“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.