We attempt to cross the Kazakhstan border at midnight, only to find a moat separating Kazakhstan and Russia. Since the ferry doesn’t run until morning, we camp in no man’s land, supervised by a guard with a shiny gun. When we arrive in Atyrau, we go to a hotel to wash off days of road dust. Then we hit a supermarket, and I come face to face with kumis.
In Kazakhstan, horses are used equally for transportation and sustenance. Kazakhs have developed a taste for both horse flesh and horse milk. I have not yet worked up the gumption to consume horse flesh, but I’m willing to try the latter, which is called kumis.
“I wonder if they have special flavors, like Essence of Seabiscuit?” I muse, grabbing a bottle featuring cartoon horses happily grazing in green pastures. For comparison, Mims selects a bottle of fermented goat milk. I am excited and terrified. Mongol Rally founder Tom Morgan once told me that the only food he couldn’t stomach on his Mongolian trek was fermented horse milk.
“I nearly gagged,” he said.
To avoid psyching myself out, I crack open the horse milk as soon as I return to the car. A bit of carbonation escapes. I pinch my nose and take a taste.
The beverage is acrid and sour, with palate-confusing bubbles.
“It’s like Champagne mixed with sour cream,” Mims says as he also takes a gulp. Then Andrew tries it and vows, “Never, never, never again.”
After cooling off with refreshing kumis, we return to our hotel. It’s literally located on the wrong side of the tracks, next to housing projects and dirt roads. The hotel is fronted by tacky plastic palm trees; one of the few shows available on TV is a call-in phone-sex program.