When I came to the realization that having hit 40, it was time for me to take a break from the very stimulating but somewhat overfull life that I lead in Moscow, I simply could not imagine being back in London after a 4 hour flight from Moscow. So I started to think about other ways to return to the UK.
I had long been interested by slow travel and I had some pretty good examples, one of which was my friend James Galitzine, who returned to Russia, following in reverse, the path that his grandfather had taken when he left after the revolution. This route was Istanbul, Crimea, through to Russia. I decided to ride home.
Making the trip happen took some organizing and provided an interesting insight into the mentality of the people in the countries I would be riding through. Romania and Ukraine basically organized themselves, whereas in Russia, I was initially told that it be practically impossible to make such a journey and that Iâd probably go mad during the process, so it would be best not to bother! But with perseverance, it all started to come together.
I was greatly assisted by friends and am particularly thankfully to Anna Jackson-Stevens and her contacts at La Roche Posay, who provided great encouragement and litres of top quality sun-cream, which has allowed me to remain for hours in the saddle without getting burnt. In Belarus, I even used the suncream on my horse, as he had a very pale nose and without it, burnt quite badly.
I am also very grateful to David Siuykaev, my trainer at Planet Fitness, who pushed me pretty hard before the ride, and this meant that I have hardly had any aches and pains during the ride. It is very heartening after hitting 40 and having spent so many years in a sedentary job, when you are able to rise to such a demanding challenge.
So, the ride? Having to look after the horses and the riding team immediately puts you into a different pace of life. In contrast to office life, you have to respect the weather (the heat is as hard for the horses as it is for us, rain is easier for the horses, but hard for us), the surroundings (bogs are deadly dangerous and there are lots of them in Russia and Belarus), the horses, and once you remember that you are doing this ride purely for your own pleasure and interest, if you find an interesting place or meet some people you want to spend longer with, it is simply a question of deciding to do exactly just that.
One of the most incredible aspects of the trip has been the people I have met along the way. Horses are a complete magnet for people of all ages and riding through the villages and countryside, people stop to ask about the journey, invite me for coffee, and to offer stabling for the horses. Weâve given children rides on the horses in certain villages, and some of the older people look back with great nostalgia to times when everyone had a horse, whereas now their villages are becoming empty as the young are leaving for the cities, and the old die young.
Providence has also played a large role in the trip and this has meant that I have been able to witness some amazing events, such as the birthday party of Viktor Kulakov at the Gribodeov museum that he restored (Khmelita). We arrived at the elegant mansion at Khmelita to large tables in the ballroom creaking with fine plates of smoked meats, fish, caviar, vodka, champagne and cherry juice. The great and the good of Russiaâs museum world had gathered at Khmelita to celebrate not only Viktor Kulikovâs 70th birthday, but the restoration of a crumbling wreck of one of Russiaâs great poets into an elegant mansion, reconstructing tiled stoves based on fragments of tiles found in the rubble. This is a wonderful, but rare, example of restoration work in Russia. I hope it will be repeated. Russiaâs famous hospitality was at its best and in addition to being invited to join the celebratory feast, we were given a guided tour in English of the museum by Viktor Kulikovâs grandson (also Viktor).
Also by chance, we were able to enjoy the Ivana Kupala celebrations (St Johnâs Eve) of a Belarussian village. The lady running the event was the curator of a local museum and clearly had a strong desire to invest in the future and the youth of the country by reviving old traditions. The night sky was lit up by huge bonfires, shooting sparks high into the sky, and as dawn drew near, a thick summer mist rolled off the lake into the fields. The atmosphere was electric and the lady in charge, like a high priestess, with a wave of her hand, ushered in bands and girls wearing garlands of flowers performing traditional dances and singing eerily discordant and pagan-sounding songs. As dawn rose, all danced hand in hand around the bonfires before throwing everything off to plunge into the cool waters of the lake.
Njasvizh, the cradle of the Radzivill dynasty was absolutely incredible. One of only 4 UNESCO sites in Belarus, it is just beautiful â it was designed by the Italian architect Bernadoni. There are at least 72 coffins in the family crypt and while it is pretty impressive to visit, it is not the kind of place youâd want to lose your way.
At the start of the journey outside Moscow, I was joined by a dog who we called âFridayâ. This provided great entertainment during the Russian chapter, as Friday turned out to be quite a character, quick at making friends (or foes) with villagers, naughtily chasing hens and cows, guarding the camp at night and rolling in mud straight after being washed. She is now back in the village where she joined us. It didnât seem right to take her further through areas of wolves and bears.
I stayed in Ukraine until the 10th of August and from there I will head South to Bucovina and Transylvania. More friends and family are joining to ride in Romania and we plan to have a big celebratory dinner when we finish in Sighisoara at the end of August. Western Ukraine is very beautiful and there are some great castles. It is tough for the locals as they are saying goodbye to fathers and sons who are being conscripted to the war effort in Eastern Ukraine. We all want peace and I hope it will come soon.
I am very grateful to my friend Nick Denny for suggesting that I use the ride as way to raise money for charity. Having seen the amazing achievements of paralympians at Sochi earlier this year, I plumped to raise money for paralympic sport and am raising money for the British and Romanian Paralympic Committees, respectively. I am also raising money for St Andrewâs Moscow, which was a wonderful sanctuary during my time in Moscow. Details of how to donate to the British Paralympic Association are at justgiving.com/michaelpughnew and my blog at http://www.ridinghalfwayhome.com/make-a-donation contains details of how to give to the other charities I am supporting. My cousin Liz Bligh, who will join the ride in Transylvania is raising money for the Heart of Kent Hospice in Kent where she is a trustee: justgiving.com/LizBligh
Our sponsors and supporters have been great and in addition to La Roche Posay and its fantastic sun-cream, I am very grateful to Anna Jackson-Stevens of Coast Magazine, my former firm of 14 years (Hogan Lovells), the Russo British Chamber of Commerce, and all the rider support teams and guides who have helped me to get this show on the road.