Siberian Epic

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

So far I have been posting every couple of weeks and trying to include as much as possible of my experiences and activities. This comes at the expense of some detail. This time I will try to provide some extra detail by describing a few days in Siberia.

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Sitting in a birch grove on my lunchtime tarp, full belly, drowsy; dappled shade around me, and beyond a small lake surrounded by meadow; on the far shore a small party picnicking and splashing in the shallow water. A pregnant woman walks her dog nearby, and closer still a brown-faced man stoops down to add mushrooms to his overflowing bucket. He walks near and says something in Russian and, seeing that I don’t understand, asks for a smoke by holding two fingers to his lips. I give him three, and he tips his cap, bowing slightly with a smile that shows big, strong teeth. I decline his offer of mushrooms, and he nods, closing both eyes for a second and smiling knowingly as he gestures with his open palm toward the forest. I take this to mean, “Of course, there are plenty for the taking in the woods.” He tips his hat a second time and says goodbye. Faintly heard squeals come across the lake from children splashing and diving.

It’s five PM, August 11, my daughter Ellie’s birthday, and the sun is still high in the sky. The Siberian summer heat has cooled already, and the breeze smells fresh and fragrant. The sound of the highway, a quarter-mile off, reminds me that I want to ride thirty more miles today. But I linger, reading and writing with my shoes off and food at my fingertips. Finally I pack up and go. A tailwind brings me twenty more miles over rolling hills with some smooth road, some bumpy. Traffic is light. I choose a perfectly beautiful campsite, down a little dry road that ends in a thick birch forest.

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The cool breeze keeps mosquitoes away, and a few flies attack while I pitch my tent. It takes ten minutes exactly to dismount, change from sunglasses to regular ones, set up the tent and zip myself inside with the gear I will need for the evening: sleeping bag and pad, handlebar bag, food bag (which contains the stove, fuel and kitchen gear), and the mandolin in it’s case.

Exactly twenty minutes later, I have chopped onions and carrots, brought rice and vegetables to a boil (seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper), and covered the pot with my goose-down sleeping bag to cook for a while more. I play mandolin and harmonica for twenty minutes (I’m learning Jethro Burns’ Stumbling and David Bromberg’s Dying Crap Shooter’s Blues). Then I check dinner; it’s done. While it cools I blow three big puffs of air into my mattress, and lay back to read Anna Karenina with my mandolin case raising my pillow (a goose-down suit stuffed loosely into my sleeping bag stuff sack) up to a comfortable height for reading. It’s cooler now so I cover my legs with the sleeping bag. It’s 8:00 o’clock and the sun is low. It sets noticably earlier now, nearly two months since the solstice, but this far north the summer twilight is long and the sky is light until after 10:00.

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For the next few hours I eat, drink water, read, clean up, play a few more tunes, and then read some more, until sleep overtakes me at about 11:00.

Awakened by my bladder at 7:00, I go out out with my hat ready to fan away mosquitoes but there are none. It’s chilly. The sun is already up. Back in the tent I could sleep some more, but I resist the temptation. I sit up and meditate for half an hour. Then, munching cookies, I read more of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

By 8:30 I feel like moving. By 9:00 I am rolling down the road in the sunshine. The sky is completely clear and blue; the fields and forests are very green. A tailwind develops and I make good time, stopping for tea at a diner and later for a bathroom break at a bus stop outhouse. (The bus stops here are provided with concrete outhouses, painted blue and white. They are much cleaner than the restaurant outhouses and the bus-stop outhouses further west. This one lacks a door but is otherwise very serviceable.)

Clouds creep in. I make 35 miles before feeling hungry. By lunchtime it is completely overcast and the wind has picked up, still mostly in my favor. I choose a bus stop shelter to escape the wind and have a bench to sit on. This one is very clean. Relaxing and reading after eating my fill (ham sandwich with mustard, cookies, peanuts, tangerine, chocolate), I am surprised to see rain. Not a sudden, short shower but a steady rain by the looks of it. In a way I’m pleased—I am engrossed in my book, and my phone battery is almost fully charged. The rain lets up after a half hour more, and I consider leaving. But…just one more chapter. By then the rain has started up again, and the sky is a uniform grey from horizon to horizon. (“Just lettin’ loose for a second so’s it can get a better grip,” as the old Yankee says.) Since it appears that I’m going to ride in the rain this afternoon, and a cold one at that, I’m thankful that I chose to lunch in this shelter as I begin another chapter. What a writer!

I put the mandolin in it’s dry bag and suit up. I have a rain jacket with no hood which I use with the Fedora for light or intermittent rain. But today I put the Fedora in it’s waterproof bag before securing it in place atop the mandolin. This weather calls for a rain cape and rain pants. I curse the merchant who botched my delivery of parts and gear while I was in Ukraine; the order contained rain boots.

The cape is like a hooded poncho, but the sides are not open. In use, elastic loops hook onto my brake levers and saddle. It covers my handlebars and bag, and fits taughtly around my butt to make a little open-bottomed tent on my bike. With mudguards on the bike controlling road spray from below, the cape provides excellent protection and ventilation. A visored hood with adjusting drawstrings keeps my glasses pretty dry.

Thankfully, the road is fairly level and the traffic is light. The rain varies from light to heavy. Three hours later I am still pretty dry (except for my feet) and comfortable. The temperature is in the sixties. I reach Kansk, a city of perhaps 20,000.

I take shelter at a corner store in Kansk while I examine the sky to the west, the direction from which the weather is coming. To the southwest the sky is dark, but in the northwest it is brighter. I eat cookies under the grocery store canopy for a while, and dash across the street to get some cash from a bank machine. It is 5:00 o’clock and the traffic is heavy. Cars and trucks splash big waves of brown water from potholes and puddles.

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How can I describe Kansk? Like the larger Russian cities, the outskirts are dystopian: barely passable roads (even if the highway leading in is OK), no signage, low hovels for housing, with yards that feature tall weeds and fences made of scrap metal or saplings. The electric wires are scary, with tangled messes of wire on the poles, transformers on the ground with rickety wood fences around them, and obvious do-it-yourself wires powering some homes and businesses. Stores have gravel parking lots with mud, huge puddles, and tall weeds. Overflowing dumpsters and trash cans are a common site, as are vacant lots full of construction debris and mangy dogs in packs of three or four. Toothless old men sit around on stools, or squat on their haunches.

Closer to the center I encounter the huge grey concrete apartment blocks that Russia is famous for. They are indeed grey and bland, but they have positive qualities, too. Each and every apartment has a balcony, most of which have been “winterized” by the owner or occupant. From the street you see laundry, plants, bicycles, tapestries. I’ve been in several of these buildings. The halls and elevators are awful; dirty, smelly, and scary, because some government bureaucrat somewhere is in charge, and corruption is the culture. (“Can’t you call and complain?” I asked. “Hah! Good joke!” was the reply.) However, the apartments, most with double steel doors and multiple locks, were nice, well-kept, cozy and clean, with modern plumbing and appliances. Under Communism, the apartments were owned by the government and neglected like the hallways. Rent was cheap but it required connections to get one. Now they are privately owned and rented from the owners. Most of the apartments I have been in were rented by young couples from their parents, very cheaply or for free. Or they were inherited.

When I reach the center of Kansk, as in most small cities, I see a nice square with a few big heroic statues, trees and a fountain and benches; a main street with attractive shops and buildings, banks and offices, cafes and bars, and nice old buildings. Well dressed men and women are shopping, talking on cell phones, hopping out of cabs and eating at cafés and restaurants. In a town the size of Kansk, this is confined to a few square blocks.

Back to my break. Outside the bank three very old babushkas selling garden produce call out to me. They seem to be both angry that I am not buying and pleading at the same time. “Pahjalusta!” they say, pointing to the fine-looking garden vegetables. “Please!” I run back to the shelter of the canopy.

I’m thinking: an hour or so riding to the countryside, then set up the tent and cook dinner. The real test of my equipment and technique is in the morning—getting packed up in the rain, into wet shoes and damp clothing, onto the bike and down the road.

Then the rain stopped. I saw actual patches of blue sky to the north. A few more sprinkles, and then it cleared. I jumped onto the bike, dodging puddles and splashes, and headed east.

Then I thought, “Babushkas!” I turned around and pulled up to the women’s produce, displayed on boxes. They were wet and cold, huddled together. I pointed to a bunch of broccoli, a bunch of parsley, a bunch of dill, a bunch of scallions. The bunches were tied with thread. They had no bags, but handed me my purchases, which I put into my panniers as is. They wanted thirty rubles: ninety-five cents. I gave them a hundred rubles, $3.16, removed my hat and bowed, then sped off. Still cheap.

I navigated through town and back to the highway. Not far from town I took a left, then a right onto a dirt road. A small overgrown double-track led up to a cell tower, and behind it a pine woods, still dripping big drops. There I made camp, hanging rain gear to dry on tree branches. A few rays of actual sunlight reached my campsite through the trees before the sun set behind a hill. Soon I had rice cooking, with some mighty fine fresh garden vegetables in with. Mighty fine.

Next day the kilometer posts indicated that I didn’t make 100 kilometers in the previous day’s rain. More like 80. So I determined to press hard and rest little. The road was smooth, with rolling hills and little traffic, through the wildest country yet: miles and miles of forest, with no towns or truck stops, not even a gas station or intersection, for miles and hours. Standing up on the uphills, zooming downhill in top gear, I made good time. Topping a hill I would see forests to the horizon. I have never been in such wild country, even in Alaska. With the sun shining and my engine running strong, it was a day to remember with a big smile.

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I lunched in another clean concrete bus stop shelter just to have a bench to sit on. More Anna Karenina. While I ate and read my tent and sleeping bag was spread out in the hot sun to dry.

Toward evening I went through a little village and found a tiny grocery store. Several days from Krasnoyarsk now and my supplies were running low. I got yoghurt, cookies (weighed out for me from bulk bins), plums (the old-fashioned purple kind), a round loaf of good heavy rye bread, peanuts, and raisins.

At the edge of town I met two hitch-hikers, a Russian couple on break from college, on their way to lake Baikal. I’ve met several pairs of hitch-hikers, all of whom fit that same description, with the same destination.

I’ve made my 100 kilometers and 15 more, and I’m looking for a campsite. But before I am far from the village I come to road construction. After the day’s heavenly roads, this is five kilometers of purgatory. The surface is rough and loose, and the dust is thick from the suddenly dense traffic. After a kilometer of slow-speed bouncing and dodging, a sign announces: 12% uphill grade, 1.5 kilometers. I’ve seen this warning before and it has turned out to be exaggerated. Not this time. I believe it was the most challenging climb yet, short as it was. The sweat I worked up was soon turned to mud from the dust that tractor trailers were kicking up inches to my left. Black flies and mosquitoes found me easy pickings. The descent on the other side was pretty tricky, too: narrow, potholed, loose and crowded. By the time I reached pavement I was a mess.

But I was back in nice territory, where I soon found good camping, cleaned up as best I could with a washcloth and a liter of drinking water, and left my dirty clothes outside the tent for the night. It was late and chilly and I shivered outside the tent as I shook myself dry like a dog. (To a gram-obsessed cyclo-tourist, a bath towel is an unnecessary luxury.) In the tent I received the nicest surprise: my sleeping bag, stuffed in it’s sack after drying in the sun, was still warm, like a blanket from the clothes dryer. Aaaahhhh!

Good dinner: pasta and fresh garden vegetables. I finished my book and wrote a couple of e-mails.

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Late next morning, a stroke of luck. I crossed a big, clean river with a rocky, pebbly shore. There have been plenty of clean rivers, but in this wilderness most have had weed-choked mud banks, which discourages bathing. This river was deluxe, swift and clear and cold, and bigger than most. I cleaned up extra clean, did laundry, and laid on the pebble beach to dry.

Later on, a ten-kilometer detour around a stretch of road construction brought me through a small Siberian village. Small, steep-roofed log homes were crowded together along a short stretch of unpaved road. Here and there a small stool or table held produce for sale by the roadside: potatoes, greens, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplants. I smiled at the notion of New-World nightshade family plants finding a home way out here. Some were selling wild mushrooms and cranberries. Old men and women sat smoking and chatting on benches or stools outside their neat, tiny log homes, and cows, goats and sheep wandered in the road and in the yards, munching on roadside weeds. Back on the highway I found a campsite that was just a little too close to the railroad tracks. All night long an hourly train shook my bed and made a huge racket.

A cold, damp, overcast morning followed, after a restless night with light rain. I packed up wet and shivered until the first uphill warmed me up. A light mist developed into a drizzle, then into real rain. Since I already had on a wet rain jacket and Fedora, I just stayed with that arrangement. I was not pleased to see a ten-kilometer construction zone, the surface of which was baseball-sized rocks, mud, and huge puddles. Thunder and lightning and a downpour turned it into a slow-motion nightmare. The trucks were only a bit faster than I was, and the drivers seemed to take care not to splash me, taking a wide berth and sometimes honking or shouting encouraging words. But the cars were able to go faster, and I took a few mud baths as they sped through the puddles. It finally ended, and the downpour reduced to a steady hard rain. When I got back up to speed on the pavement I realized that I was not going to warm up. The faster I went the colder the wind felt. I grit my teeth and wondered what kind of shelter I would find. Fifteen minutes later I was considering setting up the tent, emergency-style, right on the shoulder, in order to change into dry clothes. Side roads into the woods had become muddy streams. When a middle-of-nowhere bus stop shelter came in view, I was so cold my hands could barely squeeze the brakes.

I changed into wool shorts and shirt, rain pants and a windbreaker, made tea, ate lunch and read my book (finishing Dracula, which I had started in Romania but set aside when I downloaded a bunch of Tolstoy’s novels). Then I prepared properly for the rain, stashing my wet clothes in plastic bags and donning my rain cape. The sky was dark from horizon to horizon, but I set off with optimism, knowing that sooner or later I would be basking in sunshine; hoping for sooner, of course.

At the top of a hill in a drizzle of rain I met an angel, and she spoke a little English. Her occupation was gathering, preparing and selling forest products. She was about thirty and quite pretty, with a healthy glow to her cheeks, bright red lips, big blue eyes and long blonde braids. She wore a head scarf and a blue apron. Her roadside stand was the most complete I have seen. The products included pine nuts, mushrooms fresh and dried (four varieties), goldenseal, chamomile, ground pine, staghorn sumach, club moss, finely crafted birch brooms, herbal teas (she had a wood-fired samovar going for free samples), and other things I could not identify. All were packaged in labeled bags or available in bulk to be weighed on an antique balance beam scale. She also had balsam oil in little bottles, two sizes. Other roadside vendors I have seen make do with a few items, a tarp shelter, and a smoky fire. She had a charming little steep-roofed shelter with a wood stove, benches and table.

“My name is Julia,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”

I drank tea. She refused payment. Her English was limited but without an accent. We talked of Siberia and America. Her village contained 300 people and was only 4 kilometers from the highway. Half modern, half primitive, she said. She was the only English speaker, the only midwife, and the only healer, but most people went to a clinic forty miles away for health care anyway. There were many old people and children in her village. Among the men, alcohol was a problem. The villagers were poor by most standards, but with a peasant mentality that was satisfied with the basics; a snug log cabin, food and firewood. They had electricity and phones and televisions, but considered them to be luxuries. Some few were dissatisfied and wanted city life and glamour. It was from these, both young and old, that most of the trouble and strife of the village originated. She held herself apart from village politics, she said, because it interfered with her healing practice.

Needless to say, I was charmed. I dreamed of marrying Julia spending the rest of my life in that village, gathering forest products and raising blonde-haired blue-eyed kids. But I resisted the urge to ask if she was married, and reluctantly left the shelter and warmth, and headed east after a fond farewell.

That night camping was a challenge. It took some time to find a private, well-drained, level spot. The woods roads were puddled but sandy. When I found a place, the rain was coming down, and the mosquitoes were heavy. My tent and sleeping bag were wet from last night’s dew and condensation. I set up in a hurry. My tent, which has provided good shelter so far, has begun to leak at the seams. (These days, most tents under $900 come with a tube of seam sealer and instructions. My seam-sealing job has broken down after more than a hundred nights of use.) By the time I had cooked and eaten, my bandanna and kitchen towel were soaked from fighting drips, and my sleeping bag was wet in places. I slept well, but in the morning I had a soggy camp.

But the rain had stopped. I packed up and got on the road. The skies were overcast and the wind was ferocious, but in my favor. Twenty MPH, gusting to thirty, was my guess. It blew me down the road thirty miles before I was hungry. I hung my sleeping bag from a road sign, and it flapped noisily while I ate. Huge clouds, some dark and some light, race across the big sky, and sometimes the sun shines on me for a minute. The tent and ground cloth dried quickly, tied to my bicycle and flapping just as madly as the bag. I was cold in my windbreaker and long pants, but happy.

It just so happened that my wettest, most miserable camp was followed by the best, most beautiful and comfortable camp yet. I have a video of it posted here.

The sky cleared but the air stayed cool. The forest changed to shorter scrub pines, and there were big lakes every few miles on both sides of the highway, connected by streams and rivers. Some had road access and a camp or two; some were completely wild. At dinner time I followed a sandy woods road down to one small bay of a bigger lake and found a grassy spot near the shore. Except for the distant train and highway sounds, it is pure wilderness.

It’s still windy and the sun is low, so I set up and cook dinner in the lee of the tent. Swallows and Purple Martens in abundance swoop close to the lake’s surface, catching their dinner. No flies or mosquitoes disturb me as I stand at the shore and play a few tunes while my dinner cooks. The sunset is magnificent, and soon a chill drives me into the tent and under my (dry!) sleeping bag. I think: no matter what the future brings, it will not erase from my mind the clear and detailed memory of these days in Siberia.

The next few days are nearly identical: sunny mornings, with big huge clouds coming in by noon, and blustery tail winds. All afternoon I can see patches of rain falling in the distance, and when one of the patches catches me from behind, I feel the temperature drop with the first few sprinkles. The rain comes hard and cold, but rarely lasts an hour. I get wet and dry out later, or escape the rain altogether at a diner or bus shelter, once under a bridge. Once the rain came in on a side wind. I saw it 100 meters ahead, pelting the pavement although I was still dry. I rode into it and thought, “Why?” So I turned around and rode back to dry pavement with only a few drops on me. I stood in the wind and watched it for half an hour, then proceeded onto wet pavement after the rain had passed.

That evening a new weather pattern arrived. The sky cleared and the air became still for the first time in weeks. Then as I made camp a cold breeze from the east came up. This camp was in a very nice birch grove; it’s only flaw was that it was visible from the highway, a few hundred meters away. I like to stay hidden from view when I camp, for security reasons. In fact back in Omsk, Alex had warned me to camp out of sight. He had been mugged by drunk villagers with rifles while camping in Siberia, and had showed me photos of his bruised and swollen face. But I didn’t give it a second thought as I cooked dinner and settled in.

Around midnight, half asleep, I was awakened by the sound of a truck nearby and saw lights on my tent. The truck stopped, doors slammed and I heard voices. Men with flashlights were approaching. I got my glasses and shoes on and stood up outside he tent, ready for the worst, just as three men with assault rifles surrounded me. They had leather jackets and camouflage pants, no hats, and barked Russian commands at me, which I did not understand. I was very relieved to hear the next words: “Polizei! Polizei!” I’d rather deal with Russian police than muggers any day. Since they didn’t look like cops, my response was to ask for proof.

“Polizei? Document!” I said. They looked at each other and tried to keep from smiling (there were three big flashlights lighting up the scene now). I held out my hand to the one closest, obviously the boss, and he smirked as he fished out his wallet and showed me his badge and ID. Then he started asking me questions. I told him I didn’t speak Russian (which I can now pronounce perfectly, with no accent), and he demanded MY documents. They looked over my passport but didn’t turn to the page with my visa. “Irkutsk? Krasnoyarsk?” he asked, pointing east and west.

“Irkutsk,” I answered, pointing east. “Baikal, Mongolia, China, Hong Kong.”

They shook their heads and smiled. Chief pointed west and said, “Moscow?”

I shook my head, “London.” This provoked chuckles and a round of, “Oy!” “Oy!” “Oy!” The chief looked around and asked, “Adin?” This means “one” but also “alone.”

I said, “Da,” and they looked at me, nodding with amazement and, I thought, respect. One by one they gripped my hand and shook it, patted my shoulder and apologized for the disturbance. “No problem,” I told them. Back in the sack I had to laugh.

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A few more days of this enjoyable kind of traveling brought me to Irkutsk, the proud welcoming sign for which you see above. Every day road signs told me just how far I had to go, and I watched the distance shrink from 1200 kilometers to 1000, 500, 200 and finally I was within a day’s cycling.

For thirty years I have been looking at Irkutsk as I pored over maps of the world, my old National Geographic Atlas, Google maps and Google Earth. It sits near Lake Baikal, and has half a million people, although it had more than that fifty years ago. With a long and colorful history, stretching back to 1652, it has always fascinated me as the city where, in the 1820s, Russian artists, writers, academics and noblemen were exiled by Tsar Nicholas I for their part in the Decemberist revolt. 600 miles of bleak, wolf-infested wilderness separated the city from its nearest neighbors, and the military controlled the road that provided the only means of travel. Later, Bolsheviks and other dissidents were exiled in Irktusk. By 1890, nearly half the population were exiles. But did they suffer and wither away in exile, thousands of miles from the cultural centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg? No. After a disastrous fire in 1879 they built a modern, beautiful city with theaters, a university, libraries and museums, and a world-class train station. By 1900 Irkutsk was called “the Paris of Siberia.” It is still a major cultural and educational center, with a half-dozen major science, economics and medical universities. It’s a cool place, and here I am, staying for two days with Evgeniya and her three delightful kids.

As one of Irkutsk’s few Couch Surfing hosts who are not traveling in August, Evgeniya has her hands full. Two Danish college boys were leaving as I arrived, and tonight two Polish backpackers arrive. Lake Baikal is the draw; July and August are the only frost-free months for travelers to enjoy it.

I will spend a few night’s camping on the lakeshore, then turn south for a wild stretch of unpaved mountain back roads to Mongolia, leaving the forest for the steppes and the desert.

I have decided to skirt the edge of the Gobi Desert rather than cross the middle, where I had hoped to stand on the second-lowest spot on earth. Drought has dried up water sources that have been reliable for decades, and extreme heat has caused deaths among experienced desert travelers. (I am not an experienced desert traveler.) Still, I will need to carry a week’s worth of water over one stretch, sixty pounds, in addition to a week’s worth of food. Some fun now!

Thanks for checking in. I should have some good stories to tell when I reach Ulaanbaatar two weeks from now. Drop me a line when you get a chance.

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More Siberia

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“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson

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My Pals in Kemerov

Siberia is treating me well. The people remind me of Alaskans, who live there because want to. They love beauty and the extremes, they feel special, and they look out for each other.

After Alex and the gang showed me the best Omsk has to offer a visiting cyclist, I filled the feed bag at a supermarket and headed for Novosibirsk, where I had a couple of invitations. Eight or nine days would do it.

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Me and Misha

After several days of fair weather and good camping, I could see storm clouds gathering. The thunder and lightning caught me miles from shelter. Just as the first big drops started, a guy in a mini-van pulled over and opened the hatch. We loaded my bike and gear within thirty seconds. He was Sergei, whom I had met at a gas station an hour earlier. The rain was intense, and I was happy.

Sergei is a Siberian Jack Black (the American actor: School of Rock, etc.) What a character! Sweet as pie, with a baby face, but a tattooed biker with a pony tail and muscle shirt at the same time. We cranked up the rock and roll and drove through three huge prairie thunderstorms, laughing all the way. And what a driver he was, going 75mph past thick truck traffic doing 50, on two-lane blacktop no less. His family has tourist cabins in the mountains to the south, and an automotive business (he was delivering the mini-van). When it was discovered that we both had sons named Tim, he went wild and gave me a bear hug while passing a line of tractor trailers.

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Sergei

After the third storm it looked to be clearing, and I was three days ahead of schedule. Then we saw Rolf and Felix, the electric-powered German cyclists I met in Omsk. I hopped out and joined those guys. Sergei was blown away by the electric rigs, and we had a touching goodbye. What a guy!

Rolf and Felix had their sights on a truck stop up the road. This was no primitive Russian truck stop, but a proper Siberian place with a cafeteria, motel, grocery store, showers, and the first laundromat I’ve seen in Russia (in addition to fuel, tire shop, garage, etc). Thirty rigs were parked outside. The boys made a stir with their space-age bikes, and I made a party with the mandolin. Refusing vodka and beer with difficulty, we finally camped out back after midnight, mosquitoes notwithstanding.

We parted after breakfast. Although we were heading in the same direction, I can’t keep up with their electric power.

I arrived in Novosibirsk at lunchtime and immediately found wi-fi at a nice Japanese restaurant, where I did my e-mail and downloading over a very good meal.

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Lenin, in Novosibirsk

Novosibirsk is the biggest city in Siberia, with a million and a half population. The name means “New Siberia”, and the city is by no means old, dating to 1893. As late as 1970 Russia was still clearing the forests and establishing farms in this area. It reached a population of one million in less than seventy years from it’s founding, the fastest growth in history. The city is modern and attractive, with skyscrapers, big hotels, and a bustling downtown made pleasant by wide streets and big squares. Even the blocks of apartment buildings were varied in color and architecture, a nice change from the dismal, grey and crumbling apartment housing elsewhere in Russia.

Since I was in town a couple of days ahead of my plans, and wasn’t needing a rest, I e-mailed apologies to my Couch Surfing hosts and pressed on. Reaching the countryside in the evening, I found a good camp site just before a rain. I suppose I would have enjoyed meeting some locals and seeing more of Novosibirsk, but I have calendars and kilometers on my mind.

As I ride along with time to think, algebra helps fill the hours. Remember the first-year algebra problems? “If Billy rides 100 kilometers a day, minus rest days, when will he reach Mongolia?”

I have little in the way of schedule on this trip. Apart from the start and finish dates, I had only planned to enter Russia June 3 and leave Russia September 1 (90 days, the length of my visa). Visa delays, my own fault, put me in Russia June 20. Ever since, I’ve been doing algebra in my head to answer the basic question, “How many kilometers per day will put me at the Mongolian border on September 1?”

When describing the trip to incredulous non-cyclists back home, I would explain that fifty miles per day, five days a week, would enable me to reach Hong Kong by early November. In wintery England, The Netherlands, Belgium and France, I rarely made fifty miles. In Spain and Italy I often did. Then I started shooting for 62 miles (a nice round 100 kilometers) and averaging more than 50 miles per day. In Russia, with very few exceptions, I have been riding a minimum of 62 miles each day, more than five days per week. I frequently ride 68 or even 74 miles, and have reached 86 on occasion, with a tailwind helping. The non-round numbers are because I’m thinking in kilometers and converting to miles for my American readers.

I can almost always hit 100k, (62m), but it is surprising how much harder it is to ride 12 more miles to reach 120k. It hurts. In fact, all my long days have been due to early starts, like 7:30AM (9:30AM is more usual), and favorable winds.

My most recent round of algebra shows that 100 kilometers per day will put me at the border on September 1, but that’s without rest days. I have noticed that after 8 or 9 days without a rest, everything gets harder, even eating and sleeping. To earn a rest day I need to do 120 kilometers (72 miles) five times. To earn a few more days to visit magical lake Baykal, I have to do more. Or take a train overnight to ease the pressure, so I can slow down and smell the roses. I shall decide later.

At an afternoon stop, drinking an ice tea at a Siberian roadside bar/diner, a guy saw me outside and, through an English speaking (sort of) customer, invited me to stay with him. He plays air guitar and says, “Guitarra,” so I say OK, even though it’s only 3:00PM. I discover that he owns the restaurant. He leads me behind the restaurant and it turns out he means pitch my tent out back. I almost change my mind—I could go thirty more miles and the campsites are abundant. Good thing I didn’t.

Malik is a memorable character. Out back he has 400 acres, hay meadow and birch forest. At least a dozen workers live in log huts and trailers, and in a converted oil tank! Some are hauling in birch logs to add to the giant firewood pile, already the size of a house. Some are milking cows, killing chickens, gathering eggs, chasing sheep. A generator hums in a shed; we are far from the grid.

We walk far across a meadow, past an tethered old mare grazing, with his number one man, Volva. They bring me to an idyllic birch grove with a fireplace and firewood. Volva clears the sticks and stones from a level spot and points. “Palatka,” he says. Tent.

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Staff housing

Next is my outdoor, sun warmed shower. I wash my clothes, too, and hang them with the employees’ drying laundry. Malik and I compare iPhones; he is baffled by mine’s lack of a SIM card.

He barks at a woman, “Chai!” and then, “Chop chop!” with a laugh, making her laugh too, and bids me to sit on a birch round. Soon a tray of tea and sweets arrive. We relax and survey the ducks, geese, chickens and sheep. Then he asks if I wish to eat, in sign language. On the way to his office he orders food, and we eat big and long: lamb, chicken, potatoes, salad, fresh bread, beer. Damn good beer, my first alcohol since June. Today is August first.

Malik’s office is without a computer, but with a gun safe and wolf skins hanging on the wall. We manage to share stories without an interpreter. He’s from Azerbaijan, and moved here because he loves the wilderness. He’s a Moslem, not devout. He has three kids and a Toyota Land Cruiser he uses to commute 5000 kilometers to the city where they live a couple of times a year.

Malik is a businessman and asks about my livelihood with much interest and pantomime. I have learned the Russian word for Christmas tree, and show him photos of Jane Street. When he learns about my divorce and house foreclosure, he opens a safe and removes 3000 Rubles (about $96) and, despite my refusals, stuffs it in my shirt, punches my arm and makes us both laugh. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Back at my campsite I put fresh brake pads on my bike. There are no mosquitoes. Malik comes out with a couple of beers and makes a fire, and we sit and try to talk. Then we just sit. I play mandolin and he sings Russian folk songs, so sweet and pure that I can learn the melody and play it back.

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Malik

He googles Billy Romp on his phone and is blown away by the New York Times article and Christmas on Jane Street. He translates my blog to Russian and reads. Then he tells me to sleep, and when the sun goes down, to bring my mandolin to the restaurant, which I did.

We played a few tunes for the staff out back, but Malik seemed too shy to play and sing for the truckers in the bar. They were watching the Olympics anyway. With difficulty I managed to be a good guest while having only two beers all evening. Malik’s minor-key Russian folk ballads were just made for mandolin accompaniament, and my Americana music was much appreciated.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, I was sent off with hugs and gifts. After an experience like that I always grow a big smile on my face as I take my first few pedal strokes and find myself on the road again, rolling along all alone with memories to process and a feeling of, “Wow, that was something. What could possibly be next?”

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Camp Haystack

Next came a series of campsites and long days in the saddle. In my calendar I keep notes each day, noting the location and naming my campsites so that I will remember them later at a glance. Camp Skinny Birches, Camp Startled Horses, Camp Haystack, and Camp Behind A Cemetery, among others, led me to Krasnoyarsk, the last big city I will visit until Beijing. There my Couch Surfing host Tanya picked me up in the city center and brought me to her pleasant, roomy apartment. She’s a professional dancer, 29 years old, who just returned from a four-month tour in China with a dance troupe, or team, as she called it. She is as sweet as honey. After my shower she brought me to see the city sights and historical landmarks. Krasnoyarsk has an interesting past, first as a frontier fort, then an early logging and mining center, and a transportation hub with Siberia’s first railroads and Russia’s second-largest river, the Yenisei. Siberia’s many rivers flow north, to the Arctic Ocean, and the Yenisei is huge, originating in Mongolia. It’s watershed includes Lake Baikal (the preferred spelling hereabouts); it is the largest river flowing into the Arctic Ocean.

After midnight Tanya and I, with her beautiful and charming roommate Larisa, had lots of ice cream and good conversation in the kitchen. Both psychologists, they quickly diagnosed my neurosis and pronounced me likely to survive without much trauma. Then they learned what they could from me about American culture, and I from them about Russia. They are too young to have experienced much of the Soviet Union, but they knew a lot about it and the transition to the Russian system in place today.

The history of Russia is one of reform after reform, and Russians wearily endure the changes with a fatalistic attitude, making the best of things. At least that’s the stereotypical view. Left over from Soviet days is the government’s tendency to exert control over citizens, and a huge bureaucracy persists for that purpose.

Corruption is rife. It is said that 90% of the Russian transportation budget is siphoned off; from the Transportation Minister down to the guy with the shovel, everyone gets bribes, overpriced contracts, no-show jobs, cash, and various illegal perks. The highways, railroads, ports, waterways, and airports limp along on the remaining 10%. I can personally see it on the highways, with bridge projects that have obviously been stalled for years, workers more often sitting in trucks talking on phones than working, and railroad crossing attendants with comfortable housing and nice cars parked outside, their duties long ago automated, Awhile they draw a lifetime salary to putter in the garden and watch the cars go by. If you are stopped for speeding or other violations, a $15 or $30 bribe will save you hundreds in fines. In a related note, accidents are more frequent and more horrible than in the USA, and leaded gas is still in use. (So is DDT).

The latest reforms, starting with Perestroika, Glasnost, and market capitalism, have produced some outsized corruption scandals, but also the greatest spread of prosperity in Russia’s history. Therefore they are popular with all but the most conservative Russians, mostly right-wing military nuts and rural rednecks. But there are plenty of them. Even though unemployment is around 1%, conservatives point to Communism’s 0% rate. (Curiously, in America, Socialism and Communism are regarded as extreme left-wing ideas; here they are right-wing.) There is more regulation here in the banking and financial industries, and the “stock market” (such as it is) is in it’s infancy. Result: hard-to-obtain mortgages carry a 12% rate; a car loan is at 20% after a three-month wait; revolving credit (credit cards and the like) range up to 40%, and few people qualify. With all this revenue, at least the banks don’t have to charge ATM fees! In Soviet times, people were poor but had money in their pockets; there was a shortage of goods to spend it on. Now people more prosperous but always broke; there are so many enticing goodies to buy!

This is the impression that I have picked up on my travels. It may contain errors or ommissions, and may be colored by the tiny sample of people from which it is drawn. But economic and political life, as different as it is, only underscores how similar we all are. Russians are not so different from people anywhere else. I am fortunate, I think, to be meeting some fine folks, and I am always struck at how they remind me of folks back home.

Actually, as I go farther east, into Russia’s wild parts, I see changes. I haven’t had any truckers throw trash at me in a couple of weeks, and more rarely do I suffer aggressive horn blasting from motorists. There is some improvement in the litter situation, in places, and the roadside vendors are a less desperate-looking bunch with nicer goods and smiles. The roadside diners have certainly improved since my first weeks in western Russia, and the roads themselves are much better. Truckloads of watermelons from Kazakhstan, convoys of them, line the roadside at the edge of the cities while their wild-looking drivers squat in bunches around tea pots on tiny little wood stoves. I occasionally see a long-bearded mountain man walking along the road with a heavy pack and steady gait, heading who knows where.

I have about 1900 kilometers more to Mongolia and 22 days in which to do it, aiming, that is, at my September 1 goal. I’ve read two of Tolstoy’s books and I’m deep into Anna Karenina. Having rested a day, showered and shaved, cleaned the bike, patched some clothing and answered all my e-mails, I feel ready for my longest stretch of wilderness yet, two weeks or so to Lake Baikal. From here on I must eat far from camp, and hang my food high at night, higher than bears can reach.

Last week a grizzled old woodsman, selling mushrooms by the roadside, told me through a young interpreter about wolves. One or two or three wolves are no more dangerous than so many dogs, fearful of man and easily scared off. Four wolves requires effort to scare off, and five wolves requires effort and experience and a stout club. Six or more is serious danger for an unarmed man. Climbing a tree is only good if help will arrive; otherwise the wolves will wait until you drop, however long that takes. If there are six wolves, he said, quickly determine the leader of the pack. He’s the wolf that never looks at the other wolves; the other wolves look at him every few seconds. Never take your eyes off the leader, even though other wolves may circle behind you. Fend those other wolves off with a stick, but keep eyes locked on the leader, and always stand taller than him, never crouching or downhill. Fend off his attacks with a stick and a roar, remembering that he is full of fear. It better be a good stick. Eventually they will give up and retreat. They may return, so get out of there. Then he told me the best part. In midsummer food is abundant, their attention turns to small game, and packs break up as they hunt rabbits and such, avoiding larger prey. Only in winter do they band together to team up on deer, moose and men. And when I hear them howling at night, sleep easy. If they’re howling they’re not moving and not hunting. Enjoy the music.

Tanya and Larissa are intent on fattening me up for my upcoming efforts, and I am happy to oblige. They also plan to keep me up late tonight. So I’m madly blogging , route planning, downloading and trying to keep awake with a full belly while they nap.

Then in comes Arnold, a musician, and we play R&B for a short spell, he on Tanya’s classical guitar. Then we went out for a ride around the city’s back streets and forgotten history. Great ride, Arnold. Back at Tanya’s at 9:30PM, it’s time to go out. Arnold has to work (music), so Tanya and Larissa and I visit a Mongolian restaurant, a yurt with seating on the floor and an outdoor kitchen. Great food and tea, people smoking sweet-smelling tabac from hookahs, exotic desserts and exotic waitresses. And great company—I’m with the nicest women; beautiful, smarter than I am and full of stimulating conversation.

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Tanya

We lingered until past midnight, then stayed up until nearly dawn with Arnold in Tanya’s kitchen, drinking local beer and talking Buddhism, philosophy and, to my surprise, quantum physics. This may be the proverbial middle of nowhere, but you wouldn’t know it from the conversation. Now I’m really ready for a few hours’ sleep. Tomorrow I will once again load up on groceries and hit the road. I’ll see you in Irktusk if the bears don’t eat me.

Thanks for the e-mails. More, please! I think of family and friends each day and, now that I’m more than half way, thoughts of Vermont and Jane Street come to mind often. Love to all.