Nikita Gretsi, equipped with a special high-tech suit to keep out the bone-chilling cold of a Russian winter, has embarked on a remarkable 14,100km ride on a hardy Yakutian horse across Eurasia.
Gretsi has left the Pacific coast of Russia on a route that will take him to the Atlantic coast of Europe, then on to London.
The founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, CuChullaine O’Reilly, has characterized Gretsi’s ambitious ride as The Last Great Journey.
Gretsi is believed to be the first person to attempt such an equestrian journey on his own. He has spent a long time preparing, learning all there is to know about the challenges that lie ahead across the vastness of Siberia and Central Asia.
He spent a winter preparing in Siberia, where Sakha tribal elders taught him how to ride, travel and survive in sub-zero weather. His efforts included extensive training journeys in minus 60-degree weather. Gretsi is fluent in Russian.
Gretsi returned to England in late 2020, but pandemic travel restrictions delayed his plans.
In early September, Gretsi flew to Russia and on to Yakutsk, the Siberian capital. He then travelled hundreds of kilometres north into the vast forested area of the taiga, where he was greeted by a renowned Yakut horse herder who had been waiting for the Long Rider’s arrival.
He chose two Yakut horses, Artyk, aged 17, described as a strong and powerful road horse, and White, aged 14, a pack horse.
In a training ride in the mountains of Sasyr, the trio covered a distance of 450 kilometres in 12 days, indicating their fitness for travel.
Gretsi then hired a truck and driver to carry them 1500km to the port of Magadan on the Pacific coast. It took five days to cover the first 500km across Siberia, through forest and avoiding bogs, to find a paved road south.
“Each day was filled with uncertainty,” Gretsi reported by email to the Guild. “I wasn’t even sure we would make it to Magadan because no one drives off-road during this time of year.”
On the morning of October 2, Gretsi reported that they dabbled a foot in the Sea of Okhotsk and set off on their journey. “After two years in the making, I am finally on the road and headed for London.”
Gretsi’s first destination will be Oymyakon in Yakutia, the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on Earth. The landscape is proving to be even more barren than he 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.”
Gretsi is equipped with a specially designed Russian suit to keep in the warmth, and his horses are well used to the cold. His suit, designed by the Extreme Scientific Research Centre, has been successfully used on expeditions to the South and North Poles.
Nevertheless, it is not the cold that presents the greatest peril. The biggest threat to date has come from inconsiderate drivers.
“Yesterday we had a really close call when a lorry sped towards me at 80kmh. 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.”
Gretsi has also learned that is it unsafe to ride alongside the road because of broken bottles and strands of old barbed wire hidden under the snow.
He reports that the temperature has already dropped to minus 20 degrees.
“The main problem will be reaching places where the horses can rest,” he explains. “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.”
Gretsi is well aware of the physical challenges that lie ahead in the ride, but stresses that his journey isn’t about a man riding from A to B.
“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.”
“Tomorrow, I ride on,” he says. “It’s 200km until the next village.”
O’Reilly, of the Long Riders’ Guild, praised Gretsi for his natural diplomacy, aided by his ability to speak fluent Russian.
It had enabled Gretsi to draw unprecedented support all the way from high-ranking government officials to intensely proud Yakut tribal horse herders, he said.
Gretsi is a man of the world, with 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.”
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, beginning the planning for a journey that is now under way, one step at a time.
Update: Gretsi managed to obtain internet access and updated the Long Riders’ Guild in an email on October 26. “The horses and I have just crossed the 700km mark,” he reports. “They’re both in good health, holding their weight really well.”
He advises that he is about to tackle the riskiest stretch of Siberia, a 250km stretch on the old Road of Bones. “No one has been there in years and it’s the most dangerous and isolated 250km across Siberia.”
He is bound for Tomtor.
» Horsetalk thanks the Long Riders Guild for its assistance with this report.