How I broke my back in eight places in a remote foreign land and made it home in one piece. Okay, well, mostly.
In June, 2017, I flew to Kazakhstan, a country that was once part of the USSR. In 1991 that ended, but not before Communists ripped gaping holes in the fabric of this once-nomadic horse culture. Sharing a shoulder on the far east in the majestic Altai mountains, Kazakhstan shares a border and long shared history with its neighbor, Mongolia. In fact. Western Mongolia is peppered with people who believe themselves more Kazakh than Mongol. Both countries retain much of their horse and eagle-hunting traditions, which are prevalent far from the cities.
There, the outskirts of cities like Almaty are dotted with the rotting hulks of Cold War factories, invaded by weeds. The cities still sport faceless apartment buildings which replaced the traditional Kazakh huts. Today these crumbling, graffiti-splashed buildings' populations are served by Western-influenced Costco-like warehouse stores selling everything from cigarettes and liquor (plenty) to a few drab vegetables (not so much) to canned horsemeat.
I had signed up with Zavkhan Trekking, a Mongolian-based enterprise which teams with business people and guides from all over the world. The trip involved joining a small group of riders who would ride from park headquarters to park headquarters through the mountains. Every few days we would get fresh horses as provided by those park rangers, who would also accompany us on our journey.
Our American guide, Jen Buttery, joined us early on. We were at a medium-sized hotel on the edge of town. There we had decent accommodations while we explored the neighborhoods and shops while also meeting our Kazakh and Mongol guides. Some were local, some flown in from Mongolia. All spoke English, all also spoke both Kazakh and Mongol. My group had riders from all over the world, mostly experienced.
The drive to our staging spot took nearly eight hours through the mostly-empty countryside. Kazakhstan is the ninth largest in the world, right behind Argentina. We stopped at small shops to get drinks and watched the wild countryside slide by us, as the Russian-built factories began to disappear.
As with all riding trips, we were assigned horses according to skill level, then taken out on a day ride by the rangers to see if we were well-matched to our mounts. This particular trip was still fairly new, and Kazakhstan at that time was ( and still is, in some ways) deeply mistrustful of Westerners.
Still, as with most places I've traveled, the father outside the city, the more friendly and curious the tribal folks. As with nearly every horse culture I've ever visited and ridden with, if they have entertained Westerners, especially Americans, they find our claims to be "experienced riders" something of a joke. For these people are born into villages where horses run free through town, and learning to ride is part of life.
Americans largely have no clue- that is, but for our Indigenous populations, that is, who were also a horse culture. We dearly want to believe we're all cowboys and cowgirls, but I have rarely seen an American on any of my adventure rides who has done more than ride a sleepy tourist horse at a dude ranch, with the word "dude" emphasized.
There are riders, and there are equestrians, and everywhere you go being a good rider can be broadly interpreted. Just keeping your tush on top of the horse isn't being a rider. By the same token, anybody can can tossed at any point, for if a horse wants you off, you are coming OFF, no matter how good you think you are.
Each ride, usually two days or so, would take us over passes, deep into the Altai ranges. The horses were experienced and hardy, accustomed to the steep ascents, descents and rough terrain that mark this part of the world. Here there are few well-worn horse trails for polite riding. It's rough going, and you have to trust your animal to find his footing on what can feel like terrifyingly steep slopes. They ARE steep. However your horse has more to fear from a rider who saws in terror at his mouth than the terrain, as any guide can tell you.
We would arrive in our camps in late afternoon. Each of us had our own tents, which we had to pitch and set up. I often found myself helping others who weren't used to having to do this. We were also expected- although many didn't bother- to help gather firewood and water for cooking. These aren't easy trips. They are hard work. Not just the riding, but the constant list of chores from camp setup to breakdown. That's part of the charm of the adventure. Besides, you sleep the sleep of the dead after a long, hard day.
As a very early riser, I joined the park rangers to wrangle the horses for early morning tack up. This allowed me to get to know some of them, which made the ride more enjoyable. They spoke no English at all, but were very clear that I liked to work. What this did was earn me some pride-of-place spots behind the front riders, which allowed me to capture great photos for my articles.
Working with the horses each day also earned me a reputation. The rangers always discussed us as we arrived at a new camp, were handed over to new rangers and assigned new horses. The rangers would discuss our riding skills, or lack thereof, and where there were problems, as there always are. For example, people who overstated their riding skills and who found themselves on more horse than they could handle. Those challenges were swiftly sorted out to prevent injury either to horse or rider, and with great consideration for both.
The further we rode, the rougher the country. The group's skills grew, as they got more at ease with the daily rhythms and demands of the rider. Our guides sang for us, and we were regularly entertained with traditional instruments. As we rode, a van carrying our personal gear preceded us to the next campground, arriving time for us to take the tack off our horses and then retrieve our tents.
Each night we'd pick the best spot we could find for a good night's sleep, and be greeted by amazing views in the morning. My favorite spot was a secluded valley in the high trees on our second night, where the horses stayed close in to graze on the deep grass and dense spring flowers of the high country. Since I work on large animals, I loved the private time to do some light massage work.
By the time we reached our third handoff, we had crossed over high, snowy passes, the wind ripping at our faces, our horses stepping carefully down the rocky path. It was bitterly cold at altitude, as it so often is in the high country in summer. We were released to mad gallops across the open plains, and spent a few nights next to a stream, surrounded by Kazakh herders and their dogs, with whom we shared both shelter and a fire.
After making it over several passes and exploring a number of side valleys, we spilled into an expansive, sunny valley dotted with white gers. A herd of yearlings bolted across our path, kicking their heels, as we rode to a corral to change out our horses again. I was given a white gelding, a pacer, who was reputed to be pretty spicy. I had no idea how much so. After a quick lunch, we said goodbye to the guides returning to their posts and headed west.
Tacked up and mounted, our group rode through high mounds of freshly cut summer hay. To the west, the Altais revealed a summer storm dropping rain in a nearby valley. The sun warmed the hay, the sweet scent wafted past us, our horses pulling to try to get a bite.
My white gelding danced and balked at instructions, but I stuck with him. As we entered a low meadow, the group took off at the canter. I kicked my horse gently, and he bucked me off. I rolled, got up and got back on.
Might have taken the hint.
Sometimes a horse doesn't like you, or he just doesn't want to work. Or both. Sometimes it's just your day.
Suddenly, one of the guides pointed off to the east. A stallion appeared, running at the full gallop, mane and tail flying. Behind him a herd of some eighty horses, hooves pounding, glorious tails raised, joyously hurtling across the horizon. We were transfixed. There aren't many places in the world to see such a thing any more, not where the locals are completely dependent upon horses for all aspects of their lives, including horse meat for food.
We stopped to watch, the dust from the herd rising in the early afternoon air, savoring the sight. Such things are vanishing from the world far too fast.
At that moment, I had no idea that within the hour, I land on the valley floor, my back broken in eight places, my horse kicking his heels up in a victory dance.
We had just started a quiet trot towards our next destination when the new lead guide invited us to run. My group took off at a dead heat, but my horse balked. I asked him again for at least a canter. He took off at speed, his ears laid flat. Then he pricked them forward, which is usually an indication that we're cool.
Just as I was settling into his rhythm, he bucked, and I was airborne, this time at high speed. I hit the hard, rocky ground, did a parachute landing roll, and stood up. Well, sort of. Something was terribly wrong, but I had no idea what.
A guide caught my horse, who, after having done this twice, was relegated to the back of the pack. I climbed onto another, but I couldn't turn in either direction. Jen was standing at my left knee, her concerned face focused on mine. She had checked me for broken bones.
"Hospital," I said, knowing that this would end my ride. But we had to know what I had done, and if it was serious.
We grinned at each other. She knew that it had to be pretty bad if I was willing to call it quits.
After a forty-minute ride in our van, with me curled on the floor in in a fetal position, we stopped in a tiny mountain town. The place was dominated by a massive, creaking, sagging, largely empty Russian-built hospital. It was a classic case of "build it, and nobody will come."
The place had a tiny staff featuring one grim doctor and a number of nurses who spent most of their time in the break room eating (usually my Snickers bars) or demanding the single, chipped china bowl they served my meals in. I guess the only had one for the entire hospital. Which was fine as I was the only patient in an eight-story facility.
Which had wi-fi once day for about twelve minutes out a single window, and only if I hung myself out the window as far as possible. Five days, surrounded by nothing but Russian-speaking nurses.
We found one local who had spent time as an engineer in South Africa and Australia. His primary contribution was a tiny slip of paper that read, in Russian, "May I please have a pain shot."
I used that a lot.
Here's what to know about isolated, crumbling, Russian-built hospitals in the outback of Kazakhstan.
Bring Your Own. As in:
- No towels
- No curtains
- No decent food
- No privacy
- No soap
- No hot water
- No toilet paper
- No safety and sanitary procedures
- No.....well, you get it.
Jen told me it could have been worse; Mongolian hospitals only have drop toilets out the back, where you have to get yourself over the outdoor hole on your own. AND bring your own toilet paper. If you can't find the humor in this, try this on for size:
My hospital bed. No sheets. Julia Hubbel
But wait, there's more. One morning, after trading my Snickers bars for a pain shot the night before, I swung my feet out of my cot and nearly impaled my foot on this, on the floor, right next to me:
After five days, lots of phone calls to make sure I wasn't a planted spy, and my insurance company's hard work to find an ambulance, I left.
That bus had to drive eight hours from Ust, the nearest city with an airport, and take me back another eight hours. I was bundled through the hospital, in the dark, at 3 am, with a nurse using a single dim flashlight, into the back of the van. I had no clue if it was legit or not.
We had an eight-hour ride ahead of us over bumpy, hard roads. If I had to pee, I had to climb out the back of the bus, climb into a ditch by the roadside, without help, with a broken back. The nurse was up front flirting with the driver.
I was again checked at the airport for proof I wasn't a spy, then allowed on to a charter jet for Dubai.
There are few times I've been so happy to hear an American accent. The doctor, a lovely Korean man who had attended an Ivy League medical school, welcomed me, set me up with an IV, and called ahead to get me decent food on the way. No loose syringes. Plenty of pain meds.
After a long day in the ambulance, a long flight, and another long drive in another Dubai ambulance (which broke down in traffic in 125 degree July heat, you can't make this up) I finally landed at a first- world hospital in Central Dubai.
Not only did everyone speak English, I underwent a battery of tests right away which revealed that I had eight breaks, all transverse process pieces, now floating around my back and hurting like nobody's business.
The Kazakh hospital had told my translator I had a small crack in one place, but that's what you get when you use an xray machine built in the 1950s.
Wonder if Ed Snowden knows not to get sick in Russia. But I digress.
Talk about contrast.
If you're a football fan, you might know this back injury. It's rare, but common among NFL players and, you got it, equestrians. The combination of speed and force are what cause the breakage.
The good news was that there was no permanent damage, but for the loss of the last few weeks of that incredible trip. By the end of those five days, I was almost tired of having employees march into my beautiful room with a clipboard to make sure I was happy with the service. The food. The care. Rinse, repeat.
I learned to hide in the bathroom, it happened so many times. However, what a nice change of pace: beautiful, healthy food that you could order from a menu, delivered hot, and pain meds on demand, with a handsome physical therapist keeping me working during the day. Hard to beat.
The international staff wrapped me up, fixed me up, set me on my way home in Business Class, broken back and all.
In about six weeks I was back on a horse after focusing on yoga, running laps in my pool (yes, running, at the shallow end, to reduce impact) and more physical therapy.
As for Kazakhstan, as soon as Covid and quarantine and vaccines allow, I'll be going back to finish that trip. And I can't wait. Because this time around I'll know what else to bring: my own toilet paper supply, just in case I ride another spicy horse.