She married an Uzbek horseman and rode the length of the Silk Road; lived the oligarch lifestyle with ‘Putin’s banker’; and now leads intrepid group tours of the Stans

Riding the length of the Silk Road in 1999, from the ruins of Merv, in Turkmenistan, to Xi’an, in China, set off this whole apocalyptic adventure — or perhaps I should say misadventure. It was my friend’s dream to do it and I hooked onto it. She changed my life.

It was on that trip that I met my former husband, Shamil Galimzyanov, an Uzbek horseman. We became addicted to travelling in this way.

Riding the length of the Silk Road in 1999, from the ruins of Merv, in Turkmenistan, to Xi’an, in China, set off this whole apocalyptic adventure — or perhaps I should say misadventure. It was my friend’s dream to do it and I hooked onto it. She changed my life.

It was on that trip that I met my former husband, Shamil Galimzyanov, an Uzbek horseman. We became addicted to travelling in this way. After the Silk Road journey, he, a friend and I went to Mongolia with only packhorses. Our relationship was wonderful when we were in the wilds, but in the city it was just awful and unhappy. We’d been educated in very different ways.

It was lecturing about this trip at the Royal Geographical Society in London that first got me into leading tours. A German man came up to me after my talk and asked if I could set up a trek for him and 10 of his friends. I led them, with Shamil, from Bukhara to Samarkand, and it was a success. The next year, I took a trip to Kyrgyzstan, which is better suited to riding because it’s mountainous and beautiful, and the horses are wonderful. I went on to take groups every year between 2002 and 2009, and was leading a tour the week before my wedding. Back then, people heard about the trips by word of mouth. I never failed to fill one. The industry is completely different now.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan, GETTY

When I returned to Kyrgyzstan last summer, I felt I had rediscovered myself. Being in that landscape makes your senses alert. It’s complete freedom.

I was inspired to begin leading trips again, and they start this June. We camp — and sometimes people have reservations about that. But I like nice things and comforts, and I find nothing difficult about camping. The two are not mutually exclusive. Being in these places is, to me, the ultimate luxury. It’s a safari-type adventure; we stay in the most beautiful locations. There’s nothing phoney about it — I keep it authentic.

I speak fluent Russian now, but growing up in the UK — my mother is very English and we lived in the countryside — I didn’t feel at all Russian. My brother is called Dmitri and I wouldn’t pronounce his name because I was so embarrassed. I just called him “the baby”.

But my father encouraged me to read and, as a teenager, I read a lot of Leo Tolstoy — I’m a relative of the writer — as well as Lermontov, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It is true that every book changes you. Reading Russian literature gave me a greater understanding of the Russian character.

A Kyrgyz camp in Naryn region, Kyrgyzstan, GETTY

The first time I went to Russia was in 1992, just after the Soviet Union dissolved. It was a real adventure. I’d only been to France on holiday, I didn’t speak Russian and all my friends were on gap years in Thailand and India. I lived with a Russian family in Moscow — the father was an actor. We’re still in touch now. He voiced the crocodile in my children’s favourite Soviet cartoon, Cheburashka, so it’s like he’s in our home.

When I came back, I switched my university course from philosophy to Russian at Edinburgh. It was quite a dramatic change from not wanting to be Russian to being proud of my heritage.

I met the father of my three children, Sergei Pugachev, a banker formerly in Putin’s inner circle, in 2009. We had an oligarchic lifestyle, and even had a suite on standby at Claridge’s. But it wasn’t really me. When he fled to France in 2015, I ultimately felt such relief. He got a prison sentence in the UK — so he won’t come back. But I will never go to France.

He was in a public dispute with Vladimir Putin, so it was dangerous for us to visit Russia for a long time. In 2018, I returned after eight years away. I went to Yasnaya Polyana (which means “clear glade”) — Tolstoy’s former home, which is 125 miles south of Moscow.

Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s former redoubt, GETTY

My style reflects my journey. With Sergei, I lived in this “new Russian” way — but I hated it. Now I embrace embroidery, vintage Fair Isle knitwear from eBay and clothes by the Russian designer Russmotive, which reprints old fabric designs. I started Preloved by Alexandra Tolstoy with a friend — we sell second-hand designer items via Instagram — by doing this huge sale of my own clothes. I gave 20% of what I made to a charity in St Petersburg for children with autism. It was a therapeutic process.

I have a lot of energy. I just get on and do things; I can’t sit around doing nothing. Throughout my life, all the bad things that have happened have spurred me on.