Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
WE HAD CAMPED where a dirt track, turning off the "main road", crossed the Sandalash river. Upstream, there were kilometres of hard rapids, but we had arrived too late in the season to paddle the Sandalash. Downstream, the Chatkal, with its gorges, and fifty one rapids graded at three and above.
There was little to do but pitch tents and watch the Russians build their boats. After a while this became tedious, and the lure of a little rapid by the campsite got too much for all of us. Pulling on paddling gear we walked up through the dry bush to a large eddy and put our boats on the river. I watched Jackie, looking from the blue grey of glacial water, to the high, bare, distant mountains still laced with snow, to the bright little boat and its gaudy occupant. The first Kayak on a river in Soviet Central Asia? Did it matter? We had never been here before and that did.
It was good to be back in a boat again, to feel it move against the frigid water, and spin and dance on little waves and tiny eddy lines. While I was having irresponsible fun Chris and Sasha took the two seat catamaran for a trial run. Chris had never been on a river before, but she had read a German book on rafting so she was already something of a proto-expert. They skidded from the top to the bottom of the rapid with little control, and managed to wipe me out of the eddy I had been sitting in to take a picture of their maiden voyage. They would obviously need some practice to balance Sasha's vast experience against Chris's lack of it.
While Andrei and Oleg continued to build the big cataraft there was nothing else to do but laze in the sun, read Byron, and talk. Chris was wondering about the sleeping arrangements. Since Jackie wasn't going to forsake Trevor it looked as though Chris was going to have to share a tent with either two young Russians or three older ones. Mark and I earnestly sympathised with her dilemma and gave her the benefits of our experience in such matters, which was non existent. After the tickity tack of the train we had the sound of the wind in the trees and the rushing of the river. As the day ended it was peaceful.
Two boys appeared and wandered into our camp. One was dressed in a tracksuit, blowing bubbles from the gum he was chewing, the other in the kind of jacket and trousers that seemed ubiquitous. (The style, not the particular pair of pants). They greeted Mark and me, who were lazing furthest from the river, and squatted down to watch Mark smoke. Instant discomfort. It was impossible to forget the hassles Seeman had reported with the locals, and we wondered if they were casing our campsite. Should we be friendly, should we be openly hostile, should we ignore them? After a while they wandered off and began a leisurely progress round our camp. Then just as abruptly they left.
We carefully hid all our equipment, or tied it to our tents or our boats
on the assumption that the boys had been up to no good.
"My friends," he said,"I propose five drops to toast our arrival." He began to pour Vodka into our mugs.
"Eh, no thanks," said Trevor," I'll drink this." And taking the top off a two litre bottle of coke which had magically appeared amongst the debris of the meal, poured himself a mugful. He took an enthusiastic swig and began to cough and splutter.
When Gena stopped laughing he pointed to the bottle and said "Coke po Rusky" (Russian coke), his own brew of vodka, instant coffee powder and sugar.
And then the Russians disappeared.
Their sudden disappearance was almost magical. No loitering by the campfire, no endless story telling in the wood smoke. One minute they were there, the next minute they were in bed. Mark and I tried to sit by their cooking fire but they had built it between two trees and that made it awkward if not impossible. Things would have to change. This was no way to spend the evening on a river trip.
In the morning, nothing had been stolen, though most of us had dreamt that the camp had been raided. When Sasha heard this he looked puzzled."The children? They were trying to sell fox skins."
Day one of the river trip proper began with a test of courage and tenacity which we all failed. Breakfast was to be the first, and in some ways hardest obstacle of each day of the journey. The Russians would have probably endorsed Tilman's adage that the traveller should have the back of an ass, to bear all, and the mouth of a hog, to eat whatever is put before him (or her, I add, for political correctness).
Each morning a mountain of porridge, made from either Semolina, oats or polenta, was followed by bread or biscuit, spicy sausage and a cheese which even at the beginning of the trip leapt aggressively off the chopping board to fasten itself around your throat and nostrils. The Russians simply could not understand our appetites, or lack of them, and continued to provide this huge breakfast for the next three weeks, which, with a couple of exceptions, we continued to fail to eat for the next three weeks.
Our images tarnished by this failure we began the river trip.
Each day began with the same struggle to get all our equipment into our boats. It is a conjuring trick that never fails to surprise me. You stack the articles by the boat, and wonder how they will ever fit. The first couple of days you sit on the deck and push and swear and sweat, struggling with coats that seem too large and sleeping bags that refuse to compress, cramming gear into waterproof bags, ramming it into the space behind the seat of the boat until it all, eventually, disappears. After a couple of days of doing this the equipment has been beaten into submission and seems to go peacefully and effortlessly in to the boat. But knowing this is no consolation when you're struggling to get it right in the beginning.
The waters of the Sandalash, cold and fast and shallow, raced down to their meeting with the Chatkal. I tagged along at the end of the convoy, watching the big cataraft thumping over the waves like an aggressive smoothing iron, attempting to flatten out the river's wrinkles. At the junction of the Chatkal and Sandalash there was a lovely wave, and I caught it, and surfed it until the blue catamaran came and wiped me off it. It was obvious the Russians were unused to the concept of playing on the river, and even at this early stage their progress seemed earnest and methodical rather than joyous.
A small collection of buildings appeared on the left and at about ten thirty we skidded to a halt on a gravel bank downstream of the village of Janke Bazaar. Here the Admiral had to find the "ranger" and obtain permits for our trip down the river. No one had suggested we slip past. Obviously attempting to cheat the river ranger was considered a far greater crime than ignoring legalities at border posts.
The Admiral, armed with a two way radio, set off for the village. Trevor, happy as the kid in the candy store, took his camera and went to film "ethnic scenes" and Jackie and Chris and Andrei went with them.
I stayed. I don't know why. I think I wanted to listen to the river, to lie in the sun and sleep; but I also felt uncomfortable about strolling into a village and pointing my camera at someone; "How cute you are, let me photograph your squalid existence so I can amuse my friends back home." It seemed, seems, an overdone reaction, like the suspicions of the night before.
But I stayed, and waited, and after a while the spectacle of Oleg washing the rafts down to keep them from over inflating in the heat lost its amusement value. Sasha disappeared and returned with a handful of berries. They were so bitter it was hard to believe they were not poisonous. So we huddled into the little shade available and practised being patient, which is a quality you need in Central Asia.
Nothing can be done quickly. You can't just walk up to a man and say:" S'cuse me. Where's the river ranger." You have to ask him about the wall he's mending, his dog or his children, or all three, and then get round to asking the question, whereupon you discover he hasn't the slightest idea but his brother may know and while his son is dispatched to find him, he offers you a cup of tea and something to eat, which it would be the height of bad manners to refuse.
They were gone a long time and when they did return, there was no Admiral and no permit, just Chris playing the pied piper to a host of children.
They had the noisy laughing curiosity of Children everywhere, and they wanted to sit in our boats and try on our helmets. They looked skinny but vital. The girls were dressed in vivid colours, the boys in variations on the theme of shirt and trousers and jacket.
The little ones had wide dark eyes which laughed easily, though the elder, more adolescent, hung back, shy or self conscious. Martians again. But Chris explained that they didn't learn Russian until they were in third grade, so they knew as much as we did. Cute they were, but cuteness has a limited shelf life when you're worrying about the fiddly bits that keep your footplate in place.
They seemed to come down in shifts, on bikes, on foot, on horse back, on donkeys. The little ones scrabbled amongst the stones, and finding a crumbling grey, chalk like rock, began to eat it.
One boy wore a toy digital watch; the information on the face was in English, though he spoke nothing but Kirgiz. They clustered round Chris for food as she tried to help prepare lunch; posed, stock still and grimly straight faced for our cameras, and then fought to help us carry our boats back to the river.
The Admiral arrived with the Ranger, who was given a present and a bowl of soup. Then, to the delighted cries of the children, we set off down river again, surfing the waves to give them something to yell about.
Leaving late, we came late to the first of the Chatkal's gorges. The Admiral had told us that the first grade six rapid was in the gorge and it was an obligatory portage. As the sides of the river steepened, the Admiral pulled the raft off the river, and we followed suit.
"Prevention my friends."
What we didn't know was that the Admiral had a habit of stopping at the beginning of any rapid he thought might cause him trouble. No sneaking down the eddies, infiltrating the rapid until one reaches the point where one is obliged to get out and look, which is standard practice when kayaking. The Admiral stopped at the beginning, walked the whole thing, and then paddled it or carried it. Since some of the Chatkal's rapids are very long, he was to do a lot of walking.
Following Chris up the hillside I wondered idly if Russians indulged in foreplay or just went straight from prevention to penetration. We scrambled up to the road. We were a long way from the rapid, but we ambled down the gorge. I found myself in the horrible position of playing canoeing instructor and trying to explain to Chris what the various river features we could see below meant.
It hadn't occurred to me that under that fiercely competent germanic exterior was one nervous novice river runner. We passed a concrete Yurt where the road curled inwards to a bridge passing over a tributary stream, where a stone mountain cat of some sort watched the valley. Snow Leopard said Trevor, who had traded his camel fixation for a bear and snow leopard one. While we looked at the rapid in question a man on horse back stopped to greet us and gave us apples.
The drop was ugly, but probably not unrunnable. I knew that look in Mark's eyes, I knew the way a doubt about the necessity of portaging the rapid would turn into a full blown desire to test his hypothesis. But it was late in the evening and we were a long way from home.
After a boppy run through the gorge, which contained some big stoppers, the river piled over a double drop. The first part was runnable, but to avoid the first big hole you'd have to take a line that would put you into the second one. Like most difficult rapids the decision to run or not to run depended on your attitude, if not to a short life, at least to a long and serious thrashing.
We walked back, agreeing to do the sensible thing and portage, there would be plenty of white water later on.
We paddled down through the big water of the gorge, to a large flat pool on river right, and began the tedious task of carrying our gear past the drop. Once we'd carried our loaded boats we went back, and much to the Russian's surprise, began to help carry the rest of the equipment, relaying the gear to the end of the rapid.
We then reloaded the big cataraft. There was a lack of logic apparent in the Russian plan, if they had one. We couldn't all get back in the little eddy at the same time, so Mark suggested that we would help them get their boat loaded and follow afterwards and they should go on down and get the meal started. This they did.
Sasha and Chris had a few bad moments trying to clear the wall, and then it was our turn. We got in in pairs, because the eddy was surging up and down, and then, as we peeled round the corner, I thought, we've made the unforgivable mistake, we haven't scouted the rest of the gorge. The sun began to set, and the river and the steep banks turned into bands of varying depths of grey. There was just enough light for me to follow Jackie, just enough light for us to pick our way through the swirling waters of the gorge, with its big waves and holes.
We pulled up where the Russians had halted, glad to be off the darkening river, wondering about Trevor and Mark who were following in the rapidly fading light.
After dinner, which was almost as challenging as the gorge, Chris set
out to introduce the Russians to the delights of a campfire. They sat in
dutiful silence while we laughed and played the guitar. The Drunken Sailor
went down well, as did Trevor's famous Mick Jagger impersonations. One
by one, they made their excuses and disappeared. It was midnight before
we followed, and the moon, which we had watched rise over the hills, was
so bright that a torch was unnecessary.
End of Chapter
10 . . .
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