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July 15th 2010
Published: July 16th 2010
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It only finally sinks in that the caffeine-powered, money-worshipping, mind-conditioning world of early starts, late finishes, lost weekends and unpayable sleep debts is really being left behind when I wake up to the chug, chug, chug of the Moscow - Perm train's wheels. After a year at the grindstone I am finally back on the road.

The train has yet to wake up. At the ungodly hour of six o'clock I side-step and duck limbs dangling from the ends of their bunks on my way down the peaceful, snoring aisle to the toilet. The train has no air-conditioning and is so swelteringly hot that yesterday all the men and even some of the women were wearing little more than underwear.

Thankfully I am on a top bunk next to an open window through which cold, fresh air permanently streams. Back in my place I lie luxuriously in this wonderful gush of coolness and gaze out at the lush greeness all around. A light mist is just lifting and the morning sunlight is beinning to illuminate rolling hils, pine forests, fields multi-coloured by flowers and the occasional wooden hamlet.

The twenty-four hour train ride is almost entirely spent asleep, only occasionally tottering bleery-eyed off the train while it stops at a station and gorging ourselves on pies, potatoes, fruit and vegetables bought from the babushkas lined up on the platform. We arrive after midnight to be met on the platform by Alisa's sister Olga and her husband Sasha.





After two days of relaxing, eating, sleeping and wondering around Perm we head off north in the car to a village called Usva 300km away where Olga, Sasha and Alisa have been kayaking previously. It is situated in a stunning location, its log-cabin houses scattered along the banks of a broad river in a valley whose pine-covered slopes rise up above the settlement on either side.

We walk for half an hour through the woods until we arrive at a place known to locals as Stone City. Huge rock hills stand so close to each other here that the spaces between them seem like streets. Some are so narrow that they can only just be squeezed through. The hills seem to have twisted and convulsed into almost impossible overhangs and bizarre contortions over a hundred feet high. We manage to climb to the top of one and sit on its flat surface eating bread and cheese, the roof of the pine forest far below us and stretching off to the horizon.





We return to Usva and walk for two hours through the forest and along the river banks in the opposite direction. Alisa and Sasha are able to name almost every berry, mushroom, plant and flower we pass and can say what is edible or not. They eat pine tree pines, sap, clovers; they hold blades of grass to an anthill, let the insects crawl all over them then brush them off and lick the grass to get the apparently very healthy acid that the ants store in their anuses. Eventually we come to some sheer white cliffs two hundred metres high.

"We're going to climb to the top," Sasha says.

"Ha ha," I laugh, knowing this is not possible, "good joke, a-ha... ha..." My laughter trails of as I realise he is being serious.

As always, it turns about to be far easier than it looks. We alternate between scrambling up near-vertical muddy slopes and actually climbing up near-vertical rock faces. Everywhere, however, there are enough footholds to make the ascent fairly easy and not too scary. Almost everywhere; at one point I get paralysed with fear for five minutes after taking the wrong path up a muddy slope. There is a fifty foot drop behind me and no more footholds ahead, the only option being to go back down the way I've come.

We come out at the top dirty, tired and sweat-soaked but the view is spectacular. The forst is way below, the river snaking its way through it towards the horizon. To our left is a 150-metre tall stone pillar pointing at the sky called "Devil's Finger."





On the way home we stop in a tiny village to visit Sasha'a grandmother, Katya. She immediately lays out potatoes, salo (pure pig fat) and sweets on the table for us and brews us coffee. She is warm and kindly in an efficient, Russian, unsmiling way. She never talks but she shouts incessantly. She shows us round her house: here's the room where her cow lived until she became too old to deal with it; there were the sheep; here's where she baked her bread; and there's the banya.

We leave with full stomachs. On the way Sasha stops to pick up a dead hare from the road that is still warm and can be eaten the next day.



Click this link for advice on independent travel in the Urals


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