Semey is regrettably famous under its old name Semipalatinsk for decades of Soviet nuclear testing that only stopped in 1991. The city's subsequent rebrand focuses on culture and history; it's a proud place, all museums and monuments. Dostoevsky lived there. My friend Arday quickly revealed himself to be one of those gratuitously generous hosts so familiar since Turkey. He runs Semey's largest banya complex and gave me the run of it, along with every other gift he (and some I) could think of. I left after two days, unsure where I'd go but unable to keep receiving so much in good conscience (odd considering what comes next). I rode around a while, halfheartedly casing camp-spots before picking up a cryptic chain of text and email which I followed to the central fire station. Somehow I was expected and in no time bike and I were fire-engined to a sponsored hotel, as long as you need. My week was immediately diaried by the full, official guest treatment. A five day glory-tour of fire stations, memorials, museums and galleries replete with drivers, guides, top-brass lunches, press and translators. The latter were unable to explain exactly how I'd been identified and contacted; it remains a mystery. I think my actual (un)employment status was lost in translation and as days progressed, organisational fawning increased and my situation spuriously spiraled, I rather lost the nerve to come exactly clean. Faintly fraudulent but quite fantastic. Each evening brought a different officer knocking my hotel door to drive me to drinks and dinner. Monday's press conference spawned such a volume of TV and newspaper coverage that a hundred miles later I'm still struggling to spend any money in the shops. Reports were forwarded on to the Siberian press and I spent an enjoyable if quite weird hour on Google translate reading about the 'courageous fire-philosopher'. The best comment on one .ru page about the English Fireman Cycling Siberia made me feel perfectly vainglorious: madness of the brave, we sing appropriate songs. I expect it sounds really good in Russian.
Unlike the real ticks that you can flick away the mental ones seem to cling on across continents. Having appointments again, expectations and 9ams, I suddenly, predictably, found myself quite sleepless. Haggard by Thursday; I left - sluggish under load of gifts after farewell lunch with the Chief - happily back to my real ticks. Tomorrow I'll enter Russia. I write this from the internet connection of the Kazakh Agricultural Import Tax Office near the border, who of course invited me for tea. There is that other typical question, why are you traveling like this? One obvious answer is for all the unexpected bits.
So many photos taken that I didn't really bother with them myself.
Posts from Russia will be mileage dependant.
|chief, dep, matey Dmitry and I|
|really liked this memorial|
|view from this morning|