Even They Are Glad We Came

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September 11th 2018
Published: September 13th 2018
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Maintaining a foreign language that you aquired abroad, while living in a mostly monolingual household, is not easy. Since we left Bishkek four years ago, we have tried hard to maintain the investment we made in our Russian language skills. We listen to Russian music, play with Cyrillic refrigerator magnets, wrestle our way through magazine articles, and strike up conversations with any willing party at work who we hear speaking the language. It is a bit taboo in the U.S. to speak a foreign tongue with a stranger simply because you think they might know what you are saying. After all, we are a multicultural nation and many of those folks with Slavic last names and thick accents have lived in California longer than we have been alive. None the less, we go for it, and people are mostly receptive. Our Russian speaking friends in Tahoe gently correct our deplorable grammar and make light of the situation by telling us jokes and teaching us slang. Occasionally, someone's relative visits from the motherland and we are delighted to converse with someone who cannot simply change the conversation to English at any moment. In those situations we feel more challenged and the depth of our knowledge has a chance to emerge. When we rolled up to the Russian border a few weeks back, our skills were immediately called upon and it was either make it work or go away....and pay.
We left the hotel in Manzhouli and began our ceremonial goodbye to China as we rode the last 10 kilometers to the border. The post itself was a bit difficult to find as what seemed like the obvious crossing was simply another duty-free mall on the border. The actual border checkpoint was a few kilometers back and eerily quiet. A friendly female soldier with truly excellent English skills was called upon to inform us of the difficulties we faced. "We can allow you to enter our border post and leave China, but the Russian soldiers will not allow you to pass through the gate to their zone on your bicycles," she said. "We have experience with this sort of thing because a French couple came through here and were sent back." She went on to tell us that we could either enter the post and ask drivers who were cuing with their Russia-bound passengers to take us across the two kilometers of border land, or ride back to Manzhouli and go to the bus station. The latter was something we simply did not want to do. It seemed like a real pain that would likely take another day and cost us dearly. We asked a few drivers but they all had manifests with their passengers specified therein. Adding passengers and bags would not be possible they explained. When the Chinese guard saw us communicating with the drivers she offered a third option: "You could also go to the border gate and talk to the Russian soldiers yourselves.... If you speak Russian".
And so off we went with our new friend.
She radioed her boss and together we walked around the fancy, glassy Chinese border post to the wretched cement block, with rusty rebar protruding from it, where the Russians sit and frown all day long. When we arrived at the last post, where Chinese soldiers checked people out of their zone, she stopped and said: "now you must go alone, we ourselves do not dare go close." I gulped, and approached the rusty gate alone, asking an obliging family in a private vehicle if I could lean my bike on their van. A woman sat in a booth with her back to me. I thought about it for a moment and meakly shouted "извините" (excuse me) in Russian. I repeated and she just barely glanced over her shoulder with a glare that implied: "I see you, piss off". I thought about it a minute and my thoughts strangly turned to another language. I embodied my inner Russian and angrily screamed "девушка!" (Girl!), a seemingly rude but all-too-colloquial way of getting the attention of a waitress in Russia. She looked sharply over her shoulder, pointed to the phone in her hand and gave me the symbol to wait two minutes. I prepared for my next phrases and when she emerged from her booth I let her have it with all my might. She tried to walk away but I grovelled deeply and she came over to look at my bike with the kid trailer attached. She told me I could not cross on my bike. The family in the van joined my side and grovelled along with me. Things were progressing. I grovelled deeper, mentioning my child and wife waiting, hungry, hot and tired. In all of this, I yelled and gestured heavily. Finally she offered to call her boss. After a few monents, I simply told her I would be back with my family and left.
When I turned around I saw the Chinese guards. They looked as if they were ready to duck at any moment. I told them it was going to work and we started back to the customs hall. The friendly soldier was amazed. "We never talk to those people," she said. "That is incredible, you should be a diplomat." I told her I would rather ski more and not wear a suit. But inwardly I was overflowing with emotions and I found the comment so unbelievably flattering that I was nearly in tears. I thought about how far I had come from growing up in rural America, shooting groundhogs out of fence rows, and plugging for bass on the upper Potomac. Never in my wildest childhood dreams did I ever imagine I would be able to do something like what I had just done. After trying so hard to make my simple mind continue the rhetoric of speaking this frustratingly difficult language for years, I had finally received my dividend. As strange as this may sound, it was one of the most touching and rewarding moments of my travelling life.
Back in China we stamped out, showed them our bikes, bid farewell to our friend at the border and headed back to the creaky, rusty gate. The boss was there by now and she instructed a bus driver to take us on for the next kilometer. He resisted a bit but the passengers were already helping us to load our bikes on to the bus and Sylvia was climbing aboard. Off we went, for 200 meters where we pulled everything off and went through the process of getting stamped in. Another passenger even rode one of our bikes through the customs hall. The immigration official tried to keep a straight face but she was won over by the humor of a cute, two year old American girl with a three year Russian visa and her own bike. Before we walked away with our stamps, she dug through her purse and pulled out some candy for Sylvia. We went on through a very perfunctory customs "search" that involved weighing our bikes. Then we went out on the curb to wait, and wait, and wait for all the other passengers with all their Chinese purchases to get scrutinized and reboard the bus. It took hours and by the time the bus dropped us off a whole 800 meters down the road, it was late and we needed to hustle. We wanted a hotel to take us in so that we could register our visas but all of them were full of Chinese tourists. When we saw an Armenian restaurant with a few people out front we practiced a bit a racial profiling and asked them for help. Armenians are family oriented people and we were soon chasing the restauranteur around at sprinting speeds from hotel to hotel until we found one with an available room. They gave us our blessed stamp and we immediately returned to the Armenian place to eat. Our Armenian friend informed his staff to give us anything we asked for, on the house. He then brought out some of the best tea we had ever tasted and a small bottle of vodka that his father had distilled at home. We drank, enjoyed lovely salads, and ate our kebaps wrapped in lavash. It was heavenly to eat a different cuisine, and we were reminded of why we often talk of returning to Armenia. Full and happy, we affixed our lights and slowly rolled back to our nice room in the dark, just in time to hit the pillows and sleep long and hard.
The next day we went into the town of Zabaikalsk to change some money and buy supplies. We felt relieved to have access to old touring staples like bread, meat, and cheese. It makes it easier and cheaper to tour in places where totable foods are available and we are old pros at self catering in Russia. We bought some of our supplies at a shop called "Сильвия" (Sylvia) where we met Сильвия herself working the register. She was overjoyed to meet a child with her namesake and sent little Sylvia away with some chocolate after a few photos. By midday we were supplied and riding out onto the steppe. We felt euphoric in that way that one often feels during the first phase of culture shock, but the feeling of extreme accomplishment exaggerated our elation. We felt as if in many ways we had already reached any goal we might have had. We had arrived.
And so off we went over rolling Manchurian grasslands. It was not so different from the Chinese side but with much less garbage and less traffic. The road was surprisingly good and mostly new, a total contrast to that time in 2009 when we trundled the crumble of western Siberia all the way to the Volga River. The flowers were blooming like a garden following unseasonable rains that had the steppe standing lush and green. Unfortunately, the flowers were not the only living things that had taken advantage of the rain to flourish. The mosquitos too had come out with a vengeance that could match anything we have ever seen in Alaska, Maine, or anywhere else. Even the locals were complaining. They were thick and made the evening camp chores a serious hassle. Fortunately we had bug nets for all of us which, when used together with rain gear, prevented 90% of bites. This meant only twenty or so new bites per person every night. We started making camp earlier so that we could get the tent up and dinner prepared before the inevitable sunset swarm came out to annihilate us. Even with the biting insects, the quality of the camping in Russia has been supurb. There are so many fewer people than in China and trash seems to actually make its way to trash cans.
About a week into the country we passed the aptly named town of Steppe where a massive military exercise was unfolding, supposedly the largest since 1981. After that we encountered thousands of military vehicles of all sorts and witnessed many air drills including an exciting air to air combat exercise. A few days into it, we stopped at a cafe where every seat was filled with soldiers except for three chairs at the officers table where we were immediately invited. Within moments we were trading souvenirs, making jokes, and drinking shots of exquisitely clean vodka from the fancy glassware that Russian military officers apparently consider part of their standard kit. In one particularly touching moment, Sylvia lifted a glass that had been filled and passed it to one of us. In this culture, it is held that once a glass is lifted a toast must ensue, lest a catastrophe will follow. The fact that a child had raised the first glass was clearly an omen and the toast that was offered by one of the officers contained tidings of world peace and eternal friendship, along with a humble request that the almighty might bless all of our journeys and preserve us in the face of peril. Glasses were henceforth emptied, but hardly a dry eye remained at the table. We presented them with a lucky two dollar bill that has been in a front bag for nearly 40000 kilometers of world bike touring and they gave us a large military ration. That night the mosquitos were worse than ever and we sat in our tent enjoying our ration, happy to not be outside cooking a meal in a swarm of bugs.
At last we came to the taiga that we have long waited to see. We love to visit the steppe but we are people of the forest and the intimacy of riding through the tall pines suits our romantic fancies. We took a few rest days in the city of Chita and then struck west for Lake Baikal. Sylvia celebrated her third birthday at a small roadhouse hotel/cafe where they had ice cream and chocolate cake. She only marginally understood the concept of her birthday but for us, her parents, it is all too clear. Three years have flashed by in what has seemed like a long day and our little ball of baby has grown into a wild little girl with scars and bumps and loud noises to match. It is not easy to bike tour with a toddler in tow - for us or for her, but we did not expect it to be easy. However we also did not expect it to be so rewarding. She opens doors and hearts wherever we go. Per an old Buryat tradition, people often approach her with gifts of money. A few weeks back, a minibus driver walked up and gave her a thousand rubles, then simply walked away.
Nearly a month into our time in Russia we finally rolled up to the shores of Lake Baikal. We rested at a guesthouse for a day or two along with a Korean/Mongolian group that treated us to a feast of grilled meat and meaningful fraternity. Every bike tour inspires our next and when we left our meeting with their delegation our minds were reeling with plans for the next tour. It was far too nasty outside to dip into the lake so we walked around in the rain and sat around in the sauna. A few days later however, as we sat on a stoney Tahoe-like beach eating smoked fish, a few people took advantage of a sunny moment to take a dip and we all followed suit; it was pure baptism jumping in a lake we have dreamed of visiting for so many years.
We are wrapping up our rest time by Baikal as this entry publishes. We originally thought we might finish this tour in nearby Irkutsk but it seems that there is still some good fall riding left to do here. We will instead ride on to Krasnoyarsk before parking our bikes, assuming that the claws of winter hold back for just a few more weeks. Weather is merciless and we are hoping to reach Krasnoyarsk before every day becomes drudgery and frozen toes. This type of riding is an addictive way of life and stopping never fully feels right. As we push off on to this final leg of the journey with fresh legs we will enjoy the smells, sights, and feelings that autumn brings, as we engage in a light hearted and age old race with winter.

Additional photos below
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13th September 2018

Amazing & Inspiring
Allison, Chad and Sylvia, You guys are amazing and I wish you the best along your journeys! Thank you for sharing your experiences - tears of happiness are shed for you with each big I read! You’re amazing and and I’m not surprised you’ve overcome the obstacles along the way. Keep living large! Although 20 years have gone by with much silence during that time, I miss you, love you Allison and Chad and wish you all the best! Greetings from Tahoe/Verdi and I look forward to our next visit!! Much Love, Shara
18th September 2018

Thank you
Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. Your skilled writing carried us right along with you. Love seeing Sylvia in the pictures. Dave and I look forward to seeing you again in Tahoe soon, meanwhile happy travels.

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