Friday 3 August 2018

Western Siberia and The Altai Mountains

Western Siberia, The Altai Mountains and Mongolia by bicycle 

 “Football's coming home, its coming ho……” Nope.  

So, it turns out, football isn't coming home this time around. 

Harry played well. Gareth looked the part (waistcoats have made a very strong come back), and as a nation, a united front, we communally agreed to like this bunch of lads. Our heroes. But alas, it wasn't our year....

However, for me, I wasn't ready to turn my back on the entire event just yet, in fact, I was keen to head straight to the heart of it all and explore the land of Russia (or, at least some of it) by bicycle.

Generally, Russia receives a lot of bad press- politically mainly. But, I was pretty keen to soak up some more of this vast country; the largest country in the world, home to 144 millions people- surely they couldn’t all share the same opinions and all-encompassing-life-outlook as the big V, Vladdy P- I presume thats how he’s affectionately referred to? And if not, then he really ought to. There’s scope in that name, and a post-politics career; ‘World leader turns Rap Artist?’ 

So I looked at my map of the world. It’s my favourite map. Granted, I also have a soft spot for an Ordnance survey (Because we all like to know when the next Phone-Box, Craft Centre or Roman Fort might show up #AmenMapSymbols). 

There are a few factors I consider when I take I my bicycle for a gander. Firstly I look at places that I know very little about. I’m always curious to see how people live and behave on different parts of our planet, and more importantly whether our perception of a place (often fed to us through various forms of biased media and misinformed rhetoric)  matches up to the place I see in reality. 

And secondly, I look at aesthetics- Mountain ranges top the ‘landscape chart’ for me; They're wild, powerful, changing places filled with interesting features, wildlife and people- and when I pedal across them, they never fail to fill my belly full of excitement. #ABellyFullOfJoy #AMoutainADayKeepsABellyHappay

I don’t claim to be any kind of ‘adventurer' or ‘explorer’ or anything dramatic like that, because that conjures up an image of someone stepping out into unchartered, unexplored, untouched territory-  someone pursuing a particularly  'epic' or 'daring' journey. That’s definitely not me. I like to pedal through interesting landscapes, but, even more so, through communities. And where there is civilisation, there are  amenities, there are roads, tracks, paths to follow, there is help, there is water, there is food, there is shelter, there are people, and where there are people, there is support. And when you look at it like that- It makes the world seem like a much more accessible, approachable, welcoming place to wander around.

Essentially, Im just keen to roam around a patch of planet that I know very little about, to observe the behaviours and ways of life of people belonging to a patch of Earth unknown to me. 

It’s not so dissimilar to when one visits a friends house- the way you subtly observe the differences in the way they run their households compared to your own. That feeling when you sit on someone else's toilet seat and stare at their bathroom interior, noting that their ‘go-to’ toilet paper is of the kleenex-quilted variety, whereas you had always favoured an Andrex…..and you can’t quite remember why....did you really just want a puppy?

 Or, the way you enter an acquaintances home and immediately notice that they’re a strictly ‘shoes-off-at-the-front-door’ kind of home, a pair of no-nonsense slippers greeting you at the doorway. Snazzy shoe-rack on the side. 

Or when you stroll into someone else’s kitchen to see a fresh bowl of fruit sitting casually on the counter, and immediately question why your household has always been  a ‘pack-of-digestives-on-the-side’ kind of place. 

And its the same when you venture into other cultures. It takes time to adapt to their routines, their food choices, ways of going about life. And it makes you wonder why we all behave the way we do. Who said a ham sarnie was an unacceptable breakfast choice? Yet a bacon bap was perfectly reasonable? How different are these two meal choices? 

Likewise, the sight of broccoli on the breakfast menu would seem positively scandalous at home? But offer up a bunch of other veg… say, fried mushrooms, tomatoes and onions? Well, right there, you’re half way to Englands finest breakfast!

It’s funny watching the things we do….seeing how societal norms seep so effortlessly into a daily lives. 

The Route
So, after some deliberation, I chose to start my bike ride in Western Siberia- a journey which would take me from the thriving Siberian city of Novosibirsk (Russia's third largest city), south along the banks of the Ob river and eventually into The Russian Altai Mountains- which, I have to admit, I hadn’t  even heard of 6 months ago. #BadGeographyTeacher #DisappointedInMyself #MustTryHarder 

The Altai Mountains extend1200miles across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China- from the Gobi Desert to the West Siberian Plateau. They don't match up in height to some of the worlds mega mountain ranges, with their highest peaks topping just over 2800m, but they're good enough for me.
Following my stint across this region, I plan to  cross the border into Mongolia, and pedal east to the capital; Ulaanbaatar. Thats the plan anyway….

Pedalling Pal
So, with a plan on the cards, I could do with a pedalling side-kick; Someone brave, sharp, courageous, able to tackle wild animals and able to withstand, well, whatever Siberia threw at us. Ideally, I wanted someone skilled in bushcraft too. I needed a woodsman maybe?   But also able to run from bears (And as I say that, I can very almost hear those smug voices telling me “you know, you really shouldn't run from bears. Just stand tall and look big” That sounds far easier said than done …..) 

What I needed was…. well, I need a well sculpted, marginally more athletic looking; Ray Mears. 

Anyway….my sister, Lizzie, was available at short notice, so for the first 2 weeks, we would ride together into Russia. 

Airport Check-in
We set off from Heathrow Airport in mid July. The adventure was on #GameOn. We bounded towards the fella’ at the airport check-in desk. #AllSystemsGo #DestinationSiberia #Comin’ToGetYa #StampMeIntoTheAdventure #SignMeInBaby #Yeehaa 

We handed over our passports in a polite and measured manner. 
He flicked through the passport, as they do. And then of course, there was that moment, the moment where the check-in guy looks down at the passport and then up at your face to confirm your identity. And in that moment you wonder how best to negotiate the encounter and whether you really ought to help the fella' out by adopting the same expression as the picture displayed in your passport- and for most of us, that’s not one which needs to be dragged up a second time around.

And following this moment, you feel this light relief when he confirms, with that classic photo-recognition-nod, that the photo is in fact you. I’m not entirely sure why we feel relieved at this point? Like there was ever any doubt that it was you? Why are you suddenly questioning yourself and the authenticity of your trusty, plum coloured, official travel booklet?  ‘It is my passport isn't it? Yes, I’m sure I went down the formal, official lines to gain it. Or did I ? Or did I accidentally buy a duplicate off a dodgy looking fella at 3am in the morning in a dark lay-by off the A5 in Shrewsbury….’

Mosquitoes? Where Liz? There. And there. And there. Everywhere!
Our bike ride began along the 2-mile-wide Ob river which winds its way through the open, green plains of Western Siberia. It provided us with a steady introduction to the country. To my surprise, the driving was incredibly calm, ordered and respectful. The ‘wild, vodka fuelled, Russian maniacs’ that I had so often read about, clearly didn't exist, or not in these parts at least? 

The villages we passed through were made up of traditional wooden Russian houses- Izba's. They're compact, colourful and hardy enough  to withstand the bitter winters (I presume, though some of the building work looked pretty patchy). And each dwelling usually came with a sizeable allotment out the front- a small patch of land to nurture some veg.  

There was just the one draw-back to our scenic jaunt along the banks of the Ob though- The mosquitoes. Sweet-Jesus. 

One afternoon, I thought it might be a nice idea to venture down a track leading into a damp, moist, hot, wooded area. This is a decision I would immediately regret for the rest of my life. In fact, as far as records go, I can confidently say that this was my very worst life-choice thus far. I had led Lizzie and I into a mosquito blood-donation centre. But the type where they don't take your blood in moderation and nor do they offer a sweet drink and a biscuit after. Swarmed be a frenzy of Mosquitoes, barely a patch of flesh was left untouched. We were to be rinsed of every ounce of red stuff are bodies could offer. The blood bandits were out in force and the only way out was a mad, frantic 3km pedal to freedom. 

After a hell-ish 10minutes, we eventually sought safety far away from the damp forest, but not before passing a, a……a… camp (think Butlins-on-Ob). What in Gods name was a 'holiday camp' doing in the mosquito-blood-donation-zone?! A holiday resort? Def: A venue for people to rest, relax and pursue pleasurable outdoor activities- a temporary release from the shackles of their routine working lives.

Well, I have no doubt, after their holiday experience, that the shackles of their air-conditioned, wildlife-free, office life will seem like a blimmin' dream in comparison. 

Following this incident, Lizzie felt it would be best to fumigate Siberia with insect repellant as we rode across. Just to be safe. 

Language Difficulties:
English is not widely spoken in Russia. The language uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which, from afar (and better still, without my glasses), words occasionally read similarly to english; like a countdown conundrum with squiggly drawings thrown in ‘for fun’ (Do I spy a new spin-off show…..#CountdownFunForKids. Yes, I think that programme would go down very well with todays youth. In fact, I think we can all agree that any event or show with the words ‘fun’ in the title can usually be guaranteed to be wall-to-wall, laugh-a-minute, wet-ya-pants, fun. Or everything but…. )  

кафе = Cafe 
Same, same but different…..?

Anyway, I now feel confident in my use of a few basic Russian words and phrases- enough to get me by; e.g Spasiba! Thankyou!. Not Placebo, and indeed, not placenta, but, Spasiba! 

I also feel confident in my use of some Russian food vocab- Chicken soup, for example. Though, having said this, I tried using a language app recently, and it turns out chicken soup isn't so dissimilar to ‘South Korean Crayons’. One to watch out for. 

Therefore communication is somewhat difficult and trivial daily tasks can be substantially lengthier because of it - Like trying to order food from a completely Russian menu. Joy.

The Restaurant…..

So there we are, Lizzie and I….we’re a bit tired and a bit peckish. No I take that back, we’re positively ravenous, ‘hanger on the horizon’ kind of stuff. And we agree, we’re not in the mood for South Korean crayons this lunchtime. So we walk into the cafe, confidently greeting the staff with our polished Russian, and we’re provided with a menu. 

We sit down to peruse the food options. I look over at Lizzie- she appears to be meticulously reading the menu, almost as intently as I. For a split second I wonder whether she’s picked up a strong grasp of the Russian language since we last sat down, and failed, to read a Russian menu. She thinks to herself, looks into the distance briefly to mull over the options and then appears to turn the page to see what other food choices are on offer. It all looks so convincing. 

We are in fact just pulling off the act of ‘restaurant etiquette’- simply following the rhythms and flows of a trip to a cafe, ‘playing the part’, if you will. 

And After about 5 minutes of looking at the, I can only call, word-pictures, we look up to one another, and with a swift shake of the head, we confirm that this menu is completely and utterly redundant to us, just as we anticipated.  And we also agree, that there is quite possibly no finer luxury in life than a menu displaying meal pictures. 

Reaching Gorno Altaysk

Lizzie returned home from Gorno Altaysk, whilst  I began my ascent into the Altai Mountains- the ‘jewel’ of Russia. It was just as well that Lizzie left here. The land was about to become very lumpy and Lizzie doesn’t like riding up lumps, humps and bumps (I try not to use the words ‘hills’ in earshot of her- she generally turns a nasty shade of off-white)

But before she left, I toyed with the idea of  exchanging her bicycle with mine for the next section of my ride towards Mongolia. Having read about the poor road conditions in Mongolia, I knew her bike was an all-round more suitable option. My bike, with its nimble tires are far from ideal for riding along dirt tracks and gravel roads. But, despite this, I felt that we had travelled so far together, my bike and I. We had been a solid team pedalling our way around the world- tackling whatever was thrown our way. I just couldn't turn my back on my bicycle at this stage, however practical another option might be.  It would feel like going on without a limb- like losing one of my opposable clubbed thumbs; Sure, they don't look great and they're not nearly as a efficient as their slender counterparts (I speak on behalf of the clubbed thumb community when I say that we were glad to see the back of those Blackberry mobile phone key-pads. Ridiculous sized buttons), but they still get the job done. Like my bicycle. He  certainly doesn’t have the tyres for the job, but we’ll plough on anyway, in a bumpier, marginally less stylish fashion than ideal. #Team.

Pedalling into the mountains was positively tremendous. The roads became quieter, the air became clearer, the world seemed to slow down a little...hang on, no, no, I slowed down a little. 

The ascent into the mountains gradually rose to about 2300m, first passing through alpine landscapes and eventually high up onto the  Chuskaya Plateau- an open, endless, barren, lunar-like area of land. 

Faces began to change, languages differed, religion altered. Up here, the predominately white Russian faces we had encountered throughout our journey in Siberia were replaced by Kazakh, Altai and Mongolia ethnic groups. Islam was now the prominent religion too. These gradual changes towards to border were something I have observed on so many occasions- and it quickly becomes apparent how the communities living in these regions are living on the periphery of their country, both in geography and culture. It's unsurprising to see why border areas are so often rife with conflict. It's near impossible to slice land up into 'nations' and expect everyone to 'fit in'. You simply can't box entire groups of people into the formal, political lines of countries in the same way you can't box people into a 'type'. There will always be difficulties. 

Life up here looked both hard and liberating in equal measure- far away from the hustle and bustle of Russias cities- but also poor and physically challenging. I spoke to an Altai woman, who was surprisingly competent in English. She told me about her life up here and casually mentioned that the mercury can drop to -50 in winter.  At this point, I quickly made a mental note to carry an extra layer should I ever return January, albeit unlikely- I was still having trouble adjusting the Yorkshire weather at home.  

I'm now just a stones throw away from Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country on Earth. My bicycle and I will cross the border tomorrow, riding into its expansive landscapes, in search of......well, lets just wait and see.