Sunday, June 27, 2010

Once upon a time in Russia

From Kosh Agach to Biysk

A long, long time ago in a land not too far from here, two cycle tourists emerged from a rugged wilderness and headed off in search of the land of Alpen Gold. At first Ali and Andrew followed the crumbs of tarmac, scattered by former communist regimes that had trodden this path before. By and by, they came upon a very large fence, designed to keep out the fearsome hordes who threatened to overrun this land with felt handicrafts and Chinggis Khan vodka.

‘Alison Margaret Jarman?’, the stout lady enunciated clearly in a thick accent from behind the glass window. ‘Yes…umm…da!’ she replied, and with those words the two cyclists tumbled through the entrance of this Russian burrow down a long tunnel of bureaucratic formalities and into a land that became curiouser and curiouser.

First came the wonderful abundance of brightly packaged and delicious goods in a real, genuine supermarket. No longer pointing helplessly from in front of the counter, Ali gathered her goods into a basket and proceeded to the checkout, having previously swapped her Mongolian tugriks for a handful of magic roubles. Though the abacus flummoxed her for a moment, a good old fashioned calculator was eventually brought out. Packing her dried fruit, real coffee and smoked cheese into bright red panniers, they then set off into the forest.

By now, they were following the carefully placed row of white dotted lines, marveling at how smooth their path was. They rode on and on through incredibly green river valleys, rolling downhill all the way. Ice-cream capped peaks peered over what could easily have been Mongolian mountains. The thick coating of conifers, though, told them that they were definitely not in Mongolia any more.

From Kosh Agach to Biysk

As the villages became more frequent, so did Ali’s exclamations of delight at the quaint Russian-ness of it all. Wooden cottages with painted ornate window frames. Babushkas in floral print dresses and kerchiefs shading their snowy locks. Geese and horses foraging together in kitsch backyards. Stout singleted men tending their mandatory blooming garden plots. Roadside vendors at all stages of motherhood selling buckets of wild strawberries. Eventually, they reached a riverside town of Russians on summer holiday, and a strange thing happened. No-one turned to look at us, kids rode past us on bicycles with towels around their necks and gruff shopkeepers served us without caring for our travels.
Their unprecedented downhill run was gently interrupted by a couple of climbs and a very welcome change of weather. The enticements of a small village shop staffed by babushkas offering small cakes and icecreams had lured them in moments before the storm broke. Having paused for a period of scoffing and language-barrier charades they escaped the sticky clutches of these women and rode on into the rain-cooled hills.
Andrew proceeded to power on uphill, Ali stayed constant in her speed – slow and steady wins the race, she thought. They passed by wooden cottages set back a little into the forest with chimneys puffing smoke, and wood-gatherers nearby. Friendly Russian tourists offered them encouragement, political commentary via mime (re: Kyrgyzstan) and a souvenir cap. And on they rode into the mist-covered mountains where they followed signs to a campsite only to find a cleverly disguised summer holiday camp with welcoming warm showers and hearty camp-kitchen food.

And on they rode, and then they rode a little further. ‘The altitude is falling, the altitude is falling!’, Andrew informed Ali with keen reference to his GPS. And still the downhill run continued – through yet more wooden villages, grassy meadows and over raging rivers. Yet a trap awaited them as they passed from the charmed Altai Republic into the land of Altai Krai. The vicious mosquito monsters of the low-lying swamp lands feasted with delight as these two travelers searched in vain for a comfortable spot to rest for the night. So they rode on and on, and then on a little further.

Eventually, Ali and Andrew arrived in the charmed citadel of Biysk, where they were immediately overwhelmed by the dizzying array of the offerings of the capitalist kingdom. Retiring to the castle Gostunitsa Tsentralnaya, they rested their weary legs and ate happily ever after.


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