Round The World by Bike: Remembering a little Uzbek – Siberia, Russia

Remembering a little Uzbek
Siberia, Russia

Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in side-ways, totally worn out, shouting: “Holy Shit…What a ride!”

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really…Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
– from Brandon Lee’s grave, Seattle

Wet snow had fallen blindly on Magadan all night. Gleeful pessimists tried to look glum and made hay at our predicament. Five thousand kilometers of winter and barely ten weeks of ticking visa lay between us and Japan and a rest. On a billboard in town, Beckham roared and the Russian slogan declared “Nothing is Impossible”. I was bloody fed up of pessimists. We did get through in the end, and with a couple of days to spare, but it was a close thing. The last two months has been an unpleasant fog of thousands of kilometers of empty taiga, leafless, lifeless white birch forests, crunching snow roads and squealing stretches of ice where every nerve tightened in readiness for the next skid and crash. We crossed frozen rivers, tentatively. I had imagined frozen rivers would be flat and ice-rink smooth, but in fact they are a chaos of broken and frozen chunks of grey ice – the tangled frustrations of a fevered person’s bed sheets – dusted in thorny thistles of pristine white frost. One day, as we heaved the bikes over the frozen, rutted mayhem left by heavy trucks slewing through the summer swamps, I thought that surely this terrain was too bad for any traffic. I was wrong: a tank passed us that day before it detoured through a forest and literally smashed a path through the trees. We followed in its destructive wake as it made a nice change to the swamp.

In our mad race against the visa, our days began in freezing black starlight and ended, after up to 15 hours of riding, by frigid moonlight. Even glowing, rolling towers of Northern Lights did not make up for the lack of sleep. In that heavy-eyed haze the moon became my calendar – “by new moon we should have reached such-and-such a town.” Hours and days and weeks jumbled together. And interwoven in that unpleasant long race is a constant memory of horrible cold. -40C is a new record for me. Omyakon is the coldest inhabited region on Earth (record low: -71C). I remember stewing at +45C in the Sudan and promising myself I would always enjoy being cold in the future. That promise did not last long here! Which is worse, excess heat or excess cold? I think the answer is whichever one you are suffering at the time. Heat is a torment; cold a cruel pain.

Cold makes everything more difficult (except for the superb bonus of being able to carry ice-cream in your panniers!) Plastic snaps, tyres freeze to rims, metal sticks to flesh, flesh screams or moans an endless painful protest. My bum was bloody cold until somebody made me a reindeer fur saddle cover. Rob, sporting a true geography teacher-style enormous beard grew outstanding ice beards each day. My ice-beards were feebler, but I did sport impressively long icicle-bogies most days from my constantly runny nose. In such cold, every small task takes an age, an age during which your temperature plummets fast. Camping was tough and dawn brought little relief for the sun is soft this far north so late in the year, rising late and sliding sideways before slipping down once more into another long, unforgiving night. Dancing the ‘Funky Chicken’ at dawn was my strategy of choice for warming my toes: self-respect and dignity are low on your priority list at -40.

But this climate creates an unconditional kindness amongst the people who live in it. My weirdo masochistic psyche and my lazy alter ego would tussle briefly whenever we spied a ribbon of smoke pluming from a home hidden in the trees, or a village up ahead: should we push on a little farther and camp, or should we dash (a little too eagerly) to knock on the door and escape inside from the cold? Perhaps I am getting old; perhaps I am merely getting wiser, but I was certainly more eager to knock on doors than peg out the tent!

In the Soviet-built towns, where huge pipes criss-crossed the town carrying hot water to homes with laughable inefficiency, matchbox cars bounced through icy potholes, and twisted scrap metal and junk looked half-pretty beneath the snow, we would be welcomed into homes – whisked out of the cold – and fed with soup, bread and sausage. Yakutia is a nation within a nation and my fondest memory of Russia. The people resemble Mongols and their language, bizarrely, is related only to Turkish. What wild nomadic wanderings brought them this far I have no idea, but their language would be very easy to understand if you were able to understand a cassette being rewound at high speed. Whereas the Soviet Union tried to make even nature conform to its system (hence the stupid water pipes), the people of Yakutia live with the land, living in small farming communities with smallholdings of cows and summer vegetables and small cozy cottages. Because of the permafrost there is no plumbing or running water. Water is carved from rivers in paving-slab sized chunks and stored outside the homes in big heaps of giant ice cubes. An early morning dash to a -40C outside loo substituted spectacularly for the fresh wake-up shower I would normally enjoy back home. (How do you go to the toilet at -40? Answer: very quickly). The homes are warmed by wood stoves and as our frozen boots thawed by the stove we were fattened up with milky tea, bread, pancakes and homemade butter, jam and whipped cream.

On the day that I reached my 50,000km milepost (kilometerpost?) I also learned that George Bush had won another four years as the leader of our world. At this significant point I paused to think back over the turbulent, rocky roads of the last few years. I look ahead now hoping for a new beginning and a smoother road. I also pondered this: my generation has known two main enemies – first Russians and now Arabs. After riding 50,000km on 5 continents the two most delightful groups of people I have met are…the Russians and the Arabs…

We stayed with families, cafes, miners, road workers, bridge builders and in a weather station. Can you imagine a merrier scene than two Englishmen and two weathermen sipping tea and chatting about the weather? One of the weathermen, who I thought was on the nightshift, kindly offered me his bed for the night. I woke in the morning to find myself snuggled up with a completely starkers Russian weatherman! I paused briefly to reflect that, as a method of helping you wake up quickly and leap out of bed, this way was pretty good. I then woke up very quickly and leapt out of bed.

Russia has been one of my favourite countries with its extreme climate, extraordinary history and lovely people. But one major downside to the people is serious and endemic. Vodka. I have been horrified and repulsed at the grip vodka has, especially on the males. Fathers, policemen, drivers of heavy lorries – almost everybody urged us on to drink with them into oblivion. One night we met three vodka’d youths. Unfortunately they had a gun. Consequently they now also have our wallet.

Another night we stayed in a small hut beside a roadside caf�. Outside, the night was cold and white: snow and birch trees shining in the full moon. It was beautiful, but we were thankful to be inside and warm. We accepted the kind invitation of Lena, the caf� owner, to share supper with her and her husband and a little Uzbek man who worked with them. It was a fun evening and I learned the Russian for “to be or not to be” (“bate ily nye bate”). I liked the quiet, humble Uzbek man, but I do not know what prompted me to write a couple of pages about him in my diary as we sat together around the table: “…after all have spoken and he has listened he now speaks quietly to me… His face, half in shadow, half glowing from the stove is wrinkled and kind and maybe about 50… He talks of home, of the magical words ‘Samarkand’ and ‘Bukhara’, and of the steppes of Kazakhstan and the Pamirs of Afghanistan… He has roved half a continent without ego or glory… They are too often unnoticed by me, but Russia is full of these ‘little men’ and what tales they could tell me if only I bothered to listen!… There is no such thing as an ‘ordinary person’.” I don’t know why he captivated me, but as I went to bed I realized that I should respect everybody and then the attributes will shine through, rather than only respecting those whose attributes shine through immediately.

A few hours later I was standing bewildered at my helplessness. Everything I have ever done has been with a rather brusque “of course it is possible – you just have to try harder” kind of mentality. But now, whilst I knew that I could not do nothing, I also knew that I could not do anything. The cafe was enveloped in galloping flames; a sky-high manic laughter of unstoppable fire. The little Uzbek was still inside the cafe, trapped by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I was right on the cusp of being very foolish when, with a hard punch of heat, the gas tanks exploded and the roof collapsed. The little Uzbek was dead and I stood still, alive under a luminous full moon.

I dislike birthdays more with each year that passes. I grow grumpy at how carelessly I have frittered my time and I fret at how little time is left. But as the sun rose the next morning on my 29th year and my 4th birthday on the road I was smiling and thinking of the little Uzbek. Sadly I do not believe in a heaven of candy floss clouds and harps playing lift music so I am without that nice, reassuring comforter. But the Uzbek left a legacy that helped me to smile on my birthday: he reminded me of the thrill of being alive. I gulped down gasps of icy air, freezing on my lips and billowing out in great white clouds. Every day, every moment is precious. I will try to ride the Golden Road to his Samarkand with a smile on my face.

Against the odds, we reached the end of Russia before our visa expired and took a ferry from Vanino to the island of Sakhalin, from where we can hop over to the north of Japan. We also had another reason to visit Sakhalin: a friend, Alexis, has been living here for 18 months working for Shell. In all that time he has not had a single visitor so we decided to drop in whilst we were in the area. Alexis has also just got engaged. On top of all that, I can bet quite confidently that I’m going to have a White Christmas this year. There is plenty to celebrate. Merry Christmas!

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy. Sounds like the ultimate in excessively long, very dull ‘classic’ books. But I have just waded through all 1.2kg of it and loved it. An epic soap-opera and definitely a book for the beach.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard. She is a bit of a nutcase, but gloriously observant and crammed with a sense of wonder: she would be a fantastic cycling partner.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!

Robbery in Russia

Will I love this massive
Country of kindness,
Or will I fear a splinter of crime?
Three featureless and formless lives
Now shadow over so much that glows.
What shapes an impression?
The sweaty reek of ruining vodka
To numb the numbness.
Three faces: nondescript and wasted:
Only the clean black outline of their gun impresses on me now.
How outraged, indignant at those ugly shadows.
Would be all the solid dignity I have met
How unfair it would be for me to forget that.
But, though meager and shallow,
And though I will try,
I cannot ignore a splinter

The Altar of the North

This stove is my altar of the North.
Head bowed,
Palms spread I accept with grateful adoration
that warmth that refills my veins.

Sleeping beneath
a Siberian night is like a death,
Fascinating and terrifying.
With no beliefs beyond my experience
Must I feel that cold to believe it?
I dread what I covet.
I relish
I hate
I relish
And I snatch too eagerly at a chance to escape.

Escaping fear does not overcome it,
But tonight I am happy to kneel
Before the welcoming altar that reassures,
“Everything will be alright,
Stay with me tonight.”

But does it matter, in the end,
Whether you forge yourself steel hard
In the cold reality of indisputable experience
Or kneel
In a warm glow of comfort where you can
Remember the ice hard world as perhaps not quite so cold,
Remember your good intentions
Gold plated at some other time
Before some other crackling stove.

It is good to be alone
In this silent, still winter.
But it is good to discover
That you are not so alone-
A smoke-ribboned chimney,
Footprints in the snow
And to worship
At some Northern stranger’s warm stove.