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The Heavenly horses of Ferghana

In the afternoon we hired a taxi and drove a few miles out of town to where a huge orange rock — not wholly dissimilar to Ayers Rock in Australia - skirted the border with Uzbekistan. Finding the famous paintings, it turned out, was easy, for Alex had taken a couple of French tourists to see them the previous summer. We pulled off the road, passing beneath a small timber arch, drove up a narrow track bordered with silver poplars and high stone walls, and parked beside a heavy wooden door. Almost at once it opened and an old man appeared behind it, beckoning us through into a lush green orchard of pregnant apple and pomegranate trees. We followed him along a well-worn path that led us by a small log cabin and up towards a towering cliff. At its base was a clear stream, where he stopped. While Sarah filmed Alex's and my expression, we followed the old man's wavering hand high up the side of the rust-coloured rock until our vision fell on the ancient depictions of two wild horses.

A mare and foal, the larger to the left protecting her small baby in front, facing east and the rising sun, their pale images seemed to be covered in leopard's spots. They were faded and mottled, with modern graffiti above and tufts of grass sprouting to the side, but, even so, it was immediately obvious that these were no ordinary horses. With long necks and refined heads, they were a far cry from the stocky battlers of the mountain steppes to which we'd become accustomed. Even in this state they were really very pretty.

'Who painted them . . . and right up there?' I asked. They were a hundred feet above the ground and twenty from the top of the cliff.

'Different ideas,' replied Alex, staring towards the portraits. 'Some say they were painted by Chinese travellers that had been sent by their emperor in search of the famous horses of the region —'

'Like Zhang Qian,' I said excitedly.

'Exactly . . . but others say they're local Turkic inscriptions, perhaps painted here as a place of prayer.'

'Heavenly Horses.' I nodded sagely. 'It would make sense to worship them.'

'Sure.'

'But are these Akhal Teke horses?' I asked. I'd read something about this famous breed that was said to be closely related to the Arab and English Thoroughbred, but remained somewhat confused as to whether or not they were considered the same animal as the Heavenly Horses of Ferghana.

'I'm not sure,' said Alex thoughtfully. 'Some say that the Akhal Tekes were really the Heavenly Horses of the Ferghana Valley, and that it was these horses that the Chinese emperor got so excited about. But others question this. The Akhal Tekes originate much further west, in the desert regions of Turkmenistan and, though I have never seen one, they are also apparently much lighter-boned than the horses of Ferghana. So for me they are two different breeds.' Looking at us once again, he smiled. 'But it's all so long ago, no one really knows.'

'Might we be able to find a couple of these Akhal Tekes in Turkmenistan?' asked Sarah, looking up hopefully from the monitor.

'Possibly,' said Alex, 'but I doubt you'll be able to ride them, and certainly not buy them. From what I understand, a pure-bred Akhal Teke can be worth as much as a hundred thousand dollars. There are very few left, even in Turkmenistan.' Seeing our disappointment, he added with a grin, 'But you might still find a Ferghana Heavenly Horse in Andijan or Kokand, or even north of Tajikistan as you continue your journey through the Ferghana Valley. Long ago they were renowned throughout the region.'

'Great,' I said, wrapping up the shot, 'then that's what we'll do. Wander on until we find some.'

The scene finished, Sarah handed me the camera. As she did so I noticed that the microphone was switched off. Checking the tape we discovered that she'd filmed the sequence without sound. It wasn't the first time. We spent half an hour re-shooting the conversation, then set about trying to find the giant horses' hoof prints. Sadly, no one we asked had even heard of them and, after a profitless hour searching among the hills, we gave up and headed back to town.

As fate would have it I didn't have to wait until Kokand, or even Andijan, to catch sight of my first Heavenly Horse. At 7.30 the next morning, at the Osh animal bazaar I ran right into one. With Sarah, Murat and Alex enjoying a cup of tea, and while I waited for the right moment to lead Torugart and Anchor into the fray, I decided to wander around and get some cut-aways of the people, the animals, the general hubbub. I was busy filming, pushing through the crowd, when the monitor was suddenly filled from side to side by an enormous beast. Looking up, I stood back, awestruck. There before me, right in the middle of the arena, rising from the filth and mayhem that simmered all around it, casting brilliant white against a pure blue sky, stood one of the most impressive animals I've ever seen. My jaw dropped.

He was magnificent. A dappled grey stallion, he stood well over sixteen hands tall, was broadly built, and had a fine arched chest and neck that just went on and on. His hindquarters tapered slightly and his legs were thick and strong. Seen from the front, his cannon bones were long and heavy, and unusually wide when seen sideways. His head was broad and regal, with proud ears picked rigidly forward, and bright, sparkling eyes. This wasn't an English Thoroughbred and certainly no relation to any Arab horse I'd seen; he was far too heavy-boned for that. But he was still beautiful. He was the kind of animal a Disney cartoonist would use as a template for a fantasy animation: Pegasus without wings. Was this the horse from the ancient legend? Was it heavenly bred? For a Chinese emperor used to squat, shaggy ponies from the mountain steppes, I could imagine such a magnificent beast would indeed seem divine. Terribly excited - it was after all in the Ferghana Valley, perhaps even Osh, that Zhang Qian had first coined the phrase Heavenly Horses - I filmed some shots and did a quick piece to camera.

"Silk Dreams, Troubled Road" by Jonny Bealby

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