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including horses. The photograph of the Yakut horse (left) bears a striking resemblance to the Stone Age horse (right). Based on the facial similarities of the two horses seen above, it would appear that the descendants of horse that existed 32,000 years ago are still to be found in Yakutia (Sakha, Siberia).
The Yakut horses are the only breed able to survive in the extreme Siberian cold. Able to endure seven months of winter, they have an exceptional sense of smell. This allows the horse to find forage during the long semi-darkness of the Arctic winter. Extra hard hooves enable it to scrape away snow and ice so as to reach the food hidden below. When the water is frozen, the horses survive by eating snow and ice. They have specialized hair which has a unique core that greatly increases its insulating characteristics. Additional insulation is provided by a sub-dermal layer of fat. Scientists have revealed that these horses can alter their rate of respiration and have the ability to conserve energy by entering into a state of semi-hibernation.
Yet when summer comes and temperature can soar to 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), the horses must quickly adapt. Though they shed their winter coats, their thick skin protects them from the swarms of billions of blood sucking insects that infest the taiga.
Surviving in such a harsh climate has produced the world’s toughest horses, a fact once well known to equestrian explorers who were familiar with Siberia’s centuries-old tradition of winter-time horse travel.
What is seldom remembered today is that these remarkable “polar ponies” were employed by Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Scott during their attempts to reach Antarctica’s South Pole in the early 20th century.
|When you study the horses in this photo, you can see how short their ears are, how thick their manes are, how stocky their bodies are, how rounded their noses are. There is nothing artificial, nothing to indicate human interference, nothing except biology specially equipped to survive in intense cold. No other breed offers such a stunning example of a prefect adaptation to its environment.|
The indigenous inhabitants of Sakha drew their religious roots from an ancient belief in shamanism. Yakuts believe that animals are another kind of people wearing a different shirt. They do not attempt to dominate the horse. They treat the animal as their brother, believing that they have ancestors in common. This respect and reverence is so deeply ingrained that Yakuts frown on speaking roughly to a horse and striking the animal is a cultural taboo.
Yet this ancient horse-human bond was imperilled when the Soviet Union assumed political power over Siberia and insisted that native horse herders participate in collective farms. Thereafter the fabled Yakut horses remained isolated from the rest of the world during the majority of the 20th century.
To help resolve this mystery the Guild asked Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg, who was preparing to ski across a portion of Sakha, to report on the existence, or demise, of this once-legendary equestrian culture.
On 10th January, 2005 the Guild received an email from Mikael which confirmed that thanks to the combination of its remote location and severe weather, Sakha’s unique horses and their fur-clad tribal riders had weathered the Soviet storm.
"I've come into an area where there's at least 4,000 pure-bred Yakut horses
living in the wild. The Yakut people ride them when it is minus 65°F! They are
short, stocky, sturdy, hairy, relaxed and tough horses that are made for Long
Riders. The cold causes them no problems, they find food for themselves and they
|Swedish Long Rider Mikael Strandberg met Vassili, a Yakut elder who promptly jumped into the saddle and cantered around in minus 68 degree weather.|
Though the existence of the horses had been confirmed, the problem Nikita faced was could he find and purchase two of these remarkable animals in this modern age?
Finding Hero Horses
Verkhoyansk is a town located 675 kilometers (419 miles) north of Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha. The town holds the Guinness world record for the greatest temperature range on Earth. With the help of Egor Makarov, Nikita travelled there to meet the northern horse herders.
He expressed his excitement about locating the horses.
“The Verkhoyansk horses are regarded as one of the toughest of the Yakut breed because they live wild in extreme conditions.”
Because the majority of mankind reside in areas where it is easy to buy and sell horses, Nikita's subsequent problem may be of interest.
What he discovered was fascinating.
In minus sixty degree winters, motor vehicles can't be relied on.
So the Yakuts depend on the horse to keep themselves alive. Errands, hunting, pregnancies etc are all linked to having a reliable horse that can endure the cruelest cold.
Thus the Yakuts love, cherish and worship their horses, because their lives depend upon them.
That's why, to Nikita's surprise, he discovered that the Yakuts wouldn't sell him any horses!
Actually Nikita made two shocking discoveries.
First, there are indeed vast herds of hundreds of horses. They are allowed to roam free in the forests, where they survive the winters by pawing the snow away and eating the moss that is hidden underneath.
The horses are used to humans and are not averse to being rounded up and brought into a corral.
But 99% of them are never saddled.
Only a few horses are trained to be ridden and once this is done, the owner keeps and rides the horse for ten to twenty years.
Thus, though there were hundreds of horses, there were almost no horses ready to ride and no owners willing to sell.
Finally, Nikita found two herders who had potential horses that might work for the journey.
The road horse, which is 16/17, had not been ridden in a year. The Yakuts were afraid of this horse and thought Nikita couldn't stay on him. But Nikita has become a confident rider, so he rode out the bucking and then took the horse out on a long test ride.
He said the horse was 'impeccable.'
The pack horse was owned by another herder. It is 14/15 years old, and like the road horse is a gelding. This horse hadn't been ridden in two years. But Nikita found it to be 'calm and obedient.' The more emotionally powerful road horse quickly took the lead, and the quieter pack horse fell into step behind.
Thus, it was a minor miracle that Nikita found these two suitable horses and purchased them at a fair price.
To ride ocean to ocean from Russia to England would be remarkable.
But to bring these two fabulous Yakut horses to London would be unprecedented!
|Nikita found two physically strong, emotionally mature, and bonded “brother” geldings that represent the ancient Yakut equestrian culture.|
Dangers En Route
Having purchased his horses, Nikita arranged for them to be safe guarded by Duguy Dan, a respected tribal horse herder who will protect, ride and train the horses during the current health crisis.
Nikita then returned to London where he created a website documenting the journey.
Prior to Nikita’s departure, Egor Makarov and a Siberian film team created an extraordinary documentary which shows the Long Rider and his horse galloping across the snowy landscape and staring in wonder at the night sky coloured bright green by the brilliant aurora borealis.
Yet even though tremendous progress has been made, when Nikita departs in January 2021 he will be confronted with challenges so harsh that no Long Rider since the days of Antarctic exploration in the 1910s could relate.
Siberia is a simple word but in actuality it encompasses the last great wilderness on Earth, an area of 13.1 million square kilometres (5,100,000 sq miles). Winter temperatures are so cold that trees explode and when a person exhales their breath is transformed into a shower of ice crystals, followed by a tinkling sound known as “the whisper of the stars.”
It is during the harsh winter when packs of starving wolves stalk horses and humans.
In 2011 the world’s largest wolf pack attacked the horses that lived in the Verkhoyansk area. The terrorized inhabitants described their predicament as an "animal apocalypse". Wolves weighing an estimated 100 kilos (220 pounds) killed and ate more than 30 Yakut horses.
The onset of warmer weather will provide a different set of challenges.
The population is so sparse that when New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robinson explored the taiga in the summer of 2016, he didn’t see another person for seventeen days.
Billions of ravenous insects hatch and hunt anything moving.
English Long Rider Kate Marsden, who rode in Sakha in 1891 wrote, “We were obliged to travel in the night, because our horses had no rest in the day time from the terrible horse-flies that were quite dangerous there. They instantly attacked the wretched beasts, so that it was an awful sight to see our horses with the blood running down their sides, many of them becoming so exhausted that they were not able to carry our luggage.”
The entire route, which will cross ten time zones, begins in January at the isolated seaport of Magadan. Nikita will then ride west along the infamous “Road of Bones”. Built during the Soviet Union's Stalinist era, the road is treated as a memorial, as the bones of the estimated 250,000 people who died while constructing it were laid beneath or around the road.
Yakutsk, the regional capital is 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) west. Then comes Lake Baikal, the Altai and Ural Mountains, and finally Moscow. After that is it is only 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles) on to London.
|Nikita’s equestrian journey, from the Pacific Ocean to the border of Europe, will serve as the basis for a Trans-Russian Equestrian Trail that other Long Riders can follow in the future.|
A journey of this danger and complexity demands attention to detail. The Long Riders’ Guild has supplied Nikita with the best equestrian equipment, including the famous Canadian adjustable pack saddle made by Kelly de Strake of Outfitter’s Supply.
Special fur clothing, that will provide protection against the deadly cold, is being specially tailored for Nikita by the horse herders.
Yet in spite of the smooth planning, despite the government’s endorsement, regardless of the strong horses, it still comes down to one moment in time when Nikita will have to set aside all fear, summon up his courage, swing into the saddle, point his horse towards the setting sun and ride alone across a tremendous portion of the planet.
The Salt of Life
Before Aimé Tschiffely began his ride from Buenos Aires to New York in 1925, local horsemen told the press, “The man’s mad.”
But they can hardly be blamed for their initial scepticism. Up till then Tschiffely’s most gruelling task had been teaching in a posh school for boys outside Buenos Aires. True, he had knocked around the world, leaving home at an early age to immigrate, first to England, before taking the teaching job in Argentina. But his only experience with expeditions of any kind had been acquired from the safety of an armchair, as he read of the early exploits of the Conquistadors and their equine companions.
His lack of equestrian skills or exploration credentials never bothered him.
Remarkably self-assured, the slightly-built red-head balanced the scepticism of his critics against his own need to discover the wild parts of the South American continent. His plan to ride Criollos to Washington D.C. was the natural outgrowth of his years of research into South American Spanish history.
He wrote, “Eventually there was only one thing to do: screw up my courage, burn all the bridges behind me, and start a new life, no matter whither it might lead. Convinced that he who has not lived dangerously has never tasted the salt of life, one day I decided to take the plunge."
Like Tschiffely before him, Nikita’s journey has forced him to confront the precious gift of life and the possibility of death.
Asked by a Russian reporter if he was afraid, Nikita responded, “I’m no superhuman. I too feel fear as we all do. I just refuse to let it stop me. Do what scares you in life. Once you accept that it’s normal to feel fear, you just have to confront it and go on regardless and there won’t be much that will stop you achieving goals.”
In an email to the Guild, Nikita explained how rather than dwell on fear, he saw the journey as a door to personal enlightenment.
“I am aware of the difficulties which lie ahead. I can assure you that when I think of doing this I do not think of myself riding in the warmth of the sun with a calm breeze surrounding me. Instead, I think of all the difficult challenges that I will have to overcome and I imagine how I will endure these. There is no running away from it. Each challenge must be endured but only one step at a time. This is what gives me joy, for I know that where most people crumble I have the will power to keep moving one step at a time. Whilst I am not seeking to be in the most dangerous life-threatening situations, I am seeking something that will be incredibly challenging not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually. I believe that it is in those moments, when we are faced with the hardest conditions of life that we find out who we truly are. So the challenge will not come from seeing whether I can survive the cold or the various dangers. The real challenge will be to test the bond I form with the horses and Nature itself and to ensure that we complete this journey safely.”
When asked why he wanted to attempt a journey of such geographic magnitude and physical hardship, Nikita explained, “The journey is very personal. But I feel it can reach a lot of people. When I say "it", I mean this journey and not myself. Fame is not something I desire in this life. We have a good saying back home ‘Nothing is worth doing if it is for the approval of others.’ I hope instead to draw attention to the idea of Harmonious Horsemanship, the idea of living in harmony with life.”
Additional Information about Siberia and Yakut Horses
Finding Siberia’s Legendary Yakut horses in 2004
Exploring Siberia’s Yakut Horse Culture in 2016
A Study of the Sakha (Yakut) Breed of Horse
The Yakut Horse - Blood brother of the Sakha people
Polar Ponies – Siberian Horses in Antarctic Exploration