I wrote this story from my personal journal, but adapted it so I could share it with you, my friends and clients. I hope you enjoy it. I am planning on many more exotic adventures and may share more personal stories, if you like them. Let me know your thoughts. Thanks, Ray Milligan, Rt 1 Box 87, Chama, NM 87520, PH 575-756-2630, FAX 575-756-2959, Email: Ray@MilliganBrand.com.
I was gathering my bags when the voice said "Hi Ray", a pretty safe guess since I was the only one on the New York to Moscow flight packing a rifle. I turned to meet the smiling face of Maxim Vorobiev, Director of Profi Hunt LTD. If first impressions are worth anything, I liked him immediately. Over the course of the next two weeks we would be spending a lot of time together, as he would serve as my interpreter to Tajikistan and back. I did not know it then, but my first impression underestimated this wonderful man.
Colleen, my bride of 26 years, had booked the hotel and flights for my excellent adventure. She really ordered up the best, a landmark hotel in Moscow and first class flights throughout Asia. I had been studying the culture and history of Russia and Moscow, so she booked me right downtown. From my hotel, I looked out the large windows, to my right the Bolshoi Ballet, to the left, Red Square. - Cool.
My outfitter Vladimir Melnikov was calling to meet me in the lobby. We were going to lunch with two other outfitters who were in town for the first international hunting show in Russia - Diego from Spain and Michelle from Tanzania. What a great lunch. The four outfitters from four different continents talking shop, wild animals and clients. All of this in the center of a city of 13 million Moscovites.
After lunch Vlad had a surprise for me. He had hired an English speaking tour guide to take me to Red Square. This was just one of many things this fine outfitter did for me because he listened to his client and cared.
My guide was a well educated Russian. We walked passed the Bolshoi on the cobble stone streets amidst the fur hats and coats adorning the Russians. I love fur and a people who are still too busy working to worry about political correctness. How did we in America take our most beautiful natural resource and make it unholy to wear?
We entered Red Square from the northeast through Resurrection Gate. Once on the red brick, one thing stood out, possibly the most beautiful building in the world. No picture or words can describe it, or prepare you for your first look. To the south stood St. Basil's Cathedral. The chapel was built by Ivan the Terrible to honor a battle won in 1552. At the grand opening ceremony, Ivan, at this point menally ill since the death of his beautiful Anastasia, worried that the skillful architect who designed the building might someday build a more beautiful building for someone else. To relieve his worry, he had hot pokers summoned and the architect was blinded. - Thus Ivan's name.
Oh, there is much more to Red Square. On the west is the Kremlin, to the north the State History Museum, and on the east, the mall-like Gum Department Store.
Against the Kremlin wall is a podium where Russian leaders, all of them for centuries, have addressed the people. It's steeped in Russian history - some of it great, some terrifying. The Cosack rebel Stepan Razin was dismembered here in 1671, and 2000 members of Peter the Great's mutinous palace guards, the Streltsy, were executed en masse here in 1698.
The name Red Square has nothing to do with Communism or the blood that has been shed here. The translation means beautiful, and it is indeed.
The next morning, Vlad's wife and secretary picked me up and I was to spend the day at the hunting show before our evening flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The show was held on the floor of an ice hockey arena, without ice. I hooked up with Diego and Michelle for my last day with multiple English speaking folks. Diego took me through the animal displays and educated me on the various Tur species, Saiga, musk deer and all the sheep of Asia. It was exhilarating to see all the animals of this continent.
At one point a man with an Armani suit stole a scene. Paparazzi cameras flashed, people shook his hand and a group of advisors/bodyguards surrounded him. I turned to Diego, "It doesn't matter what country you're in, the politicians are always easy to spot." We laughed in agreement.
Later, while back at the Profi Hunt booth, one of only 6 or 7 selling hunts, I was talking with Vlad when here came the politician with his groupies. We all started shaking hands and exchanging smiles. I didn't speak trying not to disclose my nationality. The men conversed in Russian while I nodded and looked thoughtful.
After they left, Vlad explained that I had just been rubbing bellies with President Putin's top advisor, the Colin Powell of Russia, if you will. Diego and Michelle had a good laugh watching me and the politician. The Russian world has changed. Fifteen years earlier no common American would stand beside a man of stature. Max shows up and it is time to head to the airport in his Bronco.
The Russian Airlines Aeroflot was very nice. Max upgraded with frequent flyer miles to first class, so we got to sit together. He is a really fine guy and I am enjoying his company. He is college educated and speaks Russian, English and German fluently. His parents are retired. His dad was a physicist and his mom a hematologist.
We arrived in Bishkek about 2:00 a.m. and were taken to the V.I.P. room where a Kyrkyzstan judge met us to clear customs. Maxim and the Judge of European descent talked in Russian while drinking cappuccino. I nodded off, so Max had an Asian-looking woman take me to VIP couches where I got 5 good hours. - Now off to Osh on Kyrgyzstan Air - freezing in the packed plane. Upon landing I am really in the third world. Muslims in their traditional hats, with a mix of Asian and European blood speaking Russian.
There was fresh snow and we were informed that the pass is closed. So we will go to the hot tub hotel! For some reason we cannot get in, so they ask do I want breakfast. - - - - - Yes!
I set my watch again and now realize I am twelve time zones from my family and New Mexico. I cannot get any farther from home - it is a little unsettling. Once again I ask myself why am I doing this? Again I answer the rhetorical question of wanderlust as I always do: it is for the adventure. It has got to be more about still being able to climb the mountains.
For breakfast we went on to a private home, vintage American Depression, really a lot like my grandmother's old neighborhood in Pittsburgh, in the 50's. The old Kyrzik woman made a fuss over the American, and the Russian, and the further in the third world we traveled, the bigger the fuss. They treated us like royalty and it is the only part I do not enjoy fully, but then again, I am getting used to it.
I nicknamed Max the Prince of Russia and myself the King of New Mexico. I am visiting the middle and upper class homes and none have a third of what the government housing residents of Chama have.
The old woman did not speak English but reminded me of my Bubba (Grandmother) from my mom's Yugoslavian side. She cooked pancakes with old fashioned butter and plum jam, and there were fresh grapes and homemade heavy bread with green tea. I had only eaten once the day before so I was hungry, and the food was great. I photographed the old woman with the digital camera and showed her the picture immediately - she was thrilled. The temperature in the house was about 40-45 degrees.
Now off to Tajikistan! It's a long snow packed gravel road to our camp, "The Hot Springs." Fourteen hours in good weather.
In Osh we got into an old Russian military Jeep. Max and I in the back and two mid-fifties men driving. All the roads are dirt in a town of 200,000 people, and after a short drive we stop by a roadside market. The owner realizes that Max is a prince and I am a king, so he works us. We buy some fruit and tubers; I do not have a clue what they are. Most of the stuff is semi-frozen, but does not seem to matter. Again we are off.
The going is slow as it's Ramadan. Kind of an Easter celebration for Muslims, and everyone is decked out in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. Most are walking, but some elder statesmen from the various villages are on horseback. The Kyrgyz and Tajik people are a real melting pot. About half look mid-eastern, 40% Asian and 10% look European, but they are all mostly Muslims celebrating their religion's feast days. For about 100 miles we drove through small villages and there were electric lines! Mostly it is 36 volt sometime electricity. It turns out nobody has running water in the villages. I want ancient Asia! We have electric poles in Chama.
We travel on to nothing and at last light we see the China border, then cross into Tajikistan with double exit and entry from the respective countries. This made nine stops to check our passports and visas. At every stop a military soldier carrying an AK-47 opens the van door and asks who is the American. I never speak, Max handles it every time without incident. These stops are to curtail the opium trafficking from Afghanistan, not to hassle sheep hunters.
Sometime around 1:00 a.m. we stopped at a stucco adobe village of 5,000 Tajiks, it is Murghob - stronghold of the Pamir people, home to the Sherpa guides and the fabled Marco Polo sheep.
We stopped at a house and I was instructed to take off my boots. My feet were freezing in the Jeep already. This was Otobek's home. His wife and children were fast asleep, but awoke, lit lanterns, put mats on the floors, then fed us cheese, bread, meat and green tea. Always tea (green or black), no coffee since Moscow. Of course they awoke and snapped to it - the King and Prince had arrived.
Max and the driver slept in a room with several other men. I slept alone in the biggest room - I really do not like being a king - but it is not bad.
In the morning it was 30 below. I got dressed and looked over Murghob. The smoke of Yak pies or coal billowed from every house with everybody cooking breakfast.
We changed out Jeeps to a Russian CJ-5 type vehicle, loaded it up and headed into the heart of the Pamir mountains. Three hours later we arrived at the hot springs, 14,432 feet above sea level. The camp is primitive, but has solar electricity and natural hot springs to heat the facility; also a pool table and a sauna pool. So this all sounds posh, when you include the T.V., but the place is a real camp with a rough edge. No indoor plumbing except one toilet for the clients use. The team of men that run it are all a big family of different cultures, and it is run professionally.
The food is fine - eggs for breakfast and for dinner greasy soup, then rice or noodles with veggies. There is some kind of meat with dinner, either Yak, Marco Polo sheep, lamb, or mystery meat. I am not fussy about food on a hunt, but a group of four Mexicans whose hunt overlapped mine by one day did not like the food. In fact, they gave me a shopping bag of German supermarket goodies upon their departure.
The first three days of hunting produced four stalks on good rams. Actually I saw 2,440 Marco Polo sheep in total and the rams are simply magnificent. They were in full rut so the the clashing of their regal horns is a sight to behold. Also, I saw 13 wolves, 200 ibex and 2 red foxes plus several eagles, crows and ravens.
The Pamirs are awesome and rising to 23,000 ft, but we hunted to just 16,500 feet or so. The air is thin, but I had no ill effects from the altitude. I am taking Diamox as insurance, but I am sleeping well, and feeling good.
Of the four stalks we have made, I rate one minor, one hard, one a lung buster and one gruesome. On one stalk, the sheep vanished, on another we spooked the sheep and two produced shots.
The first day we made the lung-busting climb and we had a 62" x 58" hog of a ram at 330 yds. I held dead center with my gun sighted in at 300 yds. The bullet hit the ram high, very high, and we found blood. I had a perfect rest and squeeze; how could I have missed? It goes back to the sighting in of my gun the day before, and a miscommunication between me and one of the camp members. At 200 yards my 30-06, with 165 grain Federal bullets, was not shooting 4 inches high, more like 16 inches high! My fault. So the huge Marco joins a nyala in the Natal and a whitetail in Kansas, as the big ones that got away. That is great, now I have animals on three continents haunting me. I sight the gun in again - problem solved.
The next day we searched and unbelievably found the ram tending his ewes and fighting the lesser rams. Obviously he was fine. On the third day we made the gruesome climb and spooked the sheep.
After getting back to the Jeep, Max, my driver, the two Sherpa guides and myself had lunch. The driver lays a piece of cardboard on the snow and brings beef sausage, cheese, conned fish, a thermos of hot tea, cookies, candy, pistachios and raisins with the stems on. We sit in the snow, legs folded, and talk and laugh. It must be quite a sight - a Tajik, a Chinaman, a Kyrgystani, a Russian and an American, having lunch and talking in two or three languages. Who says people cannot get along?
After lunch we made a hike to glass, and were surprised. There, 260 yds away, was a herd with a big ram. He had mass and a beautiful curl and a half of classic Argali horns. "Down" said Otobek and dove into the snow; I did the same. I peeked to see the sheep and they were undisturbed. Our white camo was working. Max told me to shoot off of Otobek's rump. I noticed that the barrel of my gun was 10 inches down into the snow. I looked and the barrel had packed snow in it. Great. Otobek laid in the snow and I rested the gun on his body. I held 8 inches up from the brisket to hit dead center. The ram cleared the ewes, raised his head and curled his upper lips in breeding behavior (Flemin Response). He was skylined. My bullet zipped by him, high or low, no one knows. I am disgusted!
I am at an emotional low caused by my own stupidity and bad luck, plus the natural depression of high altitude, and the tremendous highs and lows of hunting wild sheep.
The hunting is basically a road hunt to find the sheep. With our naked eyes at over a mile we see them, and immediately stop the Jeep. Then the guides get out the spotting scope to check for quality. If there is a shooter, you watch until he beds. If he beds in a place where one can get a shot, then a stalk is planned. If there are no shooters in the herd, then you just drive on to the next group of sheep.
Day four we make a stalk that I rate as cruel, the worst yet, but I am amazingly strong. My best day yet, and it is the warmest morning of the hunt - only 15 degrees below zero. Within the first hour we spot a herd that has a couple of good rams.
The guides assemble a 2-D screen of 2 oversized ewes and we walked straight at the sheep, and it works! But three ewes above we had not noticed, they spook causing all the sheep to move towards escape habitat. These sheep are real wary and spook easily, not from hunting pressure, but wolf hunting pressure is my guess. So we lay flat in 6 inches of snow ¾ of a mile from the Jeep and glass about 1000 feet above for an hour. It's cold and windy and I have 5 layers on top and five on the bottom, all top of the line polar expedition wear, lightweight and warm, from Cabela's and Northern Outfitters. Finally we see the rams, then see the biggest one. Otobek quickly makes a plan, using radios. He and I crawl back 100 yards to a hill that would allow us to be out of sight of the bedding sheep. We now start a steep 1000 ft climb. The snow covers a gravelly rock slide two steps up, slide one step back. Otobek picks the trail masterfully and makes solid footing for me the best he can.
We finally make it to our strategic position. Otobek now radios Shasha and Maxim below. They are under the 2-D decoy setting shelter from the blowing wind and snow. They circle around to let the sheep above see them. The sheep get up and start moving higher. All the world's sheep escape to higher ground.
Otobek and I are in position, my bipods are set perfect for sitting, my back is against a rock, a shell is chambered and my safety is off. Now the sheep begin to come into view; first a few ewes, then some smaller rams. Our position is not as perfect as we had hoped. We see the sheep's heads, then their whole bodies for about five yards, then they go out of sight. Now a nice ram appears, but Otobek is looking above. Now remember we cannot understand each other, still I ask when I see the ram's head, is that the big one? Otobek still looking above answers "don't move." I am sure it is the Big One! The beautiful ram enters the five yard shooting window at 175 yds - I do not hesitate. Watching through my scope, the ram goes down and out of sight. Otobek runs, I gather my gloves, rangefinder, etc. and walk towards where the ram fell. There he is and he is my Marco Polo. He is not the biggest one but the second biggest - I am thrilled. We take lots of pictures and do lots of hugging, just hanging out in zero degrees at noon in a mountainous polar desert. Why am I here?, I ask myself again.
My guides are upset that we did not get the biggest one. They always want the biggest one. They are proud men, and true hunters.
When we get back to camp the staff totaling fourteen come out to hug and kiss me. They say "Congratulations" which is about all the English the bulk of them know. I am the only client in camp, and only Max can speak good English. I drink it all in and enjoy the scene and the moment. An undreamable dream has come true, and right now I want Colleen and our kids here with me to share my joy.
I ask Max to summon the guides to our room individually; it is time to talk. Through the interpreter I explain that I respect and admire their strength and endurance. I go on to explain that all the mistakes done the past four days were mine. You did your jobs expertly and professionally. Thank you for your efforts.
I have no regrets. Six more inches on the end of the horns would make no difference in my life whatsoever.
Otobek responded to me in a way that I will never forget. Through Max he explained:
"You did this hunt right. You respected the animal. Many hunters come here and shoot from the Jeep. You made the climbs and at a rate that made me sweat. It has been a long time since a client made me sweat. You too are a true hunter."
We stood and embraced, all three of us. As they left the room I sat on my bed and an old Rolling Stones lyric rolled through my head, "You can't always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find you get what you need" Hunting wild sheep to deal with a middle age crisis is one hell of a deal!
Day five we go to hunt Mid-Asian Ibex. While the Pamirs are famous for big Marco Polos, the Ibex run on the small size. I talked to Colleen via satellite phone after hunting on day three and she said if time allowed to go for it. So, I am going for it.
We saw lots of Ibex but they hang in the rough, rocky, arid mountains. Sometimes they are just not huntable. In late morning we found a band with a good billy in it. Same plan, get above the goats and have someone come into view from below. They most always go up.
Beck, the driver, took Max, Otobek and me to the back side of the mountain. We began the ascent and after about an hour we reached the lookout. Otobek radioed Shasha, the Ibex had worked down to the desert floor, saw the guys and had already started up to safety. Now started a "Chinese fire drill" if you will pardon the expression. Otobek the spotter, Max is rangefinding, and I am chambered. Instead of being below, the Ibex, about 20 in all, are climbing a rock face straight across. Which one is the biggest? Otobek answers in Russian, Max translates. What is the range? 300 yards. The billy hesitates a split second, I squeeze, the billy tumbles and falls 350 feet straight down onto big rocks, then rolls. WOW! More hugs, more pictures.
After the Ibex is loaded, I realize one paramount objective - I want to go home. So as we pull out I turn to Max and request him to make the arrangements to get me to New Mexico ASAP. I miss my family, my mountains, my animals, my friends - I am homesick. If everything goes perfect I will get home in four days.
The journey home is not without incident. The next morning camp is breaking, it is mid December and many of the staff have not been home since August. So we take 2 Jeeps packed full of men and gear. The adult men now act like teenagers, and race through the high desert valley, passing each other at every chance. I am frightened.
I am looking at my mideast map, looking at the towns I have been to and by: Murghob, Kroug, Bishkek, Osh, while the Jeeps race. I feel like Frodo Baggins trapped in an Indiana Jones movie - truly a stranger in a strange land.
Three hours later we arrive in Murghob. Now I am informed that my passport is being held in ransom by the local government officials. "Why?", I ask. They want a hundred bucks. Fine, I will pay it. No, we do not want to set a precedent; so we wait. Twenty eight hours later the officials relent and my passport is returned. No money is paid.
Now for the eleven hour drive to Osh in Kyrgystan; but a storm has moved in and the mountains are getting snow. I am about to experience the only dangerous part of the journey.
In this third world "police state", the infrastructure is lacking. I have been to Africa three times, to the southern end of the continent, and even in the bush and it is like my elk hunting operations in New Mexico and Colorado; the roads are maintained, there are cell phones, there are hospitals, etc. Here there is none of that. We are traveling through treeless mountains that make the Rockies look like foothills. The land of wind, dust, snow and rocks.
We experience snow packed icy roads with no plowing, no sand, no guard rails, and no pavement. The sun will do the road maintenance in time. Three times we are stopped by stuck or wrecked vehicles. It is a cold, dark night and it is hard to stand on the slippery snow, but we get out and push the wrecked vehicles off the road with help from other travelers.
As we travel the switch back mountain roads with passes up to approximately 16000 feet, twice I notice in the snow where vehicles have slid off the road. Nobody is looking for the people in these vehicles. No EMT's are coming.
The third incident that blocks the main road is the worst. An old tandem truck has jackknifed a half mile below the high pass. A car has slid into the truck and the driver of the car is hurt badly, screaming in pain and bleeding from the mouth and head. Our crew, with help from other travelers, push the car off to the side of the road. Others drag the hurt man over by his car; another Chinese fire drill.
Our van driver squeezes expertly between the cliff and the tandem, scraping the side of our vehicle. He then keeps on going to the top of the high pass. The five of us walk in the dark night through the slippery snow, in silence. It has been a disturbing chain of events.
Once in the van my four Muslim companions go to prayer. Max and I join them. We all have the same God, and we are all in need of help; we and the less fortunate behind.
After we get going again Otobek's brother Safar who speaks English fairly well (about 40-50%) starts a conversation. We discuss Middle East and American politics, and the pending war with America and Iraq. Neither of us wants a war. I ask Safar why he does not want the war. I was not ready for his reason. He says, "Ray, don't you know? We don't want a war with America because God loves the American people more than any other." I am shocked by his response, but ask "What makes you think that?" Safar answers simply, "Look at all he has given you." I nod and our conversation is over. We drive off into the night to more checkpoints and I am left to ponder the statement about God's love.
Many Americans hunt with these men, and all the hunting consultants (booking agents) in the world send you to these men if you hunt Tajikistan. The tip I gave Otobek ($1,100.00) was approximately what he would make in two years working as a foreman in his town, and I am talking about a smart, hard working, driven man. So, indeed I am blessed, being one of the "American people."
Finally we reach Osh and sleep at the house where the old woman made me pancakes on the way in. Max and I get to sleep in the two beds. Our buddies sleep on the floor in the living room. I have been a king for two weeks now. After the sixteen hour van ride, I sleep like a baby.
In the morning after a long delay. we say goodbye to our driver. The two Sherpa guides, and Max and I get on a plane to Bishkek. Otobek and Safar are heading to Istanbul on hunting business.
The four of us will get to have a dinner together before Max and I head to the airport for our night flight to Moscow. Two Kyrgyzstanian judges join us, and we have a wonderful time talking about our hunt, politics and personal philosophies.
We drink alcohol, German beer and Russian Tequila (Vodka), along with a many course meal that includes fruit, sausage, cheese, veggies, and good old horse meat! The goat, sheep and yak meat is better than the salty horse flesh.
Otobek is quite animated, as we all are, since we had not been drinking on the hunt, with the exception of a couple of toasts when the animals were harvested.
In a serious moment he "thanks" me for not getting upset when I was forced to sit 28 hours when my passport was held in ransom. Apparently other hunters have not handled the needless delay as well. I told him that I was very impressed with him and his comrades at the hot springs operation, and Profi Hunt LTD, and especially Max because everything had gone so well, and everyone had been so wonderful.
I went on to explain that before I left I had prepared my body, but in the two weeks prior to the hunt I prepared myself mentally. Basically I decided that nothing would upset me. I expected many things to go wrong, and unless my life was threatened, I was going to look at every setback as an opportunity to do something else. I figured cursing loudly in a language no one understood would not make me any friends. So, when things did not go perfect, I just smiled.
At 1:00 am. Max and I said our goodbyes to our friends. I was about to embark on the longest day of my life.
When I left New Mexico I had 15 essential documents: passport, 3 visas, letters of invitation, gun permits, licenses, U.S. Fish and Wildlife importation permit to bring back a "threatened" species, plus phone and fax numbers of USDA, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Custom Brokers, etc.
The clerical work is really overwhelming when you first look at it, but Valadimir at Profi Hunt LTD and Rick Hersher of Alaska Hunting Safaris walked me through the processes and my paperwork was never lacking. Rick was especially helpful.
In Moscow, Max got the "health" papers for my harvested trophies, and it was time to say goodbye. I hugged Max and thanked him as he got me through the Moscow Airport. I could not thank him enough. He had met me at my luggage in Moscow two weeks earlier, a guy he did not know, old enough to be his father, whose task was to guide me through the red tape and entertain me to and from central Asia. He was such a fantastic person to spend time with, that my adventure would have been so much less without his companionship and friendship. Thanks Max, I'm forever in your debt.
Now back to America, welcome home! From Moscow, Max had notified the USDA, ATF and U.S. Fish & Wildlife when I would be in, and that I had all my paperwork in order. Did not matter, I got hassled, missed my connecting flight and had to hire a Customs Broker to get my trophies to my USDA approved fur dresser. I was still in Asian mode, and just smiled.
Finally I get to my world, the rarified air of New Mexico. On the three hour drive back to our ranch, the day finally changed. I had traveled 12 time zones, halfway around the world. It has been a 36 hour Monday!
Colleen has a homemade "Welcome Home" sign decorated with Christmas lights on the porch. It makes me cry.
The next morning I cancel the million dollar rider on my life insurance.
Adventure completed - mission accomplished.
Now I know the ram was the enabler, the "excuse", if you will, to make the journey and experience the adventure. I proved to myself that I could still climb the mountain with other men of common purpose.
Much of a life is taken up by providing for one's family - the bread-winning job. Then 50 plus years have passed and the short clock is ticking. You look within thinking about what is important, and what is possible. We all have financial fences around our dreams.
I often sarcastically say "everyone has to waste their time and money doing something." I choose traveling to different worlds, preferably a third world, with an exotic animal to use as an excuse. One's life is only enriched by his experiences. I am enriching mine as a sheep hunter, 'cause I can. I can because of my woman. Thanks, Colleen.
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