Restaurant manager left London to ride wild horses in -60C Siberia and confront man-eating bears
A restaurant manager who quit his job and used his savings to fund a 15,000 mile wild horse ride from Siberia to London – in the face of man-eating bears – says he would prefer this extreme existence to the comforts of home any day.
Despite falling off a cliff, facing temperatures of -60 ° C cold enough to freeze lungs and along Russia’s precarious “Route of Bones”, built by prisoners in the infamous gulags of Soviet dictator Stalin – Nikita Gretsi, 23, says he had moments of “pure joy.”
Still, he is keen to point out that he is a ‘regular guy’ who until recently ran a branch of Bill’s restaurant and lived in the suburbs, living with his parents in the garden town of Welwyn, Hertfordshire.
He said: “I hope my trip will show people that it is very possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
Nikita left Magadan on October 2 – a port city known as the gateway to the Kolyma region of the Russian Far East, bounded on the north by the East Siberian Sea and the Arctic Ocean and by the Sea of Okhotsk to the south.
He said: “I love to travel and wanted to see the world. “
“If you’re on a plane, all you do is go from point A to point B but miss everything else.
“I wanted to find a way to travel and focus on the bit in between.
“The only way to do it was to travel slowly and there really is no better way than on horseback – even though I had never ridden a horse before! Nikita said.
“I also wanted to test myself. When you do extreme things and put yourself in situations you’ve never been in before, you find out what kind of person you are.
Nikita’s legacy as a “post-Soviet child” also inspired her journey.
He said: “My mother is half Ukrainian and half Russian. My father is half Russian, quarter Estonian and quarter Uzbek.
“They were in Estonia when the Soviet Union collapsed and that’s where I was born.
“We moved to England when I was seven, but obviously I have a great mix of backgrounds and was brought up with all these different cultures.”
While all things Russian continues to fascinate Nikita, he does well in England – first living in east London, then moving to Welwyn Garden City with his family in 2008.
Without much desire to go to college, he instead went to work at age 15 – first helping out in a legal office in London while studying for his GCSEs, then moving into the restaurant business.
He was already part of the management team of a branch of the Bill’s chain at the age of 21 when he decided to resign.
“I was young for a manager and my bosses really supported me,” Nikita said.
“But, in February 2019, I got the idea to do this trek and, after thinking about it for a few days, I decided to stop this summer and use my savings to pursue this wild dream.”
Spending from February to June working on logistics, he discovered The Long Riders’ Guild – the first international association of equestrian explorers in the world – eager to help him and share his know-how.
He said: “I told them, ‘This is what I intend to do. But I have never ridden a horse, can you give me any advice? “
He said, “The founder of the guild is a good friend now. He answered me and said, “Yes, we will help you 100%. “
“They gave me access to a lot of their friends all over the world and that’s where it took off.”
In July 2019, Nikita traveled to Mongolia, where he lived with nomads and learned to ride horses.
He also visited Siberia, Yakutia – a huge region of Russia, populated mainly by the Sakha or Yakuts ethnic group, known for its extreme climate.
And, in the minds of the natives, rather than using domesticated breeds, he opted for riding the wild Yakut horses that live in the area.
Unlike domesticated horses, they are allowed to roam freely every night and must be found in the morning.
They are so hardy that they roam freezing temperatures and dig under the snow to find food.
Riding for 10 to 12 hours a day, Nikita divided her time between two oxen who, because they are wild, are easily scared off by large motor vehicles – seeing them not as machines, but as possible predators.
Nikita said: “I basically went to training camp and learned everything from how to ride wild horses to the dangers to watch out for and how to survive in extreme temperatures.”
Back in England just before the borders were closed at the start of pandemic lockdowns in March 2020, he was then forced to wait a year before his adventure could really begin.
Taking advantage of the travel windows, from September to October 2020, he went to another training camp.
He said: “The training camps were organized by my local friends to show me how to acclimatize to Siberian winters.”
Befriending a famous adventurer Egor Makarov, whom he met in Yakutsk in 2019, through him Nikita was introduced to a selection of natives – Yakuts and Evens – who helped him. Egor and another local resident, Stepan Sleptsov, then joined him on the hike.
He said: “I trained with them and learned to survive.
“The terrain and the temperatures are very extreme and knowing how to avoid making mistakes can mean the difference between life and death. “
“The climate there is insane, but you have to learn things like whether a river is solid ice and you can cross it with your horses.
“If the ice crumbles and you fall through it, it’s so cold you’ll die.”
“They also taught me everything about riding and caring for wild horses,” Nikita said.
Nikita, who started her trek in October and is currently back in England renewing her visa while her horses receive the vaccines they are required to have to travel between different regions of Russia, has now covered 1,050 km (652 miles) taking him four weeks.
He will return to Siberia in December but, being entitled to only a limited visa, he has to take a break to renew it every three months, so the 15,000 km run is not expected to be completed until spring 2023. .
He said: “I want to continue once in London and travel across North America, making me the first person to go around the world on horseback.”
Accompanied by a cameraman, Nikita has the entire trip filmed, so that he can “show people the real world they miss when traveling by plane”.
He says the scariest part of his hike was along an uninhabited 250 km stretch of the Bone Route, starting October 27, accompanied on horseback by Egor and Stepan and followed by snowmobile by the cameraman Yury Berezhnev.
In addition to the extreme cold, Nikita had to deal with collapsed bridges and hostile wild animals – so she was constantly on the lookout for bear tracks.
He said: “If any wild animals like wolves and bears cross your path, it’s the end of the game.
“A mother bear with cubs will kill anything she sees as a threat.
“Fortunately, I didn’t meet any of them, but when I saw bear tracks I started to get scared, especially if they were fresh. “
“They can hear you coming from miles away and if they are hungry they can stay in the area, hide and ambush you.”
With all of these potential dangers, Nikita was strongly advised not to travel the 250 km (155 mile) uninhabited stretch.
But he was so determined to do it that his friends and the cameraman insisted on joining him.
He said: “The guys rode with me on this part of the trip.
“And we had a cameraman, who was on a mini snowmobile, which kept breaking.
“Once you set foot on this section of the road there is no turning back. Either you make it out alive or you die.
He said, “It took us a week and we ran out of food one day from the camp, so we had to survive on tea and sugar. “
Another very dangerous moment came at the start of the journey when Nikita was riding alone along a gravel mountain road, when the wild horses – which he was riding – rushed off a cliff.
“A truck driving way too fast and straight on us scared my wild horses and knocked the one I was driving straight off the cliff,” he said.
“I managed to jump and grab them before they fell past the point of return and died,” he said.
“Crazy as it sounds, whenever I survived an extreme moment like this, I experienced a feeling of pure joy. “
Nikita has invested his own money in his current business, although he is seeking funds for other horseback trips.
And he hopes his film will provide unique insight into places most people have never seen.
He said: “I want to show that ordinary people – like me – can do these amazing things with the right support.
“I also want to show the beautiful landscapes and cultures that people know little about. “
In addition to having to renew her visa every three months, Nikita then needs 14 days to acclimatize to the extreme conditions before she can resume the trek.
He said: “It was -40C when I left Siberia and by the time I get back it will be -60C. It is so cold that when you breathe in your lungs can freeze.
“This means that your body must have time to adjust to the temperature or you will die.”
He completed this leg of his trek at a place called Tomtor, along the Bone Route, which is the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on earth, recording the lowest temperature of -71.2 ° C.
Nikita said: “I have seen amazing places and met great people.
“The main driving force for me is that I don’t want to have any regrets and at some point look back on my life and see something that I wish I had done.
“These kinds of extreme challenges are so terrifying and so difficult.
“But on the other side of them, you are filled with this immense sense of achievement and pure joy. There is simply nothing to compare to it.
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