Sunday, 24 August 2014

siberian pests

It's a strange introduction to a country cycling out of a train station at 1am on a Saturday night.  I'd not recommend it in England.  But Russia? Siberia? Barnaul?  It's a balmy night and everywhere is quiet - too quiet. We are not lost but there's no-one to ask to confirm that we are not lost.  The cheery/boozy women at the 24hr florists (an interesting business, surely) send us off in the right direction but it takes a bit of nerve to finally cycle down the dark unlit and unpaved street to find the hotel.  It's modern, it's clean, it's quiet - at least until we turn up in the dead of the night.

Comrade Vladimir Ilynich helpfully directs punters to the romantically named "24 Hours Hotel"
What's Siberia like? How are the people in Russia?  And how is our Russian?  Well, if dosvidanya is the best you can muster, you might as well give up now. Ya turista, nyet parusski!  After two years on the road we are possibly experiencing our greatest culture shock.  For a start everyone looks Russian.  Okay, you may think this is a strange comment.  We are in Russia after all.  But this is Siberia.  We have crossed thousands of Asian kilometres and suddenly find ourselves back in Europe.  Did we miss a turn?  Where are all the Siberians? Did they move? The other thing is that the people are normal.  I mean if you ask for help, for directions, in pretty poor pidgin Russian, they try and help.  They talk, they smile, they hold hands, and that's just the cops.

Barnaul is a city of half a million with a long main avenue still named Lenin. Step off this avenue and you can find some of the old wooden houses probably built when this was a small frontier town in the middle of the forest.  The sun is a constant and the air is humid.  We potter about and retreat to the hotel in the mid-afternoon swelter.  Gabor has given us his planned route and we will follow him south eastwards into the Altai region in the direction of Mongolia. 

The road out of the city is lively with traffic and we have to concentrate with just a narrow slice of hard shoulder on the new tarmac.  The landscape reminds us of Sweden - swathes of wheatfields cut out of the forest.  In the middle of nowhere we come to a long tailback.  A bridge is closed except for one lane, with no sign of any ongoing work or repairs.  There are contraflow traffic lights.  A young boogaloo with a mullet haircut (a mullet in Russia is akin to an Asbo in England) is selling Russian flags to the waiting motorists with no sense of irony whatsoever. 

We roll along to Biysk which was founded in the early 1700's.  We try and imagine the first settlers coming down the river and pitching up at this confluence.  Forest as far as the eye can see.  It's still breathtaking when you get a long view over one of the big rivers to the mountains off to the south.  There are an awful lot of trees.  The road is heavy with traffic and not much fun for the average cycle tourer.  But then you can look out over a primordial jungle.  Britain used to be like this once upon a time, I muse.  And then they built the M1.
We take the small road following the Biya river all the way to Lake Teleskoye.  We think it'll take about three more days cycling, but haven't calculated for dirt roads.  However, this is not the main concern for the first 80 kilometres which pass through acres of farmland and no villages. No villages = no water.  The crops are being cut, the land ploughed over.  Russia's famous black earth is all around us. "Fecund!" Gayle shouts over her shoulder.  We will be if we don't find any water soon, I think.  And then Neninka hoves into view.

While we're refilling our water bottles from a tap in the street a Lada comes to a screaming standstill outside the village shop.  The doors are flung open and two men rush into the shop clearly on a mission of mercy.  We mooch over to get some food.  Sergey and Ivgenny emerge finally from the shop with 3 litres of beer and a bottle of vodka.  They hold each other up as they talk to us.  We don't speak Russian and they don't speak English, but nevertheless I am convinced most of the conversation would have been incomprehensible even if we shared the same language.  Do we want to get drunk with them?  Do we want to bathe? With them?
Ivgenny - a typical local Russian?

Do we have documents? Sergey is on the verge of tipping from friendly drunk to nasty drunk.  Gayle wants away.  Sergey says "Stop!"  Where are our documents? Where you won't see them, Sunshine.  He gets onto his phone straight away, but Ivgenny defuses the situation by persuading him to take photos of us together.  Cycling away Gayle wonders if we've met any sober Russian men yet when they're not working. 

The camping is tricky.  The hot days tell us it's summer, but the cool nights tell us it's nearly autumn.  We are desperate to avoid mosquitoes and ticks.  The former just mither us and leave us itching and scratching all night, the latter are carriers of Japanese encephalitis.  Dry, cut fields are best.  Riverside spots are worst.  Overgrown clearings in forest turn out to be okay.  And it turns out the biggest pest is neither mozzie nor tick.  On a Saturday night we take a track down to the river looking for any flat space in the forest.  We're not sure, but the light is fading and there don't seem to be many options left.  And then a big 4wd trundles along the track and three overweight naked men lean out of the windows and ask us something in a slurry Russki way.  Okay, this is not the right place to camp.

...but this is

1 comment:

  1. Gosh, it sounds like all my nightmares.
    Ticks with their diseases and drunk and unsafe people around.
    Have a safe trip, take care and wish you the best in order to reach more safe places.