A Grand Departure… and a Feeble Retreat (October 2004) – Russia

A Grand Departure… and a Feeble Retreat (October 2004)

“When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of out-worn buried age;

When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage …
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or State itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate-
That Time will come and take my Love away”
—William Shakespeare

“The proper function of man is to live, not merely exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

“Nyet! You cannot cycle through Siberia in Winter.”
“Nyet! You cannot register your visa for 90 days.”
“Nyet! The bears are not yet hibernating.”
“Nyet! This is not possible.”

‘Nyet’ means ‘no’ in Russian, and it was the first word I learned. I have since learned the words for ‘cold’, ‘snow’ and ‘very far’. They seem to suffice for most conversations.

Russia is being choked to death by pointless bureaucracy; forms and offices and pieces of paper and officials that look important yet achieve nothing and suffocate progress. I read a sign in an office we were waiting in – “…foreign citizens may travel more freely on the territory of Russia opened for writing by the foreign citizens on condition of informing of going…” Yawn. We snored through tiresome tides of “this form”, “that form”, “pay this”, “sign that”, “now come back in a few days and do it all again”. In the end they registered us in the region for just 10 days instead of the 90 we had requested. As we politely said “thank you” we decided to try to ignore future opportunities to visit registration offices.

Peeling paint blisters on dreary apartment blocks propped on 4ft stilts because of the difficulties of building on permafrost. Tears of rust streak the walls. Metal doors slam and clang hollow through half-glimpsed unlit, unswept, unloved passageways. Concrete staircases crumble to ski-slopes and middle-aged women look worn out too soon and far from their brief glory days as one of the beautiful young women of Siberia. Huge fading murals show sturdy men straining hearty muscles, grafting nobly for the good of the mighty Soviet Union. Battered cars, imported cheap from Japan, crash through grey puddles and rubbish lies where it was dropped. Yet children play and laugh the same as they do everywhere in the world. And as the days passed I discovered more layers to Magadan – smart streets, a brand new Nike shop, energetic people – hikers and artists and ambitious young people. My pessimism for Magadan dissolved into optimism.

I will not blithely tell tales of Stalin’s Siberian Gulags in just a few trite sentences. Today a statue, the ‘Mask of Sorrow‘, stands on a hill above Magadan to set in stone the memory of millions of murdered human beings. The statue is a huge concrete face, inset with smaller carved crying faces. On the slope below stand all the many symbols of the different religions of the prisoners as well as the hammer and sickle. Behind the main face the sculptor placed a small girl, kneeling with her face hidden in her hands, in tears or disbelief or denial or prayer or is she, perhaps, just another faceless statistic?

The ‘Mask of Sorrow’ is a monument, but it also describes the tangible atmosphere of Magadan I felt when I first arrived. I have never been to a place that felt so devoid of life, where the people seemed like shells, like objects on a conveyor belt merely going through the motions of life that a system has completely sucked dry. But was this ‘grey, gritty hopelessness’ all there was to life in Siberia or was it just a mask? I was eager to pour myself into post-Stalin, post-Communism, pre-Anything-Else Russia and see what life was really like. When you meet ordinary people living their ordinary lives you learn much more than you do from looking on from the outside.

Finally, and worryingly, I wondered whether the ‘Mask of Sorrow’ was perhaps my own mask. We were about to ride along the ‘Road of Bones’, built by thousands of dying prisoners to access the multitude of brutal Gulag mining camps of Kolyma. But beneath the confused numbness I felt in coming face-to-face with a history I knew very little about, beneath this I knew that I was churning with excitement at the challenges that awaited. Was excitement not appropriate here? What would all those victims think of me now as I prepared to ride down the road they had built at such cost; riding through their hell, their exile, their graveyards? Am I making all that I can of my fortunate life or am I frittering unappreciated precious time away? Preparing to take on a Siberian winter gives plenty of scope for soul-searching.

I thought of the War Cemeteries I had visited in France, the Monument to Peace in Beirut, Spion Kop in South Africa, the Falkland Islands’ memorials in Patagonia, the Holocaust memorial in San Francisco. And now this. And soon Hiroshima… “Lord, what fools these mortals be…”

The International Brotherhood of Pessimists (Siberia branch) had a whale of a time shredding our plans. I was given these odds on our chances of making it through Siberia by one gloomy fellow – “25% you’ll be fine, 25% you’ll scrape through, 25% you’ll have to quit, and 25% you’ll die”. Granted, we were travelling at the hardest time of year – too late for the summer roads, too early for the winter roads along frozen rivers, but thanks for the support, pal!

Narrowly escaping being transformed into someone from a Russian boy-band, I emerged from having a couple of continents worth of hair sheared off my head, and my ears and neck realized with a shock that Siberia in September was already pretty cold. The pessimists had already fast persuaded Rob that he had jumped in right at the deep and very cold end. I tried to balance respect for the hazards with enthusiasm and confidence, believing that once we were actually on the move things would begin to look more feasible. Plus, with Rob being a geography teacher I was comfortable that at least we would not get lost. This was important for my peace of mind. As we prepared for our start-of-continent swim in the sea and a photo by the huge statue of Lenin, Rob turned to me and asked, “Does the sun always set in the West?”

Siberian campsite
At our first camp we discovered that Siberian trees are too moist for easy fire-lighting and that one of our two stoves (new out of the box) did not work. For the first time I felt a splinter of real fear at what we were attempting. When the world is frozen solid you simply cannot survive unless you can melt ice and snow to drink. Siberia does not treat fools lightly. Even chopping down a big tree with our new (and heroic looking) axe did not restore my cheer that night.

But we fixed the stove and bought some fire-lighters and rode on. In gloves and hat and cold feet I stomped into a small shop where the radio was playing ‘Sand in my Shoes’ by Dido. It got me dreaming of sunshine and summer holidays: “…I’ve still got sand in my shoes… And I can’t shake the thought of you…”

We rode into a blue sky as autumn colours burned joyfully; a blazing celebration of brief defiance before stone white winter arrived to strangle the land. We relished the glorious golden days until one night winter slid its appallingly cold pale hand over autumn’s soft flank. The first snow fell. The pine needles shivered down leaving a road surrounded by the bony ghosts of trees bracing for the freezing onslaught that was rushing over us fast: squeezing, squeezing the life out of all it touched. Siberia is a beautiful, pure and daunting land. We skidded and slid and fell and bruised a good deal as we struggled with the first snowfall. We were on a very steep learning curve. Some days the skies were grey and pregnant with more snow, others were bright like a new razor – shining; slicing.

“…Two weeks away it feels like the whole world should’ve changed
I think I’ll leave it to tomorrow to unpack
Tomorrow’s back to work …”

Cars and lorries stopped to tell us we were crazy, to take our pictures and to ply us with coffee or “something a little stronger” and we began to discover the wonderful generosity of Siberians (as well as their fondness for a little “choot-choot” of vodka!) The collapse of Communism meant that the economies of the small towns were no longer propped up by the state and so became unviable. In the last decade people have left in droves for the big cities – Magadan, Moscow, the Baltic. Now the towns are ghost towns; smashed and empty shells, abandoned to the wind. Silent, empty, eery and sad to wander through…

“…Try to remember that I was happy here
Before I knew that I could get on the plane and fly away…”

…to wander through people’s front rooms and smashed hopes and torn apart friendships. I saw a heart and ‘LOVE’ � in English – scratched crudely onto a kitchen wall. Two ravens rolled in the sky and their coarse cries were the only movement in this land of empty towns and dreams, and a system that failed its people.

“…real life where I can’t watch the sunset
I don’t have time
I don’t have time…”

In the office of a small newspaper, Rob, surrounded by paintings of Lenin and Stalin, heroically attempted to give a radio interview in Russian, broke wind loudly, and collapsed into giggles. Life was already feeling cold, but at only -8C locals laughed at us and cried, with Monty Python fervour, “COLD?! This isn’t cold! When I was a lad…” Even Tippex here is approved down to -40C: that is one cold office! Still, cold or not, you would have to be a damn fool, or pair of fools, to run through the snow and howl and swim in rivers in Siberia in October…

We were about to turn off the road and embark on 1300km of almost deserted track to Yakutsk. We loaded up with high-calorie food for the first 12 days: 60 Snickers bars, 9kg pasta, 3kg oats, 3kg sugar, 4 huge sausages, 12 packs of soup powder, 1kg cheese, 1 litre oil, margarine, 12 cans of dubious looking ‘meat’ and 5 litres of petrol. We were worried that the cans of ‘meat’ may be horrible. Rob, on cooking duty that night, opened a can and shouted out, “Good news! It looks like dog food!”

But then my rear freewheel body [‘wheel’ in normal people’s English] broke, a problem I have never known before and consequently was not prepared for. Fortunately we were only 24 hours of drunkard-filled buses away from Magadan: a mere stone’s throw in Siberia. And so we have now beat an embarrassing retreat back to where we began to sit and wait for a FedEx replacement. When we left Magadan a fortnight ago our host, Father Mike of the Catholic Church, had cautioned us: “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” He was amused to see us back so soon.

With this maddening delay ‘furious winter’s rages’ grow colder every day and our visa ticks down. But, having now had a small taste of snow, Siberia, and the wonderful hardy people who live here and laugh and lead normal lives despite the tragic, wasteful bureaucracy and the geographical and economic isolation and difficulties of the region, I am more eager than ever to get back onto what I am sure will be one of the hardest, most exciting and most intriguing stretches of the road so far.

“…I’ve still got sand in my shoes
And I can’t shake the thought of you…”

Gulag – a History � Anne Applebaum. I realize, having read this book, that whilst I always thought of Hitler and Mao as horrific individuals, I did not quite group Stalin and the Soviet Union in the same brackets. I do now.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich � Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. I have not yet managed to find myself a copy of this book, but it was a ground-breaking revelation of life as a prisoner in the Gulag by the Nobel Prize-winning author who was himself a Gulag prisoner.

THANK YOU to those people who sent me Mini-Discs recently: much appreciated as always. (Especially to ‘Pop Bitch’ as I do not know who you are!)

THANK YOU to Sergei – perhaps Magadan’s sole cyclist – for all your help and hospitality… I know that he would love to meet any other bikers who make it to Magadan – svnims@yandex.ru