Saturday, 29 June 2013

transitional mode

In Ulan Ude maybe half the people look distinctly Asian. They are Buryat, a Mongolian minority with an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The Siberian city is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia. They also have the world's largest Lenin's head in 42 tonnes of bronze which I neglected to photograph. I stayed with Dennis, a nominally Islamic Chechyan from Grozny. He showed me videos of that city and explained without English that it is a safe place. It struck me how similar it looked to my imagination of Azerbaijan. And how similar he felt to the Iranians and their desire to impress safety and hospitality. And how close his home was to the mountains I was cycling beneath back in December. And how vast Russia is spatially to be able to accomodate such a breadth of my trip, and culturally such different minority cities-entire. Accomodate is perhaps the wrong word for Grozny, but in Ulan Ude the fascinating gulf is harmoniously bridged.

Dad emailed me about lake Baikal. About stories from deep in the Turkish national identity of Turkic forefathers coming from that lake. And I was struck yet again by the travel of those original Turks, by their slow transition across space and time leaving bits of identity and language everywhere. The treat cherry drink of my Istanbul infancy, visne, has the same name in Russian. In Kazakhstan I added Lonon gin to it in a meadow, beneath a regional border sign offering the Kazakh (Turkish) hozgeldiniz (welcome) in Cyrillic script and then also neglected a photograph.

The road South from Siberia tracks another transition, from a cultural influence predominantly recent and Soviet to one I suppose ancient and something - many things - else. I'm not sure what! I suppose if I kept on past Mongolia I'd experience something akin to the gradient I felt between influences Islamic to Soviet, the intriguing segue and overlap of histories in faith and tyranny as I bore slowly North from Iran to Russia. Alas I shan't continue further than Mongolia; I speculate. Still there was even before the border here a change. Buryatia is Asian, no doubt. I'm curious to see what feels Asian beneath the cracked ex-Soviet veneer I expect still in Mongolia. Shamanism, nomadism... In fact there seems to be an awful lot of stockbrokers amongst Ulan Batar's CouchSurfing profiles! I've anyway my own looming transition to fade into, although it'll be far more abrupt than any of this. I Skype called a lady in Moscow airport to confirm my bicycle on the plane. I Skype called a lady in Norwich train station to confirm my bicycle on the train. Perhaps Aeroflot serve gin and visne, although I doubt it; Anglian Rail certainly don't.

I crossed the border this morning, in fact a day ahead of my visa. It's nice not to have to hurry anymore.

waiting for Dennis

Ulan Ude

Ivolginsky Dansat

sisters showed me the temple, and lunch


first Mongolian place, Sukbatar

Monday, 24 June 2013


I reached Baikal in time to see the full moon rise. A fifth of the world's fresh water is in this lake and the weather is appropriately drenched. Tonight I'm in a motel.

Irkutsk on the Angara

Baikal, from the Turkic bai kul, rich lake

Thursday, 20 June 2013

burnt and muddied in Irkutsk

I'm in Irkutsk. I didn't take the train, despite my plaintive melodramatics. Instead a grueling week which in fact, after the fact, I wouldn't change at all. The daily distance imperative threw all else into sharp relief, the clarity of necessity. There is a peace in committing to doing something regardless. I attacked my bug with more drugs, drove it to hiding in my lungs; deep enough to only cough through the hills and mornings. I was glad to ride. The traffic quelled a little after Krasnoyarsk, the kafes are further apart and the forests closer together. Siberia is a difficult space, wild and freeing. I didn't expect to be able to sit amongst so many mosquitos, or to rest in such swamps, or to find their flowers so beautiful. There's an absence of that civilised tendency for land and water to preclude one another. One night I almost sank in mud, past my knees. It was a huge struggle getting myself out and then getting the bike out without getting myself back in. Mosquito clouds above, expletives below. The mud clung for days. One flipflop peeled its sole and muddied and burnt I enter the little kafes with the flapping limp of an idiot. No wonder I get the surly treatment! Limp-flap-cough, five pancakes cream please. I don't hang about much, anyway, just sometimes washing my face in the little cistern sinks, limp-flap-splash, staring silence. Perhaps they don't get Channel One out here.

I lost those wretched flipflops in a different bog and the next day found some nice leather replacements on the verge. I met some villagers who gave me some bread. An older Russian man cycling the same way but rather more slowly. Some French 4x4s covered in those tacky rally stickers passed without so much as a wave but I caught them up later, setting deck chairs and making salads. My school French is now so buried beneath a year's mauled vocabularies that we got little further than un peu de l'eau, spasiba beaucoup and adieu as I left embarrassed. There was a brief violence, also, with a drunk motorcyclist who wobbily tailed me shouting who knows what and dollar!  On his second attempt at ramming me I managed to jab his steering and topple him. I was angry actually and shouted at him, lapel-grabbing even, before feeling silly and getting on my way. I've encountered so little aggression on this trip, and then it happens and is comically benign.

Irkutsk looks bustling for a city so islanded by land. I'm Couchsurfing in an extended-family home. I'm in my third time zone in three weeks. I'll rest a day or two here; Mongolia is close but the road is not straight.



timer fail


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

From Russia with Lurgy

Approaching a strange city in the evening of a long day there's always the question of when to stop. The longer the day the greater the attraction of proper provisions. The larger the city the greater the reach of its walls; the further out the infrastructure and conurbations clog the camping spots. You can't know when the easy-to-camp zone ends until you're past that threshold. The closer-in the less time; the faster, the darker and more populous. I love this, the chance and excitement of it. I remember racing for Igoumenitsa because I hadn't food or currency (the Albanian border having been Sparse) and arriving with the night to sneak sleep on a spit of city beach after a Greek feast. A similar night on a jetty outside Bandar Abbas. Less good, behind bill-boards in Bursa. A frantic snow-race into Samarkand... Loads of examples; win or lose it's tomorrow in the morning. Approaching Kemerovo then, the familiar quandary.  Two empty days, low food, hundred-mile hungry, sun already set... The highway dissolved, I missed the shops, crossed, crossed, recrossed the river, got lost, cross and ignored and just a carton of milk and biscuits to put my tent on a hard bit of mud in an otherwise swamp that advanced through the night. In fact the morning is only tomorrow if you sleep. I wasted an hour killing mosquitos instead of deswamping my home and then tried to leave town. Another hour up and down and round and round the hilly ringroads, the trunk roads and signless spaghetti junctions, lost in the city's morning; its tarry calescence and filthy coal trucks. Sunburn and sore eyes, a twinge growing in my throat. I'd have called Mum but for the time difference and having spent all my phone-roubles on two minutes with Dad yesterday afternoon (just long enough to precis the trees and topography, of course). Days often redeem themselves. There was a woman, eventually, at a petrol station who gave me the sweetest cak de la? (Russians don't ask unless they mean it) and I dug deep for difficult morning. She gave me a tin of cola and made a real effort to show me the (easy and obvious) way back to the M53, my trans-Siberian road. A year ago I think I'd have cried. I cry less, I notice.

Anyway, Russians. They're reading along, I see (I collect data, too), especially since my little press jaunt (again!) in Novosibirsk. That actually felt a little degrading. Fix something for the camera. Do your tent. Wait hours. Ride through the traffic again etcetera, but they did give me a map and the resultant little bit on Federation TV made me look friendly enough so I've been hoping it'll start winning me some road meals and invitations... Not yet! Just loads of photos with motorists. There he is! Quick get the foto-apparat. Yes something has changed since riding past Islam, as it were. I've never been quite so capably ignored as by Russians. It's perhaps unfair, having spent the last several months on the receiving end of that famed, dutiful Muslim hospitality, to apply my expectations. But I had gotten used to being regularly fed... I  am unfair; three charming incidents: A young security guard in Novosibirsk wandered over to show me an internet clip of himself and fellow Sibir football fanatics fighting and was heartily delighted at my suggestion of, perhaps, hooligans? (Yes yes! Subkultur! Like Angliski!), and then quite unexpectedly insisted I eat his lunch. A muscled, macho-glam man and his velvet-leopard-skin girlfriend picking armfuls of bright orange flowers whooped and waved to give me a bouquet as I passed. Two brothers flagged me on the M53 in fits of hilarity to offer several kilos of frozen fish. Ever polite I accepted a single fish, which was duly peeled off and packaged enormously. Some kind of Carp? (Twenty miles later I gave to it a kafeci devushka. No chance it'd fit in my pan and I've no time for fires at the moment, sadly. My Russian improves - I don't eat fish take this fish please it is good fish and she did. I do eat fish.)

It's harder work again, that's all, getting what I need. Is there water, please? - Nyet - How far is the next water, please? - there isn't. That default nyet. I think you just have to ask a little more. Perhaps I'm getting the hang of it. I've anyway little time for sociability. The physical bit has been difficult. I was winning for a while, I even got in front of the wind, and then a change. Some tonsillitic lurgy attacks me and I struggle to rest and eat properly. The last two days riding were extremely difficult. My throat is like a wound, coughing fits taste chemical and I lack the requisite meat-doughnut appetite. One little place (the Siberian settlements look like big-shedded allotments to me) had a post office dial-up computer next to the pharmacy and pleased with myself I used it to translate a prescription: BIG TONSIL PAIN. RELIEF PLEASE. ANTIBIOTICS? Whatever they are they're not working, although the devushka was amused.  

So I've been in Krasnoyarsk a couple of days, resting to a recovery that feels distant. My CouchSurfing hosts, bless them, graciously suggested it would be a pity not to ride the Trans-Siberian railway while I was here. So I'm wrestling with pride and all the other things. I'm not sure. Tomorrow I'll either ride out or settle into an eighteen-hour train compartment to Irkutsk. From the last five hundred miles I get the impression that there's little novel to see, anyway. Although there is something to be said for the sun - and that famous train - flashing through endless Birch rows. The odd Owl. Stormy skies over superlative space. You'll hear from me far sooner if I do get the train!

He was used to being called a freak...

big-shedded allotment...


chasing Spring