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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2 thoughts on “Siberian Epic

  1. Billy, Thoroughly enjoying your travel tales. Envious of your determination and opportunity to meet new folks. Our fields filled with garden produce and livestock become all too familiar companions this time of year! And what an exceptionally dry year it is. Too bad we can’t share some of your rainy days…would benefit us both. Ride safe through the desert!

  2. Still very nice to follow you through your trip Billy. You’re riding so fast, it amazes us (our biggest day was only 130 km, and most days it was around 80 !). I’m sure you’ll make it in time to be in NY before Christmas 🙂 Bonne route.

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