In The Zone-28 Days Later 05/25/2009
One chilly morning cycling through eastern Russia, my friend Ellery and I wheel our bicycles into a small roadside cafe to warm up. We order two steaming bowls of borscht and sour cream—a Russian staple.
The winds have been blowing a gale for two days, making bicycle travel slow and frustrating. Escaping from the bad weather, we sip tea, and look over our newly acquired topographic map, an invaluable resource for planning how far we can travel.
“We cross mountains, then hit flatland,” Ellery says. He flips to the next page which reveals a moderately sized city by the road. His index finger moves to the distant jumble of small brown squares and rectangles which indicate the urban area. We both know what this means. “If we push hard today, we might reach this town, and get to sleep in a hotel,” he says.
We eagerly hit the road and begin a mile climb up a steep mountain against relentless wind. On a bicycle loaded with over 50 pounds of gear, the experience of reaching a mountain top each time elicits the thrill of a well-fought personal victory. This morning, the feeling disappears as soon as I reach the top. A deep valley stretches before my eyes, the road visible for miles. In the distance, I make out a cloud of dust filling the air behind a moving truck. The vision is like a smoke signal against the horizon, signifying encroaching travails and the demise of our plan.
Ellery pulls up beside me and sees it too.
“Looks like another section of off road again,” he says, “I guess we can forget about that hotel.”
Slowly Going Up A Hill in a Construction Zone
As we hit more remote sections of Russia, the road quality decreases. We knew this before arriving; in two weeks, we will reach a section of the federal highway across Russia where the pavement turns to dirt for 500 miles.
Lately, we have run into an unexpected problem: construction zones. These are sections were the asphalt has been ripped up. Rough gravel and stones are left in its place. These stretches vary in length: some last for just several thousand feet, but are sometimes as long as twenty miles. Often new road signs are already put in place, and the road is merely waiting for a paving crew to arrive. We are not sure if lack of funds, poor local governance, or a bad Russian work ethic is to blame for why these sections of road are abandoned with the work half finished. Even the people who live her cannot seem to give us a straight answer.
“Eta Roccia!” They answer, smiling. “That’s Russia.”
Today, as we enter off road, we are lucky enough to know what we are in for. A small sign reads: Roadwork Next 20 Kilometers. It will take us at least three hours to cover the same distance we could do in nearly one.
The passage of car tires creates small paths in the rocky gravel where bicycle travel is possible. Vehicles turn the road into two separate sections: one covered completely in stones, another mainly covered in stones. In order to make way for passing vehicles, one often has to cross back into the rough section, riding over shifting rocks, where it feels as if the ground is moving beneath you. The sensation makes being perched atop a bicycle feel more like being in a kayak.
“This would actually be fun if we were on mountain bikes!” Ellery yells coming up behind me.
As it is, I ride in constant fear of falling, maneuvering over the rolling ground beneath me.
The difficulty is complicated by clouds of blinding dust which each vehicle draws forth from the gravel road. Miniature sand storms appear before your eyes in the distance, often long before you spot the car itself. As the tan cloud approaches me, I hold my breath, bracing myself as the vehicle passes. For an instant, you are lost in a swirling whirlwind of sand.
Brace Yourself: The Next Truck Looms Upon The Horizon
On a windy day, like today, the situation becomes more complex. As cars pass, the velocity of vehicles combined with powerful winds actually whips sand into the air too. After one large truck passes, I feel the grit of sand in my teeth. The dust in my mouth distracts me as a mighty gust of wind blows against my side; it is forceful enough to turn my handlebars to the right driving me off the road. I clip out of my pedals, and jump off the bike to avoid crashing. In doing so, I almost land on my crotch upon the bike’s frame, nearly losing my ability to ever one day produce the children I can tell these stories to.
Road cyclists in this part of Russia are almost nonexistent. Given the road quality, this is no surprise. When we reach construction zones, we are even more of a novelty for passing drivers than normal.
“I can help you,” a man says pulling up behind us in a big truck, and motioning for us to put our bicycles in the back.
“No, thanks!” We yell. “Tolka Velosypied!” “Only bicycle.”
Like so many other drivers, amazed by our presence here, he pulls out a cell phone, and kindly asks to take a picture with us.
By noon, we exit the construction zone and hit pavement. Pedaling through the gravel has left us exhausted, and we finish the long day fighting against the wind. It was four weeks ago on this day that we started our trip; the challenges continue to multiply.
Two days later, we reach the city of Blagoveshchensk. We repack our bags, discarding items we don’t really need to cut down on weight. Soon, we will reach the most difficult section of our trip: approximately 500 miles of off road. Luckily, we are well-trained.
Biting the Dust: Cars Leave Whirlwinds of Dust Behind Them
Blazing Saddles-Pedaling Past Wild Fires 05/17/2009
The spring of my freshman year in high school, my friend Luke and I accidentally started a small forest fire. Like many teenage boys in Maine, we were victims of that innate male curiosity for playing with fire that permeates rural communities.
The fodder for the flame was mathematics: algebra tests with grades we desired to forever conceal from our parent’s displeased eyes. We decided to burn the exams. One afternoon, Luke and I stole away into the woods near our high school in Blue Hill to destroy our academic burden.
We arrived at a small meadow flanked by saplings. Lacking sufficient time to design a fire pit, and believing we could stamp the flames out as they spread, creating a ring of burnt ground to contain the fire, we carried out our naïveact of rebellion. To our dismay, stepping on the spreading flames only made them grow stronger. Suddenly, the wind picked up,spreading the blaze to a tall stand of dry grass from the previous summer. The flames reduced the dry flora to cinders in seconds.
The strengthening flames cast our quivering faces in an orange glow. We had created something beyond our control. Panic stricken, we ran through the woods and knocked on the door of the first house we came to.
“We started a fire and we can’t put it out! Call the Fire Department! Please!” I said, adrenaline pumping, to the old lady who arrived at the door. My head turned back and forth as if on a slinky, painfully watching the lady dial the local Fire Department on a slowrotary phone, then turning to observe smoke from the woods undulating into the sky.
Putting out the fire was easy work for the trained professionals who arrived shortly. But Luke and I later faced the wrath of our parents and forty hours of community service.
Fires, caused by nature and humans, are an ever present force during the cusp of spring. Conditions can be so dry, that fires can actually burn the roots of plants and spread underground. Stamping on a fire can make it grow stronger.
Over ten years after learning this truth, I am now exploring more creative avenues of thrill seeking. My college friend Ellery and I are riding bicycles across Eurasia, currently following the federal highway across eastern Russia just twenty miles from the Chinese border. As the winter snows here melt, they uncover an abundance of dry plants, the perfect tinder for wildfires. In my home of Maine, spring is a time characterized by brush fires in the yard or burning blueberry fields. In rural Russia, the situation is far different and more extreme.
Wild Fires Burn Near the Russian-Chinese Border, Green Grass Sprouts in the Foreground After a Previous Roadside Blaze
Just two days into our trip, we came to a halt on our bicycles, staring at a fire burning by the roadside. The blaze had even ignited an abandoned tire in the ditch. Black smoke billowed over the highway.
‘Is this okay? Should we call somebody?’ I wondered.
An unconcerned man pushing a cart by the roadside and an influx of cars passing through the smoke seemed to indicate this was normal.
Russians seem to have a far more relaxed attitude towards fire than we do in America, which, in part, is shaped by the landscape. During a visit to Saint Petersburg in college, a man once told my cycling partner Ellery, “Russia is nothing but swamp and birch forest.” This statement holds a great deal of truth. Outside of the mountains, the landscape is almost identical: low-lying wetlands are interspersed with rolling hills which appear against the horizon like archipelagos covered in birch forest. The abundance of wetlands means raging fires often burn out quickly here.
The presence of fire in Russia is not merely a rural phenomenon. Once, passing through the small city of Spask, we saw what resembled several small camp fires burning in a park. Young men stood beside them warming themselves and drinking beer.
Fire Burns Outside of the Small City of Spask
Russians can be alarmingly easygoing; the ubiquitous presence of fire here is evidence of this mentality. Many young males, especially in small villages, will shun any sense of practicality or responsibility to start a party or have a good time.
“Do you drink?” Several young men ask Ellery and I as we stopped in a small village for food one Sunday afternoon.
“Sometimes,” I reply, afraid they will insist we indulge in unwanted debaucheriesif I answer in the affirmative.
“Then let’s go!” they exclaim opening a bottle of beer.
I politely inform them we must push on to the next town. Before we leave, they ask us how old we are.
“We are both 26,” I reply.
As the conversation progresses, we surprise each other; they are just as bewildered to discover that I do not have a family yet, while I remain as amazed to find that they have children, and are carelessly getting inebriated in the early afternoon. Unlike many American youths, who take time to pursue careers before becoming parents, these options are not available to many young people who inhabit small villages in the Russian Far East. Many begin having families in their early twenties.
No Need to Panic: A Hillside Burns in the Distance
The fires which ravage the countryside this time of year seem to follow the same behavior as rural Russians; their action can be chaotic and destructive, while at the same time creating new life. Although fire leaves charred earth in its path, it destroys the seeds of weeds, opens the earth to sunlight, and encourages new growth. Just days after a burn, green grass and flowers sprout from the soot. The acceleration of spring which wild fires bring to Russia must be a welcome fact in a country where the first frost can arrive in August.
Now, as I round a corner on my bicycle and see a blazing hillside, I think nothing of it. I am as unconcerned as the group of Russian men I pass by fishing in a small marsh and draining bottles of beer. My instinct to call the local Fire Department each time I see a blaze has disappeared. I recall the small fire my friend Luke and I started years ago. If we had been Russian boys, we probably would have left the fire alone, free of consequences, worries, or fear.
One afternoon, I habitually hold my breath before riding through a cloud of smoke emanating from a particularly large nearby fire. The smoke is so thick, it darkens the sun. Eventually, I cough as time forces me to breathe in the acrid haze. That night, I lie in my tent and cough again momentarily before falling asleep. The action makes me smirk. I had believed a 10,000 mile bicycle trip would make me healthier; and I find myself developing a smoker’s cough.
Lackadaisically Pragmatic: Young Russian Men Promote Responsibility One Minute, Binge Drinking the Next
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Japanese Syphilis 05/17/2009
We had a problem, and only one person could help. Her name was Maria, the study abroad director of the Far Eastern National University in Vladivostok, Russia where we had taken a Russian language course before embarking on our bicycle trip across Eurasia.
“We need a series of shots against Japanese Encephalitis,” we told her.
Japanese Encephalitis is a rare tick-borne disease existent in Central Asia. Transmission of the disease is extremely rare, but if contracted, can result in severe sickness, nerve damage, and even paralysis.
Maria’s eyebrows furrowed perplexedly as she picked up the telephone. In my limited Russian, I made out the following: “I have two Americans here who need a shot against Japanese Syphilis,” she said self-consciously.
“No, Japanese Encephalitis,” we corrected her.
“Ahh, I see!” she exclaimed with a relieved look as the entire office broke into laughter.
Vaccination against the disease requires two shots. We received the first one in Vladivostok, the second we would get after biking 500 miles north in the city of Khabarovsk. Beginning our trip through rural Russia without the full vaccination was worrisome. In Vladivostok, we had gone hiking one afternoon with some Russian students. After veering off the trail for an instant, Ellery found a tick on his pants. The snow had barely melted, but the disease bearing insects were already present.
The Russian Far East: A Breeding Ground for Ticks CarryingJapanese Enephalitis
After ten days of paranoid cycling, a nurse in a Khabarovsk health clinic gave us bad news. “Sorry, I won’t give you the vaccination,” she said. “The second shot severely weakens your immune system for several weeks. Even catching a small cold can make you very sick. I do not want to be responsible if you become ill while traveling in remote areas.”
Momentarily, we panicked. Camping for months in Siberia, and daily coming into possible contact with ticks, seemed like a death sentence.
Finally, we found a private clinic which agreed to give us the shot. Suddenly, I wondered if getting a shot that wipes out your immune system was more dangerous than not getting it. That morning, I had read a news report entitled: ‘Swine flu cases reported in Europe and Asia.’
Suddenly, the nurse entered the room.
“The injection is ready,” she said.
The vaccination complete, we left Khabarovsk two days later. That day, I noticed Ellery was uncharacteristically lagging behind. Days ago, I remembered him complaining of an upset stomach.
“My stomach has really started hurting again,” he confessed later, “I’d like to quit early today.”
That evening, we reached the small town of Volochaevka. My eyes widened as dirty children peered from the sides of flimsily constructed houses, some just covered in tarpaper. We had now entered that mysterious section of the country where the Russian Far East, the stretch of land along the Pacific coast, melts into the vastness of Siberia. Each day, the surroundings would become remoter, the villages increasingly sparse and impoverished.
Inquiring for a place to stay, townspeople directed us to the train station. The building was a direct reflection of excessive Soviet pride in the Trans-Siberian railroad; behind its shabby exterior and peeling paint, we found the inside decorated with elaborate mosaics, a tile floor, and fountain. The workers gave us the key to the building and let us camp on the floor. The kind gesture was a life saver; as I slept, Ellery’s condition worsened, intestinal troubles forcing him to make frequent trips outside to use the outhouse—indoor plumbing here is rare outside of the cities. At daybreak, I found my riding partner incredibly sick.
“I’m in a lot of pain, and I can’t stop going to the bathroom,” he admitted.
Recalling Ellery’s upset stomach days before, the cautionary words of the nurse in Khabarovsk replayed in my head: ‘Even a small sickness can make you very ill.’
Ellery’s condition did not improve. We pushed on to the nearby city of Birobidzhan. There, the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok assigned us a translator, and we drove to a nearby hospital. The conditions were grim: the pavement on the hospital grounds turned to a dirt road, the hospital itself resembled an abandoned factory. I was forced to wait outside while my friend saw a doctor. I sat watching several stray dogs fighting and smoke from a nearby factory curlicue into the sky. Bits of ash settled on my jacket.
The doctors believed Ellery had received a stomach illness exacerbated by a weak immune system. They prescribed antibiotics and after a lengthy rest we at last continued onwards.
Avoiding Tall Grass Where Ticks Lurk: Camping Before the Vaccination Has Had Enough Time to be Effective Against Japanese Encephalitis.
In the 21st century, modern medicine has made world travel safer than ever. In comparison with Spanish conquistadors or the fur traders who first explored the land which is now Russia, we face minimal threats. Today, vaccinations against deadly diseases and medical treatment are often merely a short trip away. In more undeveloped regions of the world, the difference between the past and modernity is more tenuous. It is easier to recognize your mortality here; we are not the invincible creatures which modern medicine often leads us to believe.
Healthier and with this thought in mind, we continue onwards. Further into the wilderness.
Weak And On Antibiotics, Ellery Ends One of Our First Days Back on the Road
Helping Hands 05/01/2009
The television crews filming us as we left Vladivostok, Russia, beginning our bicycle trip across Eurasia, returned to their offices to edit the footage. That night, our story was beamed into television sets all across Russia from Magadan to Moscow.
A Typical Morning: The Local TV Station Tracks Us Down for an Interview
On Orthodox Easter, we arrived in the small village of Lyaleechy hungry and with no place to stay. Soon, we met a smiling store owner named Lena, and asked her where we could camp.
Lena and Her Family
As often happens while traveling, I began to feel like an ambassador from my country. Considering both the strict visa requirements and vastness of Russia, we are often the first, and maybe only, Americans many of the people we meet will ever speak with. Russians are characteristically loquacious and inquisitive. During my interactions with them, I attempt to reciprocate by providing each person with the most articulate responses as possible to their questions about my country.
Roadside Assistance: A Man Stops as Daylight Fades to Call a Friend to Find us a Place to Stay
A Friendly Russian Girl Showed Us The Bike Shortcuts Around Town