Riding to the Top of the World
An Interview with Vladimir Fissenko
By Basha O'Reilly FRGS
Many people travel on horseback. They have ridden on every continent including Antarctica. But one journey stands alone because of its incredible historical significance; the ride that took Russian Long Rider Vladimir Fissenko from the bottom of the world, Patagonia, to the top of the world, Alaska.
The journey began in Ushuaia, Argentina in 1988 and concluded in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, covered 30,000 kilometres (19,000 miles) and took five years to complete. It is not only the mileage which makes Vladimir’s trip unique. In addition to all of his other adventures, including nearly being killed by Indians, Vladimir rode through the terrible Darien Gap jungle that separates Columbia from Panama. This jungle is considered so dangerous that the Swiss Long Rider Aimé Tschiffely avoided it in 1926 and the French Long Rider Jean Francois Ballereau also went around it in 1987.
|Vladimir riding through the infamous Darien Gap.|
Vladimir has not discussed his ride in many years but agreed to grant The Long Riders' Guild this exclusive interview.
Vladimir was born in what was then the Soviet Union. His academic career began when he attended St. Petersburg University, where he learned how to be a television journalist and film maker.
|Because of the repressive political climate, Vladimir was not happy living under the communist system. Luckily he met a French woman. After much diplomatic difficulty, he married her and was able to legally join his wife in France. In Paris he became fluent in French and met an American named Louis Bruhnke who was also living in the city. They became friends and the idea of a trans-continental equestrian expedition was born.|
How and when did you start riding?
The first time I ever sat on a horse was in 1987. My wife took a photograph which I sent to Louis in Argentina. After a few months, when he had the idea of riding from Tierra del Fuego to the top of Alaska, he contacted me and asked if I would like to join him as the expedition cameraman. Of course I said yes!
Did you ever imagine becoming an equestrian explorer ?
No, never. But I love travelling and wanted to know more about the Americas. It never occurred to me that I could do so while practising my job as cameraman and a documentary film maker
On the day of your departure a horse kicked you and broke your leg very badly. That must have been terribly disappointing!
Yes. The injury was so serious that the doctors discussed amputating my leg. Thank God they did not!
Who inspired you to become a Long Rider, and why?
I had heard about the amazing rides of Russian Long Riders Dmitri Peshkov and Mikhaïl Asseyev. In November 1889 Peshkov left his garrison's faraway outpost of Blagoveshchensk in the far east of the Russian Empire on his little Siberian horse, Seriy. After some amazing adventures, they arrived in St. Petersburg at the Tsar’s court having covered more than 5,500 miles – in temperatures sometimes as low as -60 degrees!
Asseyev rode from Kiev, Russia to the newly-erected Eiffel Tower in Paris, France in 1889. He travelled more than 2,000 miles on his two horses, Diana and Vlaga, and travelled “à la Turkmène” – that is to say, he rode one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, the led horse being completely “naked” – no pack, no weight. When Asseyev arrived with his two mares beneath the Eiffel Tower, the Society for the Protection of Animals decorated him with a special gold medal because his horses were in excellent shape after such a long journey!
What was the most dangerous situation you encountered?
Apart from the attacks by Indians (see below), the biggest danger was the traffic.
There must have been many exciting and memorable moments during your journey. Can you tell us about one?
I will never forget meeting the famous explorer, author and film maker Thor Heyerdahl in Peru. He was excavating an archaeological site but took time away from his work to meet me. He had a beautiful Peruvian Paso, so we rode across the countryside and talked. He urged me not to give up, no matter how difficult the trip became, and to press on all the way to Alaska
What equipment do you always take in your travels?
What is your favourite film, and why?
Doctor Zhivago. I don’t know why. Perhaps the story is in my veins!
What is your favourite book, and why?
”Tschiffely’s Ride” is my favourite equestrian travel book. But I also like writers like Dostoevsky, Hesse, Chekhov and Conan Doyle.
You must have met thousands of people on your journey – how did they react ?
I was very fortunate because most of the people I met were generous, hospitable and curious about our journey.
What was the most difficult sacrifice you made to become an equestrian explorer?
In my heart I don’t think that I made any sacrifice. What concerned me was my desire to share everything I had seen, learned and experienced through my film making. What I wanted was to reach out to other living and loving souls.
What is the most essential advice you would give to a would-be Long Rider?
That is a tough question. But I will give you an unorthodox answer. Before you depart on your journey, put all your ambitions into an imaginary box, close it well and symbolically plant it under a tree. Then set off on your ride free from any ego. Years later, when the trip is completed and you have grown wiser after so many miles, open up the box and look at your old ambitions. Many of them will appear ridiculous after the passage of time. What I would also like to say is no matter what happens, or what hardships stand in your way, never give up!
Unfortunately Vladimir hadn’t read “Tschiffely’s Ride” before he set out with an American companion on a 19,000 mile equestrian journey from the tip of Patagonia to the top of Alaska. In an eerie repeat of equestrian events, the unlucky Russian fell prey to the Bolivian dangers which Tschiffely had narrowly escaped.
Despite being treated well by the majority of people they had met so far, Vladimir and his friend had noticed that the Bolivian Indians clearly did not like strangers. Individuals would step off the road rather than enter into a conversation. Farmers reacted suspiciously to requests to buy horse fodder.
Like Tschiffely, Vladimir and his companion also arrived at a Bolivian Indian village well after nightfall. They too were searching for food. Once again a local fiesta had turned into a dangerous and drunken affair.
But Vladimir knew none of this. Nor did he realize he was about to be mistaken for a flesh-eating demon. He dismounted, and leaving his friend with the horses, walked unarmed into the darkened village. What he found were a number of stone huts. With the exception of two old women, the place was deserted.
“I asked the old women in Spanish if I could buy corn for the horses,” Vladimir later told the court. “One of them started screaming at me in Quechua, the language of the Incas, which I didn’t understand. I hoped it was something about corn.”
The Indian women weren’t offering hospitality. They were shrieking to be saved from the deadly Saca Maneteca who had suddenly appeared out of the dark.
According to local legend a Saca Maneteca was a tall, white-skinned monster who wore a hat and rode a horse. After kidnapping Indians, these fiends killed their victims, stripped the fat off their bodies, and then used it in a perverse religious ceremony.
Not knowing that he had been mistaken for a murderous ogre, the trusting Russian Long Rider didn’t understand what it meant when villagers began to appear from the direction of the fiesta. He automatically thought they had come in response for his need for food and shelter.
“Several men and women came hurrying towards me. I thought they had corn. But they began beating me with stones without saying anything. Just beating and beating and beating.”
Too stunned by the savage attack to even yell for help, Vladimir tried to ward off the blows. Meanwhile his companion heard howling and shouting so he rode towards the noise, but stopped short of entering the village. He called out Vladimir’s name but received no answer. Then he heard what he thought was a gun shot.
“I knew it was Vladimir or me. Anyway, there was no good reason for me to stick around any longer.”
He panicked, and rode away in terror, leaving his companion to be murdered.
Vladimir didn’t know he had been deserted. He was too busy being beaten to death. More villagers had arrived and the gathering mob pressed home the attack.
|“The men held my hands back. The women were more furious. They were hitting my head with the biggest stones. But despite being smashed with rocks and limbs, I was still conscious. That’s when I saw the man in front of me with a big knife and he was sharpening it.”|
Bolivian authorities were never able to determine why the Indians did not murder Vladimir. It took his companion six hours to retreat to the last inhabited place they had seen and return with help. When the authorities arrived they discovered the villagers had gone berserk and beaten Vladimir until he was unrecognizable. The children had even strangled the wounded man and tried to hang him. Beaten, naked and bleeding, the Russian Long Rider had survived by a miracle.
A local court was quickly assembled and the culprits were arrested. Testimony was taken. In their defence, the Indians argued they believed they were defending themselves against a flesh-eating demon. At a loss as to how to handle this conflict of cultures, the judge asked Vladimir what punishment he thought should be meted out to the now-frightened villagers.
Even though he had managed to retain consciousness throughout the entire horrible ordeal, Vladimir said he held no grudge against his misguided attackers. He simply wanted to continue his ride.
The court freed the Indians. The Long Riders continued their journey and eventually reached Alaska. They never discussed the attack.
In an eerily similar attack, Polish Long Rider Tadeusz Kotwicki who was riding between 1995 and 1998 from the end of Patagonia in Argentina to Kansas, USA.
During his passage through Peru, he was attacked by the Indian villagers, who believed a folk tale about a white man on a white (grey) horse eating children, beat him and he was only saved by a public official travelling with journalists.
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