I passed Mongolian immigration and climbed the mud hill, entering Siberia for the second time. I feared it was too early to arrive at Russian immigration because my grounds for being in the country were not exactly legitimate, so I dismounted Donkey and lit my stove for a brew, to feed some warmth through my hungry, wet-chilled body. To the south-east stretched my final view of Mongolia, the country that embodies nomadic existence more than any other.
Five kilometres on I reached the Russian checkpoint and the end of the dirt road. To my best reckoning—using maps without a functioning odometer—I had travelled 2,645 km diagonally across Mongolia, and over two-thirds was dirt and stone punishment. Should I cross the border conditions were certain to improve.
That afternoon less than a dozen vehicles rumbled across the 27 km of no-man’s-land. I was stoked I had gotten through Mongolia on time, but I wasn’t in the clear yet. I had 12 months of business to do in Russia—my passport stated it in Cyrillic—but exactly what kind of business that was, well, was a matter of interpretation. Vicki, the agent who had organised my business visa by means of, er . . . some phoney venture out of Moscow, told me not to worry. She was more confident than I, though I was lucky I had gotten the visa and had made it this far.
‘They won’t ask you about the business,’ she said, in a thick Georgian accent, her warm cherubic features stiffening. ‘But when you enter Russia for the second time, you must go by plane or train. You can not go by bicycle. It’s very important because you have a business visa.’
At $810 her exclusive service to provide me with the means of cycling across Russia wasn’t cheap, but she was going out on a limb to help. Her business specialised in package tours to Russia and Central Asia, and not arranging crooked visa documents for a loan cyclist. Looking over Vicki’s shoulder at the sweep of colourful brochures flaunting vistas of the steppe, Central Asian peoples, Lake Baykal, and historical Russian cities, stirred the promise of adventure in a mysterious world.
‘OK!’ I lied. It was a bike ride and I wasn’t getting off.
But now, second time round, I was tense approaching the Russian gates. My dubious strategy was to cross at closing, assuming the average immigration agent would sooner not be troubled scrutinising a visa after hours. Still, I was cutting it fine. 22 km remained of no-man’s-land before arriving at the immigration terminal, and one of the guards at the checkpoint wanted to transport me there in a jeep. I knew the border closed at 18:00, though I didn’t realise I had recently crossed a timezone, which allowed only 15 minutes. But somehow I managed to convince them that I could make it and I took off down the ribbon of tarmac, my wheels spinning fluidly for the first time in months.
My timing was spot on. The gates were shut, but the amiable immigration agent was waiting for me as I arrived on the hour. She took my passport and glanced at me suspiciously, comparing the image of a clean shaven Australian 8 years younger, to the filthy vagabond at the window.
‘Sakhalin!’ she said, puzzling over my original entry stamp. Then she scribbled something on a scrap of paper, a calculation. Adrenaline spiked. She’s figured out I overstayed. Game over.
Though I had a 12-month visa I could only stay 90 days at a time, allowing a total stay of 180 days in the year. That was the catch. It meant, on my original entry I had three months to complete the Russian Far East, which I did, arriving at the Chinese border on my 90th day. But this remote winter crossing over the Ussuri River had been shut three days earlier due to the thawing of the ice, and as the next exit was 515 km southwest, and time was no longer relevant, I decided to make a detour to Vladivostok and ignore the whole damn time restraint. I had little reason for concern then, since I was planning a southern route across the Tibetan plateau into Kazakstan, and thought it unlikely I would re-enter Russia. But the Chinese lockdown of Tibet forced me to plan B. Now, not only was I reentering Russia on a bicycle with a business visa, but also with my first stay overshot by 3 1/2 weeks.
‘Est li u tebyay rabota?’ (Are you working?) She asked, looking at my ‘business’ visa and back to the scruffy castaway with a mud-caked bike.
‘Da. Rabota.’ I replied, with the most genuine smile I could offer, and hoping for the end of that line of questioning.
This was a long shot. I had no backup plan if she didn’t let me through—the most likely result, being marooned in no-man’s-land. I just needed to pass the gates for the second time and this gamble on this difficult route would have payed off.
She looked back at the note then peered down at my bike.
‘Vosem mesyacev na velosipede?’ (‘8 months on a bike?’) She asked, somewhat bemused.
Suddenly I understood. She was simply trying to work out what the hell I’d been doing since my original entry in January.
‘Da! Sakhalin, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Kitay, Mongolia.’ I said.
It was good enough. She stamped my visa and let me pass.
I rolled through the tiny outpost of Tashanta, beyond which spread the vast alpine tundra sloping up to the high peaks of the Altai mountains. I was relieved to be back in Russia, but I was lethargic, malnourished, my body craving protein and nutrients. Inside the first cramped store, my eyes bulged in delight with ceiling-high stocks of produce and packaged foods. I filled a sack, camped by a river, and cooked up a feast, beginning a week-long feeding frenzy until my system stabilised and staples such as eggs and butter no longer tasted like gourmet food.
For two days I traveled across the steppe until the snowcapped peaks rising over 4,000 m on either side, eventually contracted, twisting the basin into a deep ravine. The road followed the Ursul river, a silt-green torrent winding through the range and supporting quiet timbre villages built at the valley tributaries. Freshly hoed yards produced mounds of pumpkins and potatoes. Livestock grazed freely. Decrepit Russian trucks transporting bulging loads of hay laboured along the mountain road, supplying winter feed.
For the next week I followed this single road enjoying the warm autumn days until the valley walls snuffed out the sun. I couldn’t have cared less about anything—my visa was good for nearly two months, food and water plentiful, the climate pleasant, and the forests gave a fresh view of the world. The change was vitalising in spirit and body.
I was walking up a rise to make camp in a secluded patch of spruce, when I heard a vehicle start up at the top of the hill. There was an overgrown track that arched around the flank of the hill and up to the Summit. But who needs that? This guy just spun the little hatchback towards me and rolled directly off the ledge and down the embankment, that looked to be at least 45º.
A middle-aged man with groomed silver hair appeared from the car, introducing himself with a firm handshake as Alexander.
‘I’m just looking for somewhere to camp,’ I said, excusing myself for trespassing.
‘I know. Where are you from?’
He smiled, reached through the car window, and proudly invited me to join him in a bottle of South Australian red.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m trying to get to Europe but it’s not looking good. I don’t have enough time on my visa so I’ll probably head into Kazakstan next.’
I had re-entered Russia with 57 days left on my visa. At the rate I was moving it was going to be difficult to cover the 5,700 kilometres remaining to Europe in time, so the most logical solution was to cycle to Omsk, then south through Kazakhstan, cross the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, then on to Turkey. It seemed simple enough, but by all accounts it wasn’t. I would likely hit a bureaucratic wall at some point, and the thought of the administration involved was discouraging. I could only deal with the logistics one step at a time.
‘It’s 4,500 km to Moscow. You can cycle there in 55 days.’ Alex suggested.
That’s it! Though Europe seemed out of reach, Moscow was another matter.
‘Are there many mountains from here to Moscow?’
‘No. After Altai it’s flat all the way.’
Other than an insignificant notch across the central Urals, this was true. Still, making Moscow through prevailing westerlies with a heavy bike on dreadful roads, was optimistic. Alex’s idea excited me though. For one, I could hit cruise control for two months without having to wade through the morass of Central Asian bureaucracy. And two, I had grown to love Russia and its people. It felt significant cycling through the largest country on earth. Sure I could make it to Moscow, and then, I figured, it would simply be a matter of leaving the country to get a 30-day tourist visa to complete the ride. This outcome was wildly improbable, but I realise motivation comes from the idea not the practicalities.
There was little traffic, which was fortunate, since the cow was standing cold in the middle of the road. I sat in the grass to absorb the midday warmth and sketch the scenery. I opened my notebook and began to draw the animal. It hadn’t budged, which seemed odd behaviour for a cow. Then I discovered the chewed weeds growing from the roadside ditch in front of me, to be, well, weed. I rubbed a small bud between my fingers, releasing the pungent aroma of cannabis. It had mostly been eaten, but you could hardly blame the cow for being a stoner—the stuff was growing wild along the road for 50 km.
I’m not a pothead. I smoked a bit at high school, and university—as with everyone else (mainly to survive the ordeal)—but I quit because the paranoia was going to drive me insane. However, considering my two-month marathon to Moscow I figured a morning joint could be the key for those cold, early starts, so I quickly picked the sad remains of the mauled plants, anxiously checking over my shoulder, then stuffed it into my dry sack. Around the next bend I was delighted to find a small forest of mature plants unaccessible to the cows, and replaced the pickings with half a bag of mature, organic Altai bud.
Down the road I got a cigarette from some drunk guys at a picnic, and rode till dusk, setting up camp in a small forest by a minor tributary. Wild cannabis was growing everywhere. I cooked then left the pot aside and fumbled in the dark to convert the cigarette into a joint, but the lousy paper split apart, and I tossed it to the dirt, disappointed.
I was feeling great though. The days were warm and all I needed to do was get some papers so I could lose myself in the woods and expand my mind. But as I approached the second pass of the Altai I was alarmed to find a police vehicle parked at the base of the climb. Two patrolman had intercepted a Lada 1600 and were harassing a group of dishevelled men. I pulled off the road and parked my machine in a bus shelter 300 m away.
Road police had never taken more than a curious interest in me, but considering the substance I was packing I thought it prudent to take a moment and think this through. I extracted my road book and flicked through it so not to arouse suspicion, but for the moment I agitated, considering the seriousness of the situation.
Should I dump it? No, I can’t. They will see me. What do I do? Could ride back and lose it out of sight. But that will look weird. And what if they take an interest in me? I’m the only cyclist out here. What to do? . . . Ahhhh! Screw it! Cops never search my gear. Let’s go.
I pushed my bike back onto the road and rolled forward, eyes anxiously fixed ahead, but before I could pass the snare one of the policemen ran after me.
‘Stop! He shouted.
I watched this Central Asian man as he circled inspecting my bike. His pressed khaki uniform hung stiff over his short, stocky frame. His dark skin crinkling into his scalp, giving me the creeps, as he poked at my panniers and squeezed the black bag loosely tied to the bundle of gear on my rear rack. It contained nothing of interest—just garbage and flip-flops—but fastened beside it was the dry bag containing a good harvest of ripe-reeking cannabis. For now, however, the smell was contained inside the airtight bag. Thank Christ he didn’t touch that one!
‘Dokument!’ He said, holding out is hand.
My brain was in a spin.
I reached for my passport but before I could produced it the policeman got distracted and told me to stay put. I stood there for 10 minutes waiting my turn (though it felt like an hour), while they finished booking the other guys. The predicament was grave. I was going to get searched, and it had to be this time. I was living a nightmare scene from Banged Up Abroad. I should have dumped it.
Okay, let’s think. What’s the chance of a search here? This guy’s nasty and on the hunt, so it’s 50%, at least. Could I really get in trouble—the shit is growing everywhere? How are Russian prisons? Yeah, I suppose not good.
Then I remembered I’d just withdrawn a few hundred dollars worth of roubles at the last town. Many had warned me that the politsiya was corrupt, that they find ways to compensate their poor salaries. Though dubious, I suddenly had a backup plan.
The radio crackled to life, snapping me out of my frightening abstraction. From a distance I picked up ‘velosiped’ (bicycle) and ‘net problem’ (no problem). No doubt he had requested instructions on how to deal with the oddity of a foreign cyclist. The policeman returned the receiver, looking somewhat dejected, and set me loose with the flick of his hand. And I took off like the wind, beginning the climb up the pass with a new sense of freedom, gasping, constantly looking in my side mirror for any sign of an interceptor. My plan was to reach the top of the pass that day, but 10 km on I ran out of nerve and escaped down the steep embankment, through 50 metres of deep grass, and into the cover of the conifers, where I pitched my tent by a small river.
I was so spooked by this swipe with justice that in the morning I decided to let it go. I don’t know why I should have cared about dumping it, since the stuff was out of control, but I worried about irresponsibly seeding a cannabis forest, so I put the plant on a bolder in the river and set it alight, releasing a thick billow of cannabis smoke that hung in the forrest like dawn mist. I really didn’t need the paranoia.
To be continued . . .