Wednesday, March 9, 2016

From ‘Off the Rails. 10,000 km by bicycle across Russia, Siberia and Mongolia to China’ by Tim Cope & Chris Hatherly

Find out what you want, find something you really care about. When you know what you want the rest follows. But don’t just drift off into something because it offers security. Security is never worth a damn. We’re meant to live and to live means living dangerously, half on the edge of trouble, half on the edge of achievement.
                        Hammond Innes, The Strode Venturer

Russia and Siberia cover more than twice the mass of Australia.

It intrigued me that the forest the Russians called the taiga stretched almost unbroken from Scandinavia to the Pacific. When considered as one large tract of forest, it is the largest in the world, constituting 22 percent of the world’s forests and covering an aggregate area the size of Australia, it contains some of the greatest tracts of wilderness left on earth today.

I’d met an American man …. Tom Stone, a retired US soldier. He’d been on the road….around the world……His stories of Russia captured me …..
‘It’s a beautiful country, Chris, totally wild and free. The people are so down-to-earth and friendly…..’
He’d been telling me to remember the highlight of his journey: the BAM railway through Northern Siberia, one of the longest and most remote working railway lines in the world.

…..Russia…. It occurred to me that it was the women who were stronger, wiser and older. Many men seemed a little shriveled and devoid of life……

I have always been fascinated by faces and found the Russians to be especially expressive. When they are wrapped up in fur hats and coats all that remains is their large dark eyes and infectious smiles.

….the fabled Ural Mountains. This range, which is a mere wrinkle in the earth’s surface, forms the geographical divide between Europe and Asia……it represented the border separating western Russia from Siberia, which roughly includes all land east of the Urals as far as the Bering Strait, and as far south as the semi-steppe land on the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.

….the Soviet Union’s terrible waste management record, heavy-metal pollution and chemically enhanced crops……

Approximately 40,000 Russians a year die off alcohol poisoning, not to mention the huge number of alcohol-related deaths. Outside of Africa, the male mortality rate in Russia in 1999 was worse than any country, except Haiti. This could be attributed mainly to alcohol and tobacco abuse, little exercise and a poor diet. The mortality rate has been increasing ever since 1965, but particularly since perestroika when the old Soviet systems and institutions were thrown into disarray.

….life expectancy for Russian males is just fifty-nine years. This is shorter than men in three quarters of the world’s countries, many of which are much poorer. In fact, against the trend of most countries, the life expectancy for men in Russia has been declining since 1965 when it peaked at sixty-seven.

I don’t have very many bad memories of Russia, but finding a place to eat would have to be one of them. On many occasions we’d traipse up and down streets for hours, searching for a reasonable feed. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union many of the cheap stolovayas had closed. During the devastating economic downturn most people discovered that it was hard enough to survive, let alone eat out. With the rise of a wealthy class, cheap venues were replaced with exclusive restaurants, beyond the reach of the average citizen.
The cheaper places were usually hidden behind faceless doors, tucked away in student dorms, or down sidestreets in the basement of apartment blocks. They were relics of an era when advertising and customer service were almost nonexistent.

…outdoor shop. It was typically Russian. There were genuine Gore-tex jackets going at ludicrously cheap prices, and Chinese junk selling for twice as much. There seemed to be no logic as to how each item was priced or, for that matter, how it all arrived here.

The Russian psyche seemed so open and flexible. Although they are renowned for being overly bureaucratic it seemed that when rules got in the way of commonsense, sanity often prevailed. It gave me such a sense of freedom: anything was possible in this place.
At the same time, everything baffled me. Weaving between traffic, clambering over concrete slabs and down dusty paths, were women in high heels. These devushki – girls – and szhenshini – women – were supreme masters of grace. They held the same elegance whether they were making their way across ice in winter or crossing a potholed street in summer. Most flaunted stylish dresses and were caked in make-up. They contrasted so starkly with their surroundings that they could have been tourists from a world of wealth, as my mother and sister pointed out…..
All day they had been raving about how well dressed the Russians were, but when they came out from the toilets they were horrified. ‘My God!’ my sister…shrieked. ‘Tim, there were no doors or walls, and the toilets were just holes in the floor, and there was poo everywhere!’ Meanwhile the steady flow of women exited the toilets as if they were stepping out of a condominium.
On the one hand appearance and cleanliness meant everything, yet on another it seemed that function was more important. Russians respect beauty, but they also accept that living in a shiny world means masking the truth of human imperfection.

Baikal is a word derived from the Buryatian word bai-kul. It means rich lake and is the world’s largest lake, containing about one fifth of the earth’s fresh water. It stretches 636 kilometres long and reaches 1624 metres at its deepest point. They say that some people get vertigo when swimming in its waters – it is possible to see forty metres down on a still day.

Russia was a blend of cultures ranging from Europe to central Asia and the Far East. This complexity always made it appear that the culture was plagued with contradictions. For example, Russians were caught up in systems and laws similar to that of the Europeans, yet turned to ‘destiny’ and ‘luck’ to show them the way; they could be intensely cold and yet be the most hospitable and open on earth; they were overtly materialistic and yet deep-spirited; they could be incredibly moral, hard working and disciplined and yet be openly lazy and apathetic; they were great ones for following pragmatic plans and yet thrived on spontaneity.
The country escaped definition – it wasn’t Europe, it wasn’t Asia, and it wasn’t even a northern or southern culture.

A Russian almost always first thinks with his heart, and then with his head. That would explain the lack of rationale at times……

….Ulaan Baatar [Mongolia]….In our first hour we saw more bikes than during our entire time in Russia….. we discovered that you could buy 100 puncture repair patches for fifty cents. In Russia we hadn’t been able to find one puncture repair kit in 5000 kilometres.

…the Mongolians were the first people we met who didn’t blink an eyelid at the fact that we rarely washed.

We were in the middle of the desert and it was the first tree we’d seen in 1000 kilometres.

[on crossing into China] Outside of Ulaan Baatar, we’d seen perhaps a few dozen bicycles at most in all of Mongolia, yet here we’d seen a hundred before turning the corner. ….. I glanced randomly into windows and doors and saw more things for sale than it would have been possible to buy in the whole of Russia. Shelves were overflowing with all sorts of tacky electronics. There were windows full of stationery, cookware and bedding…one shop that sold bikes and spare parts …Packed onto the shelves …..were all the things that we had simply not been able to find in the mega-cities of Siberia. … Physically, the whole of Chinese Inner Mongolia looked exactly the same as the flat, dry desert of Southern Mongolia. Culturally – although separated by only a 100 kilometres and a fence – the two places were worlds apart. In Mongolia white gers dotted the horizon and herds of camels and horses ran free. Here the nomads’ homes were replaced by orderly cottages, and the only animals we saw were shaggy goats and sheep, penned behind rows of fences. We had scarcely seen a fence in all of Mongolia, yet here they were everywhere. The wild young men on horseback were now wrinkled farmers, putting along the road on loud, smelly, three-wheeled mini-tractors; the challenge of the endless sandy tracks had disappeared. Many of the people in the two Mongolias were related yet there was no sense of Mongolia’s wild, untamed freedom here. Inner Mongolia felt lifeless and constrained.
The towns, on the other hand, were something different again. Their life and vibrancy was a start contrast to the countryside.

…China…In a country where most of the billion citizens travelled by bicycle, the sudden appearance of our recumbents [bicycles] had been causing even more of a stir then they had in Mongolia and Russia. They were more interested but, at the same time, the Chinese had a different reaction, too. While more people stopped to stare, they stared politely and didn’t try to touch. Mongolian kids, in particular, had been the worst. They had invariably dived for the gear levers – flick-flick-flick…. – and we’d suffered more than a few broken gear cables as a result. Here the crowd was standing at a respectable distance, pointing and chattering curiously…..

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