We have reached Asia!!!!
We have also successfully surfed a couch! For those of you who haven’t come across it, couchsurfing.com is a website that links up travellers with hosts all over the planet. Getting your profile set up is a bit of a hassle, and feels more like a dating-agency than an accommodation bureau, but once that’s out of the way then it’s simple enough to search for and contact hosts.
Our host in Perm was Ilya, who has an apartment overlooking the Kama River within walking distance of the city centre. Perfect!
One of his hobbies is aerial photography using a camera mounted onto a large radio-controlled plane. We spent the morning helping him make a couple of flights over the city. Keith would launch the aircraft skyward whilst Ilya operated the controls, and we also helped check that the radio-tracker was following the plane properly. It can operate over 3km away and it’s really unnerving to watch this expensive-looking piece of kit become a tiny glint against the sky and then, in the blink of any eye, disappear from view. Ilya seemed pretty calm though and has clearly been doing it for some time. Thankfully the plane returned successfully after each flight and we hope he got some good shots.
Our arrival in Perm was rather badly timed as we arrived at Ilya’s about 40 minutes after the water had been switched off across the whole city (to enable some work to be done on the system). That was on Friday evening, and it was not due to come on again until Sunday morning. Ilya had filled the bath and some basins with water for flushing the loo and washing in, but our fantasies of warm showers and a washing-machine load of clean clothes would have to wait a while longer. To our delight the water came on earlier than expected at midnight on Saturday.
We didn’t visit any of Perm’s museums or galleries, but did pass an enjoyable afternoon following the ‘green line’ walking route. There are at least three walks around the city marked by painted lines on the pavement and leading to bilingual information boards at places of historical, romantic or architectural note. Our favourite snippet of information was in one of the parks where we were told that “Anton Chekov had an amusing incident here – when he wanted to enter the garden he could not open the gate as it was blocked by a pile of snow.” A guffaw-inducing incident indeed and most worthy of record.
On Sunday Ilya was out all day at a shooting competition and then picked his wife and baby daughter up from their weekend away, so we had the flat to ourselves until late in the evening. We washed all our clothes plus sleeping bag liners, added a links page to the blog, read through the application forms for our Kazakh visas, bought our train tickets from Yekaterinburg to Omsk online (only to find out a week later when we arrived in Yekaterinburg, that the purchase failed) and tried to find a couch to surf in Omsk. Whilst Keith was working with the computer, I went out on a mission to get my hair cut, pa-Russki! Armed with our dictionary and a photo of a woman with cropped, short hair I strolled around looking for places that might be hairdressers. The first two I found were closed, but the third, located up a stairway and along a corridor in what looked like an otherwise unoccupied building, was open, and the woman was delighted to prune my unruly barnet. Pedalling up hills is now a far less sweaty affair.
We said our goodbyes and thank-yous to Ilya and his wife on Monday morning and headed north for about 30kms and then east. If you know your Russian geography this may have seemed like an unusual direction to take to go to Yekaterinburg, which lies south east of Perm, but in our quest for quieter roads we decided to add an extra 100+km (turning a 4 day ride into 5 days) to our route and thus avoid the M7 and its incessant roar of trucks.
The roads have not been entirely quiet, but we’re pretty confident they’ve been quieter than the main Perm-Yekaterinburg road would have been, and the tarmac has been quite excellent in places. The Ural mountains lie between Perm and Yekaterinburg, so unsurprisingly the terrain has been increasingly hilly, but the good tarmac has taken some of the pain out of the climbs, and has meant the descents have been exhilarating affairs, seeing us reach a new maximum of 82.5kph (about 51mph). Big grins (and white knuckles) all round!
The towns have been few and far between, and in between has been forest. Lots of forest. Lots of dense forest. In other words, it took us ages to find somewhere to camp. On our first night out of Perm, we’d done 113km and arrived at the turn-off to the Perm-36 Museum (Perm-36 was a prison or gulag where criminal & political prisoners were interred between the years 1946 to 1987). We were only 2km from a village in a rare unforested section of unruly wild meadows and decided to head down towards the village as we thought the terrain looked more promising down there. To our delight, we found a mowed track leading off into a meadow, culminating in a turning circle. We couldn’t imagine why it was there, and decided it would do just fine for us. We were both tired after the hills so rather than pitch the tent we lay the blanket out and fell asleep in the evening sun. After about 30 minutes an elderly motorbike and sidecar bumped into view, ridden by an equally elderly, lean, weather-beaten man with an impish grin, and a young girl who turned out to be his granddaughter.
Geen, the old guy, was intrigued by our story and insisted we should stay the night with his family, and watch the Olympics on his telly. We said ‘thank-you very much’ and packed away the blanket. Before we left, he took Keith down to a small hidden river where the reason for the strange mowed pathway became apparent as he checked his nets for fish.
We began to follow him back to the village, but lost him within moments as he roared off on the gravel road, but it wasn’t a very large village and we found him again when we spotted his granddaughter walking down the street and she pointed to the house. We stepped into another universe at that point and situations veered from slightly uncomfortable to comedy gold and back again without warning.
At first we weren’t even sure if we were at the right house. There was a sidecar outside, but it belonged to another man, who’d arrived at the fishing site as we’d been leaving and was now sitting on a bench in the yard of the house as if it was his own. We didn’t know Geen’s name at that point and couldn’t make the man understand who we were looking for. After several minutes of us just hanging around as it was the house that the granddaughter had pointed to, Geen appeared from within a barn in which his own motorbike was parked. He indicated we should bring the Pino into the yard, and moved the other man’s motorbike, the goat and a territorial rooster out of the way to make room for it. He then started telling us about a hotel down near the museum. We said we couldn’t afford a hotel and he said it was free, but then he made no move to show us to the hotel so we hung around for a while longer in the yard whilst he chatted to the other man and to a woman who had appeared and who looked none-too-pleased to see us there. He then went and got some schoolbooks filled in with English and bade us sit and read it with him….we couldn’t work out whose it was but it passed the time and we learnt a few new Russian words in the process.
At length we enquired again about the hotel and he ushered us and the Pino into the barn. We left the Pino (somewhat reluctantly) amongst the chickens and followed Geen up some rickety steps into his home. We passed through a pantry area which also contained a stove, and into a room dominated by a traditional Russian heater. To the left was an archway leading to the granddaughter’s room and we were led to the right of the huge heater passing the small toilet (more on that later), some cupboards and around into the main living area, which contained a sofa (that we were to sleep on), a TV (with a hole cut into the stud-wall behind it to allow it to fit in the room), and a small L-shaped bench and dining table. In the wall with the cut-out for the TV there was an archway leading through into a further room, but we couldn’t see what was in it. On the windowsill, a heavily pregnant cat was sunning itself.
We were invited to sit down at the table, Geen disappeared, and the surly-looking woman took his place. She still didn’t look very pleased to see us, but gave us some mugs of tea, and then instructed me to start chopping tomatoes into a bowl for salad. It wasn’t clear if it was for everyone, or if just Keith and I would be eating.
We were trying to establish this when all of a sudden she gave a squawk and rushed from the room, shouting for Geen. When we’d been led up the rickety steps he’d propped the door at the top open for us, and the goat had taken full advantage of the situation and was now in the pantry causing havoc. We had to laugh to ourselves, but couldn’t help but worry that this wasn’t going to help endear us to the lady of the house, who we still hadn’t been introduced to, and so we started to try to work out how we could leave without offending anyone.
We couldn’t think what to do, and so, after the goat had been evicted and some semblance of calm had been restored, we said ‘thank you very much’ when the lady presented us with some mashed potato and kidney stew to go with the tomato salad, and it was genuinely delicious…and I’m not usually a kidney fan.
Geen had now reappeared and said we must have a banya, he then insisted we should sleep in the room through the archway rather than on the sofa. His wife (as we’d now finally established having at one point thought they were brother and sister, but then worked out the brother she’d been referring to was in bed in a small room up some steps from the pantry and was unwell) looked at Geen murderously, and we realised that we were being offered their own bed. We absolutely refused to go along with this and said firmly that we would sleep on the sofa or in our tent, at which point Geen’s wife seemed to like us a whole lot more and the evening became a lot easier from then on.
Keith was taken to see the banya and discovered that Geen had worked as a fireman in Bishkek and moved to the Urals 10 years ago, and this was his fourth wife. We never did establish his granddaughter’s story and where her parents were. I sat with his wife and granddaughter watching a crime drama and making occasional conversation with the granddaughter about their five cats….whose ranks were due to swell in three weeks time when the heavily pregnant cat was expected to give birth.
Banyas take about 2 hours to heat up, but at last it was ready for us, and Geen’s wife provided us with towels, shampoo, pyjamas (me), trunks (Keith) and socks to wear after the banya. Geen led us across the yard and into the banya. The set-up was very similar to the one we used when we stayed with Igor’s family: there is an outer room where you undress, and then a swelteringly hot inner room with a ferociously hot furnace, a tank of boiling water (mind your ass when turning round!), some basins of cold water, various scoops and buckets, and some wooden benches. Geen had also thoughtfully provided a bucket of boiling water with some leafy birch branches soaking in it.
I was told to wait in the outer room whilst Geen took Keith into the banya for a guided tour of the various implements. He explained one should go into the banya, soap, scrub, whip and rinse (we’re still not entirely sure of the order) and then take some time in the cooler outer room before going back in for more banya action. As a parting instruction after showing us the lock on the outer door, he gave us his impish grin and pointed at us in turn saying “Man. Woman. Sex.” before tittering into his hand like a schoolboy as we shooed him from the room.
The banya experience is growing on us, and this one particularly so as it wasn’t quite as hot as Igor’s, but we still felt like a shower would be nice afterwards as you’re still so sweaty after exiting. I’m not sure what slapping your body with flaccid birch leaves is supposed to do for you, but the exfoliating scrubbing band was very nice and our skin did feel good the next day.
After the banya, Geen’s wife showed us some photos of her and her family and friends, and we reciprocated with some of our pictures. The Olympic coverage started at midnight (Perm is 5 hours ahead of the UK) and at around 1am we all went to bed. Before retiring, Geen gave us a tour of the toilet. The loo itself was fairly standard porcelain, but with the lid removed from the cistern. The adjacent sink had no taps. To get water you pushed a plunger up into the bottom of a water container above the sink (filled by hand from somewhere else) and water trickled out. To flush the loo, you pressed the button on top of the cistern as normal, but then to re-fill the cistern you had to put an electrical plug into a socket beside the sink, which then powered a pump to draw water from somewhere. The water came through a piece of plastic hose-pipe that was strung along the wall behind the sink and emptied into the open top of the toilet cistern. When the cistern was full, you removed the plug from the socket and hung it back on the adjacent hook. Geen was very proud of his gadgetry and announced ‘Automatic’ with a big grin as he demonstrated the pump.
At 7am the next day we were awoken by a mewing noise and Geen stumbling around our bed in search of a cardboard box for the cat which was in the process of giving birth in the corner of their bedroom. His wife got up and took the goat for a walk along with the neighbour’s goats and we got ourselves up and dressed. Geen made us a huge plate of delicious pancakes and then his wife came in announced that the goat was eating our baggage. We’d been worried about the goat and our belongings the previous evening, but as it had been locked away after the pantry incident we’d ceased to fret and had (naively) assumed that after such antics it would be tethered somewhere away from our bike the next day….but no….it was free-range and had sneakily pulled open the zip on one of our bags and gobbled down a banana and a cling-film wrapped cake before being discovered. We were quite relieved it hadn’t eaten the bag. The unrepentant goat had been removed from the scene of its crime by the time we got there, but the territorial rooster still had to be held at bay with a rake before we could get to our bags which we decided to bring inside for safety whilst we finished our breakfast. Sadly our bags were not quite as safe indoors as we’d hoped. Whilst the mother cat laboured away just a few feet from us through the archway into Geen’s bedroom and the three other females attended to their breakfast beside the huge heater, the tom cat sauntered in, gave our bags a cursory sniff, sprayed his opinion across them, and then sauntered nonchalantly out again, whilst we sat rigid with impotent indignation and Geen’s quiet granddaughter broke into a rare and lovely smile. I could have wrung the damn cat’s neck, but saw the funny side of it too; having grown up in a house of animals and general chaos there was something soothingly nostalgic about Geen’s place.
With heartfelt thanks for their hospitality and generosity we left Geen’s house laden down with tomatoes and cucumbers that they insisted we should have, and pedalled the half a kilometre or so to the Perm-36 museum.
On our travels we’ve visited a number of museums about prisons and oppressive regimes: the Nazi concentration camps of Mauthausen in Austria and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Budapest’s Museum of Terror, and the utterly compelling Museum of Occupation in Riga, but whilst there are many common themes, each has its own story and Perm-36 was no exception. The conditions at Perm were not as brutal as at Mauthausen or Auschwitz – inmates were not slaughtered or worked to death in quite the same manner as at those camps – but its story is no less emotionally draining to hear and no less important. It should not be forgotten that many millions of people died while interred in the Soviet gulag system and during the worst times, life expectancy upon imprisonment, was as low as 7 months.
At one time there were thousands of prisons for political prisoners in Soviet Russia, but as the political system changed the prisons were destroyed in an attempt to hide the past. Perm-36 is the only one remaining in Russia. The period for which the museum has the most exhibits is the period from 1972 to 1987; before then, and particularly in the ’46-’53 Stalin years, the documentation is simply not available to confirm exactly what happened. The prison conditions were certainly more brutal in the early years: men were sent to do hard labour in the uranium mines of Eastern Siberia, and the wives and children of political prisoners were also imprisoned for their husband or father’s crime. There was a particular poignancy for me in the exhibits from the Stalin period as my Czech grandfather had been sent down the uranium mines in the early fifties.
By 1972 conditions had improved considerably – more food and sufficient medical care to keep people fit to work (manufacturing electrical cables and elements for irons) – but remained inhumane by any standards. Men whose ‘crimes’ ranged from translating into Russian books that the authorities disapproved of to speaking out against human rights abuses, or simply not agreeing with the government’s policies were housed along with non-political prisoners in cold, overcrowded dormitories where the men slept on bunks made of planks. Toilet and washing facilities were limited. In the evenings they had some free time in which they could write to their families (maximum two letters a month, which of course were censored) and then they had two hours of lectures on Soviet policy to encourage them to see the error of their ways. If they did not comply with the prison rules their mail privileges were rescinded and they were sent to punishment cells, which were spartan in the extreme, and their food rations were reduced.
Prisoners who obeyed the rules were allowed visits from their families. Twice a year they were allowed a three hour visit, and once a year a visit of up to three days, although none of the ex-inmates who’d been interviewed could recall any visit longer than two days. We saw the rooms in which these visits took place, and, perhaps it’s the latent romantic in me, but I found these more upsetting than the punishment rooms. The three-hour visits were conducted in a small room containing three chairs. Two chairs faced each other and were for the prisoner and their spouse. At right angles to them on the midline between the facing chairs was a chair for the guard who would sit with them for the duration of the visit. Separating the two facing chairs was a wooden partition extending from floor to ceiling, with a glass panel at face height. Sometimes, the guard would cover his eyes and allow the couple to extend their hands around the partition and touch their fingers together. And this was happening as recently as 1987 to people whose only crime was to have the courage to speak out against a regime they did not agree with. And of course is happening in some places to this day. We feel humbled by our visit to Perm-36 and grateful to the people who work in the museum to ensure future generations understand and cherish the freedom they enjoy, and continue to speak out against human-rights abuses.
We pedalled onwards and passed through a low point in the long band of the Ural mountains which run north to south. The continent of Europe ends at the watershed-line in the middle of the Urals and thus we passed from Europe into Asia and we’re pleased to report that Russian hospitality on the Asian side of the Urals is just as warm as on the European side. We were on a stretch of road with few villages and needed to get some water so stopped at a cafe in the hope that we could buy some water there. Not only did they fill our bottles for free, they also insisted on bringing us ‘compote’ (a drink made from jam we think) and a pastry-wrapped beef-burger and a plate of cakes, and then insisted we take with us a bag full of tomatoes, cucumbers, tinned beef and chocolate, and even though it was only midday and we’d had a late start (we’d only done 10km by that point) we had the hardest job turning down their repeated offers of a banya and a bed for the night.
Later the same day we were resting in the shade next to a Magnit supermarket after having done our shopping, when the owner of the adjacent cafe came out and invited us in to have some tea and cake and a wash. She also wanted to cook a meal for us but we were still very full from the first cafe so politely declined but nonetheless went away with a large jar of preserved gherkins in oil. Russians are so incredibly generous!
The final couple of days into Yekaterinburg have been hard work, particularly the final 100km. The climb into, the traverse across the top and the descent out of the Urals has been one long series of smaller climbs and descents. Whilst the climbs were undoubtedly steeper and longer on the European side, the descent on the Asian side has still been tough going. The road has rolled along like a sine wave and at the crest of each climb our hearts would sink to see the road undulating ahead of us in a further series of peaks and troughs. So whilst we were generally losing height we were still doing an awful lot of climbing each day, with temperatures in the high 30’s.
The final 100+km was on an unavoidable busy dual-carriageway with no hard shoulder that we shared with a constant stream of large trucks, which belched fumes and were all too often nerve-wrackingly indifferent to our presence. Some drivers were great and pulled right over as they overtook us. Others held their line unwaveringly and thundered past in a roar of dust and wind. Some of them had the excuse that they were being overtaken themselves and so had limited space to respond, but some just didn’t seem to care and on one occasion one truck driver just blared his horn and forced us onto the gravel verge. There were few places for respite and we rode for over four hours without seeing a single shop, cafe or petrol station. The warm water in our bottles soon lost all appeal and made little impact on our thirst. All in all it was a fairly stressful day, dominated by fantasies about cold drinks and quiet roads. It was good to reach Yekaterinburg and our second couchsurfing hosts.