Article by CuChullaine O’Reilly, copyright 2021. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission.
Though children, women and men have ridden “ocean to ocean” across North America, no one has ever dared attempt to ride from Russia’s Pacific to England’s Atlantic. The first solo equestrian journey across Eurasia will require Nikita Gretsi to travel 15,000 kilometers and survive minus 60 degree Siberian cold.
Early in the year 2020, the Long Riders’ Guild published an extensive report detailing how Nikita Gretsi was preparing to become the first person to attempt a solo equestrian journey from Russia’s Pacific to England’s Atlantic.
Available in Russian and English, the LRG article documented how Americans have been riding “ocean to ocean” since Willard Glazier traversed the country in 1875.
Yet the vast Eurasian continent has never been crossed by a Long Rider.
The first such attempt is now underway.
Preparing for the Pole of Cold
No equestrian traveller in modern history has undergone the extensive training and education which Nikita Gretsi has completed.
Consisting of 3,083,523 square kilometers (1,190,555 square miles), the republic is the largest sub-national 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 the sub-zero temperatures around the notorious Pole of Cold.
A fluent Russian speaker, Nikita 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.”
This linguistic and cultural heritage enabled Nikita to winter in Siberia, where Sakha tribal elders taught him how to ride, travel and survive in sub-zero weather.
Trained, equipped and ready, Nikita’s dream to ride “ocean to ocean” across Eurasia was interrupted when the covid pandemic closed Russia to English travellers.
““This isn’t about a guy riding from A to B…The most important thing is discovering what is hidden inside you. It’s the people that are behind me…who have taught me to travel in harmony with myself and Nature.””
Covid and Climate Challenges
Having completed extensive training journeys in minus 60 degree weather, Nikita returned to England in late 2020. He planned to return to Siberia in a few months but travel restrictions left him stranded.
In April he gladly boarded a plane bound for Moscow. Unfortunately the plane landed in Warsaw, Poland. There Nikita and six other English passengers had to board an on-going flight to the Russian capital. Upon arrival the unsuspecting travellers were informed that a new law, passed two days before and not yet publicized, made it illegal to enter Russia via a Polish transit flight.
Nikita was forced to return to London immediately or face being isolated for months in a Russian quarantine facility.
In the subsequent months, the world’s largest wild fire devastated Siberia. Described as an apocalypse, some desperate communities even drafted children into the fight to hold back the flames. The extensive smoke, which could be seen from space, closed the state airport and restricted travel in and out of Siberia.
After being postponed for months, in early September the traveller was finally allowed to return to Russia. With the smoke clearing, Nikita flew on to Yakutsk, the Siberian capital. He then travelled hundreds of kilometres north into the taiga, where he was greeted by a renowned Yakut horse herder who had been waiting for the Long Rider’s arrival.
In the Hoof Prints of Legends
Among the herd of two hundred horses running wild deep in the taiga, Nikita chose two splendid Yakut horses. Artyk (17) is a strong and powerful road horse, while White (14) works well as the reliable pack horse. Like Tschiffely’s legendary Criollos, the Siberian horses were wild for most of their lives and travelling doesn’t run counter to thousands of years of natural selection.
“Yakut horses are unique because they are built like incredibly strong little tanks. They are the only horses that not only survive but flourish in such harsh conditions,” Nikita said.
Prior to beginning the journey, Nikita made a training ride in the mountains of Sasyr, a remote northern locality inhabited by 700 people.
“We covered a distance of 450 kilometres in 12 days so the horses are definitely fit for travel.”
Across the Trackless Taiga
Even though Nikita had managed to survive covid, elude red tape, avoid wildfires, penetrate into the taiga, and find his horses, he was a long way from the Pacific Ocean.
To reach the coastal city of Magadan, Nikita had to hire a truck and driver to transport him and the horses 1,500 kilometres across Siberia. Because the taiga is an enormous wilderness, it took five days to cover the first 500 kilometres. The team had to travel across bogs, through forests, and alongside rivers, to find their way south to a paved road.
“Each day was filled with uncertainty. I wasn’t even sure we would make it to Magadan because no one drives off road during this time of year,” Nikita informed the Guild via email.
The Pacific at Last
Most would-be Long Riders would have completed their journey and returned home, but after enduring two years of training, a global pandemic, and the world’s largest wildfire, Nikita reached the Pacific Ocean at last.
On the morning of October 2nd, Nikita wrote, “I had dreamt of beginning my expedition at the Sea of Okhotsk, which is the northwestern arm of the Pacific Ocean. It was an intense moment when Artyk stepped into the water and I held the Guild flag above the waves.”
“After two years in the making, I am finally on the road and headed for London. As Tschiffely said, it’s time to taste the salt of life.”
From Magadan to Moscow
The journey, which began at the seaport of Magadan, will take Nikita along the infamous Road of Bones. Created by Joseph Stalin in 1932, an estimated million people died constructing it and now lie buried beneath or around the road.
Nikita’s first destination will be Oymyakon in Yakutia, the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on Earth.
Yet the landscape is proving to be even more barren than Nikita anticipated.
“Most of the villages that are on the maps have been abandoned. This is the most remote and isolated part of the world I’ve been to.”
Nevertheless it is not the cold that presents the greatest peril. Like modern Long Riders everywhere, Nikita and his horses are engaged in a deadly ballet with murderous drivers.
In 2013 the worst accident in the history of modern equestrian travel took the life of English Long Rider Christine Henchie. She was killed instantly by an out-of-control bus in Tanzania. Her fiancé, South African Long Rider Billy Brenchley, escaped death by inches but suffered a broken leg. Two Tanzanians walking alongside the travellers were slain. Twenty-five villagers, including two children, were seriously injured.
A shocked journalist said, “I thought the greatest dangers for a Long Rider were bandits or bears.”
“Nevertheless it is not the cold that presents the greatest peril. Like modern Long Riders everywhere, Nikita and his horses are engaged in a deadly ballet with murderous drivers.”
He was wrong.
As Nikita quickly learned, the greatest danger is careless drivers.
“Yesterday we had a really close call when a lorry sped towards me at 80 kmph. He passed us with less than half a meter (20 inches) between his lorry and the horses. Needless to say the horses freaked out and jumped off the side of the road. We plummeted down but I managed to stay in the saddle and the horses are fine. We experience a lot of this every day but that was the worst so far. I honestly don’t know how we walked away from it.”
Complicating the problem is that Nikita has learned that is it unsafe to ride alongside the road because broken glass bottles and strands of old barbed wire are hidden under the snow. One length of barbed wire wrapped itself around Artyk’s front legs.
Riding in Minus 60
Protecting his horses and staying alive in the saddle are complicated by the fact that the team are travelling in blood freezing weather. The deadly Siberian cold is so extreme that even the liquid in a human eyeball will freeze. Nikita reported that the temperature has already dropped to minus 20.
To survive and ride in such extreme weather, Nikita has been equipped with an astonishing suit that will keep a human being warm in temperatures of minus 110 degrees.
Invented in Russia by the Extreme Scientific Research Centre, the Ice Indigo thermal suit is lightweight, durable and flexible. It has been successfully used on expeditions to the South and North Poles.
Alone Across Siberia
Having struggled just to begin the journey, Nikita is in the saddle at last and making careful progress across the challenging landscape.
“The main problem will be reaching places where the horses can rest. In between there are wolves and bears wandering around the roads. I definitely feel every hour of the journey and every stone the horses step on.”
Yet Nikita isn’t daunted.
“This isn’t about a guy riding from A to B,” Nikita said. “That’s what a lot of people think.
The most important thing is discovering what is hidden inside you. In order to unlock that secret you have to delve deep into yourself and the culture. It’s the people that are behind me like the Long Riders’ Guild, the Republic of Sakha, the tribal elders, and my friend Egor Makarov, who have taught me to travel in harmony with myself and Nature.”
Update from Nikita Gretsi, 11.18.2021:
Nikita Gretsi is on a journey of a lifetime, crossing Siberia from coast to coast facing the challenges of terrain, weather as well as the “whatever awaits around the corner”.
With nearly 700 miles ridden in one month, averaging 31 miles a day in snow, conditions are dangerous, for many reasons – so dangerous that a friend Egor and mentor Stepan joined him on the last 155 miles.
The following are excerpts from an email sent to the LRG founder, CuChullaine O’Reilly:
“We crossed along the old road of bones, where there are no people remaining. Probably the most isolated part of the world. Once you hit the border between Yakutia and Magadan Oblast, there’s no one there for 125km either way. That’s 5 days riding. It was a difficult moment going in there, because once you go down that road you make the conscious decision that you have to get through to the other side no matter what happens.
“The instant you set foot there you’re on a timer, as your food will run out sooner or later. No one’s coming to help you. You have to deal with whatever happens and keep pushing on. That part of the route was so dangerous the local guys tried to talk me out of it.
“The horses are in good health, they ended up gaining weight throughout the journey. Their hooves are in good condition. Amazing when you think we road 700km on some of the harshest roads with regards to hooves. I’d actually met a Kazakh along the way with whom I spoke for a while. He said his horses only last about 50km on such roads before their hooves are completely worn. But these strong mountain Yakut horses withstood the tough terrain.
“Temperatures dropped to -40C and below when we were there, this is when all the gear starts failing. Ropes freeze solid, even the girths freeze. Some of the ropes froze in a way that they couldn’t be undone, you have to pour boiling water on them and wait for them to defrost. Alongside this there was no way to bring hay with us, as vehicles fear going down that road. So I had to rely on the horses finding food under the 1m deep snow. This means letting them loose every night and finding them in the morning. Where the vegetation was good this meant a 4km walk to find the horses, but where the vegetation was bad this meant an 11km trek through thick taiga and knee deep snow to find the horses. We had to trace their tracks to find them and then when within range, you can hear their bells ringing which makes them easier to find.
Imagine that, trekking 11km to get your horses, riding them back bareback to camp. That’s all before you’ve even set off for the day. And we’re talking about riding wild horses without a saddle – takes a lot of trust for them to let you do that! One of the days I lost my bridle along the way, so had to ride Artyk with just a halter. I guess it shows the bond that we’ve grown to have. Luckily I was able to find the bridle on the way back.
Daylight was short so many days I’d have to ride in pure darkness. You have to rely on the horses in these instances as you can barely see anything. The snow is visible but in the dark, you can’t perceive depth. You can see the snow but you can’t tell how high up it is. Which means you need to have a very firm seat in the saddle like you’re glued to the horse. Essentially you learn to feel the ground through their feet. You can feel every stone and blade of grass they come across. That’s the only way to navigate at night. Torches are useless as in such temperatures the battery doesn’t last, so you reserve it for when you’re making camp.
To make it worse, along the old road of bones most of the bridges have collapsed but because of the snow, you can’t always see this. If you make the mistake of trying to cross those bridges, you and your horses will plummet to your death. So my eyes were always scanning the terrain to see if there was any sign of a bridge coming up, then I’d have to slowly walk across checking if it was safe to cross before guiding my horses across.
The rivers weren’t all frozen yet, which again is a challenge. Closer to tomtor there is an absolute nightmare of a bridge called the Indigirka bridge. I spent days looking for a way around it, having to check the ice on the Indigirka river. But it wasn’t thick enough to hold the horses. I’d have to slowly walk across the ice and smash it with a long stick, to see if it would break. That’s to check if it would hold my weight. Stepan taught me how to do this, but he urged me to be careful along the Indigirka. Their perception of danger is very different to ours so when they say be careful, that means you’re on the edge of something. If the ice collapses, you fall through into the river and will get sucked in by the current. Even if you manage to get out somehow, it’s so cold you’ll freeze to death in minutes. That’s why you check the ice with a long stick. Stepan taught me that if the ice breaks you flip the stick horizontally, this will lock against the ice when you fall and prevent you from being sucked down under. You’d still be freezing to death when you get out of the water but at least that way you have a chance to survive.
Plenty of stories from the road and a lot of close calls, the horses and I are lucky to have made it out alive. But the important thing is we made it”
An amazing young man on an amazing journey. We will continue to post updates as they happen – but keep in mind that updates will be sporadic as cell service and internet is not always available traveling in such remote areas.
Our thanks to Nikita Gretsi, long rider, and CuChullaine O’Reilly, Founder of the Long Riders Guild for sharing this incredible story.