A rider is planning a remarkable journey on horseback from the Pacific coast of Russia, across Eurasia and on to the Atlantic coast of Europe.
The unprecedented “ocean to ocean” journey by Nikita Gretsi is in the late planning stages.
The ride, on hardy Yakutian horses, will take Gretsi from Russia’s Pacific coast, across Siberia, to the Atlantic coast of Europe, then on to London.
Gretsi will be going to Siberia in early November, and will then spend two months getting used to the bone-chilling temperatures, which can plunge to minus sixty degrees Celsius.
He and his horses, a pair of geldings, will make a series of short training rides to ensure all equipment performs properly, and to get the horses used to travelling together.
He intends to start the journey in late January. He had hoped to start the expedition at the start of this year, but has delayed it a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gretsi has made preparations at the highest levels and is under no illusions about the huge challenges that lie ahead, he told the Long Riders Guild, which is supporting his endeavours.
“I’m no superhuman,” Gretsi once told a Russian reporter, who asked if he was afraid. “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.”
Gretsi told the guild that, 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 willpower 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.”
Gretsi has broad genetic, linguistic and cultural roots.
“People often ask what my nationality is, and it’s difficult for me to immediately give one answer. Mom has a 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 seven.”
A fluent Russian speaker, Gretsi 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.
In early 2019, the 22-year-old reached out to the guild for support.
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.”
Three experienced Long Riders have helped Gretsi with his preparations. Canadian Long Rider Bonnie Folkins, who travelled extensively in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, shared valuable advice gained during her many journeys.
New Zealand Long Rider Ian Robinson, who rode solo across Mongolia, Tibet, Afghanistan and part of Siberia, provided Gretsi with essential guidance about conditions in the desolate taiga — the vast forest areas of the subarctic region.
In the summer of 2019, Gretsi met New Zealand Long Rider John Williamson, who operates an equestrian tour company. John arranged for Gretsi to spend two weeks riding and travelling with Mongolian nomads.
But having the support of the guild was deemed not enough for such a long journey.
With the help of the guild, Gretsi visited Moscow, where he was greeted by two of Russia’s most important equestrians, successfully cementing crucial contacts.
Gretsi then travelled by train to reach the heart of his forthcoming journey, Sakha, the heart of Siberia.
He knew he must obtain the critically important diplomatic support of authorities that rule eastern Russia.
As the guild stressed, the more potential problems that can be identified and addressed in advance, the higher the chances of success. These include diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles, which many Long Riders have failed to recognize.
“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,” Gretsi says.
“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.”
The most challenging stretch will be across Siberia, the home the Sakha (Yakut) Republic. Indeed, the stretch of the ride through Yakutia covers about 3000km — one-fifth of the entire journey.
When Gretsi arrived in the capital city of Yakutsk, he was greeted by Egor Petrovich Makarov. He is an author, photographer and documentary filmmaker. He is also a passionate and knowledgeable expert on Yakutian horses.
With Makarov’s help, Gretsi met with representatives of the Sakha government and representatives of traditional horse herders.
The deputy chairman of the government, Denis Belozerov, approved of the idea. He said the government was ready to support the initiative.
A range of important agencies offered support for the ride.
Moved by the kindness and generosity of officials, Gretsi 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.”
Having gained the trust of the government, Gretsi and Makarov set off to locate the two horses capable of making equestrian travel history.
They visited Verkhoyansk, a town 675km north of Yakutsk. The town holds the Guinness World Record for the greatest temperature range on Earth.
There, Gretsi was able to meet the northern horse herders.
“The Verkhoyansk horses are regarded as one of the toughest of the Yakut breed because they live wild in extreme conditions,” Gretsi explains.
In temperatures that plunge to minus 60 degrees, motor vehicles cannot be relied on. So the residents depend on the horses. They love, cherish and worship their horses because their lives depend upon them.
Gretsi discovered that the Yakuts wouldn’t sell him any horses, even though a great majority are unbroken.
Finally, Gretsi found two herders who had potential horses that might work for the journey.
One, aged 16 or 17, had not been ridden in a year. The Yakuts were afraid of the horse and thought Gretsi couldn’t stay on him. But Gretsi is 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 other, a 14 or 15-year-old packhorse, was owned by the other herder. The horse hadn’t been ridden in two years. Gretsi found it to be “calm and obedient”. The stronger-willed older horse quickly took the lead, and the quieter packhorse fell into step behind.
He was able to secure both at a fair price.
The horses are now being cared for by Duguy Dan, a respected tribal horse herder who will protect, ride and train the horses during the Covid-19 health crisis.
Gretsi then returned to London where he created a website to document his journey.
Before Gretsi’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 Gretsi 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.
But the cold is only one of the challenges that lie ahead. The onset of warmer weather will provide a different set of challenges. Billions of ravenous insects hatch and hunt anything moving.
As the guild points out in its extensive report on the upcoming journey: “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 Gretsi 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.”
When asked why he wanted to attempt a journey of such geographic magnitude and physical hardship, he 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.”