Equestrian travelers set off on journeys for a variety of reasons, including wanderlust, to promote a worthy cause or just to enjoy exploring the world on horseback.
Italian Long Rider Paola Giacomini was different. She made a record-making ride to heal an ancient wound that had festered for 777 years between Mongolia and Poland.
The rift between these two distant nations was symbolized by an artefact from the past — a Mongolian arrow which killed a Polish soldier.
In 1241 the Mongol army attacked the Polish city of Krakow.
A guard stationed in the high tower of St Mary’s Cathedral saw the advancing army and blew his trumpet to sound the alarm. He managed to play a few notes of warning before an enemy arrow pierced his throat.
In memory of this tragedy, a trumpeter has replayed the melody every year to mark the occasion, stopping at the exact note when the original man had died.
Giacomini had the inspired idea to retrace the route of the invading Mongol army, but this time the arrow that she carried would represent a symbol of peace and the melody interrupted in the 13th century would be fully performed.
Even though Giacomini was an experienced Long Rider who had ridden thousands of miles in Europe and Mongolia, it required 10 years of preparation, including learning Russian, before she departed from Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, on June 10, 2018.
Tied to the front of her saddle was the Mongol arrow entrusted to her by Enkhbath, the mayor of Karakorum, which was to be delivered to Tomasz Cichocki, the mayor of Krakow.
Yet before she could begin, Giacomini had to overcome her first great obstacle, the need to receive permission to take the horses out of Mongolia, a feat which no modern Long Rider had ever accomplished.
To do so, she had to overcome Mongolian bureaucracy.
Previous Long Riders who had visited Mongolia had encountered antagonistic officials and oceans of red tape. As a consequence, no Mongolian horses were allowed to leave the country, nor were foreign horses permitted entrance.
Overcoming these obstacles required Giacomini to make three trips to Mongolia in order to satisfy all of the government requirements and obtain the necessary documents, including a certificate of origin for the horses, a veterinary document confirming the horses were in good health and permission from the Ministry of Agriculture to cross the border into Russia.
All of the documents had to be in Mongolian, Russian and English.
Having finally received permission to depart, Giacomini set off on a 9000km (5600 mile) solo journey that took her through Mongolia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Italy.
Soon after she began, Giacomini had to travel through the taiga, a vast landscape with few inhabitants.
“It was scary. It is not the wild animals that are frightening, it is the loneliness,” she recalls.
“On your first day in the taiga it is beautiful because of the untouched nature that you admire along the way. But on the second day, it became clear to me that it was impossible to navigate using maps. And there was no one to ask the way.
“My wanderings in the taiga lasted for 11 days. Fortunately, the horses were with me. They were the ones who helped me out and encouraged me to continue.”
As the journey proceeded westward, Giacomini encountered towns and people. When this occurred, she began practising a routine which would ensure the safety of her and the horses throughout the journey.
“A Long Rider and her horses are a team. When I sleep, my horses sleep. When I eat, they eat. When I go, they go. That is why I always pitched my tent close to the house of the residents who had invited me to spend the night, but I always slept outside next to the horses.
“We slept under millions of stars, traveled thousands of kilometers, met hundreds of people, overcame dozens of obstacles and lived every day as if it were unique.
However, despite the many miles under saddle, Giacomini’s old enemy re-emerged when she finally neared the border between Russia and Europe. There, bureaucratic problems delayed the anxious traveller for many weeks.
Thankfully, Gennadii Semin, the president of the Russian Equestrian Federation, assisted Giacomini in obtaining the necessary documents and arranged for the horses to be transported by trailer out of Russia and into the European Union.
When Giacomini arrived in Moscow to arrange for the necessary paperwork, she was met by legendary Long Rider Jing Li, who had ridden from Russia to China.
Waiting to meet her on the other side of the Russian border was another renowned Long Rider. Vaidotas Digaitis rode from the Baltic Sea in Lithuania to the Black Sea in Ukraine. He next completed a journey around the Baltic Sea to the Arctic Circle and back, and also pioneered a route around his native republic of Lithuania. Then he rode 3000km (1800 miles) from Lithuania, across Russia, over the Ural Mountains and into Asia.
After overcoming a host of challenges during 15 months in the saddle, Giacomini’s dream came true on September 16, 2019, when she arrived with her two horses in Krakow and delivered the arrow that she had carried from Mongolia for more than 8000km.
After having built “a bridge of peace” between Mongolia and Poland, Giacomini reflected in Krakow upon the amazing experience of her journey.
“What is true for sure is that we are here in Krakow and that tied to the saddle is the Mongolian arrow that has been entrusted to us 8000 kilometres from here, and that many different people have seen and touched it along the road, giving it a dream of peace.”
Yet even though the arrow of peace had been delivered, Giacomini still had to make a journey across Eastern Europe, which would count as a major journey in itself.
After riding across Slovakia and Austria, Giacomini reached her home in the Italian Alps in December, 2019.
When asked why she had set off on such a long and lonely journey, she replied: “When fate offers a gift, it asks for a price, both of which are so unpredictable that they are unrecognizable.”
Reprinted courtesy of The Long Riders Guild, founded by CuChullaine and Basha O’Reilly.