“Wherever you go…there you are!”—Douglas Adams
Hello from Siberia! I made it to Omsk, and it was a hell of a trip, ten days. I’m making preparations to leave already and time is short, so I’m going to cheat with this blog post by constructing it out of notes I’ve written, e-mails I’ve sent, and journal entries I have made in my calendar. So please forgive the disjointed nature and poor photos this time.
After my last post, and before leaving Kate and Pasha in Chelyabinsk (it seems so long ago!), I received some good information about my visa violation. At first the Russian lawyer at the American Embassy in Moscow told me on the telephone that the rules had changed as of May 2012 and no stamp was required, unless I spent two weeks in a single location. In a subsequent e-mail, however, he admitted to a mistake: a single stamp is required within 7 days of entry. Now that I have missed that deadline, only three Federal Migration Service offices, all far behind me now, offer a remedy (which is paying a fine and getting a stamp.) So I’m still outlaw, and I’m still seeking a solution that doesn’t involve backtracking a thousand miles.
Also before I left, Kate (the angel from heaven) presented me with ten 100ml bottles of pure medical ethanol, the best alcohol for my cookstove. No charge. From her friend who works in a hospital, she said. I’m telling you, Pasha, hang on to that woman. She’s the best. So I headed out of Chelyabinsk with fresh laundry, a clean shave, new tires, new shorts, and everything checked off my list except for the visa problem. Feeling good!
A few miles out of town I met Eric, a Frenchman driving a vintage Renault all the way from France to Japan and Korea. He was solo now, having just sent his wife and young son off to their home for a break from the road. A great guy and kindred spirit, we spent an hour on the roadside talking. you can meet him at http://www.quatreailes.top-depart.com.
Aaah, the decadence. A cold bottle of Schwepps Bitter Lemon Tonic, a package of tea biscuits, and home-made wild strawberry preserves (picked and made by Kate Kholyavskaya’s Babushka) in my little tent on the first cool evening in weeks.
After Chelyabinsk I had to swing north to avoid Kazakstan. The roads are smaller and nearly traffic free. The towns and even the gas stations are farther apart, so much so that I have to keep close tabs on my water supply. And I’ve been drinking four to six liters a day in this heat—high nineties every day.
There are lots of woods and big meadows, lakes and swamps, and some agricultural land. It’s mostly flat with some mild hills now and then. I topped a hill today and there in the distance was a city! The map showed just a dot, the same size as the little villages along this road. But Shadrinsk looked to be 15,000 or 20,000 people. I pulled in, stopped to check my map, and Arnold the aikido man pulled over to help. No English, but I told him, “Bhankomat, wi-fi.” (Bhankomat is Russki for ATM). He tried to tell me, but gave up and motioned for me to follow. With his lights flashing on his little car, he led me first to the bank, which didn’t look like a bank, then to a bowling alley with a restaurant where the wi-fi is free. He shook hands, bowed deeply, and left. I love him to pieces; it would have taken me hours. I spent the evening at the restaurant, ate and e-mailed and downloaded and cleaned up in the men’s room. I left at 9:30PM and, since it’s light out until 11:00, I had plenty of time to leave town and find this campsite. Life is good. Just had to share that with you all. Now I’m going back my Atlantic magazine (on my phone). Maybe one more cookie. Wild strawberry preserves! What could be better?
A couple of days later now, in a roadside café, a pretty darn basic one. Just having tea. Five or six more days to Omsk.
This part is not hard on my body—riding 60 to 80 miles, eating, and sleeping all come pretty easy to me, and it feels good. I’ve been able to keep clean, using sinks at truck stops every day, sometimes for fifteen cents.
But it’s hard mentally. No English, no conversation, little mental stimulation. I’m meditating daily, and avoiding intoxicants, which is good. But with all the saddle time and tent time, I think too much. The past. The future. My kids. My grandchildren. My friends. My life. Love. Money. The bike. The role of conscious awareness in the measurement of quantum phenomenon. And so on. No big worries or regrets or anxieties, just…thinking.
It’s best when I keep my thoughts on the present and immediate future. The road directly ahead of me (as I transform it into the past with my legs), my next meal, my next campsite, turn, city, country. Siberia, Lake Baykal, Mongolia, China. I daydream about pulling into Hong Hong; it brings a smile.
The very recent past is satisfying, too. Kate and Pasha in Chelyabinsk, Maria in Volgograd, Kerem in Istanbul, Andrey in Odessa, Florentina in Constanta, Simon and Stane in Nova Vas, Slovenia, and more going all the way back to Jordi in Girondella, Spain Fay and Kate in Frome and Simon in East Bergholt, England, and especially Imelda and David in Staines, England. They all treated me like family, and I have very little chance to ever return the favor properly, or even express my gratitude. I think about them by the hour in order to fix them in my mind, and assure that I’ll never forget them.
So I go along and look around and think. It’s not a bad life.
Actually, it’s not totally without human contact. I make the most of my brief interactions with gas station convenience store clerks, (mostly young women), waitresses and truck drivers at diners, and roadside vendors of honey, berries, fruit and vegetables. I’m really good at saying, in Russian, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” 99% of the time it’s no, but it usually gets a smile. Often they try their few words out; no, hello, bye-bye. I can tell what they are asking, and I answer, “America; Gong Kong (Russki pronounciation); London; one year (easier than saying eleven months); palatka (tent); sixty (my age, rounded off, often scratched in the dirt or drawn on a dusty car—the question has a distinct sound that’s easy to remember, and almost always I am asked).
The other day I was drinking a bottle of iced tea at a gas station when a family in a Mercedes pulled in. They were Chinese, and on their car were what looked like sponsor logos, from a Shanghai bank and a Volkswagon dealer, and other lettering in Chinese, Russian and English: “Shanghai to St. Petersburg—2012”. They were a very clean-cut, well put together family, very friendly and open. They gave me their e-mail address and told me to look them up in Shanghai.
Now at lunch in the middle of nowhere. Although there are occasional signs indicating a picnic area (the sign: a picnic table with a jauntily leaning pine tree), what I actually find is a garbage-strewn dirt lot with no facilities whatsoever and no shade, with a tractor-trailer or two parked there. So go farther until I find a grove of trees, and spread my ground cloth under one of them for a lunch break. Horseflies (some as big as my thumb, with a nasty bite) and mosquitoes are an issue, but I’ve got to eat, and midday is when they are least active. If the breeze keeps them away I’ll nap after I eat; otherwise I read, write or play mandolin for half an hour, making my break an hour long altogether.
It seems mechanical difficulties are part of my Russian experience. First it was my worn chain and cogs. Then the tires. Now my bottom bracket (crank) bearings are failing, making noises that get worse each day. I imagine Omsk, now three days away, will have replacement bearings; it is a city of about a million. I’ll be sure to time it so I arrive there early in the day, in case it proves difficult to locate bearings.
Now in the tent. At 7:00PM or so I found a likely spot, and it is nice, with a meadow and birch grove, shade tonight and in the morning, too. But the mosquitoes are crazy, man, the most absolute! In minutes I had the tent up and necessary gear inside, but what intense minutes they were! I was dancing and flailing my hat like a madman, wiping ten at a time from legs, arms, face, back. A dozen got in the tent; when I finished killing, I laid back and watched the rest madly throwing themselves at the tent screens. After they calmed down somewhat I prepared dinner as much as possible indoors, then quickly opened up, cleared a spot, filled and lit the stove, put the pot on, and retreated. I got a few bites from that maneuver, and a couple more when dinner came to a boil and I unzipped to bring it in. I’ve been bit enough now that I’ve developed some resistance. Bites don’t raise much of a welt, and don’t itch for long. Still, swarms of madly attacking kamikazi mosquitoes like that get me worked up. Woo!
I’ve got to learn more Russian. I’m finding some (comparatively) decent roadside diners now and then. I order by pantomime, hoping to get something good. Yesterday I got some cold, salty, vinagery soup with raw onions and cucumbers, meat, a dollop of sour cream and lots of chopped parsley. I had been hoping for some baked goods. It tasted awful at first, then better, then great. The waitresses at these places take your order from behind a counter, take payment right away, then bring it to the table after it is handed from the kitchen through a little window. They are mostly middle-aged, hefty, and have a gold tooth or two. Some are pleasant, some are not, but mostly they are well dressed in clean, ironed uniform waitress clothes, with a little hat carefully bobby-pinned to their fresh hairdos. It’s a contrast to the decrepit surroundings, broken and mismatched furniture, half-empty shelves, warm coolers and flypaper decor. Here in the less-populated, less-industrial Asian part of central Russia I’m seeing more families at the truck stops and roadside diners, many with Asian, Mongolian-looking faces.
I just had the worst, the most awful couple of days, but with a happy ending. My crank bearings have failed, and it’s noisy and feels bad (I can feel it through my feet and hands it’s so bad). Yesterday was the pitsl, with rain showers, a headwind, narrow, bumpy roads with tons of traffic, and a twenty-mile construction zone. Couldn’t find a break from the mosquitoes to eat lunch, and by 5:00PM I was a wreck. I camped down a farm road and overnight it rained hard. The tent leaked and got my sleeping bag wet. Next morning was rainy, and I packed up wet. The farm road turned to sticky clay that stuck to my shoes and tires, jamming up in the fenders so badly that I couldn’t even push the bike. And the mosquitoes were thick and vicious! By the time I dragged the bike to the pavemen, clawed the mud from the fenders with my fingers, and got biking fast enough to escape the mosquitoes, I was covered in mud, had hundreds of bites, and was exhausted. Then it rained again, on and off, sometimes hard, for the rest of the morning. But I just kept smiling and saying, “No problem, all part of the game. Iit’ll change soon.”
I got into Omsk, my first city in ten days, I found a nonsense bike shop with no parts. I wandered around wondering what to do. A cop stopped me and started asking questions in Russian.
Then this guy Alex walks up and says in heavily accented English, “Do you need some help?”. He’s a cool looking dude about thirty. I said yeah, this cop is bothering me and I need a good bike shop that has bearings for this bike. He said something to the cop and the cop left. Then he said, “Bike will be fixed tomorrow morning. You sleep at my house. Next problem?” I said that was it. So we went to his apartment, he carried my bike up the stairs, he pointed out the shower, the washing machine, the fridge, the computer (and his sleeping wife shhh!) and said, “I’ll be back in two hours. Then we’ll eat.” The way he took charge in a calm and firm manner was very striking, and I admired his style of hospitality; he more or less ordered me to eat, wash up, and make myself at home.
Alex is 28, a grafitti artist who grew up to be a Grafitti Artist. He’s well known in Russia, and in Omsk his network is large and dense. He does commissioned outdoor art works, and has brought his underground work slightly into the daylight. He creates bicycle lanes on the city streets by painting bicycles and arrows, in the absence of any real bicycle lane policy that Omsk has. There is virtually no bicycle awareness or policy anywhere in Russia, and Alex’s work is popular enough that the government leaves him alone with no comment. You can check out his daring, one-day Stella Artois commission in Moscow, excecuted with his crew, at 214art.livejournal.com
Alex’s wife Xenia deserves special mention. Quiet and beautiful, expecting their first baby in November, she seems perfectly delighted to have three foreigners camped out in her living room. She effortlessly feeds us really good home made food, repeatedly filling the table with hearty fare, soups and salads, fruits and cookies, home-baked pastries, tea and home-brewed kvas. And it’s not only us she’s feeding; members of the “bike gang” drop by, in helmets and cleats, crowding the living room with their machines, early and late (last night it was after midnight), and they get the same treatment, with no fuss but with abundance and good cheer. I aspire to be like Alex and Xenia in matters of hospitality.
Alex had with him two German bicycle tourists that he was in the process of rescuing from a breakdown on the road. Rolf, a thirty-something publisher of trade magazines, and Felix, a nineteen-year-old engineering student, are the only bicycle tourists I have seen that with a cooler setup than mine. They are on recumbent trikes with electric motors in the rear wheels, pulling a trailer with a large solar panel and big lithium batteries. Their rigs allow them to go twice as many miles per day as I do, and they recharge with the sun. Even the energy from braking is recovered and goes to raise the battery charge levels. Felix engineered them in a hurry just before they left on this 55-day trans-Russian tour. The Burley trailer frames, perhaps a little overloaded for these rough Russian roads, had broken, and Alex had his friends fabricate new, sturdier platforms. I enjoyed the time I spent with Rolf and Felix. They are smart and cool and genuine gentlemen. Both spoke great English and encouraged my primitive German. And they had the courage and imagination to test their complicated rigs in Russian Siberia when they could have taken a tour of Germany and Holland for 55 days. I tried out their bikes and it instantly made me wish I had one. I feel like I have made two very good friends who will someday help me with that wish. You can check them out at http://www.hbmedia.info/sistour
Felix and Rolf
In the evening I went with them to the very finestt kind of bike shop (in my humble opinion): a couple of great mechanics, a back-alley entrance with no sign, a full-service repair shop with modern tools, no real showroom but lots of bikes around and, best of all, lots of bike enthusiasts with pro mountain bikes and road bikes hanging around, coming and going, and gathering around Rolf and Felix’s and my bikes and asking lots of questions. I watched as Andrey replaced my bottom bracket bearings and overhauled my pedals. He was very, very good, fast and thorough. He even chased the threads on my frame when the bearings wouldn’t thread in smoothly. The best.
Andrey and Andrey
Meanwhile the recumbents were put back together with their repaired trailers out in the yard. By then there were fifteen bike dudes hanging around, it was 8:00PM, and a ride was in order. We took over the streets of Omsk for a tour of downtown like a harmless, quiet motorcycle gang. After blinis at a blini stand, it was decided that lots of pizza and Coca-Cola was what we really needed. We brought them down to the beach by the river and had a midnight party. They are a fantastic bunch of velo enthusiasts, and it was a great evening with Alex, Rolf, Felix and the gang. And remember, the day started out in mud-and-mosquito hell in the rain.
On Omsk TV
So I’m once again ready to hit the road in the morning. I’m bound for Novosibirsk, which should be six days from here, and will be the last real city for about 2400 kilometers (1600 miles). The next leg will be three weeks long or longer. But you’ll hear from me before that. I have hosts lined up in Novosibirsk, which is the largest city east of the Urals. I am told that east of there the country changes, with real wilderness stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and sparse population. In the middle of it sits Lake Baykal, the deepest and cleanest lake on earth, bigger than Lake Champlain. That’s where I’ll be turning south toward Mongolia. Thanks for checking in with me, and thanks for all the e-mails.
You seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, encountering Alex and the solar recumbent bicyclists from Germany. I’m glad you are doing this trip in your own low(er tech style, solo, at 60. I get such a grin seeing how incredibly healthy you are, glowing beside these young dudes half your age or more. Grandpa that you are! I’m glad too that you have those moments of hellishness that allow your appreciations to deepen as you ponder your place in the great stream of things. I look forward to your posts and wonder about you when I haven’t heard word for a long while. I’m going to send your blog to Dan O in case he is interested in following your adventures. Your bicycle seems to need steady replacement parts but you, dear fellow, are renewing yourself daily!
I’d give anything to hear what your mandolin sounds like these days, with that chorus of mosquitoes droning in the background…
Greetings Billy! I am one of Omsk cyclists, and I want to say that you are very cool and a good man, I was very glad to see someone from another country on a bicycle in this city 🙂
Sincerely, Omsk cyclist
P.S – Good luck on the road!