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Black Sands and Celestial Horses

Extract 1 - The Kopet Dagh and Nisa


The valley was thick with tamarisk and patterned with orchards. Just now, but for the odd almond tree, the blossom was no more than a promise. I would like, I thought as we jogged gently downhill, to come back here in a fortnight.

A few miles, and the hills drew back suddenly. Ahead, the land was utterly flat, stretching away until the haze swallowed it. It was like coming between cliffs to the mouth of a river and hitting the sea; except that the beach was green oasis, and the sea itself was of sand: the Kara Kum, or Black Sands, which extend unbroken to the Kazakh steppes several hundred miles further north, and cover nine-tenths of Turkmenistan.

Katya and Natasha in the foothills of the Kopet Dagh

The girls turned right and followed the edge of the scarp across a gently sloping plain littered with rocks and seamed with gullies. At first, Malika was wary of these gullies, mincing down carefully and straining up the far side. Before long she got the idea and began to play with them, running down to get up steam then launching herself at the further bank in a series of plunges. She began to accelerate every time she saw one ahead, until my arms ached with the strain of preventing her from breaking both our necks.

The rain had spent itself and the weather was bright. The mountains shook off their sulks and turned crystal clear against a blue sky streaked with drifting cloud. But little grew even here in the Akhal Oasis, that strip of natural grassland which runs along the base of the mountains and is irrigated by their run-off.

"This should be all green!" said Katya, gesturing to the brown wilderness around.

In the villages, a few optimistic people were beginning to work in their gardens and surrounding fields. By the time the brown earthen hump of Nisa rose on the skyline, vineyards enclosed us, criss-crossed by irrigation channels. At these,Malika was again first cautious and then joyful, lifting cleanly off her hocks and jumping them with feet to spare. Still only four years old, she was a fast learner.

A raised iron pipe barred our way. Natasha kicked on and jumped it. I wasn't sure that I wanted to follow on a young horse who had only just mastered ditches, but there was no way round. I needn’t have worried; the little horse picked up cleanly and pinged it in perfect balance. I was learning at the sharp end about the intelligence and athleticism revered by those who know the Akhal-Teke... When the girls stepped up the pace, Malika stuck her head out and tried to race the others.

She was still pulling as we galloped up the ramp and thundered into the city.

Nisa, ancient capital of Parthia

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