M Otis Beard's Russian Travelogue
26764 Curiosities served
2003-01-12 5:05 AM
Voyage of the Blue Turtle, Part II
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NOTE: This is a continuation of my last update.
As I sit here typing, the snow falls in silent, politely miniscule flakes through the bright air outside my window. It is January, Russia’s greatest general, defender of Moscow against dread Napoleon and the mechanized barbarian onslaught of the Nazi horde. How quickly the time passes! Summer was here only yesterday, but to the hard frozen Earth outside my door, the languid warm embrace of June is a million years distant.
Makshan and the wide-open country fell behind me quickly. There were still many fields and forests ahead, but it seemed from that point that I saw more people, more tiny weathered cottages decaying organically in the squat vegetable comfort of their huddled villages. A troop of dogs paced and chased me as I roared out of the stoyanka, barking encouragement to one another. Half-wild dogs and semiferal cats are everywhere in this country; they invade the little marketplace across the street from my apartment with great regularity, nonchalantly ride the subway with no particular master in evidence, lay curled up nose-in-ass on the warm floors of cafes. Their presence would never be tolerated in any but the most rural portions of America, but I am not scandalized. Mostly, they behave themselves, which is more than I can say for humans of any nation. I often wonder how they make it through the winter without freezing or starving to death, but something deep inside me is convinced that, whatever privations the homeless domesticated critters of Russia may suffer, it’s better than being rounded up and gassed… we rightly call such treatment a holocaust when it’s inflicted on Jews or Armenians, but when we do it to cats and dogs on the streets of Los Angeles, we sugarcoat it, nice and thick, with the word humane. Meaning, I suppose, that it’s for the benefit of humans, and not cats and dogs.
All the roads in Russia, from city streets to rural highways, are dotted with little blue fortifications where the police sit and drink and extract bribes from passing motorists. Russian drivers, in spite of the intensely antisocial manner in which they typically operate their vehicles, treat each other with downright brotherly love when the cops are out. Drivers heading the other way warn you of a police presence by flashing their headlights at you. In theory, this should be enough to prevent you from ever being pulled over at all; in practice, the police pull people over for a variety of reasons other than actual lawbreaking. An expensive car is often enough to get you waved to the shoulder, where a friendly officer of the militsia will skillfully extract the standard 300 ruble (about US$10) bribe from you with a minimum of fuss.
My Tcheripashkoo is much too slow to ever be cited for speeding, and much too cheap to be targeted for profiteering. I was bearded, though, which makes me look like a Chechnyan terrorist, and my license plates displayed the two-digit code that meant my motorcycle belonged in the Penza area. About an hour and a half from Makshan, I got pulled over.
The cop shop where they stopped me was actually one where I’d stopped by choice once before. My first trip to Nikolsk was not by train, but by car – we have a cute little green Zhiguli-6 that I tool around in when I’m in town. On that trip, I stopped because the police station happens to sit right next to a small fenced lot that contains several hundred motorcycles in various states of disrepair.
“Dokumenti!” demanded the cop after waving me over with his white baton. They always start out stern and frowning, and I think they’re trained to do things that way… if you’ve got some reason to be afraid, this tactic stands a good chance of rattling you and making you slip up.
“You want my documents?” I said in English with a smile on my face. “Sure thing. Here you go.”
He looked absolutely baffled as I handed him my American passport and started digging out, at my own unconcerned pace, my international driver’s license and the paperwork for the bike. He stared at the passport like it was a surrealist hologram and exchanged a look of pure wonderment with his partner, who stood nearby brandishing an assault rifle. An American? Here? Riding an Ural?
I had him right where I wanted him.
As a foreigner, your best weapon with the Russian police is friendly confidence. They really don’t know what to think of us, and this is especially true way out in the country where foreigners are so rare as to be close kin to extraterrestrials. They don’t quite know what we are, and they have no idea what sort of connections we might have. With no previous experience to go on, they have to interpret whatever signals you give them on the fly. I intended my easy smile to convey something along the lines of “I don’t have a damn thing to worry about, so check my documents and get the hell out of my way before I call my powerful friends and something bad happens to you.”
Maybe he was intimidated, or maybe he was simply fascinated by my extremely out-of-context nature; in any case, the cop’s tough guy act was very short-lived. After an amazed scrutiny of my paperwork (which was, of course, all in order), he took off the funny hat that makes Russian cops look like South American dictators, and gave me a nice deferential smile.
“I’m sorry I stopped you, but I saw that your license plate is from Penza, and it’s unusual to see a motorcyclist so far from home.”
“I understand,” I told him. “No problem.”
“Where are you going on that thing, anyway?”
“Moscow.” This floored him. He laughed and laughed.
“So you’re from America,” he asked at length. “Is it nice there?”
“It’s nice everywhere, man. It’s nice right here.”
He nodded philosophically at what he chose to interpret as wisdom. His partner stood beside him now, smiling broadly and anxious to get a look at my passport, not out of any policemanlike impulse, but purely for the sake of his own childlike curiosity. I took the opportunity to dismount and stretch a bit, satisfied my own urge to gawk with a good long look at the cops’ guns, and presently ambled over to their outhouse to do that which no man can do for another.
“Hey,” called one of the cops to me when I emerged. “You want to have a drink with us? We have some vodka.”
They layed out a typical teatime spread on a folding card table, right out there on the shoulder of the road in front of their little blue fortress, and we fell to like old schoolboy friends at a picnic. We drank to America, to Russia, to Russian women, to fine weather, and to Russian women again. Between toasts, we carved brown bread and ate it with gleaming hunks of white cheese, slick little discs of sausage dotted with fat, plump and knobby homemade pickles from an ancient jar, slices of lemon with the peel on, sprinklings of dill torn from the green head of a gathered bunch.
Before long, the conversation turned to money, and I got a little suspicious. Were these guys going to hit me up for a bribe after all? But no – they were just curious about America. When I answered their questions and told them what kind of money I was accustomed to making in the States, they stared at each other, and one of them whistled long and low.
“But look,” I said, “it’s really not as much as you think it is. The cost of living is much higher in America. Look at this loaf of bread.” I held up what was left of the standard economic indicator on the table. “What does it cost you to buy a loaf of bread like this?”
The cops shrugged at each other. “Five rubles, maybe six,” said one, and the other nodded.
“In America, this would be considered really good bread,” I told them. “Most Americans eat very low quality bread, made in a factory from cheap ingredients, and very soft and light, because it’s full of air. This bread is much better. It’s fresh, it’s dense, and it’s made from whole grains, not bleached flour. This loaf of bread would cost somewhere between two and four dollars in California… 60 to 120 rubles.”
Two jaws dropped. Four eyes popped. “Let’s have another,” said the cop nearest the bottle after a long silence. “To Russian bread!”
When I swung my leg over the saddle to go, the sun was climbing disapprovingly toward noon. “Have a stick of gum,” offered my rifle-toting host. “You don’t want the cops up the road to smell vodka on your breath.” Good advice, I thought as I rumbled away chewing.
I rode the rest of the morning away, rode into the grinning teeth of the afternoon, rode through villages, through fecund stretches of farmland, through fields full of cows, through wastes and beside ruins, over the bridges and fords of rivers and streams, along the shores of lakes, back and forth across the railroad tracks that shadow the highway, over asphalt smooth and new and asphalt pitted and gritty and old, dancing the catch-me-if-you-can dance of imminent death with Ladas, Volgas, Skodas, VWs, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes.
My engine was misbehaving again. The cylinder on the right was firing only intermittently. Without bothering to stop, I experimented a bit, and found that the cap on the end of the ignition wire was not making good contact with the spark plug. Since the Ural is a BMW copy, the cylinders stick straight out to either side, so it was not much trouble to ride for a while with my foot pressing the cap down onto the plug, which was only inconvenient if I wanted to use the brakes, which don't really work anyway.
I was getting low on fuel, too, so I pulled in at the next gas station I saw. I paid the cashier and turned back toward the pumps to fill her up, when I saw a line of bikes out on the highway. There were six of them, dressed too strangely and riding bikes too exotic to be local. They were headed south, so I knew I wouldn’t be joining them on my northbound road, but at a signal from the lead bike, the whole pack came thundering in to the station where I stood watching them.
They were from Poland, they told me in English, and were riding across Russia for the summer with no particular goal in mind. We admired each other’s machines and exchanged tidbits of information about the road, as we were headed in opposite directions. Their bikes, high-tech racing machines all, were light-years away from my old Turtle. Nice, but definitely not my style. I can appreciate another rider’s bike no matter what style it may be, but I prefer to ride in an upright sitting position, speed be damned. That ass-in-the-air racing posture just makes me feel silly and unnatural and gives me a backache.
Our meeting was like an amicable clash of alien worlds in many ways. My plain, slow, sturdy old bike next to the extravagant splendor of their shiny and colorful new speeders was like a mechanical Taras Bulba in a crowd of flamboyant Polish princelings. I had by this time discarded my helmet, and was riding bareheaded and bearded, in sharp Neanderthaler contrast to the streamlined and highly decorated headgear the smooth-faced Poles wore. With their bulging chinguards and slitted airvents, their mirrored visors snapped down over unreadable faces, they looked positively insectoid. Their clothes were just as outlandish, and I must have looked like a farmer at the county fair standing next to them in my black denim jeans and heavy faded blue work coat. These guys were dolled up to the nines in the brightly colored space-age fabrics and futuristically quilted synthetic leathers that professional racers wear. They even had metal studded patches built into their pants over the knees, as though they were planning on making fully leaned-over high speed turns on the pocked rollercoaster run of the Russian highway… not likely.
We all had a nice stretch and shared some good conversation before they hit the road, having vowed to cover another 800 kilometers that day. I turned my attention to the Turtle’s sputtering right cylinder, and soon found the cause: inside the cap on the end of the ignition wire, a tiny semiloop of metal designed to grip the little threaded cylinder at the top of the spark plug had lost its elasticity. I struggled with it for endless, tortuous minutes, bending it to a more closed shape and trying to get it back into place using the smallest screwdriver I had. It was such a ridiculously miniscule problem, but I couldn’t even start the bike without fixing it. Twice the damned thing went spung! and leaped out of its niche, and I muttered and cursed fluently while I searched for it on the broken pavement beneath me. It took me most of an hour to get my engine running reliably again, and I kept a jaundiced eye on the faulty ignition wire cap for the next fifty kilometers, hoping I wouldn’t have to resort to duct tape. I found out later that even brand new ignition wire caps, if they’re made in Russia, tend to have this problem.
My little teatime with the militsia was long past when I got to what passes for a Russian truckstop. There’s a spot out in the middle of nowhere on the road between Penza and Moscow where a couple of dozen weird old cabins and cottages, ranging from wacky log cabins to the highly decorative type of fairytale forest-house known as a teremok, line the road on both sides. These ancient ramshackle constructions huddle close beside one another as if trying to elbow one another out of the way. I doubt that any of them is even close to level, and most have a hastily moved look about them. Each one is absolutely unique, but they all have fires burning outside. Fires in pits, fires in the rust-colored halves of metal barrels, fires in odd little brick towers stacked up without benefit of mortar. You wouldn’t think it to look at the place, but this bizarre conglomeration of crazily leaning smoke-clad wooden clapups is a damn fine place to stop and eat.
I picked one of the least unlikely-looking of the bunch and parked in the ruts made by a big truck in the dry, stiffened mud out front. A faded wooden sign fixed above the rickety porch promised me SHASHLIK in letters that had dripped and run horribly before the paint dried on the plain wood.
Inside, I was greeted by the owner, a rotund, beetle-browed fellow with hands like swollen baseball mitts. He grunted in surprise at meeting an American, and rushed off to brag to the neighbors, leaving me at the mercy of the cook. She was nice enough, maybe even a little too nice, in that scary sort of I-love-you-marry-me-quick-and-let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here way that some Russian country girls have, but the prices on the menu were right and the food was fantastic. I brushed my reservations aside and dug in, in spite of the common sense that told me this place was way too fifteenth-century to be safe. I severely maimed a huge salad, wreaked terrible havoc upon a big bowl of creamed potato soup, tore a basket of fresh bread limb from limb, and drank the herbal blood of a steaming teakettle. When the shashlik arrived, hissing and spitting from the fire, we took one look at each other and knew instantly that only one of us would be walking away (it was me, thank god).
The cook, fascinated with my exotic origins, sat down at my table for a while and tried to chat me up about America. She wasn’t bad looking, a bit more robustly built than I typically like, but I might have been persuaded to toy with an impure thought or two… until she smiled. Blackened stumps filled her mouth where teeth once where. Oh, ick. No, not, no way, uh-uh, wrong, nyet.
To anybody out there who still thinks that fluoridation of water is a Communist plot: shut the hell up, you’re an idiot.
More soon, I promise!
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