Kazakhstan and the Cow
In this edition of ‘Tales From the Road’, I am going to take you back to a time when I visited Kazakhstan for work and, rather unfortunately, killed a cow in the process. It was, as you’ll soon learn, exactly half the cow’s fault.
First, though, let’s take a step back.
At the time of our ill-fated (for the cow) trip I was based in Beijing for Channel 4 News UK and we had wanted to do a story on Kazakh/Chinese trade. A conference was being held in one of Kazakhstan’s largest cities and this was a way in to a country that not many people had heard of (except, perhaps, for one of its most notable “exports”, Borat!).
Kazakhstan — for those of you not able to picture it on a map — shares a border with northwest China and Russia, and it is the ninth largest country in the world in terms of area.
Let me continue by saying that I don’t think I have ever been on a trip for so long that achieved so little. We were there, I think, for around ten days, and in that time I shot less than two tapes – only about 70 minutes worth. Everything we tried to organise seemed to fall over and go belly-up, we missed flights and had to get trains across thousands of kilometres. One night we couldn’t find a hotel, and our fixer organised us to stay in what can only be described as a brothel. The rooms and beds were certainly on the larger side.
A note on fixers, usually local people who spoke the language and looked after things such as hotels and cars for us. On this trip we went through three of them in ten days, for some reason, and that certainly didn’t help with planning. The latest in our fixer trio, the one who organised our ‘special’ accommodation, turned out to be a very ‘interesting person’. It was her rule that she would leave her ID and passport behind if we ever went out for a drink because — in her words — if she got drunk, she would take all of her clothes off and dance on tables and, I guess, with no pockets she’d be in danger of being unidentified. And maybe unidentifiable!
Meanwhile, back to the cow …
One of the days on which I probably didn’t film a great deal, we were driving in a largish van across what was basically low farmland; it was so flat, it was almost desert-like. Our local driver was a bit of a leadfoot and, probably for that reason, my producer suggested that, instead of my usual practice of just having the camera on the seat next to me, I secure it in some way. On this fateful day, she must have had some sort of premonition that it would be less than desirable for 12 kilograms of metal to be thrown around the cabin in the event that we had to pull up quickly.
As we were driving along at about 80km/h I noticed, somewhat ahead of us, a cow on the side of the road, grazing — or whatever it is that cows do on the side of the road. As we got closer, the cow was overcome with the belief that it needed to get to the other side of the road. In a hurry. It decided, in fact, that it needed to get across the road before we got there.
Well (sadly, as it turns out) cows aren’t that quick, nor are they super smart, it seems. This cow got about a third way across before it was introduced, in a near-fatal fraction of a second, to the front of our van. People always talk about this kind of thing happening in slow motion, and we did all see it happen, the driver did brake, but none of that made a lot of difference to the poor cow. The cow bounced off our now heavily dented front end and finished up down an embankment. Smoke or steam started coming out of the front end of our vehicle and we pulled up hard.
We, the occupants of the van, were all OK, as was the camera; thank goodness it had been well secured. Now it was time to learn, through our fixer, the rules governing ‘the killing of cows by vehicles’ as they currently stood in Kazakhstan. In short: if you are in a vehicle and you kill a cow outside a village, it is the cow’s fault. If , on the other hand, you’re inside a village and you kill a cow it is the driver’ fault.
The dilemma here was that, in the near-demise of the cow in question, we were on the border of the village and (as we were to find out) that is a bit of a grey area, in a legal sense, cow-killing wise.
By now, as I said, the cow had been knocked off the road, and this quickly generated somewhat of a crowd of the villagers. Negotiations were entered into and it was decided, based on the aforementioned rules, that on this occasion blame for the accident was half down to the cow and half the fault of the driver. A 50:50 at-fault determination, you might say.
Around about the time of the negotiations we realized that the cow hadn’t entirely been ‘switched off’. A hammer appeared from somewhere and finished off the poor cow. So there were lots of locals, a car that wouldn’t move and, by now, a permanently dead cow on the side of the road. Also, we didn’t have any phone coverage, so our fixer and producer had to go back up the road to try and call to locate some more usable transport for us.
The poor driver of our vehicle was a bit shaken about the whole experience and decided to walk back up the road a couple of hundred metres to have a smoke, leaving me to deal with the locals. Our journalist was still seated in the back of the van, probably wishing that it would all just go away. Oh, did I mention, the journalist was a vegetarian, so killing a cow, in the middle of nowhere, in Kazakhstan probably wasn’t high on her bucket list.
Getting back to the 50:50 ruling, it was decided that the only fair conclusion to this unfortunate event would be that we should take 50% of the cow. Yes, half of the cow would need to be strapped to the roof of our now sort-of working vehicle so that the driver could benefit. Our vegetarian journalist definitely wasn’t going to be party to that outcome, so efforts were stepped up to get us another vehicle.
Another car was found and — as we drove off, somewhat more sedately, into the Kazakh sunset — a chainsaw was slowly being walked toward the former cow.
It is certainly one day I will never forget. Another one for The Road!
If you would like to hear me talk about this incident on a podcast called ‘Inside the Notebook’ with the ABC’s John Taylor please click here.